CRB: The genius of American citizenship

We wind up our preview of the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here) with Richard Samuelson’s essay “The genius of American citizenship.” Samuelson is assistant professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino, and a friend. I invited him to write something for us to introduce the piece and persuade readers to click on that link. Professor Samuelson writes:

According to legend, when told that the Lord Mayor of Dublin was Jewish, Yogi Berra said, “only in America.” As ever, Yogi was onto something. When a Jew became Mayor of Dublin it was worthy of remark. No one notices when a Jew becomes Mayor of New York, or Hymietown, as the Rev. Jackson has been known to call it.

Why has that been the case, this essay asks. It might grow from two, related factors: that American nationhood is primarily political rather than cultural or historic, and that our government has been, for most of our history, a constitutional republic of limited, enumerated powers. Both traits set America apart from most other nations history has known.

Compared to that of other nations, American nationalism is peculiarly political. Hence, as I note, “anyone who becomes an American citizen is fully American, from that day forward. By contrast, a naturalized citizen of France, Japan, or Nigeria can live for decades in his new country, and his family can remain there for generations, yet many of the locals will still think of them as foreigners.” That’s the case because to be an American is, primarily, to be an American citizen, a member of a political community created by reflection and choice, rather than accidents of history.

All that is relatively uncontroversial (relatively). America has been, historically speaking, unusually able to assimilate immigrants, and its character is unusually political. What is seldom remarked is that such an identity is inextricably tied to a certain type of regime. Such a nation has historically found its complement in a limited, constitutional republic. That is no coincidence, for reasons I explore in my essay. Ultimately, I ask, whether a reformed American nation, that has deserted its classic constitutional form will still be so welcoming.

You can stop here (and check out the essay), and Richard wonders whether we should. His introduction as originally written, however also includes this timely quotation of President Coolidge (with which I was unfamiliar) and a concluding thought:

As President Coolidge noted, when speaking at the dedication of a Jewish community center in Washington:

“The greatest privilege that can be conferred upon people in the mass is to free them from the demoralizing influence of privilege enjoyed by the few. This is proved by the experience here, not alone of the Jews, but of all the other racial and national elements that have entered into the making of this nation. We have found that when men and women are left free to find the places for which they are best fitted, some few of them will indeed attain less exalted stations than under a regime of privilege; but the vast multitude will rise to a higher level, to wider horizons, to worthier attainments.”

America has been exceptional because it has been a nation that treats men and women as individual citizens, and not as parts of groups. But will the rise of a less exceptional state make America a less exceptional nation? As government grows, must it relate to people according to interest groups or pressure groups, rather than as individuals? Does the modern American state contain the germ of an American form of aristocracy? The essay explores and ponders those questions.

Please check it out.


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