A country is not for this or that. A country is not a chess club or a craft brewery; it is not for playing chess, brewing beer or making money. A country is a place where people form and try to fulfill their own purposes. Some of those purposes we give ourselves, some we pick up by chance or habit, some are given to us by nature or nature’s God.
To quote Donald Trump, “A country is a country.” To think about America, our country, we have to think about what a country is, abstracting from the history, culture, geography and ethnography of any particular country. What is it to live together in a country? A country is a place, inhabited by a people. Those inhabitants have an attachment to a place and its people that goes beyond or stands alongside their desire to form and fulfill their own purposes. They see their fellow inhabitants as something more than guests in the same hotel. They want to succeed in their purposes, but they also want to have their success recognized by people whose recognition they value.
A country is a home, in Robert Frost’s sense that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” When you are in the U.S. citizen line at immigration and customs, the only thing the officials check before admitting you to America is whether your American passport is real and that it is yours. But if they have to take in everybody, or if people are getting in without obeying any rules at all, it won’t be your home, or anybody’s home, for very long. Four strong walls and a stiff door that can be locked when you choose aren’t all that it takes to make a home, but you can’t have a home without them.
America is a place, mostly between two other places, two other countries, called Canada and Mexico. The people who live there are called the “American people.” Not everybody who lives in America is, or wants to be, part of the American people. Some are foreigners, who see themselves and are seen as belonging to another people whose place is elsewhere. Some people in America are what Americans call “Native Americans,” because those people see themselves not as descendants of settlers and immigrants who became Americans but as the descendants of those Mohawks, Creeks or Lakota from whom those settlers and immigrants took the land they call America.
When did the Americans become a people? Americans called themselves a people in a Declaration that took effect July 4, 1776, which proclaimed that it was necessary for “one people,” the Americans, to dissolve the political bands which had connected them with another, their “British brethren.” The Declaration of Independence lists the Americans’ reasons for no longer desiring to be ruled by the British people. But the Declaration of Independence does not try to explain what makes the American people one people and the British people another. Whatever accidents of history, of shared origin or religion or culture, made the Americans a people, Americans thought, was of little importance compared with the facts that they were now a people and that they could and should rule themselves. The Declaration is the first political act of the American people, but it is not what made them a people. What made the Americans a people? The official answer of the Declaration seems to be “Who cares?”