What Makes Americans One People?

By William A. Galston (WSJ)

July 2, 2019 7:16 pm ET

Shared principles and language are essential, but multiple cultures have always coexisted.


As July 4 nears, the rise of populist nationalism at home and abroad should drive Americans to reflect anew on the foundations of our political system. The Declaration of Independence is the appropriate place to start.

I would wager that Americans are more likely to cite the passage about “unalienable rights” than any other. Rights consciousness, and the individualism it implies, is a basic building block of our political culture. Yes, we argue about the exact meaning of the rights the Declaration enumerates—the right to life, for example—and about the content of rights whose existence it implicitly affirms. The list of enumerated rights is preceded by the words “among these,” implying an array of unnamed rights, to which the Ninth Amendment gives constitutional status. Still, debates about rights are waged on familiar ground.

Less so the passage that opens the Declaration and precedes the invocation of self-evident truths: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Americans, the document asserts, constitute a “people” distinct from the British, united with them not by shared peoplehood but by a fungible political arrangement. Like an individual, a people has rights—in particular to separate itself from other groups and assume an independent, self-determining political status.

But what is a people? What must individuals have in common to be members of one and the same people? The Founders debated these questions, and so do we today in very different circumstances.

In Federalist No. 2, John Jay offers a resonant answer: Americans are one united 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 annealed in the crucible of a “long and bloody war.” A people, then, is constituted not only by shared civic principles, but also by a shared history, ethnicity and culture, as well as mutual commitment and a sense of fellow-feeling.

Yet, as law professor Sanford Levinson observes in “An Argument Open to All,” Jay’s assertion was inaccurate the day he wrote it. German was so widely spoken as to alarm Benjamin Franklin. America’s Catholics and Protestants would not have thought of themselves as professing the same religion. The war drove a wedge between American revolutionaries and American Loyalists, who favored continued allegiance to the British monarch over the establishment of an independent republic. The free African-Americans who fought on the revolutionary side did not share the same “ancestors” with Americans of British descent—unless the concept is widened to include the early millennia of Homo sapiens.

After centuries of immigration from across the world, Jay’s claim is even less supportable today. But at every step, beliefs akin to Jay’s have triggered intense resistance to minority beliefs and cultures. Well into the 20th century, American Protestants feared that Catholicism was incompatible with republican government, a fear many Americans hold about Islam today. In the closing decades of the 19th century, waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, China and Japan triggered the rise of “scientific racism,” which Nazi theoreticians later appropriated for their own purposes. In our own times, the proposition that “true” Americans are Christians of European descent still enjoys a substantial following.

Throughout the nation’s history, American institutions have proved far more capable of absorbing, including and unifying immigrants than the proponents of the ethno-cultural ideal of peoplehood thought possible. Nevertheless, the concerns that animated Jay remain alive today, and to some extent rightly so.

Shared civic principles are essential, and because we cannot assume that everyone who comes to America already espouses them, civic education is indispensable. A shared language is equally important, which is why we should offer language instruction to every immigrant who arrives without a working knowledge of English. And we should give immigrants of every age opportunities to learn the basics of American history. (While we’re about it, we should do the same for native-born children, whose K-12 education leaves many woefully ignorant of their country’s past.)

Although the U.S. has not been free of religious strife, some of it bloody, Americans have managed to avoid the warfare that disfigured Europe after the Reformation and afflicts some countries to the present day. Our commitment to disestablishment makes possible both religious liberty and the peaceful coexistence of diverse faiths. We must transmit this principle, which helps define and unite the American people, to every new immigrant group.

Finally, we cannot remain one people if we spend our time demonizing one another. As Abraham Lincoln said at a peak moment of national division, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

I hope it works out better this time.


Appeared in the July 3, 2019, print edition.