Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

A People, Not Just an Idea

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‘America is not just a country,” said the rock singer Bono, in Pennsylvania in 2004: “It’s an idea.” Bono is a decent, thoughtful, and public-spirited man. I didn’t choose his quotation to suggest that this view of America is a kind of pop opinion. It just happened that in my Google search his name came ahead of many others, from George Will to Irving Kristol to almost every recent presidential candidate, all of whom had described America either as an idea or as a “proposition nation,” to distinguish it from dynastic realms or “blood and soil” ethnicities. This philosophical definition of America is now the conventional wisdom of Left and Right, at least among people who write and talk of such things.

Indeed, we have heard variations on Bono’s formulation so many times that we probably fail to notice how paradoxical it is. But listen to how it sounds when reversed: “America is not just an idea; it is a nation.” Surely that version has much more of the ring of common sense. For a nation is plainly something larger, more complex, and richer than an idea. A nation may include ideas. It may have evolved under the influence of a particular set of ideas. But because it encompasses so many other things — notably the laws, institutions, language of the nation; the loyalties, stories, and songs of the people; and above all Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” — the nation becomes more than an idea with every election, every battle, every hero, every heroic tale, every historical moment that millions share.

That is not to deny that the United States was founded on some very explicit political ideas, notably liberty and equality, which Jefferson helpfully wrote down in the Declaration of Independence. To be founded on an idea, however, is not the same thing as to be an idea. A political idea is not a destination or a conclusion but the starting point of an evolution — and, in the case of the U.S., not really a starting point, either. The ideas in the Declaration on which the U.S. was founded were not original to this country but drawn from the Anglo-Scottish tradition of Whiggish liberalism. Not only were these ideas circulating well before the Revolution, but when the revolutionaries won, they succeeded not to a legal and political wasteland but to the institutions, traditions, and practices of colonial America — which they then reformed rather than abolished. We will not be far wrong if we think of 1776 as universalizing the liberalism of Britain’s 1688 Glorious Revolution and extending the blessings of liberty from the British people to all mankind, or at least to those who made it to the fledgling United States.

Geography then came to the help of philosophy. American liberty was implemented not on a small, crowded island divided by hedgerows and ancient landmarks, but in the fruited plains of a vast continent. The opportunities it offered of liberty and property were much easier to seize and exploit in this newfound land than in a country whose property registration dated back to 1086 and the Domesday Book. America’s founding ideas — equality as well as liberty — flourished more vigorously here than in their native habitat because there was more room, less in the way of obstacles, and a political nation that shared the same broad moral, religious, and democratic outlook (especially after the enforced departure of the Tories). Admittedly there were serious disagreements within this broad consensus — and, in the case of slavery, an original sin that still scars the nation — but the passage of the U.S. Constitution managed them more or less effectively until the Civil War.

As John Jay pointed out, Americans were fortunate in having the same religion (Protestantism), the same language, and the same institutions from the first. Given the spread of newspapers, railways, and democratic debate, that broad common culture would intensify the sense of a common American identity over time. It was a cultural identity more than an ethnic one, and one heavily qualified by regional loyalties, too, but Americans increasingly felt American when dealing with Canadians, the English, or other Europeans — American enough, that is, to be enthusiastic about fighting these damn foreigners. And the American identity might have become an ethnic one in time if it had not been for successive waves of immigration that brought other ethnicities into the nation.

That early American identity was robust enough to absorb these new arrivals and to transform them into Americans. But it wasn’t an easy or an uncomplicated matter. America’s emerging cultural identity was inevitably stretched by the arrivals of millions of people from different cultures. The U.S. government, private industry, and charitable organizations all set out to “Americanize” them. It was a great historical achievement and helped to create a new America that was nonetheless the old America in all essential respects. In the metaphor employed by the late Samuel Huntington in his profound book Who Are We?, every immigrant group added its own spice to the original American tomato soup. The final product was spicier but still recognizably tomato soup.

Still, Americanization ran up against a practical problem. It required cultural loss from the immigrant, notably speaking a new language, but until the second generation, most immigrants were not culturally American in any full sense. They didn’t demonstrate their Americanness in everyday life. So were they trustworthy? Patriotic? Loyal? Or were they importing ideologies and quarrels from their previous homes? (Some were, incidentally.) That meant that the authorities and other Americans had to find some simple, straightforward way of ascertaining the sentiments of newcomers. The American creed, which is the philosophical distillation of America rather than its lived reality, was to hand.

