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Issue 13 | Politics | February 21, 2017

A Country Is a Country

A country is not for this or that. A country is not a chess club or a craft brewery; it is not for playing chess, brewing beer or making money. A country is a place where people form and try to fulfill their own purposes. Some of those purposes we give ourselves, some we pick up by chance or habit, some are given to us by nature or nature’s God.

To quote Donald Trump, “A country is a country.” To think about America, our country, we have to think about what a country is, abstracting from the history, culture, geography and ethnography of any particular country. What is it to live together in a country? A country is a place, inhabited by a people. Those inhabitants have an attachment to a place and its people that goes beyond or stands alongside their desire to form and fulfill their own purposes. They see their fellow inhabitants as something more than guests in the same hotel. They want to succeed in their purposes, but they also want to have their success recognized by people whose recognition they value.

A country is a home, in Robert Frost’s sense that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” When you are in the U.S. citizen line at immigration and customs, the only thing the officials check before admitting you to America is whether your American passport is real and that it is yours. But if they have to take in everybody, or if people are getting in without obeying any rules at all, it won’t be your home, or anybody’s home, for very long. Four strong walls and a stiff door that can be locked when you choose aren’t all that it takes to make a home, but you can’t have a home without them.

America is a place, mostly between two other places, two other countries, called Canada and Mexico. The people who live there are called the “American people.” Not everybody who lives in America is, or wants to be, part of the American people. Some are foreigners, who see themselves and are seen as belonging to another people whose place is elsewhere. Some people in America are what Americans call “Native Americans,” because those people see themselves not as descendants of settlers and immigrants who became Americans but as the descendants of those Mohawks, Creeks or Lakota from whom those settlers and immigrants took the land they call America.

When did the Americans become a people? Americans called themselves a people in a Declaration that took effect July 4, 1776, which proclaimed that it was necessary for “one people,” the Americans, to dissolve the political bands which had connected them with another, their “British brethren.” The Declaration of Independence lists the Americans’ reasons for no longer desiring to be ruled by the British people. But the Declaration of Independence does not try to explain what makes the American people one people and the British people another. Whatever accidents of history, of shared origin or religion or culture, made the Americans a people, Americans thought, was of little importance compared with the facts that they were now a people and that they could and should rule themselves. The Declaration is the first political act of the American people, but it is not what made them a people. What made the Americans a people? The official answer of the Declaration seems to be “Who cares?”

The Americans won’t say what made them a people, but they go on to give reasons for the first action they are undertaking as a people. The reasons that the Americans offer for dissolving the tie of monarchy that connected the American people to their British brethren come down to a principle, “that all men are created equal,” and their equality is an equality in “inalienable rights.” There is, according to the Declaration, no superior race, caste or class born or bred to rule, or inferior race, caste or class made to be ruled. The Declaration rests on “the palpable truth,” as Jefferson said, that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately.”

But is it enough to accept the principle of equality to be an American? Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the American people were a “new nation … dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Yet Americans do not, even in the moments when they are most certain of their exceptionalism, believe that they are the only people so dedicated. Other people, too, can share American principles. They can, because these principles are, or rest upon, self-evident truths.

When David Hume was asked by a friend and fellow Scottish subject of George III, William Mure, to write an address to the king to support harsher measures to hold the Americans to British bondage, Hume replied, “I am an American in my principles, and wish we would let them alone to govern or misgovern themselves as they think proper. The affair is of no consequence, or of little consequence, to us.” Despite (or because) Hume was an “American in his principles,” he could see that the Americans were “them,” the British were “us,” and that “we” should let “them” govern themselves.

Hume was not an American, except in his principles. So to be an American it is not sufficient to accept American principles. Purposes can come from or give rise to principles, but just as shared principles are not enough to make a people, shared purposes are not either.

