America has always seen itself as part of the “New World”—a fresh start for civilization and humanity, leaving behind the “Old World” of hereditary hatreds and permanent class divisions.
But the nation isn’t fresh only in terms of the society created by our Founders, but it also provides new life and second chances for recent arrivals and long-time residents alike.
The current Governor of California provides a prominent example. As son of a tough cop from an obscure village in Austria, he re-invented himself as a body-builder, actor (or, more accurately, movie star), entrepreneur, politician and, most importantly, an American. Today, regardless of our reaction to his policies or performance, Governor Schwarzenegger is as American as, well, hot dogs (or frankfurters, another Central European import, by the way).
The shaping impulse of this country involves liberation—not only from the chains of the past but from the past itself. Nobody need feel trapped by the circumstances of your parents or grandparents; success in America makes anyone an instant aristocrat.
Andrew Jackson’s father came to this country with his wife and two boys as a poor Scots-Irish farmer from County Antrim, and died on his frontier homestead while his wife was pregnant with the future president. Young Andrew nearly succumbed to smallpox as a boy and his mother died of cholera when he was 14. His military and political leadership later made the orphan into a national hero, and his plantation, “The Hermitage,” outside Nashville, still receives visitors as a model of Old South elegance and grace. As the face on today’s 20 dollar bill, Old Hickory looks dignified and commanding and should remind us that, in the United States, it’s achievement, not birth or family lineage, that wins money and admiration.
The experience of Jackson also highlights the great exception to that rule, and the stain of what Condoleezza Rice has called “America’s birth defect”: the institution of slavery. For generations, African captives never received the gift of new life that other Americans seized so eagerly. More recently, progress toward racial justice has already yielded the first major party nominee of African heritage. It’s worth noting, however, that Barack Obama’s Kenyan father came to this country through choice, not chains—as an immigrant who pursued his education at the University of Hawaii. His experience provides a pointed reminder of the stunning fact that nearly half of today’s African-American population descends from post-Emancipation immigrants who arrived here by the millions from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa, coming to America like my ancestors (and likely yours) because they wanted to do so.
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