Who We Are?

Posted on July 6, 2015


So, happy Fourth of July weekend! Our annual Independence Day celebration got me to thinking: who are we?

I am stepping out here in “no man’s land,” which was the space between the French, English, and German armies facing each other on the Western front in World War I. The term may go back even further, but that’s far enough for me.

After a few months of maneuvering, the Germans and the allies settled into a prolonged “trench warfare,” slaughtering each other by the thousands, and then the millions between 1914-1918, across northern France in a horrid stalemate of death and destruction. We are now commemorating the Centenary of that awful war that so scarred the world. The space between the trenches was deadly, and so “no man’s land,” to the soldiers on both sides.

Trying to define “who we are” as a people is equally difficult and fraught with peril. We each think we have a unique idea and vision of who we are that often collides with what someone else may think or hold dear.

But it is an important question. Let me slightly rephrase it. Who are we? This is especially important on the eve of a major presidential election year in 2016. We will have to judge between many candidates, each expressing a version of who we are, and, equally important, where we go from here forward.

Invariably who we are also informs us as to who we would like to be, or what baggage we would like to discard on our march into the future.

We are a diverse people. We are not one race, like the Japanese or one ethnic group or nationality like the Germans, French, English, Spanish, Persians, Burmese, Ugandans, or Irish for example. We are not all Caucasians (originally from the Caucasus region in southern Asia), Africans, Asians, Europeans or Semitics for example. We are all of them.

We owe a lot to the English since they bequeathed to us a political system that championed our rights and liberties. Furthermore, the English and Scotch Irish contributed to the first major stream of immigrants to the parts of North America that became the United States. The Indians were already here. Other Europeans, like the Spanish and French, also populated portions of North America.

We emerged into independence after the American Revolution speaking largely English, worshipping as Englishmen did, and with many habits and culture inherited from the English. But our ancestors did not feel like Englishmen.

They worked to create a new country apart from the quarrelling and bickering monarchies and nobilities of the Old World. It was a magnificent experiment in republican law, justice, and government, and we are still living it.

We marched into the nineteenth century fiercely free and independent, two by-words of the new experiment in republican government.

We also dragged a significant and growing African slave people into this new halcyon period. The contradictions between slavery and freedom were immense, and, eventually, unbridgeable in a peaceful way. The solution came out of gun barrels, the American Civil War.

A French traveler to this new republic, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote about this “experiment in democracy,” a term that later became popular with historians. His Democracy in America was published in 1835.

We tend to think of democracy and a republican form of government as natural and normal, but forget that the American Revolution was a radical break with the way people governed themselves. It started us on a new trajectory, built on the liberty and rights of individuals, not any set of ancient rules for obeying monarchs and nobilities.

In contrast to the aristocratic ethic which governed Europe, American society was built upon the twin ethic of hard work and making money. De Tocqueville noted that the common man in America enjoyed an unprecedented level of dignity. Commoners did not defer to old elites, and individualism and capitalism took root.

“Among a democratic people,” De Tocqueville wrote, “where there is no hereditary wealth, every man works to earn a living … Labor is held in honor; the prejudice is not against but in its favor.”
It was also a world which embraced its Christian roots with passion. The Second Great Awakening—restoring the passion and purifying fire of the Christian faith– was underway as De Tocqueville transited through our country.

It was a world that in fact applied liberty and equality as measuring sticks across much of society.

What about Southern cotton planters who refused to give up slavery as the backbone of their roaring economy? The Quakers responded to this old evil and led the charge, full bore and filled with righteous Scripture, for abolition and true equality of all before the law.

We were, and are, if nothing else, a complex civilization. Happy Independence Day!

Published as “Who Are We? Not Always Easy to Answer,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, July 5, 2015

Posted in: History