To Be an American
July Fourth is America’s only true national holiday—one whose sole purpose is to celebrate the founding of our nation and the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence issued 245 years ago. But even as we celebrate the day with fireworks, flag-waving parades, and backyard parties, we ought to take a moment to consider what it means to be an American.
Most of us are Americans by accidents of birth. We didn’t choose to be citizens but had the good fortune to be born here. But others have made that choice. Some 23 million Americans are naturalized citizens and many more who currently live here would like to be, including Dreamers brought to the United States as children and still waiting for Congress to give them a path to become citizens of the only country they have ever known. America still stands as a beacon to the world. Those who think America has lost it appeal need only look to those who have made the difficult journey here to learn otherwise.
Khizr Khan, a gold-star father who became famous in 2016 when then-candidate Donald Trump attacked him and his wife after they appeared at the Democratic convention, exemplifies the sentiments of many aspiring Americans in his memoir An American Family:
I am an American patriot not because I was born here but because I was not. I embraced American freedoms, raised my children to cherish and revere them, lost a son who swore an oath to defend them, because I come from a place where they do not exist.
Perhaps it is easier to recognize America’s great blessings when you’ve come from a place lacking them—in Khan’s case, Pakistan.
Immigrants have always seemed to me the quintessential Americans, representing hope, aspiration, and a desire to start anew. And yet, for much of our history, immigrants have faced opposition from those who didn’t quite trust they could ever become true Americans. Even some of our Founding Fathers voiced concern about those not born in the colonies of English descent. Benjamin Franklin came to be embarrassed by a notorious 1751 remark in which he had complained about the “Palatine Boors” who would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” Thomas Jefferson famously warned in his Notes on the State of Virginia that foreigners would bring with them the language and principles of government of the nations they left and transmit them to their children. Alexander Hamilton, though himself an immigrant, went further, writing in 1802 that, “The influx of foreigners must . . . change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.”
Strikingly, the Founders voiced these sentiments at a time when few immigrants were coming to the new nation, something that changed with the influx of Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, and others after about 1820. By the mid-nineteenth century, the immigration trickle became a stream of newcomers from Northern and Central European countries. This sparked even more backlash, including the creation of a political party nicknamed the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings won 100 seats in Congress, 8 governorships, and several large-city mayoralties in the 1850s, reflecting the popularity of nativism across America. But the backlash to immigration sparked its own counterreaction, with Abraham Lincoln emerging as perhaps the biggest champion of immigration and immigrants.
Lincoln opposed nativism throughout his political career. He was an early and vocal critic of Know-Nothingism. In a letter to a friend in 1855, Lincoln declared, “When the Know-Nothings get control, [the Declaration of Independence] will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’” Lincoln made support of immigration, along with opposition to slavery, one of the themes of his losing campaign to replace incumbent Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas. In one of his famous debates with Douglas in 1858, Lincoln noted that the Declaration of Independence’s guarantee of freedom belonged to immigrants as much as to the native born: “They have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.” When he sought the nomination of the newly formed Republican party, Lincoln supported inclusion of a plank in the party’s platform that pledged that naturalized citizens’ rights would not be abridged in any way and that their rights be protected both at home and abroad. In his first address to Congress after being elected president, Lincoln called for legislation to increase immigration, which resulted in subsequent passage of “An Act to Encourage Immigration.” Lincoln signed it into law on July 4, 1864.
In early 1861, as he traveled from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration, Lincoln summed up his views on immigration at a stop in Cincinnati where he spoke to a group of German-born Americans: “If there are any abroad who desire to make this the land of their adoption, it is not in my heart to throw aught in their way, to prevent them from coming to the United States.” If we really believe in the promise of America, we should take Lincoln’s words to heart. A great nation does not close itself off from the world. It welcomes those who will make it even greater.