On July 10, 1858, Abraham Lincoln was speaking in Chicago, as he was launching his campaign for the U.S. Senate. Just a few days earlier there had been a celebration for the 4th of July, and Lincoln noted that many people gathered there to celebrate had not really been descended from families who had been here at the time of the Revolution.
They were newcomers. As Lincoln said, they had, “come from Europe – German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian. . .settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.” He continued:
If they [seek] to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, …but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
As Harry Jaffa observed, this was a kind of democratic “transubstantiation.” If these people grasped that central principle, to be shared as the common faith, they were “flesh of the flesh, blood of the blood” of the men who had made that revolution. If they understood that “proposition,” as Lincoln called it, “all men are created equal,” they understood the equal rights of all of those around them, for they grasped the moral ground of those rights. And if they grasped those things, they grasped the core of what they needed to know in order to be a good “citizen” of this place.
The late Fr. Richard Neuhaus once did a seminal essay, “Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen?” If what we mean by a “citizen” is a man who pays his taxes and obeys the laws, the answer was a ready “yes.” But that was a scaled down definition of what it meant to be a citizen.
The deeper question was whether the atheist could give a moral defense of that regime that commanded his deep respect and loyalty. And yet that demand has been waived as we have moved away from any sense of the moral requirements of citizenship, because we have receded from the sense of the moral character of the polity itself.
In the age of relativism we have been backing into the notion of the polity as a hotel. It is a place of residence; people check in and out; and the main requirement is to pay the bill (i.e., the taxes) and obey the house rules. But we are not prepared to respond to a call to military service from the Waldorf Astoria.
I raise this matter now in the wake of the recent bombings in Boston carried out by two young brothers, one a naturalized “citizen,” and the controversy arising weeks earlier over Americans who had joined the terrorists. Did they deserve a constitutional protection that is not accorded to terrorists who do not happen to be citizens?
The raising of the question marked a dim echo of an earlier time, when the notion of citizenship was taken to mean far more than it does now. It was assumed to mark people who had cultivated a deep attachment to the country, perhaps people who had come from abroad, and made a formal adherence to the American regime, for compelling reasons.
Some of them would have borne obligations to the country, even to the point of risking their lives in its defense. It is one of the ironies here that people drawn to this country from abroad often have a more vivid sense of what this country is about than many people who have been born and raised here. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became radically disaffected, but America has also known its homegrown traitors willing to deliver to our most lethal enemies the means of killing other Americans on a grand scale.
In the late 1970s, the Supreme Court took up the case of New York State providing a rich menu of subsidized higher education, but wishing to reserve the subsidies for students who were – or were intending to become – citizens of the United States. The Court struck down that policy as an invidious discrimination. And yet, what was so inapt about asking students of mature years about the regime that finally elicited their deepest attachment?
Did it matter that the people of New York were funding students of engineering, in the 1930s, who would return to Germany and the service of Hitler? Or in later years, Iraqis putting their skills in the service of Saddam Hussein? The decision of the Court made sense, again, mainly if one supposed that “citizenship” no longer bore anything of moral significance.
Welcome, then, to the America of our time, arguing now over immigration, but no longer clear that we are inviting people to a regime, or a way of life, that can decently ask for their respect.