The best part of America would be its freedom and its fundamental values, although presidents, judges, and senators change; what really represents America and what makes America great is our set of values. Although this essay isn’t about presidents it was perhaps a president that said it best, Bill Clinton said, in his 1993 inaugural address that “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America”. America has created a system that holds itself together and governs the people with fairness and equality without the help of a dictator. Yes, there have been some bumps in the road, America’s legacy hasn’t followed a straight line. But what sets America apart from other countries, what truly makes it great is its core values, born from equality, fairness, and justice, America is a national run by the people.
Our Founding Fathers did not declare independence out of some sense that they needed to distance themselves from their previous world. Their very justification for rebellion was that they were being denied their rights. They created a new country based on political principles, establishing something the world had not truly seen since the days of ancient Rome—a citizens’ republic. They were so acutely aware they were forging a new nation from many different peoples, but they knew what melded the varied inhabitants of the 13 colonies into a nation was the common commitment to a moral proposition: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they wrote “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.’
This is the heart of the American creed, and to billions of people around the globe, Thomas Jefferson’s written words are synonymous with the very idea of America. To believe in this proposition is, in a very real sense, to believe in America. This idea forms the bedrock of our national culture and has made that culture uniquely accessible to immigrants wishing to gain not just American citizenship, but an American identity.
In an 1858 speech, Abraham Lincoln argued that immigrants who believed in the principles proclaimed by our Founding Fathers, who felt that the ‘moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . have a right to claim it as though they were the blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.’ In most times and places throughout human history, blood relations, and blood relations alone, were what defined one as belonging or not belonging to a nation. The idea that dedication to political ideals and an oath of citizenship could be as or even more meaningful than blood was revolutionary.
One of the most distinctive features of our country is that the American identity is not rooted in race or religion or ethnicity. America is made of so many peoples and cultures and ideas and yet still bands together as one nation and this is truly what makes America great, not the people in power but the people themselves, the American citizens and their ideas and beliefs and cultures.
To be American means to embrace a set of ideas that are the core of our democracy: a belief in equality, a belief in participation, a belief in the rule of law, a belief in the respect for each other’s rights.
‘Americans and Europeans alike sometimes forget how unique is the United States of America. No other nation has been built upon an idea, the idea of liberty.’ Margaret Thatcher’s 1991 words perfectly reflect the essence of American exceptionalism: that uniquely among the countries of the world, the United States was founded not on bonds of blood, race, religion, or tribe. But instead on the ideals of freedom, equality, and self-government. Immigrants flooded to the United States and from that heritage, flowed an array of unique characteristics and traditions that shaped how Americans see themselves and our country’s place in the world.
That’s what it means to be American. And that persists even as wave after wave of immigrants come to this country because those immigrants share those core values.
Let’s not kid ourselves.
It hasn’t always been perfect. Almost every immigrant group encountered discrimination and xenophobia. And not just because of skin color. Irish faced rampant discrimination, as did Catholics in general. The loyalty of Jews and Asians to this country has been questioned more than once. The list goes on. But each group has come to be not just accepted, but become integral to the American people and the American experience.
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