On the eve of a visit to America in the 1920s, G. K. Chesterton noticed that his visa application required that he answer such questions as whether he was an anarchist. He commented:

It is quite true that the phrase occurs on no British forms that I have seen. But this is not only because most of the Englishmen are not anarchists. It is even more because even the anarchists are Englishmen. . . . It might well be maintained that Herbert Spencer was an anarchist. It is practically certain that Auberon Herbert was an anarchist. But Herbert Spencer was an extraordinary typical Englishman of the Nonconformist middle class. And Auberon Herbert was an extraordinarily typical English aristocrat of the old and genuine aristocracy. Everyone knew in his head that the squire would not throw a bomb at the Queen, and the Nonconformist would not throw a bomb at anybody.

Chesterton was touched by the form’s confidence that an anarchist bent on overthrowing the government would candidly admit to this intention, but he conceded that there was an underlying philosophical justification for the question. If you don’t know what your neighbor is like, because he is a mysterious stranger, you have to find out — or risk meeting with a nasty surprise in the form of an anarchist bomb. Such questions are intended not only to deter the anarchist but also to give everyone else an incentive to demonstrate loyalty to  his new nation and its values and customs. It worked in ways we now forget.

Ann Coulter was denounced on the Internet during the recent papal visit for suggesting that America’s founding fathers had distrusted Catholics because the Church intruded into matters outside the narrowly religious domain. This was described as “ugly nativist bigotry,” but Ms. Coulter was completely correct. And so were the Founding Fathers. The United States was and is a liberal country; the American creed is a liberal one. For the first 150 years of American history, and arguably until much later, the Catholic Church was hostile to liberalism, including religious freedom, and it said so explicitly. As a Catholic, I regret that, but I don’t want to be guilty of pro-Catholic bigotry, and so I can’t deny it. What changed the Catholic Church was the American Catholic Church. What changed the American Catholic Church was two things: the lived experience of American liberty by Irish and other Catholic immigrants and the pressure from non-Catholic Americans that they should demonstrate their attachment to America and its free institutions. Enforcing the American idea is not always a nice business even when it is a necessary one.

By World War II, however, all but the most recent migrants had become culturally American. So when German commandos were wandering behind American lines in U.S. uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge, the G.I.s testing their identity asked not about anarchism or the First Amendment but questions designed to expose their knowledge (or ignorance) of American life and popular culture. That produced some lively effects. General Marshall corrected his inquisitor’s claim that the capital of Illinois was Chicago; Britain’s Field Marshal Montgomery imperiously waved aside the guards, who promptly shot out his tires; and actor David Niven (then a British commando), on being asked who had won the 1943 World Series, replied: “Haven’t the foggiest idea, but I did co-star with Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother.”

Quite a lot flows from this history. Anyone can learn philosophical Americanism in a civics class; for a deeper knowledge and commitment, living in America is a far surer recipe. The philosophical understanding is a very thin identity compared with the full richness of one rooted in the lived experience of a particular free society. Nor does an attachment to liberal values distinguish Americans from citizens of most democratic countries, especially those in the Anglosphere. And there is a final paradox at which Chesterton hints: An American identity rooted in cultural familiarity will be more genuinely liberal than one attached to the American idea. It allows someone to reject the dominant ethos of his society without losing his claim to be an American — the concept of un-Americanism being essentially un-American. All of which means, finally, that Americans are a distinct and recognizable people with their own history, culture, customs, loyalties, and other qualities that are wider and more various than the most virtuous summary of liberal values.

In the late 1980s, I had the embarrassing task of telephoning the distinctly southern intellectual Mel Bradford to apologize to him for overlooking, maybe inserting, a typo in the opening sentence of a book review he had sent to NR. He asked nervously: How bad a typo? Well, I replied, the sentence now read: “It is commonly said that America is a nation dedicated to a preposition.” I don’t think I have ever heard a man laugh so loud or so long.

When he eventually recovered his composure, he said. “I hope the preposition is a ‘but,’ but I fear it is probably a ‘for.’”

On sober reconsideration, Bradford and I would both acknowledge that “but” is not a preposition. But he was nonetheless on to something important. If Americans are a distinct people, with their own history, traditions, institutions, and common culture, then they can reasonably claim that immigrants should adapt to them and to their society rather than the reverse. For most of the republic’s history, that is what happened. And in current circumstances, it would imply that Muslim immigrants should adapt to American liberty as Catholic immigrants once did.

If America is an idea, however, then Americans are not a particular people but simply individuals or several different peoples living under a liberal constitution. That vision of identity would inevitably become a carrier of multiculturalism. For if Americans are not a particular people, then there is no justification for America’s common culture to be “privileged” over the cultures of current and future immigrants.

America would then truly be a nation dedicated not to a preposition, but to a conjunction: “and.”

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