President Donald J. Trump, in his State of the Union speech, said, “Americans are dreamers.”
He was right. A dreamer spins myths, which are defined as “traditional stories, especially one concerning the early history of a people.” Our country was built on myths—good myths—but myths nonetheless.
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 ever deemed its people all to be born equal? Not even the signers of the Declaration 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 held or had held slaves: They knew that it was not self-evident that all men are created equal, but what made this country unique was that our leaders—our dreamers—hitched their talents to the plow that was creating furrows to plant the seeds of good myths into our soil.
History does not tell us whether King George III ever saw the Declaration of Independence, but if he did, he would have said, “Fake news,” and he would have been correct. It took a Civil War and hard-fought continuing battles for civil rights, but we have come a long way toward making the myth of equality a reality.
Another “good myth” spun by our founders was written by President 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 “illegal immigrants” 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.”
Although our founders wrote the myth about religious tolerance, the anti-Catholic message of the Know Nothings was an effective tool to persecute the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to our shores before the Civil War. The Know Nothings morphed into the American Party, a populist/nativist party that brought violence and hatred to any citizen who was not a native-born white Protestant American by “birth, education and training with a 21-year residence requirement for naturalization.”
The American Party managed to elect 52 candidates to the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as state governors and city mayors. It showed its strength by electing Nathaniel Banks, the virulently anti-Catholic former governor of Massachusetts, as speaker of the House of Representatives. Even Millard Fillmore, seeking to return to the presidency, ran on the Know Nothing platform. As Abraham Lincoln wrote: “When the Know Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
In 1883 Emma Lazarus wrote the sonnet that was to be emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, extending a “world-wide welcome” to the tired, the poor, the homeless and the “the wretched refuse” seeking freedom. These immigrants were invited to come through the golden door that was America. That turned out to be another mythical allusion, because after our 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act there came a 40-year series of laws designed to keep people out of this country and to narrow the opening of that golden door.
The myth of our “world-wide 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.”
This kind of thinking led to a series of quota laws and ultimately the founding of the Immigration Restriction League—an elite corps of wealthy New England academics and eugenicists who, through a massive propaganda and lobbying effort, enabled the passage of the Immigration 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 into the “golden land” and were consigned to their death.
We recovered for a time, but now it looks as though we’re heading back to the days of the “Know Nothings,” when it comes to our rejection of the poor or persecuted immigrants. Instead of Catholics or Jews, we now cast off those persons hailing from certain Muslim countries or those fleeing mob violence. We resort to separating mothers from their children to discourage them from coming to our land, and we are told that if we don’t keep those asylum seekers out of our country then 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 day of Independence.
Sol Wachtler is a former chief judge for the state of New York and distinguished adjunct professor of law at Touro Law School.