James Carroll

‘We’ is an open door

By James Carroll
July 4, 2011

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WHO IS “we’’? The word is used in politics without a second thought, yet the meaning of “we” is forever unresolved. Democrats in the US Senate raise the issue this week as they once more seek passage of the DREAM Act, which would offer legal status to immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as minors. First introduced a decade ago, and narrowly defeated in the last Congress, the legislation calls the question: When Americans say “we,” who actually is included?

It is a question for the Fourth of July. After all, today’s holiday celebrates the declaration that states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” and concludes, “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortune and our sacred honor.” A few months before making that declaration, American revolutionaries were rallied by Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” which proclaims, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And what began in 1776 was brought to fruition with the 1789 ratification of the Constitution, which opens, “We the people.”

Those first Americans regarded the “we” of their pronouncements as self-evident, like their “truths.” In founding an enlightened republic based on reason, though, they made pre-rational assumptions about who should participate. Neither native peoples (referred to in the Declaration as “merciless Indian savages”) nor enslaved Africans (defined in the Constitution as three-fifths of a person) were part of the first American “we.” (As for women, the 14th Amendment, ending slavery nearly a century later, still identifies “male citizens” as those who alone count for representation.) Nor did Thomas Jefferson and the others of that first Fourth of July include their many fellow colonists whose sense of obligation to the British homeland was unbreakable.

Ironically, even as revolutionary cohesion was thus excluding, its assertion was simultaneously made to extend to the whole human race - with all people “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” From the start, the American tradition assumed that humans everywhere could be expected to embrace a Jeffersonian notion of freedom. So despite the Founders’ exclusivism about race and other matters, their universalism informed structures of liberal democracy that sponsored an ongoing expansion of the American “we.” Federalism, bicameral government, division of powers, checks and balances, Bill of Rights - all adding up to a system, in effect, of revolutionary openness. Even the excluded could see such possibility. In an 1852 oration entitled “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass turned the Founders’ “we” against itself by declaring of slavery, “We pronounce [it] to be an abomination in the sight of God.” Douglas’s “we” and the American “we” would eventually become the same thing.

The struggle is far from finished, as the ever languishing DREAM Act suggests. Today, Latinos are the latest to seek admission, with the so-called “immigration debate” serving as the latest mode of exclusion. The main anti-Latino text is Samuel P. Huntington’s aptly titled 2004 polemic, “Who Are We? The Challenge to America’s National Identity,” a warning that the arrival of millions of Hispanics threatens the “core culture” of the United States. Last week in Maryland, a petition with more than a hundred thousand signatures sought to overturn that state’s version of the DREAM Act. People are worried.

But the Fourth of July celebrates a vision of national identity that has proven far more open-armed than those who articulated it knew. Millions of Latinos are already joining the American “we,” whatever legislators do. (“We need to tell everyone that we exist,” a 21-year-old undocumented college student recently declared, launching a sit-down protest.) Huntington was right to see a coming transformation of the core culture, but that’s the point. When a settler nation became an immigrant nation; when a white Protestant nation became a multiethnic nation; when an establishment nation became a democratic nation, the culture was shown to be expansive at its core. When the founders said “we,” they were opening a door, not closing one. So - happy Fourth of July.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.