It is important to recognize at the outset that America represents an aspirational concept. From the beginning, the wilderness that we now call the United States represented a refuge to people who had been oppressed. From the Jamestown Settlement to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the first settlers were leaving something that was known for something that was unknown. We, who are comfortable with our lives in America, need to understand why these settlers took that risk. Perhaps the best way to sum up their aspirations would be to evaluate the two alternatives from their perspective: accept the risk of death, balanced against the possibility of individual freedom; or continue to live under a system that will, with certainty, oppress every dream and hope.
The Quakers settling in William Penn’s land grant certainly shared these sentiments.
The Scotch-Irish who followed the Quakers to Pennsylvania shared these sentiments.
The Irish immigrants shared these sentiments, especially after the Potato Famine in 1848 left so little choice.
The Russian Jews persecuted by the Pogroms in the late 19th Century, fleeing to our country, shared these sentiments.
The Frenchman who designed the Statue of Liberty, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, shared these sentiments.
Emma Lazarus, in her poem, New Colossus, put these sentiments into a set of welcoming words at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The Statue is called “The Mother of Exiles” and represents welcome to all:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
We declared boldly in our Declaration of Independence that this country was based on the concept that all people are “created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We know that every time we betrayed this basic concept, we paid a heavy price; but we also know that, every time we lived up to it, our potential as a nation blossomed. We have provided a beacon of hope to all who live within our shores and all who would like to live here.
On the basis of our core values, we have claimed the right to create and innovate from the dictates of our own minds and not from the edicts of an authoritarian government. It is from this fertile ground of freedom that we have developed new ideas in science, technology and the arts. Just as oppression stifles creativity, freedom encourages it. We have become a nation that progresses by building on the strengths of prior generations.
Over the years, our literature, music and plays generally reflect the progression of American thought or philosophy. Our arts and especially our music reflect our very soul, as a people.
It is important that we preserve our history and our artistic culture, the good and the bad, as reminders of our successes and failures as a nation. We should extend our successes into the future and learn from our failures, so as not to repeat them.