What Does It Mean to Be An American?
President Reagan once said that you can go to Germany and not become a German. You can go to France and never become a Frenchman. Yet nearly a million immigrants are admitted into the United States every year- all of them wanting to become Americans. Why are they coming here- and what does this experiment in democracy really mean to them, to all of us citizens, to people around the world?
They're coming here- to America- because our nation and system of government are the most successful in the history of mankind. Aside from the nearly one million persons admitted legally into the U.S. each year, many times that number attempt to enter illegally, most of the latter group risking their lives doing so. Some pay thousands of dollars to so-called "coyotes" to transport them across the border, often in unsanitary, horribly overcrowded trucks where their very survival is uncertain. Yet they come, year after year... the tide unending. What exactly are they coming for?
They all come to be part of the greatest republic in the world, where they hope to pursue their dreams without an oppressive government or rogue elements usurping their rights or threatening their well being. They come to have a chance at living a better life, feeding their families, creating a better environment for their children. Despite the risks of injury or even death, the flow never stops... because they all know that America is unique in human history. Never before had citizens- with very limited resources- overthrown an overbearing mother nation and established their own republic guided by a Constitution which protected individual rights while outlining- and limiting- the powers of government. The Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution and subsequently the Bill of Rights to guarantee that citizens would be able to live their lives in freedom, without the constant threat of having their liberties taken away.
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville came to America at the request of the French government to study the American prison system. After traveling around the country for nine months, he decided to focus more on the American political system and way of life. He came away profoundly impressed with what he experienced, which he considered the blossoming of democracy few countries had ever seen. In his book "Democracy in America", de Tocqueville said "America is great because it is good." He recognized that America was quite unique, a very special place unlike almost any other nation. Three decades later, President Abraham Lincoln shared the same insights in his letter to Congress. In 1862, amidst the turmoil of the Civil War, Lincoln realized that it was absolutely critical to preserve this ongoing experiment in democracy, saying "We shall nobly save or meanly lose this last best hope of earth."
In the 156 years since Lincoln wrote those words, it has become apparent to hundreds of millions of people around the world that America really IS a unique place. Americans have greater freedom, enjoy a higher standard of living and greater economic prosperity than those in any other nation in the world. Being an American means we can enjoy numerous freedoms and benefits only dreamed about by people in other countries like Cuba, North Korea and Iran. Being an American is to be truly blessed, but that blessing comes with a responsibility. We must be actively engaged with our political leaders, voicing our concerns when they take actions that unfairly limit or threaten those freedoms. We also need to be active participants in this great experiment- so that it never fades or becomes a footnote in a history book. To ensure that this experiment does not end in failure, we all need to be a living, breathing part of our government, our society, our communities- to make this all continue... for generations yet to come...