Fathers of us all

February 15, 1994|By Edmund Leites

WHEN Americans are asked our "ancestry" or "ethnic origin," we think "American" is not an acceptable answer. Almost anything else is. Abraham Lincoln can teach us something here.

In a speech in Chicago shortly after Independence Day 1858, the future president remarked that perhaps half of the American people of his day had no ancestor present at the nation's founding.

How could these new citizens connect themselves to the American past?

"If they look back" through their ethnic history "to trace connection with those (revolutionary) days by blood," Lincoln said, "they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are a part of us."

By that reasoning, if I or my students answer questions about our origins in today's manner, we cannot claim the founders as ancestors. Their words and deeds are part of their history, not ours.

But when recent arrivals read the Declaration of Independence and found "that those old men say 'that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,' " Lincoln said, "then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men."

Lincoln believed that new Americans would recognize that the principles of equality and self-government were also meant for them -- even for those whose parents were slaves.

He understood that when the founders become "the father of all moral principle" for Americans, then immigrants as well as the native-born have a right to claim a relation to the authors of the Declaration, "as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men" who wrote it.

Jefferson and Madison are their moral or spiritual ancestors, who give birth to them as Americans. They take on the burden of fulfilling the Declaration's demand -- that America be constructed on its terms.

Similarly, Edmund Randolph, George Mason and John Dickinson have become my ancestors, although none represents those origins of mine that are supposed to be the correct answer to the question of my ancestry: German (Hessian, Saxon), Belgian (Walloon) and Jewish (Russian).

For Lincoln, our founding texts articulate moral ambitions that were not yet achieved by the constitutional establishment of the nation. They define goals for America not fully reached then, nor in 1858, nor today.

In declaring that all men are created equal, Lincoln said in 1857 in an earlier speech, the founders "did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them." So much for the argument that they "did not intend to include Negroes, by the fact that they did not at once actually place them on an equality with whites."

We have to read their words as full of promise. "They meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which could be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."

Thinking along these lines, I wondered: Why couldn't I answer "American" to the question of my origins? In reading Lincoln, my Guyanese, Chinese, Croatian, Iranian, African-American and Korean students learn that there is one people whom all Americans, new or old, have an equal right to claim as ancestors.

Edmund Leites, professor of philosophy at Queens College in New York, is author of "The Puritan Conscience and Modern Sexuality."

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