Nativism has a long history in the United States, and it remains with us still. The 19th-century southern politician John C. Calhoun argued without embarrassment that “all men are created equal” was not meant literally, and that America was a country of and for white men. Today, fearmongering about immigrants, attacks on the Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright citizenship, and sly verbal nods to white nationalism—all part of the president’s rhetorical menu—suggest a conviction that America is an ethnic-based nation; that some people are real Americans and others are, by their nature, alien.
But there is another concept of the American people, the one championed by Abraham Lincoln: that America is no mere ethno-state but a new nation, whose identity comes not from common blood but from common conviction. See how Lincoln put it in 1858, in a speech that praises the “old men” of 1776 and their deeds, then turns to immigration:
“We have … among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men. … If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find that they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that these old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel … that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.”
What a profound and radical idea: that one becomes American by accepting the American creed.