America’s national identity is defined by its first principles.

In four years, my father’s family will have lived on this continent for 300 years.  Does that make me more American than a young Guatemalan woman who has just pronounced the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States “and the Republic for which it stands”.  That Republic was and is and always will be based upon its founding principles.

What makes us both American is belief in our first principles.  In America, nationality is not defined by race, creed, color, religion, or ethnicity.  It is defined by allegiance to a set of principles more clearly defined than any other nation on earth.

So the test of our patriotism, of our Americanism, is adherence to those principles.  When those of us who are American citizens, from whatever background, accept and follow those principles, then we are part of America.  When we claim our unique difference from other nations, this is what we claim.

I participated in several elevated Senate debates on immigration with Edward Kennedy, Alan Simpson, Bill Bradley, and a large number of others.  These debates were complex but resolvable principally because the national interest was the objective sought by leaders of good will.  In the height of the Cold War, with repeated references to “national security”, one of our colleagues defined national security as: a strong defense, a sound dollar, and secure borders.  But he did not mean a two thousand-mile long Southern wall.  By secure borders, he meant sane, enforceable, and humane immigration policies.

Our national identity is neither liberal nor conservative.  These are ideologies that drive policies but not identity.  If anyone is proposing to add an ideological question to a citizenship application, they are not being heard from.  We do not define citizen identity by liberalism or conservatism, nor should we ever.  Americans are free to choose.  That is one of our first principles

Our national principles are contained in our founding documents, especially the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence, but also in the Constitutional debates and correspondence of the Founders, restatement of founding principles by great Presidents and leaders who followed, and by other statements defining our national behavior provided in our best times.

The times in which we now live have quickly devolved into world-wide searches for national identity.  At their worst these searches have deteriorated into divisive nationalism, populism, and exclusivity.  Nationalistic political movements in Europe and elsewhere are becoming tribalistic, with racial and ethnic categories.  Nativism is the new rage and the new scourge.

Purity of heritage is the new hallmark for belonging.  All others, especially immigrants, are to be shunned and excluded, even in a nation of immigrants such as ours.  Globalization, mass migrations, and attempted escape from oppression are root causes for this nationalistic discontent.  The only nations relatively free from these racial and ethnic contests are those composed overwhelmingly if not exclusively of unitary ethnic citizenry.

Because of our long history of immigration…save for Native Americans, aren’t all of us from somewhere else?….it is difficult if not impossible for us to identify a “pure American.”  There were periods of immigrant waves in the past two centuries where those who could trace their ancestry to the Mayflower era were held aloft as what an American should look like.

But then we had a third-generation Irish Catholic president and even now one who is third or possibly fourth-generation German (self-identified as Swedish for some reason), and old standards require adjustment as to who is and is not American.

It would be instructive to ask all Americans to define our first principles.  Routinely, applicants for citizenship perform better at such tasks than those of us born here.  (I attempt to do so in a forthcoming book: America Beyond Trump: Restoring First Principles.)

All men and women are created equal.  Church and State should not intrude on each other.  We are entitled to a fair trial.  The press should be free in order to hold government accountable.  We are a commonwealth and hold certain public things in common.  We are free to speak.  There are many more such principles that are clearly stated.

Perhaps uniquely, America has a founding and enduring creed in the principles that created our nation two and a third centuries ago.  Those principles, not ethnicity, race, religion, or ideology, are the foundation and source of our national identity.  They define who we are, at our best, and who we hope to become.

American is not finished.  We have not even begun.  We will always be a unique national work in progress.  The success of our national journey will be determined by our adherence to the founding principles that created our national identity.  They are the compass to guide our path and our passport to the future.

