Right from the beginning, starting with the Declaration of Independence, there are those ringing words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” That certainly wasn’t the truth.
If those “truths” were so self-evident, then why is it that no country in the history of humankind up to that point deemed its people all to be born equal? Not even the signers of the Declaration of Independence thought that it was “self-evident.” They were fighting against the most powerful country in the world and the reigning zeitgeist, which saw men as inherently unfree, precisely because it was not “self-evident” that human kind ought to be free.
What our founders were doing was so radical, so unprecedented and so frightening a proposition that they created a myth about what they were proclaiming — they said that it was no big deal at all. It was “self-evident.” Half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence held or had held slaves. They knew that it was not “self-evident” that all men were equal, but what made this country unique was that its leaders, its dreamers, hitched their talents to the plow that was creating furrows to plant the seeds of good myths into our soil.
Another “good myth” spun by our founders was written by George Washington to Irish immigrants in New York: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respected Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.” Shortly after he wrote these words, the first Alien Naturalization Act was passed, limiting naturalization to “free white persons.” The first “immigrants here illegally” were the 50,000 slaves smuggled into the United States after Congress, in 1808, prohibited the slave trade. It took the Civil War and an amended Constitution to grant them “amnesty.”
After the Civil War, we embarked on a course of nativism and “Know Nothing” politics when we rejected poor and persecuted Catholic and Jewish immigrants. The myth of our “worldwide welcome” was tested during the age of mass European migration from 1850 to 1914. The New York Times quoted a sentiment held by many Americans during that time: “Europe is vomiting! The scum is coming to our shores.” That was a time when the “swarthy Italian criminals,” and “the lazy drunken Irish” were said to be part of the “horde of $9.60 steerage slime (which) is being siphoned upon us.”
That kind of thinking led to the passage of the Immigration Quota Act of 1924, which sharply decreased immigration from parts of Europe and countries with Roman Catholic majorities. Many Jews seeking escape from the Holocaust were denied entry and were consigned to their death.
Now we cast off those persons hailing from certain Muslim countries or those fleeing mob violence. We resort to separating mothers from their children to discourage their coming to our land, and the “Know Nothing” rhetoric is revived by our being told that if we don’t keep those asylum seekers out of our country, we will fall victim to their crimes. This is a demagogic logic unworthy of America.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about his observations of America and Americans. He did not admire us very much as a people, but was struck by our aspirations as well as our myths and our dreams. “America is great because she is good,” he said, “and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
We should reflect on that as we celebrate this Independence Day.
Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State, is distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.