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What Makes an American?


WHAT MAKES SOMEONE an American as opposed to, say, an Englishman, or a Frenchman, or a German, or an Italian? Within these other countries, the answers are fairly simple.

For example, a German is someone who can demonstrate that his ancestors were German-speakers originally from those areas in which Germans have been historically concentrated in central Europe. Thus, the Volga-Germans, descendents of German-speakers who emigrated to Russia during the time of Peter the Great in the 18th century, have been able to claim German citizenship even though neither they nor their ancestors for many generations have ever been to Germany.

In Asia, in countries such as Japan or Korea, the defining characteristic is race. There are a large number of people of Korean ancestry in Japan, in many cases representing five or six generations, who have lived on the main Japanese islands. This does not guarantee that they will be considered and treated as Japanese within Japan. The link that determines “Japanese-ness” is genetics, i.e., whether someone can trace his racial origin to a distinguishable lineage of those who have lived on the Japanese home islands for thousands of years. A person may know only Japanese, and his ancestors for many generations may have spoken only Japanese, but unless the racial tie can be proven, that person will not be considered “really” Japanese.

The United States, on the other hand, comprises people of many races and many religions, all of whom have had ancestors who have spoken many different languages, from almost every corner of the world. Furthermore, a person may come to the United States from anywhere in the world and become an American and be fully treated as an American in the eyes of the law after acquiring citizenship. And while there may be individuals who say that so-and-so is not a “real” American because of his race, religion, or original language, this is a “particularist” attitude that runs counter to the general spirit and principles upon which the United States of America was founded.

What, then, makes an American, since it is clearly neither linguistics, nor religious faith, nor racial background? The most frequent response is that someone is an American who has been born in the United States or who has immigrated to the United States and become a citizen through a naturalization process.

An American oath

I myself had reason to think about this only about five years ago, when my wife became a U.S. citizen. She was born in Moscow, Russia, and came to the United States only around ten years ago, shortly before we were married. We went to the designated location where she was to take an oath of allegiance. She stood up with approximately 100 other people and raised her right hand.

The faces represented people from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I listened intently to the words each person repeated after the presiding judge. There were no references to race, religion, language, or cultural customs and traditions. Loyalty was not demanded of them for any amber waves of grain or purple mountains’ majesty from sea to shining sea. What stood out to me were the following words in that oath:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiances and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereign, to whom I or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic….

The oath did not require a person to forsake his native language or customs or religion. It did not demand that he speak only English in any social or business setting. It did not require him to believe in any particular religion. And it certainly did not make reference to any particular ethnic or racial groups as being the only “true” Americans.

The core allegiance that was demanded of the person becoming an American citizen was his support for and defense of the Constitution of the United States.

But what is the Constitution? It is a document specifying and enumerating the limited functions assigned to the federal government of the United States. It lays out the division of powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government and the particular duties of each branch and limits on it.

Moreover, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — the Bill of Rights — had as their purpose the specifying of those rights considered by the Founding Fathers as so important and significant that they were to be highlighted so as to safeguard them from control, oppression, or abuse by the government.

But for what purpose would a person be required to make a binding oath of allegiance to what is, in its essentials, a document of administrative organization and responsibilities, as the basis for acquiring American citizenship?

The meaning of the Constitution

The answer is to be found in asking why the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. It was meant to serve as the institutional framework to preserve and protect the principles in the Declaration of Independence, the document in which those Founding Fathers had declared:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

This then is the purpose of the Constitution — the securing of those fundamental liberties to which each man has a right and the protection of which could be the only rationale and justification for the establishment of a government. Ultimately, and fundamentally philosophically, what the oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States is meant to represent is an oath of allegiance to the political idea and ideal of individual liberty. It is not an oath to a race or a religion or a language or a particular geographical area, but to this idea of human freedom.

To become an American and to be an American is to share a common belief in and defense of the rights of man. This is what the Founding Fathers wished to establish in America and leave as a legacy to future generations. Even those who came to the United States and chose never to become citizens were recognized as also possessing this universal right to individual liberty. The same Constitution and the same equality before the law protected all within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Citizens, visitors, and residents were all to be equally respected as free men on American soil.

Speak whatever language you like. Practice whatever religion your conscience dictates, or believe in no religion at all. Observe in your private life and in peaceful, voluntary association with others any customs, traditions, and ways of life you choose. Pursue any profession or vocation that your reason, inclinations, and interests suggest is best for you.

Work hard and diligently or while away your time with little care for tomorrow, whatever seems most likely to foster your own happiness and peace of mind. Care deeply about your fellow man and devote your efforts to serving him, or think of nothing but yourself and your own narrow betterment. All of these choices are for each free person to make. Not to be coerced in any of these matters is what it means to be an American. And not to coerce any others in any of these matters is what it means to be an American. Or at least that is what it used to mean to be an American.

We have moved very far from this ideal of a free American. Instead, we have been moving backwards, back to that older notion of what defines a person that has dominated the other parts of the world.

We have been returning to the tribalism and collectivism that was everywhere the dominant philosophy of man until 225 years ago when the Declaration of Independence heralded the new political philosophy of individualism.

It is a return to a more ancient political regime under which the individual is increasingly denied freedom and instead is reduced to a pawn and a tool in the hands of those who possess political power.

Being an American now means being classified by the government on the basis of the collectivist categories of race, gender, ethnicity, age, language, religion, and income status for the purpose of receiving or paying for politically bestowed privileges and favors.

Being an American now means being crowned by politicians and nationalistic intellectuals as a member of a divinely chosen nation imposing order and stability on the world, at the cost of placing Americans in harm’s way through a global presence of the United States military and paid for with taxes on the income and wealth of the citizenry.

Being an American now means having the government decide how you shall live and work and how your children will be educated and what values they shall be taught.

Being an American now means having the government restrict and control whom you associate with and for what purposes.

Being an American now means having the government monitor and censor what you read and watch, what you eat and drink and smoke.

Being an American now means having the government use the most advanced technologies to spy on you and track every movement you make and every purchase you undertake.

Being an American now means having the government decide whether you shall be allowed to travel and invest your money and where.

Being an American now means having the government regulate and license every walk of life in commerce and industry.

Being an American now means everything opposite to what it was supposed to mean.

Being an American, in other words, has lost its meaning.

There was a time when to say, “I’m proud to be American,” did not have to seem arrogant, domineering, paternalistic, rude, or crudely and stupidly chauvinistic. Pride in being an American meant pride in a belief in and respect for the freedom of the individual. It meant believing in a self-governing nation, in which the primary self-government was the liberty of each person to manage his own life in peaceful and voluntary cooperation with others for mutually beneficial improvement of their material, intellectual, and spiritual lives. It meant the hope that through the practice of freedom, America and Americans would serve as an example for other peoples in other parts of the world to want to emulate.

That was a noble idea. It was a bright ideal to offer as a hope for the world. It is too great a loss to bear. We can regain it. We can, if we want it and are willing to try. Will we?

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  • This post was written by:

    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).