And our unfinished work is to guarantee that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

13 Responses to “We Hold These Truths: America’s National Identity”

  1. Bill Pruden Says:

    Yet again you have cut through the political jargon and taken us to the core of what it is that not only makes the United States a special entity, but also what we must do if we are to remain so while at the same time to the path that these central principles promised and which have enabled us to serve for much of our history as a beacon, albeit an imperfect one, for the rest of the world. It is not about making American great–that is a judgment made by others– it is about making America America, a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It is about having leaders committed to these principles, men and women who know that these principles are ones to which we aspire and who are committed to fostering those aspirations. Indeed, from Washington who embodies so many of those principles to Jefferson who articulated them, to Lincoln who revitalized them, to FDR who in the depth of depression and war reminded us that so long as we had them we had nothing to fear, our greats political leaders have shared a commitment to those principles and have called upon the American people to Honor and pursue them. In doing so they have committed themselves to something bigger than themselves, but something the quest for which makes all of us better. You spent a career being true to those principles and it is now up to us to make the next generation of leaders–and citizens–no less devoted.
    P.S. I am thrilled to hear you have another book coming out–when do you anticipate its publication?

  2. Brian McCarthy Says:


    The first of my ancestors (maternal grandfather) came here from Kinsale, Ireland in 1929 and the last (my father) in 1950. Some of my first cousins are like-minded to me and see modern day immigrants as no different from their parents and grandparents. Other cousins are Trump supporters and, oddly, argue that, well, our parents and grandparents at least spoke English when they came here!

    The reasons why the Irish spoke English in the 19th and 20th century are reasons deserving of a separate article and I doubt my right-leaning cousins appreciate that history.

    About 20 years ago I learned that I was automatically an Irish citizen by Irish law since my father had been born there and I immediately set about obtaining the documents necessary to obtain an Irish passport. At the time, a few friends, some who were immigrants themselves or children of immigrants, objected to my doing so, saying it was un-American to obtain a second citizenship. Even my parents had reservations about it.

    I don’t care what they or anyone has to say. I am an Irish citizen and I’m an American citizen. Are those citizenships likely to come in conflict? Is there a US-Ireland war on the horizon? No.

    Purity of heritage? I’m all Irish. I’m not what the purists have in mind though. We will mature as a country when we can get past such terms as purity of heritage.

    Well as usual I’ve taken you way off topic. Sorry.


  3. Michael Says:

    What we are seeing in Trumpism is a slow ethic cleansing of the United States; first and foremost through abuse of the immigration process and the use of ICE to drag brown people away and discourage them from coming in the first place, even in cases of asylum. But let’s also not forget that the implementation of voter suppression laws is also a way of marginalizing and reducing the political influence of ‘the other”; of people of color who will never be considered full citizens by some, no matter how many generations they have lived in this country. All of it is amoral and un-American and those in public life who push those policies must be called out and drummed out of office.

  4. Paul G Says:

    “[We] had a third-generation Irish Catholic president and even now one who is third or possibly fourth-generation German (self-identified as Swedish for some reason).” – GH

    The findings of credibly qualified anthropologists, ethnologists and similar scientists of our human origins and travels, should be humbling to many of us “Know-it-Alls,” especially to our dear leader, “Mr. Know-Nothing.”

    But we kid ourselves as our (German?)Swede-in-Chief’s ignorance is reflected in the daily tyranny of media heads’ exclusive “right-now” ratings focus.

    Our political media ‘referees’ are derelict or conflicted in their duty to show the graphic context of “right now” facts to their national audience, that would show:(a)America is like a salad-bowl – a nation of immigrants including English, German, Irish, Italian – but none of whom may be allowed to melt (dominate) any other into a bland stew; (b)A decades-long trend in people DECLINING to cross our border, despite our century-long anti-republic role in destabilizing many governments of our south American neighbors.

    People kill for their beliefs; isn’t it about time to live for the facts?

  5. JD Kinnick Says:

    America is a nation of immigrants and its also a nation of laws. The “open borders” nonsense is a one way ticket for President Trump to get easily re-elected. DNC needs a centrist to have a decent chance in 2020, I don’t see any in the present field.

