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Gary Schmitt: Irish Schmitts? Only In America

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

A few years back, I was a guest at a dinner hosted in Madrid by a senior Spanish politician. It was, as has often been my experience in Spain, a wonderful meal involving a significant amount of Spanish red wine, liqueurs, and cigars. And, as has also been my experience in Spain, the talk at the table among the guests went well into the morning. (How friends in Spain routinely rise the next morning for breakfast meetings and/or work, or for that matter live beyond the age of 50, is a mystery I’m sure some scientist working on unlocking the secrets of DNA will someday solve.)

This particular dinner occurred approximately two years and bit after the United States and allied forces had removed Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Although I was among friends who had been sympathetic to the effort, if not outright supporters, the general drift of the conversation was: Hadn’t the United States overreached in attempting to replace the tyrant Saddam with some semblance of a representative democracy? Given the daily news reports of suicide bombings, the increasingly murderous relations between Sunnis and Shia, and the reports of general corruption and factionalism among Iraq’s own leaders, making the counter-argument was certainly at the time an uphill battle.

As the discussion got a bit more intense—indeed, heated—a conservative European colleague jumped in with the remark that of course the effort would fail: “Any sound conservative knows that for a people to become truly self-governing requires decades of acculturation, of habits formed over time….indeed, wasn’t the U.S. itself a product of more than a century of British constitutional rule before it became an independent country. [Edmund] Burke had made this clear, and we were fools to forget it.”

I pushed back by reminding him there are plenty of examples of countries, including his own, that have moved from living under autocratic rule to being liberal and democratic without having had this long gestation period in which they acquired the mores of sound republican rule. Burke’s point was not to be ignored, but neither was it to be taken as an iron law of politics. And, as a nation of immigrants, the United States was a great experiment in how sound governing institutions, combined above all with a creedal touchstone in the Declaration of Independence, had allowed millions upon millions to participate in that great, ongoing American experiment in self-rule.

At that point, I remembered that my own family was largely recent, off-the-boat immigrants from Ireland—with an Alsatian “Schmitt” who was attempting to avoid the Prussian draft in 1872 tossed in the mix. Grandmother Schmitt, for one, was a poor farm girl from County Clare, arriving here alone at the age of 16. Put simply, there were no Mayflowers in my family history.

But, in some ways, that’s the point. Growing up, it never occurred to me that America’s history was not my history. The Revolution was my revolution; the Civil War, my civil war; those “self-evident truths” mine, as well. When Thomas Jefferson wrote years later that, in crafting the Declaration, he intended it “to be an expression of the American mind,” he was (intentionally or not) capturing the American mind not only then but for the generations to come. Despite the fact that by blood and time I was far closer to the Easter Uprising than Bunker Hill, there was not one moment that I thought Irish history was my history.

For those not born in this country we have a strange word for the process by which they become citizens: “naturalization.” It’s odd in the respect that what actually happens is that through a process defined by law—convention—they acquire citizenship. But of course the implicit assumption is that, through that process, they do become like most of us who have acquired our citizenship by virtue of being born here in the United States. As a country, we are so used to this process that we fail to note how “unnatural” this presumption is. Ask a Frenchman or a German, for example, whether a recent immigrant to their country could truly become a Frenchman or German in a short span of years and they would have a hard time even imagining such a thing. Yet it is precisely (and only) because this country ultimately remains a country that rests on a clear creed as expressed by the Declaration that we in fact have pulled off this magic trick time and again of turning strangers to this country into Americans. As July 4th approaches, it is just one more reason to wonder at the power of that unprecedented document.

Image by mccheek.

Gary Schmitt is the director of the AEI Program on American Citizenship.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.