The idea of elemental justice meted out to every man is the ideal we should keep ever before us. It will be many a long day before we attain it, and unless we show not only devotion to it, but also wisdom and self-restraint in the exhibition of that devotion, we shall defer the time for its realization still further.
America remains unique among nations because its nationhood is defined not by ethnicity, but by its values. There is, and never should be, such a thing as an ethnic American. It began with the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the ideal of a new democratic society with equality of opportunity for all. At the same time, the founders realized that achieving this dream would be a daunting task and also knew the toleration of slavery would make it harder. Even the Declaration’s author Thomas Jefferson said “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just”. Nevertheless, it seemed a necessary evil to the achievement of independence. In the end, the cost of this evil was borne not only by African-Americans, but eventually by the entire nation in the form of a bloody civil war.
Theodore Roosevelt grew up a member of the wealthy and well-connected Knickerbocker New York City elite. He then spent much of the rest of his life reaching out and trying to understand the life of the average American, first in the grimy world of politics and later as a cowboy and Rough Rider. Considered a traitor to his class, he nevertheless rose above all of his elitist acquaintances in the eyes of his countrymen. This summary of a recent lecture by a Notre Dame political philosophy professor highlights why such people are crucial to a healthy democracy. In many ways, TR was the ultimate aristopopulist. We need more of them!
This article missed a real opportunity to craft a modern American liberal nationalism in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech. It first attempts to belittle nationalism by conflating the concepts of “nation” and “state”. While the modern-day state is arguably a recent phenomenon, nationhood is almost as old as humanity itself. Statehood is a creature of international law dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. States are entities that have sovereignty over territory. Nations, on the other hand, are peoples with a common heritage, usually ethnic in nature. There are states that are not nations and nations that are not states. The African states created after the end of colonialism are the best example of the former and the world is full of examples of the latter, such as the Kurds.
In contrast, the United States was founded not on an ethnic or denominational basis, but on the concept that all were created equal and were endowed with basic human rights. As I mentioned in my previous post on MLK Day, there is, and never should be, such a thing as an ethnic American. While we have struggled, sometimes bloodily, to fully realize this vision, we should never forget how revolutionary the concept was during the monarchical, absolutist nationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. We fashioned a nationalism that was committed to achieving the American Dream for all our citizens regardless of origin or religion in the hope that other nations would see the benefits of such a society and adopt this vision in their own unique way.