  6. Gary Hart Says:

    I was not aware any Democratic candidates for the presidency advocated “open borders.” Who might that be, JD? GH

  7. JD Kinnick Says:

    Sen. Hart-

    Here’s some “open borders” examples – I would put Beto and current front-runner Sen. Harris in that category:

    Thank you

  8. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    Respectfully JD: Sen. Sanders is the front runner, not Sen. Harris. The vast majority of his 13.2 million Democratic and independent voters in 2016 are still with him, as his phenomenal first-day fund-raising numbers indicate. At the comparable time during the 1988 presidential cycle Sen. Hart was the front runner for the same reason. The vast majority of his 6.5 million Democratic and independent voters during the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries were still with him in early 1987.

    Though their personas and substantive politics differ both candidates well-earned their respective front runner status by “prematurely” advocating for the kind of deep-seated progressive changes in our profoundly Not-great society for which the American people yearn. Each had also (essentially) been robbed of the nomination 4 years before through political sharp practice by the Democratic establishment.

    Obviously, my point is a modest one. History being “one damned thing after another” as someone once said.

  9. JD Kinnick Says:

    Hi Eric C Jacobson

    You are correct as the Predicitit markets now have Sanders as the “smart money” DNC front runner as he moved ahead of Harris who had previously led.


    I believe Sen. Hart was the 1987 front runner as he had won every state west of the Mississippi in 1984 and had been a tireless campaigner for other candidates in 1986. I was on the ground in Iowa and Sen Hart had a huge lead in the 1987 DMR “Iowa Poll”. Part of the Hart appeal to independents and open minded GOPers was that the Hart campaign didn’t kowtow to the labor unions. Don’t get me wrong, Sen. Hart had a solid voting record in support of unions but wasn’t about to kiss Lane Kirkland’s ring like other Democrats would. The Senator may want to correct me but I believe he said something to the effect of “Mondale can’t use the bathroom without calling the plumbers union first.”

  10. Michael Says:

    Democrats are not for open borders. That’s just a crazy right-wing meme. Democrats and Republicans under Bush and Obama poured resources into border security over the last two decades. Saying Democrats want open borders is like saying Trump is a rational man.


    The sort of common sense answers to age old problems we expect from our Senator host.

    The sentiment is added to the sense but is in no sense sentimental.

    I share it for my country the UK, and for the country of origin of my wife, the US.

    The government of my country ha this very week stripped the citizenship, off the now, virtually stateless, Shimima Begum, an ISIS bride in a Syrian camp, rather worse than Trump, passing the buck, or in my country, the pond, to the state of Bangladesh, even though she was born in the UK, to a mother from there, has lived her whole life in the UK, prior to her desertion to ISIS. She should be brought to trial in Syria or more probably, in the UK, but , upping the ante on looking tough but being stupid, the government acts thus. I have no sympathy with this young woman, she made a choice that should put her in jail, but in a UK one, not left in a camp , perhaps to be re recruited by other purveyors of wretchedness.

    Much as I like Eric, it is JD I agree with, Sanders is too old too socialist,a politician, Harris, too angry too rude as a persona,to appeal. You, we, need new people, or old, but not those two, as president. Warren, pre her rather unrealistic infatuation with the AOC Green deal, looked best to me, now, my original view, Joe Kennedy or maybe, Michael Bennet, someone common sense as is our host.

  12. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    On the issue of immigration, Democrats may not be for open borders, with or without quotes, but they had better improve their messaging on this issue – and that should include embracing the families who have lost loved ones at the hands of undocumented immigrants – if they wish to successfully counter the narrative that Trump has set.

  13. Gary Hart Says:

    JD and I have different definitions of “open borders.” Literally, that means anyone who wants in can come in. O’Rourke advocating removal of a barrier near downtown El Paso doesn’t fit that description. Everyone I know believes we must maintain official entry points and that all who seek entrance must follow established procedures at those points. That is far from open borders. GH

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