It’s an idea, more than a country or a nation.
The creation of the United States of America was a strange event in the sweep of world history — strange enough that it should probably be called something other than a “nation.” “Country” doesn’t quite work — too pastoral, too evocative of lazy summer landscapes for a people as industrious and adventurous as we are. So, “nation” is a half step better. But it’s still not great. “Nation” comes from the Latin natio, meaning “birth,” which rightly indicates that traditional nations are based on a shared birth — that is, shared bloodlines. Not so with us.
Hitler, ever obsessed with bloodlines, complained that the United States was “not a nation, but a hodgepodge.” He was right on the fact — but wrong about it being a problem.
We Americans have long embraced our hodgepodge-ness. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty proclaims. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp . . . !” We don’t discriminate against you because your dad’s in jail and your clothes are in tatters. Lady Liberty beckons the gritty, the entrepreneurial, the bold — the people who would cross the entire ocean in pursuit of freedom.
Over the years, I’ve had occasion to meet with a number of senior Chinese officials, and they’re always quick to point out — as a kind of diplomatic trash talk — how young the United States is, compared to China’s forty-five centuries of history.
Fair enough. We’re babes, historically. But (as long as we’re trash-talking), age is not always what it’s cracked up to be. And, besides: doesn’t this discussion miss the point? China is a nation in the classic sense. It is blood and soil. It’s a great wall, a fascinating people, an extraordinarily long-lived culture.
But America is something different. America is an idea — it is a creed.
The American idea is a commitment to the universal dignity of people everywhere.
That’s what America is. The millions of people who’ve braved dangers of every sort to come to our shores: they believed in that idea of universal human dignity. That’s why they’re Americans.
The history of America is the history of trying to realize this idea. For our purposes, think of U.S. history as divided into two major phases. Phase One was the eleven-year period from the declaration of American independence in July 1776 to the composition of the Constitution at Philadelphia in 1787. The men who participated in the Second Continental Congress and in the Constitutional Convention articulated the ideals toward which the young country would aspire: “to establish justice,” “to promote the general welfare,” “to secure the blessings of liberty,” and so much more. They set down what America meant. Phase Two has continued ever since. It is the struggle for a “more perfect” union, the attempt to live up to the ideals of universal dignity, justice, and freedom laid down by the Framers. By working to secure for each of our citizens the freedom from coercive power, we help to secure for every American the freedom to live lives of love, worshipping as we see fit, serving our neighbors, and pursuing happiness and friendship.
This is why Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. are essential American “founders,” even though their great labors — in the 1860s and 1960s, respectively — were many years after the “miracle” at Constitution Hall. When Lincoln freed millions of slaves from their shackles, and when King loosened the bonds of segregation and inequality, they were lifting America up — toward those ideals it has always held forth, but not always lived up to.
The Founders set down what America meant, but because of their own shortcomings, and because of the economic power of slaveholders, they did not achieve the idea of America. Lincoln and King appear not to reject, but to carry forward the Founders’ dream: to more perfectly realize the marvelous American idea of liberty and justice for all. This, and nothing less, is what America means.