On March 22, 1775, Edmund Burke, an Englishman, described the American colonies in the following way:
In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole . . . . This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth; and this from a great variety of powerful causes . . . . (Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies.)
Benjamin Franklin viewed the cause for independence as almost a necessity, seeing the colonists as a new breed of person, far different from the English or Europeans in general, a rougher breed, fiercely independent and hardened by having to tame a new world. So, in the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, “it became necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them.”
Since that time, group after group after group of people who have come to this country have embodied the same spirit of fierce independence described by our founders and even the English who opposed them. Whether we are discussing European, Asian, or Latin American immigrants this has been true. Even African-Americans and Native-Americans, whose stories are vastly different from the traditional immigrant, embody this spirit. The American story is not simply the story of the greatest engine for economic prosperity the world has ever known, it is the story of people, hardened by difficulty and fiercely independent, fleeing where they were from and finding a welcome environment for their hard work, ingenuity, and perseverance to prosper.
A great deal of news today centers on illegal immigration. The political left accuses the right of wanting to deport or keep out all illegal immigrants, because the right emphasizes border security and control. The political right accuses the left of wanting simply to grant amnesty to these immigrants so that the left can obtain millions of additional Democratic voters, because, according to the right, the left does not care enough about securing the border. As with any political debate, the accusations of bad intentions, as well as predictions of dire consequences if the other side wins, go on and on and on. Meanwhile, over 10 million people are here illegally and participating only in the underground economy, and our border, in the post-911 terrorism era, apparently is not very effective at keeping that number at even a reasonably low level.
What is missing from all of this partisan wrangling is a recognition that the spirit of those who have come to America in the latest waves of immigration, albeit illegally, embody the same spirit of fierce independence and rugged individualism that has always been at the heart of America’s greatness. Sure, occasionally, one of our politicians will make the statement, “We are a nation of immigrants!” This is just self-serving and meaningless. First, it is simply not true. Doesn’t that statement deny the relevance of African Americans and Native Americans to the American story, since they could hardly be called “immigrants,” or are they to be excluded from the American story because they were in large part its victims? And even if it were true, does that tell us anything? All countries are nations of immigrants—it all depends on how far back in time you want to search. All nations are a result of migrations of people, from Africa and Asia in the earliest days, and from Europe in later days. The phrase, “We are a nation of immigrants,” says nothing about America.
What has always made America great and what will continue to make America great is its influx of new people who embrace that same spirit of fierce independence that existed in those who came before them. It began with the Puritans and Pilgrims, fleeing, in one form or another, religious persecution in Europe, braving death and disease for their religious freedom. It continued with Irish and German, and later Italian immigrants, fleeing poverty and starvation, and craving a place where their labors would be appreciated and rewarded. Later still it continued with Asian, Cuban and Eastern Europeans, fleeing the stifling effects of socialist and communist economic oppression. Jewish immigrants came fleeing anti-Semitism. Arab-Americans joined our rich heritage, escaping from Middle Eastern dictatorships, whether secular, military or theocratic. These immigration stories are not without difficulty and distress, but always it was those individuals, through family, friends, community and religion, who pulled themselves and each other through the hardship. Independence and self-reliance were the means toward the end of a better and more rewarding life than they could ever achieve before.
African Americans and Native Americans too are part of America’s story, and not simply as its victims. The spirit of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, as well as all those who risked their lives freeing themselves and others from the bonds of slavery, are part of this story of fierce independence. So too are their successors in the Civil Rights movement, risking all to achieve the economic and political freedom denied them even after slavery was abolished by a terrible and bloody civil war. The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the legacy of rugged individualism when he calls upon us to judge each other by the “content of our character.” This is a call for the freedom to pursue goals, to work hard and persevere, to reap the rewards of economic achievement, the same freedom that the founders had in mind, and for which generations of immigrants came to our shores. African Americans have been invited to the party, but only as of late, and their achievements in the arts and entertainment, athletics and business, have been extraordinary, even though they have only just begun.
The same holds true of Native Americans, the first “immigrants.” It was their forebears who crossed the Bering Strait from what is now Russia, and traveled ever eastward, conquering a wild and dangerous landscape, always seeking the place that would be theirs, a place to live on their terms, under rules they set. The spirits of Crazy Horse and Geronimo, warriors in the cause of fierce independence, are also part of the American story, and the heritage of American greatness. They too symbolize the rugged individualism and self-reliance that has been the reason for American greatness. Unfortunately, the Native Americans too have been invited only of late to the celebration of America.
The latest wave of immigrants might be illegal, but they are the same rugged individuals, the same fiercely independent spirits our previous waves of immigrants were. Is the spirit that crosses a scorching desert, unsure of whether or not they will make it, to a destination that will likely be unfriendly or even hostile, where you might or might not know someone, or might not have a job or place to live, not really knowing what is in store for you—is that spirit any different from the spirit of those who crossed the ocean in disease-ridden ships 300 or 200 or 100 years ago, or ran through the woods chased by white men with rifles and dogs, or squeezed themselves into makeshift boats from China or southeast Asia or Cuba or Haiti to arrive on these shores? America’s greatness does not lie in immigrants per se, but in the spirit that drove them here in the first place and that continues to drive them here, the same spirit that drove slaves to freedom and equality and the American Indians to fight ferociously for the heritage of freedom that was their own legacy.
Immigrants come to America because, in the words of Ronald Reagan, it is the “shining city upon a hill.” We do not have an immigration problem because immigrants are here and want to continue to come here. We will have an immigration problem when they stop wanting to come here.