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This article was first published by the George W. Bush Presidential Center and is reprinted here with permission.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Senior Faculty Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. The historian has written extensively on issues related to immigration and national identity. The author of 16 books, he is also an award-winning documentarian and a Bloomberg columnist. Originally from Glasgow, Scotland, Ferguson now holds both American and British citizenship. 

In this conversation with Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager in the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute, Ferguson discusses his own process in becoming a dual citizen. The Oxford University graduate delves into the meaning of the American identity. And, among other issues, he explains how a dynamic market economy can assimilate immigrants.

Let’s start with this broad question: How do you define “we the people”?

The answer must be the adult citizens of the United States. That’s what's meant. And I underline citizens because citizenship is fundamental to the idea of a republic. 

“We the people” can't include people who are non-citizens, but it can include citizens abroad. The fundamental notion of a republic is inseparable from the notion of citizenship. And there must be a consensus about who is a citizen, as well as a formal legal definition.

How, then, do you create a common narrative in democracies that have a diverse population?

We know the answer to that. It's called American history. And what's remarkable about the history of the United States is that this problem has been solved again and again, even in defiance of critics and skeptics, who said it couldn't be.

In the 19th century, the republic saw great influxes of people who were not from the English-speaking countries of Great Britain and Ireland. That might have posed a challenge considering how deeply rooted the culture of the United States was in British culture and thinking. But despite all the fears that people had, especially in the late 19th century, about immigrants from Poland or southern Italy or Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the assimilation of those different groups into the body politic was hugely successful.

That's continued to be true in the 20th century and into the 21st century. Again, there's been skepticism. But the United States has an amazing track record of turning people into Americans, no matter where they have come from. And the wider the geographical net has been cast, the more the system has continued to work. 

Now, you used the word narrative. I prefer history. We're really talking here about a historically- formed idea of what it is to be American, that defines our identity, not in terms of color, creed, or country of origin, but in terms of an oath to the Constitution.

Identity is constructed in the American case so that anybody can become an American. I became an American a couple of years ago, so I've been through this fascinating transformation. As I stood in a rather large and superannuated cinema in Oakland, California, I looked around and there were people from all over the world. The largest single group were, in fact, Chinese. And we all went through the same transformation into Americans. 

People born in the United States who don't go through this process take much of it for granted. They don't realize the magic that is almost unique to the United States, that you can become an American.

Those of us who've become Americans through naturalization actually have a better handle on the peculiar history of American citizenship. And I do wish that civics hadn't withered as it has withered in our education system. If it hadn't, maybe native-born Americans would understand this better.