Jamaica – a small country in the turquoise Caribbean – a land of rolling hills, mountains covered in lush rainforests, sandy beaches washed by sparkling water, roadsides dotted with vibrantly colored houses, and a laid back attitude that says there are no problems, only situations. It was in this land that I spent one brilliant, steamy day. To arrive at the destination of our tour, we had to spend one and a half hours on a bus in the company of twenty-some strangers, our tour guide among them. Describing Jamaica’s upcoming Independence Day, our guide sang us a portion of Jamaica’s national anthem. She then turned to us asking if we would mind singing our anthem for her. With timidity, one voice broke the silence. As each additional voice joined in, the song grew louder, bolder, and more vibrant. Our voices rose and fell, intermingling, filling the bus. Although we didn’t always sing with perfect pitch, tone, or clarity, we attained a certain all-American quality that is not achieved through perfection. The first bars of that beloved and familiar song had broken the quiet distance of strangers, and as the last strains faded away, we found that we were no longer strangers, but rather, fellow Americans – a people united by common ideals.
The simple fact of being born on American soil makes one an American by law. This is, in itself, unique. If my parents, primarily German-Swiss Americans, were working in Japan and I happened be born there, I would not be considered Japanese, yet if a Japanese woman gave birth to a child in America, that child would be considered an American. Although, I might become a naturalized citizen of Japan someday, I would never truly be Japanese because in most countries blood is the basis for true citizenship. In more recent years we have seen countries with low birthrates try to preserve their nation by offering various incentives for having children. Japan is one such nation. Their dwindling population cannot be fixed by immigration, because one cannot, by definition, be Japanese unless Japanese blood flows in one’s veins.
Being American, however, is not based on bloodlines; it is not even really based on where you are born – someone can immigrate to America and be considered a true American, not just a German who is living in America. This is possible because “American-ness” is based on ideals. Anyone who believes in these American ideals can properly be considered an American. However, to be German, English, or Japanese one must have German, English, or Japanese blood flowing in their veins; people do not identify themselves based on German, English, or Japanese ideals or principles.
In contrast, our Founding Fathers formed a distinct people on the basis of particular beliefs and ideals behind the closed doors of the Continental Congress. The Declaration announces 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.” Here lies the very essence of American principles. In the first Federalist Paper, Alexander Hamilton points out that America had both the unique privilege and opportunity to establish a government through reflection and choice, not by accident and force. Most governments come into power through force, without distilling a set of beliefs to define their national identity; America, with her unique privilege, was able to define her national identity by a particular set of beliefs, which continue to permeate our lives. They affect our behavior, our manners, and our thoughts, giving Americans a distinct character which binds us together. This bond made it possible for America to be called the melting pot – a place where people of many nations and bloodlines could come together and “melt” into one country because we held certain values and ideals in common. As we became something entirely new, we retained the flavor and richness represented by the many heritages present in our nation.
In recent years some have suggested that America can no longer be described as a melting pot, but, more accurately, as a salad. People of many different countries still come together under one nation, but instead of melting into the fabric of America, they remain separate, embracing the benefits without embracing the principles. The result is a tossed salad in which people co-exist but do not take on a specific national character. The difference between a salad and a melting pot is rather stark; the individual pieces of a salad can still be picked out and separated while the pieces of a melting pot, having blended into a new essence, are impossible to separate into individual parts. Our challenge is to walk the fine line between allowing for the celebration of various traditions, while simultaneously recognizing and instilling in our people those ideas which form the cornerstone of our Republic. From its inception America has been held together by its ideas, if we lose this bond, then the only bond left will be that of birthplace, and for a nation of immigrants, birthplace simply is not enough.
Singing our nation’s anthem on a Jamaican bus amidst a myriad of strangers drew us together and revealed that we were not strangers, but fellow countrymen. Understanding and embracing the ideals of our heritage are essential for the preservation of our country. They provide us a rallying point that helps us see beyond our differences and fears, and they help us move forward toward worthy goals and aspirations. The survival of this nation depends upon the promulgation of these ideals. It is crucial that we instill them in the next generation. We must not let our nation become a tossed salad; for, without bloodlines to hold us together, the erosion of our ideals will inevitably weaken the fabric of American society.