November 29, 2011
To My Fellow Citizens:
Many advanced democratic countries have a big problem: stagnant or declining populations. Birth rates have dropped and the average age of citizens has risen. Unless something is done, the economic and financial strains on society could be disastrous.
One possible solution is immigration. But countries in Europe and Asia have struggled with the idea of immigration because they are not sure that they can take people from other parts of the world and still remain, for example, Danish or Japanese.
Is America any different? In the days after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, a television commercial aired that made a simple but profound point. One by one, people came onto the screen: they looked different, dressed differently, had different jobs, and were from different places around the country. But each one looked straight into the camera and said the same thing: “I am an American.”
They were reminding us that we Americans are “one People,” as the Declaration of Independence says in its opening line. It was a bold statement to make in 1776 considering that the Americans were divided into 13 often fractious and disunited colonies. What made Americans “one People”?
In the past, countries were united by a common tribe, race, or geography, or by being subservient to a common emperor. As emperors and kings faded away in modern times, so did empires and kingdoms. But people in newly democratic countries in Europe and Asia still tended to be tied together by common race, religion, or blood, or by the geographical lines drawn by former conquerors.
Was that true of America? In Federalist 2, John Jay says:
Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.
Jay was right: in our Founding era, Americans often shared similar ancestry, language, religion, type of government, and customs. We were certainly brought together by a common struggle in the Revolutionary War. Those things did help to unite us.
Yet it is also true that even among people who seemed so similar, Americans were very different from one another. They were made up of many different nationalities, denominations, and backgrounds. Underneath our commonalities and our differences, what made us the Declaration’s “one People”?
As I recalled in a previous letter, Thomas Jefferson once described the Declaration of Independence as an “expression of the American mind.” He didn’t say the American “heart” or even the American “character”—but the American mind. That’s important. Our heart feels emotion; character is made up of habits and dispositions. But the mind holds our ideas and principles—the ideas and principles that shape our characters and govern our emotions and lead us to choose to live as we do. That is what unites Americans at the deepest level, binds us together as “one People,” and makes us the distinctive people we are.
Americans do certainly have important emotions and habits in common. We are famous for loving our country, for example, in a way that strikes some other people as too exuberant. And we are known to be habitually optimistic: for an American, the glass is almost always half full. But those sentiments and attitudes are the products of the ruling principles that united us in 1776 and still do today. We love our country because it stands for freedom. We are optimistic because freedom makes us think that we can do anything we set our minds to.
This matters. It means that the newest immigrant can be just as American as someone whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. In fact, new arrivals can be more American because it is sometimes easier for them to understand that American patriotism is not inherited; it cannot be passed down like property from generation to generation. It is born from an understanding of the country’s principles and from conforming one’s civic life to them. No one is more American just because his family has been living here for many generations; anyone—regardless of where he comes from or when; regardless of his race or religion or experience—can be an American if he embraces America’s ruling principles.
That’s why America has always been a place open to immigrants. A person doesn’t have to “look” American to come here. He just needs to embrace the political consequences of the truths,
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.
But he does need to embrace those truths. He has to want to be an American, not just someone who lives or works here. Immigration has historically been a gift to America because it has always led to integration—to the newcomers becoming part of the “melting pot.” Not that all our colorful differences in ancestry, religion, or customs melt away, but that we melt together morally and politically on the basis of the common principles that we all share as human beings, regardless of our race, religion, or background.
For good reason, immigration will continue to be a big issue in our national conversation. As we discuss it, let’s remember the principles that should guide our thinking. Immigrants don’t just bring new bodies, talents, and energy to the country. They can give us the opportunity to re-invigorate our American mind by reminding us all of the principles that make America what it is. They do this when they assume their American responsibility and become self-governing human beings who choose to live together according to the principles of liberty, equality, and the rule of law.
This is how our country renews itself in body and soul: by immigration and integration. It’s how we become ever more the “one People” envisioned by our Founders.