Commentary

What Is an American?

By Edward L. Hudgins
July 3, 1998

We celebrate July Fourth as the day the Declaration of Independence created the United States. But in my heart I also honor July 15. On that day in 1930 Giustino DiCamillo, my grandfather, arrived here with my grandma, aunts and an uncle to start their lives as Americans. My mom was born the next year.

I never had the chance to hear my grandpop’s deepest thoughts about his extraordinary journey and rich, long life, which ended when I was fairly young. But one way I can understand his character, and the character of my country, is to reflect on the question, “What is an American?”

An American is anyone who loves life enough to want the best that it has to offer. Americans are not automatically satisfied with their current situation. My grandpop wanted to be more than a poor, landless tenant farmer, no better off than his ancestors. Americans look to more than the next meal; they look to the future, the long term, a better tomorrow.

An American is anyone who understands that to achieve the best in life requires action, exertion, effort. Americans aren’t idle daydreamers; they take the initiative. Fortune did not fall into my grandpop’s hands. He had traveled to America several times before 1930 to find work, establish himself, and make it possible to bring over the family. He toiled for years to achieve his dream, but achieve it he did.

An American is anyone who understands the need to use one’s mind and wits to meet life’s challenges. How would grandpop secure the money necessary for his first trip to America? Where would he find a job and a place to stay? You don’t need college to know that you have to use your brain as well as your brawn to make your way in America.

The principles of this country are no mere abstractions; they are written in the hearts of all true Americans.”

An American is anyone who understands that achieving the best in life requires risks. Immigrants have no assurance of success in a new land with different habits, institutions and language. They leave friends, relatives and familiar places, often risking their lives to cross oceans and hostile country to reach their new homes. But they, like all Americans, understand that the timid achieve nothing and forgo even that which sustains us through the worst of times: hope.

The nature of Americans explains the precious opportunity that has drawn millions to these shores. The Declaration states that all men are endowed “with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Americans seek economic prosperity, leaving behind the resentment in other countries that is aimed at those who better their material condition. Throughout the world and throughout history, millions of individuals have endured poverty with dignity. But there is no inherent dignity in poverty. Individuals came to America to farm their own farms and run their own enterprises. My grandpop found work on streetcar lines so he could buy a house and provide a better life for his family.

Americans seek personal liberty, to live as they see fit, to worship as they please. Americans seek freedom from the use of power wielded arbitrarily by whoever holds the political sword. My grandpop no doubt did not want to be at Mussolini’s mercy.

The Declaration — and the Constitution that followed it — created a political regime for individuals who wished to be united with their countrymen not essentially by a common language, ethnic background, or other accident of birth. Americans are united by a love of liberty, respect for the freedom of others and an insistence on their own rights as set forth in the Declaration.

Unfortunately, the American spirit has eroded. Our forebears would look with sadness at the servile and envious character of many of our citizens and policymakers. But the good news is that there are millions of Americans around the world, living in every country. Many of them will never make it here to the United States. But they are Americans, just as my grandpop was an American before he ever left Italy. And just as millions discovered America in the past, we can rediscover what it means to be an American. The principles of this country are no mere abstractions; they are written in the hearts of all true Americans. And it is the spirit of America, the spirit of my grandfather, that we should honor on July Fourth.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.