Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

American Citizenship

Gratitude and Citizenship

-Mark T. Mitchell, Patrick Henry College

Our nation is currently engaged in a discussion—sometimes explicit and sometimes implied—about the meaning of America and consequently the meaning of citizenship. This is not merely an academic affair, for the consequences are playing out in our streets, schools, and in our minds. What is America? What does it mean to be an American? The competing answers have real-life consequences. 

The most recent foray into this debate was launched by The New York Times whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project argued that our true founding was not 1776 or 1787 but rather 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to Virginia. As such, slavery, white supremacy, and oppression are at the heart of the American founding, and our subsequent history is only intelligible if we acknowledge that racism is at the root of “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” Thus our basic documents and our basic institutions are all deeply complicit in perpetuating racist ideals and practices. 

The conclusion is pretty obvious: progress toward equality and justice requires that we destroy the past and upon the rubble construct a new order based on equity (the newest buzzword) that replaces the racist, patriarchal, capitalist system with something better. At heart, this approach is an instance of what Roger Scruton called “the politics of repudiation,” wherein citizenship becomes a call to revolution and transformation. Needless to say, this is not a recipe for stability nor a coherent account of citizenship, for it fosters a kind of anti-citizenship that exchanges a concrete, historical reality for an abstract ideal that does not yet exist. 

Alternatively, some argue that America is a “creedal nation,” or, as Lincoln put it, a nation “dedicated to a proposition.” America, so goes the argument, is a unique experiment in which citizens are bound, not by ethnicity, religion, or culture but by a national creed embodied, most explicitly, in the Declaration of Independence. We as Americans hold certain truths to be “self-evident,” and these truths include a commitment to equality and the fact that all humans possess certain rights. We hold that government is a creation of the people, that it exists to protect the rights of all, and that its legitimacy is rooted in the consent of the governed. Americans, so it is argued, are unified in their affirmation of these basic principles. Citizenship, at its core, turns on a common national creed. Anyone can become an American if only he affirms these basic propositions. 

A Nation of Creed

Those who argue that America is a creedal or propositional nation ignore an important fact. America was founded by people deeply formed by the Christian narrative who believed in a moral order that was both intelligible and obligatory. Jefferson’s grand phrases about self-evident truths, equality, and God-given rights were written into a cultural consensus that simply does not exist today. The propositions expressed in the Declaration of Independence provide an adequate framework of self-understanding only if they are superimposed upon a background of a shared culture. Abstract propositions about the human condition are not adequate to bind a people to each other or to a common good. The idea of a propositional nation worked only when the propositions were not doing the heavy lifting required to form a people into citizens. The propositional nation was a shorthand—or, perhaps better, a sleight-of-hand—that exchanged a thick cultural consensus for glowing abstractions that have proven inadequate once the underlying consensus disintegrated. 

The painful inadequacy of a common creedal affirmation becomes increasingly obvious as American society becomes increasingly pluralistic. One of the consequences is political volatility. Of course, it goes without saying that the hackneyed claim that “our diversity is our strength” is patently false apart from a consensus that lies deeper than the diversity. 

Unlike the 1619 Project and its ilk, the creedal view celebrates the American Founding, but like the 1619 Project it traffics primarily in abstractions: the 1619 Project focuses on an abstract and idealized future while the creedal nation view grounds citizenship in a rational assent to abstract and idealized founding principles. 

There is a third option that is often obscured in the haze of competing abstractions. This is a way rooted in affection born of gratitude that leads to responsible stewardship of inherited gifts. Citizenship is inextricably tied to a shared inheritance that is simultaneously a profound blessing and a substantial burden that citizens are happy to bear. 

The Freedom of Citizenship

Rather than attempting to ground citizenship in abstract principles, a proper account acknowledges that political freedom is a remarkable achievement, that civilization itself is the product of generations of experiment and sacrifice, and that our Constitutional order is a rare and fragile gift. The cultural and political goods we enjoy were bought with a price, and the initial response must be gratitude. But gratitude does not require that the imperfections of the past are ignored or glossed over. Edmund Burke understood that a proper view of inheritance entails loving reception, care, improvement, and transmission. The future is secured by first loving that which has been inherited, and the loving reformer “should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.” Clearly, Burke is not denying the need to improve various facets of the state, nor is he glossing over the imperfections of that which has been received. But there is a dramatic difference between the loving reformer who carefully seeks to carefully improve and the revolutionary who wants to destroy and build again. 

This account of citizenship is effective for native-born citizens and immigrants alike. In the same way that an adopted child enters into the inheritance on an equal legal and moral footing with biological children, so too naturalized citizens become joint heirs of the inheritance and simultaneously inherit the burden of responsible citizenship. 

Citizenship is, then, not primarily grounded in rational assent to abstract propositions, and needless to say it cannot be rooted in a wholesale repudiation of the past. Instead, citizenship properly conceived begins with gratitude that is inseparable from affection and blossoms into ongoing acts of responsibility. A concrete concern for preserving and improving inherited gifts for future generations replaces an obsession with past or future abstractions. Stewardship born of gratitude is a necessary framework for any healthy conception of America or American citizenship. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do Americans currently possess anything like a “common culture” or “shared inheritance”? If so, what might it be?
  2. How can gratitude best be cultivated? How does bitterness affect virtue?
  3. Mitchell seems to be arguing that citizenship is based not on assent but on affection. Put another way, people love their country simply because it’s theirs and they don’t need other reasons. Does that argument make sense, or does it concede too much to contingency?

Mark T. Mitchell is professor of government and dean of academic affairs at Patrick Henry College. He is the co-founder of Front Porch Republic and the author of several books, most recently Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class.


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