Alexandria, Virginia. -- "What then is the American?" asked a French-American farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, in 1782. His extremely popular book, "Letters from an American Farmer," helped define the soul of a new nation. Crevecoeur's question bears repeating every July 4, as our nation annually renews its credo.
To Crevecoeur, Americans were "the poor of Europe." In the "great American asylum," these dispossessed found land, livelihood and liberty -- regardless of previous nationality. Accustomed to centuries of European warfare, Crevecoeur marveled at an American family "whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations." His was the classic melting-pot vision: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men."
Not everyone in early America agreed with Crevecoeur. Benjamin Franklin complained in 1755 that too many Germans were
immigrating to America, posing a danger to its English heritage. He asked: "Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements? . . . Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs?"
Franklin defined Americans as English people; Crevecoeur defined them as mongrel Europeans. Both definitions are limited. Yet that narrow view emerges again today in the backlash against multiculturalism. Critics of hyphenated-Americans charge that the emphasis on cultures other than "American" diminishes our national purpose. They argue that the foundations of American democracy lie clearly in Western (i.e., European) civilization, whose values should remain primary.
The latest outbreak in these cultural wars occurred this spring at Yale University, which returned a $20 million gift funding an intensive course in Western Civilization. Foul, cried the Wall Street Journal, contending that multicultural activists had done the course in and threatened American democracy in the process. Turns out, according to the Washington Post, that the real stumbling block was conflict over whether to hire new junior faculty, instead of funding existing positions (a budgetary rather than a cultural issue).
Fortunately, the fate of the republic does not rest on a Western Civ course. Freedom is not a virtue invented by Europeans. And the idea of freedom -- either having it or wanting it -- is what epitomizes the American spirit. In America, freedom is not defined merely by John Locke's treatises on government, or even Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.
It is defined by the slaves of Massachusetts, who in 1777 declared to the state legislature that they had "in common with all other men a natural and unalienable right to freedom." Can anyone argue that enslaved Africans did not comprehend the meaning of freedom from its total absence in their lives? They did not need a European scholar to explain it to them.
The longing for freedom that is essentially American is informed by Asians' experience, too. Listen as Mary Tsukamoto celebrates the Fourth of July during World War II in an internment camp:
"We had our Fourth of July program. Because we couldn't think of anything to do, we decided to recite the Gettysburg Address as a verse choir. We had an artist draw a big picture of Abraham Lincoln with an American flag behind him. Some people had tears in their eyes; some people shook their heads and said it was so ridiculous to have that kind of thing recited in a camp. It didn't make sense, but it was our heart's cry. We wanted so much to believe that this was a government by the people and for the people and that there was freedom and justice."
Adds Ms. Tsukamoto: "We need to leave our legacy to our children. And also our legacy to America, from our tears, what we learned."
What we learned from our tears. This is the America that derives not from abstract principles, but from painful experience. This is the freedom that is not taught in Western Civ courses. And this is the freedom we should celebrate on the Fourth of July -- freedom hard-won by generations of Americans of every race, every creed, every culture.
What then is the American? The American is a person dedicated to the idea of freedom, however imperfectly manifested. The American learns from the tears of her fellow citizens, and embraces their experiences. The American knows that no nation can claim to have invented freedom, but perhaps one nation can aspire to live it.
Linda R. Monk is the editor of "Ordinary Americans: U.S. History Through the Eyes of Everyday People" (Close Up Publishing).