What IS An American?

In honor of the 245th Birthday of the United States, let us ask the question

What is an American?

That is a question which has been with us throughout the history of the United States, and back into Colonial times.

State boundaries deliberately not shown.

There are several answers, from nativist paranoia to internationalist non-entity. It is something we debate at crisis points in time, at the Revolution, the Civil War, World War Two, the McCarthy era, and again today, in the 21st Century, it is become important once again.

We can perhaps discover what is an American by asking what is America?
One venerable answer is this:

I believe in the United States of America, as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon these principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes. I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.

— William Tyler Page, The American’s Creed (a resolution passed by the US House of Representatives on April 3, 1918.)

There are others.

Abraham Lincoln has one of the most famous.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

Teddy Roosevelt had notions on the subject of True Americanism.

The stoutest and truest Americans are the very men who have the least sympathy with the people who invoke the spirit of Americanism to aid what is vicious in our government or to throw obstacles in the way of those who strive to reform it. It is contemptible to oppose a movement for good because that movement has already succeeded somewhere else, or to champion an existing abuse because our people have always been wedded to it. “ Read the whole thing.

So did Harold Ickes (Secretary of the Interior under FDR) in 1941.

What constitutes an American? Not color nor race nor religion. Not the pedigree of his family nor the place of his birth. Not the coincidence of his citizenship. Not his social status nor his bank account. Not his trade nor his profession. An American is one who loves justice and believes in the dignity of man. An American is one who will fight for his freedom and that of his neighbor. An American is one who will sacrifice property, ease and security in order that he and his children may retain the rights of free men. An American is one in whose heart is engraved the immortal second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.Read the whole thing

What Are We Really Like?

Yet another way of looking at Americans is not in our perceptions, but in sociological analysis, such as the one done by the Washington International Center for the benefit of puzzled foreigners coming here to visit.

In it, the authors find thirteen characteristics of Americans which tend to define all of us (native born and naturalized).

1. Personal Control over the Environment
2. Change
3. Time & Its Control
4. Equality
5. Individualism/Privacy
6. Self-Help
7. Competition
8. Future Orientation
9. Action/Work Orientation
10. Informality
11. Directness/Openness/Honesty
12. Practicality/Efficiency Materialism/Acquisitiveness

But perhaps, as some have sarcastically suggested, Americans are the prototype for the Borg. Seeking “Perfection”, and absorbing all that comes our way. The language is notorious for theft of words from every other language, and our cuisine… truly eclectic.

Like the Borg, we will assimilate everything. And that which will not be assimilated… woe be unto it.

“We are the Americans. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

And all of this brings up the topic of —


Oh, the irony of anyone named O’Malley or Lindenthall or Schmidt objecting to immigrants…  Mister Dooley had a thing to say or two about that.

I must confess to a certain ambiguity of feeling and thinking on this. As far as “legality” goes, laws — being human constructions — are subject to change. And we have seen how they change frequently, without much in the way of rhyme or reason driving the change.

As for the failure to ask permission of the previous inhabitants of this continent before we conquered it, there is a certain poetic justice in being afraid of being done unto as we have done unto others.

In the end, I am left with knowledge that “pure” societies are brittle and weak and that the strength of America is that as a people we are an alloy, as steel is stronger than iron. (Objections to the metaphor already noted.)

If I may speak to the point which underlies this, and many other similar discussions, it is that as a people, we have lost that confidence in ourselves, and that faith in the future which once fueled our progress, and sustained us in adversity.

Fifty years ago, when I got to Arizona, illegal immigrants, or even illegal migrant workers, were well-known to be here, and were not regarded as a problem. My wife’s Dad had employed several over the years, and never once thought of turning them into the Border Patrol. (He once remarked, “Hell, they’re just poor people looking for work, like you and me.”)

Today, mass hysterias hits at the thought of refugee children crossing into the USA to look for a better life. (And, you can spare me the Left or Right talking points, please assume I have heard them — and reject them both.) As a Christian (Hell’s bells, as a human being), I want to know, not what is the “legal” thing, nor what is the sob-sister “progressive” thing, but what is The Right Thing. Of that, not much has been said.

My progenitors got here in 1827. I’m not sure our whole clan is “legal”. But a G-g-great Grandfather died at Shiloh, wearing a blue shirt and fighting for liberty, for The Right Thing.

So did others.  A lot of others.  Come to think of it, all of our ancestors.  Some came here willingly, like mine.

Some others not willingly at all.

President John F. Kennedy even wrote a book on the topic, A Nation of Immigrants.  He was right, that’s US, US All  (or USA if you like)…

What is an American?

A little bit of This, a little bit of That, and a lot of looking for a better life, a free life, a life with simple human dignity, commo0n decency, and a better tomorrow.

Happy Birthday, America!

And many more.