Happy birthday, my fellow Americans, whoever we are
© Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

As July Fourth approaches, I think it's a worthwhile exercise to take a closer look at what it means to be an American. The past two weeks alone have shown echoes of this country's historic stumbles toward a consensus; a battle over the Confederate flag, and Supreme Court decisions on healthcare, same-sex marriage and fair housing have reanimated ghosts of debates past.

ADVERTISEMENT

On the 2016 campaign trail, several candidates have vowed to "take America back." From whom, and where, isn't always clear. Every candidate has at least once claimed to champion the will of "the American people." Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDNC warns campaigns about cybersecurity after attempted scam Biden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Stone judge under pressure over calls for new trial MORE has repeatedly invoked "everyday Americans" on the stump. No one has clearly defined what an "everyday American" is — is its opposite someone who is American on some days? Like maybe an "every-other-day American"? Well, it's a campaign, so a healthy dose of nationalistic apple-polishing is par for the course. But I think a bit of history would be useful here.

About this time, 239 years ago, an elite group of highly educated white men of European ancestry affixed their approval of the blueprint for what would become the United States of America. That Declaration of Independence was aspirational, containing specific grievances against the British monarchy and a stated goal of a new nation. And ever since, the citizens and residents (not always the same) within the physical boundaries of the U.S. have debated what they are free to do and what they are free from having done to them. And who qualifies under the rules.

The Declaration was signed in 1776, but it was not until 1789 that the Constitution effectively became our standard of governing principles. And that standard has been changed by amendment an additional 17 times.

The Civil War briefly changed the boundaries of the country, and its conclusion ushered in a new and lasting conception of the United States of America as a singular entity. But the past 100 years of this nation's existence have been the most transformative for the citizen/state dynamic. A few key moments:

  • 1913: The election of U.S. senators goes directly to voters, rather than state legislatures.
  • 1920: Women win the right to vote.
  • 1929: The market crashes, leading to the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the redefining of the relationship between the American citizen and the federal government as FDR's New Deal ushers in programs like Social Security and the framework for federal-state unemployment insurance.
  • 1954: The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education calls for public school desegregation "with all deliberate speed." Resistance from mostly Southern states leads to open confrontation: President Eisenhower sends the National Guard to Little Rock, Ark., to assure safe passage for nine black students to Little Rock Central High School.
  • 1964: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race in hiring, promoting and firing.
  • 1965: Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in elections, undoing the Jim Crow laws that had restricted blacks from voting since Reconstruction. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled a portion of the law to be unconstitutional, for all practical purposes negating the law itself.
  • 1971: The minimum voting age is lowered to from 21 to 18.
  • 1980: Ronald Reagan is elected president, and in his first inaugural address, asserts "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Between 1900 and 1950, the population of the U.S. doubled from 76 million to 151 million, and then doubled again by 2010 to 309 million. Whites comprised the majority of the population in 1900, and still do, but the numbers have shifted dramatically. Blacks make up about 12 percent of the population, a little higher than the 11 percent in 1900. Hispanics, on the other hand, have gone from 0.4 percent to 16 percent of the population. The percentage of Asians has moved from 1/100th of a percent in 1900 to 5.5 percent.

Bottom-line number: In 1960, non-Hispanic whites made up 85 percent of the population. In 2010, that was down to 64 percent.

What do the nice little timeline and the data show? That, in one sense, what is it to be an "American" has changed over time. We don't look as much the same as we once did. Different cultural touchstones and attitudes are constantly refreshing and subtly reshaping our work in progress, the United States of America.

The U.S. Congress did try to inversely define what it means to be an American by forming the House Un-American Activities Committee, whose original purpose was to keep watch over potential Nazi propaganda in the 1930s. Its more infamous legacy is tied to the Hollywood blacklist and the anti-communist scare of the post-World War II years. Communism was a real threat, but many of the activities of the committee and the unrelated but similarly notorious Senate committee chaired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin did more harm to the national psyche than to the cause of communism.

So where are we on the eve of this July Fourth milestone?

Supreme Court decisions this session have upheld the foundations of the 1968 Fair Housing Act; made marriage a constitutional right which all Americans are guaranteed, gay or straight; and ruled that Americans are entitled to healthcare.

A terrible race-motivated shooting in a Charleston, S.C., church and that congregation's instinctive reaction to fight hatred with love had the net effect of a cascade of support. It led to a shared call to link arms throughout the South to retire the blood-stained banner, a flag that was more about the rebellion and massive resistance of the 1960s than the 1860s. And by the time we celebrate the Fourth of July, if statistics hold true, another 500 or so Americans will have been killed by gunfire since that horrific June 10 in Charleston.

To be an American is to be part of a country that is running at full throttle with the brakes on. We are part of a great country, generous and greedy, kind and cruel, courteous and rude, forgiving and merciless, compassionate and insensitive. We honor the art of the deal while simultaneously extolling a principled stand, even if that stand comes at great cost. We revere truth, yet we advocate secrecy. We are flawed, yet we are intolerant of mistakes. We are black, white and all shades of the rainbow.

Usually in America, after the dust settles in the great debates, we get things right. We arrive in the right place, because that's were we set the compass 239 years ago. Of course every time we think we're finally there, the earth moves, and the tectonic shifts wreak havoc on the compass, so we navigate by dead reckoning for a while.

We are also a people of hope. Perhaps what is best about the country is that Americans are what we believe we can be. Belief is not enough. But it makes the more perfect union we seek more attainable, and is one natural resource that America has in abundance that no other country on earth matches.

Farley is managing editor and host of "The Morning Briefing" and "The Midday Briefing" on P.O.T.U.S., Sirius XM's 24-hour politics channel.