You Must Remember This

The Ethics of Memory

by Avishai Margalit
.Harvard University Press, 227 pp., $24.95
Avishai Margalit
Avishai Margalit; drawing by David Levine


In the second of the Federalist Papers, John Jay writes that

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs….1

Even in the late eighteenth century, this was—to put it mildly—a misleading description of the thirteen states (where, for example, a majority of the population of South Carolina was of African descent); and nowadays, of course, most people take it for granted that Americans, like the citizens of all modern states, are remarkably heterogeneous. We have not only a superficial diversity of appearance but deeper diversities of aspiration and habit and belief. We can hear scores of languages spoken in our homes and schools, our parks and shopping malls; and we speak in many accents. We are Baptist, Catholic, Methodist; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform; Sunni, Shia, Black Muslim; Hindu, Sikh, and Jain; we are even atheist and agnostic. And that is only the beginning of a familiar catalog of our variety.

It is not unreasonable, faced with all these differences, to ask what binds us together. One answer—an answer that suits our local traditions—is that the American many are made one by the Constitution and the republic it secures, and that our loyalty to one another is a consequence of our common allegiance to that high law. But this is not an answer that would make sense to most modern men and women in other places, because they take themselves to be tied to their nations independently of the political forms of the societies they inhabit. Some peoples—Kurds, Palestinians, Quebecois, Sikhs—are conscious of themselves as nations (or, in the nineteenth-century term, nationalities) even though they have no state, no laws, no republic of their own. And even those who live in ancient monarchies, like the United Kingdom, or republics with long histories, like Switzerland, are likely to think it is not the law or their attitude toward it that makes them British (or, at any rate, English) or Swiss (or, at any rate, Genevois); the law only recognizes the fact of their nationality in granting them citizenship. The law could change, they would say, it could declare them to be citizens of a United Europe or simply cast them out altogether, and they would still be the English or Swiss men and women that they are.

Something like the same view was necessary, in fact, to the framing of the US Constitution, for that document speaks in the voice of “We, the People,” and that people is, therefore, presumably united before the Constitution. “A nation, without a national government, is, in my view, an awful spectacle,” said Alexander Hamilton in the last of the Federalist Papers.2 The Constitution was needed because we were a nation already.

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