To be born American was to be born boldly individual, daring and self-sufficient. “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay called, very Americanly, “Self-Reliance.”
To be born American was to bow down to no one, to say: I’m no better than anyone else, but nobody’s better than me. Tocqueville wrote about the equality of condition he found in America; no one putting on airs over anyone else. In 1981, Samuel Huntington wrote that American creed was built around a suspicion of authority and a fervent rejection of hierarchy: “The essence of egalitarianism is rejection of the idea that one person has the right to exercise power over another.”
I found it all so energizing. Being an American was not just a citizenship. It was a vocation, a call to serve a grand national mission.
Today, of course, we understand what was wrong with that version of American history. It didn’t include everybody. It left out the full horrors of slavery and genocide.
But here’s what has struck me forcefully, especially during the pandemic: That whole version of the American creed was all based on an assumption of existential security. Americans had the luxury of thinking and living the way they did because they had two whopping great oceans on either side. The United States was immune to foreign invasion, the corruptions of the old world. It was often spared the plagues that swept over so many other parts of the globe.