America as an Idea

by Wayne McCormack

On this Fourth of July, I sat under a beautiful blue sky looking at the mountains, watching fireworks, listening to American patriotic music (the finale of which was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture).

It struck me that America is an idea more than a place. One of the songs was Neil Diamond’s America. “On the boats and on the planes, they’re coming to America.” Except for the few remaining Native American descendants, America is a land of immigrants. People came here starting in the 1600’s looking for room to live their lives. And they kept coming, some involuntarily as slaves or coolies and then freemen, others through the Irish Potato Famine, through the pogroms of 19th Century, through the bitterness of the Cold War. And they’re coming today for many reasons, not just to make a few dollars but to make a new life for their families.

They [We] came because of an idea, not because of a place. Thomas Jefferson borrowed from several authors but did it well in the Declaration of Independence –

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

that all men are created equal;

that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights;

that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It may be important to realize that those ideals were just that at the time – ideals, not realities. Did the Founders believe that all were created equal? Only landowning men could vote. Almost all the signers owned slaves or lived off the proceeds of slave labor. Rights of speech and religion were later written into the Constitution, but nobody protected them against the States until long after the Civil War. And even the rights of liberty were not enforced by due process until the 20th Century.

Racial equality? We pushed Japanese-Americans into concentration camps and discriminated openly against people of color in all walks of life until the returning veterans from World War II said “enough.” Fortunately, the Civil Rights Movement captured a moment in history with a sufficiently affluent society that it was possible to open channels of education and employment.

Over 200 years after those ringing phrases were written, we are still trying to match our reality with our ideals. But that just shows the importance of having ideals. Without those as the starting point of who we are and what we believe, nobody would even be trying.

That’s what makes the NSA spying scandal so tragic. It’s not that anything terribly important about my telephone calls or web browsing is open to government. It’s that government feels that it is appropriate to take my personal privacy and part of my liberty from me. It is a backward step in the ideals for which America has stood, and to which much of the world looked for guidance.

People look to America not as a place so much as an idea. We should bear that in mind when someone wants to trade a bit of our freedom for a bit of security. As Benjamin Franklin said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The ideals of America are worth the risks that our predecessors took to get us this far, and it is worth our risking something to push those ideals to the next generation.

Wayne McCormack is the E. W. Thode Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Professor McCormack teaches Constitutional Law, Counter-Terrorism, International Criminal Law, Torts, and Civil Procedure.