As Lincoln foretold at Chicago, most Americans alive today are not descended, except in their principles, from those who first fought to realize American principles in America. The late political scientist Peter Schramm explained how his family decided to emigrate to escape the failure of the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet despotism by recounting this exchange:

My mother tells me, though I don’t remember saying this, that I told my father I would follow him to hell if he asked it of me. Fortunately for my eager spirit, hell was exactly what we were trying to escape and the opposite of what my father sought.

“But where are we going?” I asked.

“We are going to America,” my father said.

“Why America?” I prodded.

“Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place,” he replied.

People “born Americans, but in the wrong place” might want not only to be recognized as American in their principles but also to be taken in by Americans as would-be Americans. One of those American principles is that a legitimate government is a government of laws, as opposed to a government of men—if the laws are good laws they treat equal men equally, whereas men will favor some men over others, according to their whims. Americans thus have to demand that would-be Americans try to become American in a manner that conforms not merely to American principles but also to American laws. To be true to their own principles of equality and government limited by law, Americans have to insist that those who become Americans do so according to the forms and procedures established by law. Their admission should not be exceptions to the law granted as favors by rulers who see themselves as above the American people and above the laws that the American people and their constitutionally appointed representatives have made.

One can also be an American (by birth or naturalization) and deny, or resist, American principles, though Americans should accept and promote those principles. All men are created equal, but not all principles or purposes. Americans used to claim that Americans could engage in “un-American activities,” and that indeed some did, working for the triumph of caste or class or race supremacy. Un-American activities are not the same as illegal activities: indeed, Americans believed then and believe now that American principles required that Americans had the right to make and hear the case against American principles. When formulating the Internal Security Act of 1950, which required “communist organizations” to register with the “Subversive Activities Control Board,” Congress made explicit that the law would not prohibit Americans from advocating communism by constitutional means or even joining communist organizations:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed to … limit or infringe upon freedom of the press or of speech as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and no regulation shall be promulgated hereunder having that effect. … Neither the holding of office nor membership in any Communist organization by any person shall constitute per se a violation of … this section or of any other criminal statute.

The only business of the laws, Americans said, was to ensure that the debate was conducted fairly and honestly, which would itself ensure that the self-evident truths at the bottom of American principles would be manifest. Americans had faith, as Lincoln said at Cooper Union, “that right makes might”: because American principles are right, American principles should and would prevail.

American principles are not merely for Americans, but Americans professed to believe that, since their principles are derived from “self-evident truths,” all people ought to accept them. Whether those foreigners accept them or not, is, however, their affair, except insofar as any of their actions in violation of American principles threaten the ability of Americans to live according to those principles. America does not have a purpose, and thus one cannot say that the purpose of America is for Americans to spread American principles.

Americans have never engaged in “foreign wars” in search for glory. A few days before the 1940 election, as war raged in Europe, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised the mothers of Boston, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” When FDR did take America to war against foreigners—the Japanese and the Germans—it was because after Pearl Harbor the war was no longer “foreign.” Rejecting war for foreign causes, Americans have been willing to forward “the cause of the United States” by carrying war into foreign lands: for virtually their entire history Americans have fought, more successfully than most and no less viciously, at any point on the globe from which they have perceived a threat to their future as Americans.

Because Americans profess to believe that American principles are true for all, Americans have tended to believe that anybody who wants to be an American should be an American. Because Americans endorse the right of their fellow Americans to question or even deny American principles, they are uncomfortable with the notion of inquiring into whom among their fellow Americans actually shares American principles, and so they are uncomfortable with the notion of examining would-be immigrants too closely as to whether they wish to be American or merely to live in America. American laws are thus stricter than many Americans feel comfortable admitting. This is why many Americans are all too comfortable with the notion that these laws should not be enforced fully and fairly, heedless of the damage done to the American principles of equality and the rule of law.

What is America for? That is a question better asked, not of Americans or foreigners, but of God, who made Americans “His almost-chosen people.” But as long as Americans work freely together at achieving their shared and varied purposes, America will be the inspiration for those who share American principles, whether they are American or not.

Thanks to Julie Ponzi. – MSK

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