Americans love why we each stand out — July 4 reminds us to stand together
At a recent political rally in Orlando, President Trump reminded supporters about his patriotic spectacle scheduled for Independence Day. “On July 4th in Washington D.C., come on down,” he said. “We’re going to have hundreds of thousands of people!”
Back in February, he tweeted that his “Salute to America” event would include a “major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!” Clearly, Trump plans to use the public Fourth of July event to promote his own political brand.
Independence Day shouldn’t be about just one politician, one political party, or one viewpoint. The focus should be on America.
The Fourth of July marks the United States of America’s 243rd birthday. If you’re not sure what to get a nation that has everything, here’s a suggestion. Many Americans are troubled by the present and worried about the future. They’re frustrated by the polarized politics, childish name calling, toxic tweets and inability of politicians to work together to solve the country’s problems. The perfect gift for America on the Fourth of July would be a national “time-out,” which would give everyone a chance to pause, take a deep breath, and remember what America is all about.
Understanding America’s national identity is a lot harder than it sounds.
In 1782, a French émigré, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, wrote an essay aimed at a Revolutionary War generation caught up in political and social upheaval. “What then is the American, this new man?” he asked. Crevecoeur’s answer was simple yet perceptive: “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He has become an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims.”
As a history professor, Crevecoeur’s famous query seemed like the ideal basis for an introductory course on American studies years ago. I hit on the idea of focusing a course on one basic question — what does it mean to be an American?
The answer to his question, and America, appeared to be more of a mosaic than one clear picture, in an era of multiculturalism of the recent decades.
Shortly after designing the course, I proudly explained my multicultural approach that focused on the diversity of the American people to a Dutch scholar who specialized in American Studies.
He simply shook his head and smiled. “I can’t believe you Americans,” he said. “You can’t see the forest for the trees. You’re focusing on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and all the other things that make you different. Those of us who live in Europe see a bigger picture. We’re more intrigued by the things that you Americans have in common – your love of freedom, individualism, democratic ideals, and capitalist dreams.”
I learned an important lesson that day about my country from a professor born and raised in Europe. I rethought my ideas about the American experience and revised my course — to answer Crevecoeur’s question by exploring not just the things that divide us but also those that unite us as a people.
In 2019, it’s even harder to an answer Crevecoeur’s seminal question, because the nation’s demographics have changed dramatically, institutions that used to bind us together have come undone, and modern mass media have splintered the American people into special interests and tribal groups.
Yet, if we look beyond the obvious divisions in the country, we’ll see that the basic American character lives on. Americans still believe in freedom and justice for all. They remain dedicated to the belief that all men and women are created equal with “certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — whatever that is. And, Americans still see themselves as the “good guys.” Like Wonder Woman or Superman, they fight for “truth, justice, and the American Way.”
The Fourth of July offers a perfect moment to call a nonpartisan “time-out,” which will allow Americans the opportunity to think about their country’s past, present and future. A clue to understanding America can be found at the very beginning of the Constitution, which begins with the phrase “We the People of the United States.” It doesn’t refer to any particular group based on politics, gender, race, religion, ethnicity or sexual preference. It assumes we are Americans first and foremost. National identity should trump everything else (pun intended).
Americans need to realize that they’re united by idealistic principles, shared experiences and the promise of what this country can be. Only then will Americans understand why Crevecoeur was so impressed by “the American, this new man.” So, let’s not turn Independence Day into just another Trump political rally. Instead, let’s celebrate our nation’s heritage and reflect on what it means to be an American.
Richard Aquila is a professor emeritus of history at Penn State University and a distinguished lecturer of the Organization of American Historians. A specialist in U.S. Social and Cultural history, his most recent book is “Let’s Rock! How 1950s America Created Elvis and the Rock & Roll Craze.”