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Thomas Jefferson famously wrote regarding the approach of the newly-established United States of America to the masses of immigrants that threatened to submerge the white Protestant origins of the country beneath a kaleidoscope of ethnicities and religions. In that May 2, 1801, correspondence, Jefferson emphasized the heterogeneous nature of the nation and the opening it would provide to myriad peoples seeking refuge from tyranny:
"Born in other countries, yet believing you could be happy in this, our laws acknowledge, as they should do, your right to join us in society, conforming, as I doubt not you will do, to our established rules. That these rules shall be as equal as prudential considerations will admit, will certainly be the aim of our legislatures, general and particular."
While the United States would prove deficient in realizing its ideals for well more than a century following the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, those ideals do nevertheless exist as a template for what the founders envisioned. The United States was established as a haven from the autocratic tyrannies that dominated much of the “civilized” world. The earliest European settlements in North America, including the Puritans who settled New England, were fleeing religious persecution. While their own intolerance would prove more than a little ironic, the waves of immigration that followed, and that continue to follow hundreds of years later, define the United States. Recognizing the uniqueness of the United States, with its ethnic and religious diversity, the nation of France presented as a gift to the American people the Statue of Liberty with its quote by the poet Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”
The point of all of this history is to underline the centrality to American culture of ethnic and religious diversity. Now, what does all this have to do with cultural pluralism? As Jefferson’s letter noted, the United States would exist as a model of tolerance. All that was asked of newly arriving immigrants was that they abide the laws of the United States. They would be free to practice their religions, speak their languages, live safe in their political beliefs as long as they did nothing that would infringe the liberties of others. In short, cultural pluralism is central to the political ideals underpinning the constitutional form of government that Americans have enjoyed for over 200 years. The whole point of the United States was the higher plane of morality on which it was built, and ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity were to by synonymous with “United States of America.”
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