It’s the 4th of July! Before we put on our patriotic tank tops and head to the parades and fireworks, a quick review of history is due. How often do we really think about the significance of what it means to be an American? Or who is American? In the last few years, our country has been involved in an intense debate about who is an American, what it means to be American, and what the United States of America represents. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I’m here to offer some hope (and a brief history lesson!), so we can remember what the founding of our country, which we celebrate on July 4th, can teach us about the strength of American diversity and what it means to be an American.
The United States of America: A History
The first recorded use of the “the United States of America” was in the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration stated the Northern American colonies were formally declaring their intent to separate from England and become their own country. This simplified version of history, while succinct, fails to recognize the varied demographics and opinions of those residing in the Northern American colonies. In short, this sound bite version of our founding fails to recognize the diversity present at the founding of the United States of America.
It is true the American colonies were colonized mainly by Western European countries. However, there was significant diversity within those populations, including both lingual and religious practices. The colonized groups were established for various reasons, including those seeking religious freedom, those fleeing discrimination, those who came as indentured servants, and those being rewarded for loyalty to the crown. The American colonies were pluralistic societies.
Additionally, approximately 1/5th of the population at the time of the American Revolution was comprised of African slaves who practiced various religions, including Christianity, Islam, and other African spiritual traditions. They represented a wide variety of cultures from Africa.
Furthermore, there was not unanimous consent regarding the correct course of action for the colonies in solving their dispute with England. In fact, historians believe that up to 30% of the colonists wanted to remain part of England. Truly from its founding the United States of America has had economic, religious, cultural, and political diversity. The diversity of the United States is literally built into our framework.
For far too long, the simplified version of our history has weakened our understanding of why the United States of America is so unique and transformational as a country. To dismiss the variety of beliefs, languages, cultural origins, political leanings, and nationalities present at the founding of the United States convolutes our understanding of our history. When we celebrate the signing of the Declaration and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution but discount the presence of diversity of the United States of America at its beginning, we minimize the transformative idea that from the beginning, the rights of Americans are guaranteed BECAUSE of a diversity of opinions, beliefs, and differences.
The United States of America: Takeaways to remember
- Difference and disagreement does not have to divide us
“Let us remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country and should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling.” Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was known for bringing in those who disagreed with him to ensure he was considering a wide variety of opinions and perspectives. Lincoln chose to surround himself not with people who just agreed with him but with those who could bring rigor and bold ideas to the table. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson declared that differences of opinion should never force the end of a friendship.
- Being an American is not determined by how one looks.
“America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens.”- George W. Bush
When we look at our country today, the demographics are different from our founding, but that doesn’t mean our country is any less able to handle the complications of a pluralistic society. Understanding that diversity has always been present in the United States is a reminder that one does not have to look like us or be like us to be American.
Here are three links to help you celebrate American diversity this 4th of July with your family through food, reading, and crafting! As we celebrate the birth of the United States of America, let’s raise a toast to our nation and pledge to continue to honor our diversity!