In their fine book about the Constitutional Convention, “Decision in Philadelphia,” Christopher and James Lincoln Collier provide a vivid portrait of the new nation at the time. “The United States in 1787 was by no means as diverse as the bewildering ethnic crazy quilt it is today. Over 75 percent of the white population was of British and Irish stock. Among the whites, 85 percent spoke English as a first language, and although there were some Catholics and a handful of Jews, the country was overwhelmingly Protestant.” The only significant white ethnic group beyond the British and the Protestant Irish and Scots-Irish was the Germans – representing up to 30% of the population in Pennsylvania, but eagerly and quickly assimilating into the new American identity. The Jewish population at the time of the Revolution amounted to a paltry 3,000 – or one-tenth of one percent of the overall population – though a disproportionate number of those sons of Israel fought in Washington’s army (including my wife’s ancestors—she is a Daughter of the American Revolution). Distinctive ethnic pockets persisted in remote villages and frontier settlements; future President Martin Van Buren grew up in the village of Kinderhook, New York, speaking the Dutch language of his ancestors (who had come to the New World 150 years before). This ethnic identity mattered little, however, either to Van Buren’s supporters or his critics; by the time of his major campaigns in the 1830’s and 40’s, the nation had universally embraced the idea that an identity as an American, this “new man” on the world stage, easily trumped any distinctive ancestry.
As Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur (whose ancestry obviously wasn’t British) asked and answered in his bestselling 1782 pamphlet “Letters from An American Farmer”: “What, then, is the American, this new man? He is neither an European nor the descendant of an European…He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
The notion of the United States blending old identities into something new played a role in two of the most significant military defeats in our early history. The Continental Army’s ill-fated expedition to conquer Quebec in 1775-76 expected to draw strong support from French Canadians, who’ve always felt tension and resentment toward their English neighbors. To the surprise of the American generals, however, the French rallied strongly to defend their homes against the American invasion precisely because of their expectation that the Yankees would prove far less tolerant of their different language and Catholic religion than were the relatively easy-going Brits. The same calculation played a significant role in the failed efforts to seize Canada for the USA in the War of 1812. In other words, far from representing a new paragon of diversity and multiculturalism, the new United States looked markedly less multi-cultural than the British Empire – especially in view of the “United Kingdom’s” official recognition of separate Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalities. .
The only significant group in early America that remained excluded from the prevailing Anglo-Protestant culture was the black population – nearly 20% of the total, and most of them slaves. Under the cruel terms of slavery these African-Americans found themselves reduced to the status of property rather than neighbors or citizens, and forcibly excluded from the general community. Despite their substantial presence (particularly in the Southern States) they hardly contributed to a multi-cultural community because their heritage, traditions and languages received no recognition whatever—and, in fact, faced ruthless extirpation. Free blacks, however, also represented a significant segment of early America – amounting to more than 50,000 citizens at the time of the Revolution, including the famous Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of 1770’s Boston Massacre. The so-called “Free Negroes” actually demonstrated the singular, dominant role of the prevailing American culture since they aggressively embraced the identity, values, traditions, faiths, language, and politics of their white Anglo contemporaries, with no attempt whatever to honor a distinctive African or ex-slave identity.
These free black citizens comprised as much as 10% of the Continental Army, and foreign officers with thick accents also gave that fighting force a deceptively cosmopolitan atmosphere. Such Revolutionary heroes as the Frenchman Lafayette, or the German Von Steuben, or the Poles Pulaski and Kosciuszko, were adventurers from abroad drawn to the struggle through idealistic commitment, not the American products of separate ethnic communities.
2. THE POWERFUL ANTI-IMMIGRATION MOVEMENT OF THE 1840’S AND ‘50’S UNEQUIVOCALLY DEMONSTRATED THE NATION’S REJECTION OF MULTICULTURALISM. Far from welcoming the first major wave of dramatically distinctive immigrants and embracing the joys of diversity, the distinctly uni-cultural American people reacted with suspicion and, often, murderous hostility. In the 1840’s, millions of Irish and Germans arrived in the United States with a crucial difference from prior Irish and German citizens: these newcomers were overwhelmingly Catholic (the Germans mostly from Bavaria) and so exacerbated the suspicions of a populace deeply distrustful of anything touching the Vatican. In July, 1844, a series of brutal, fiery anti-Catholic riots destroyed whole neighborhoods in Philadelphia, with churches, schools and firehouses burned to the ground and the mobilization of 5000 heavily armed militia required to restore order. The riots began because local Bishop Francis Kenrick had requested permission for Catholic students in the public schools to use the Catholic version of Scriptures for their required daily Bible readings. The Nativist Movement represented by the rioters soon swept the country, under the auspices of “The Order of the Star Spangled Banner” (a nineteenth century equivalent of today’s “Minute Men”) and the “American” or “Know Nothing” Party. Between 1854 and 1858, the rabidly anti-immigrant Know Nothings elected Mayors in Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and elected governors in California and Massachusetts—also seizing majorities in the Massachusetts legislature.
In 1856, former President Millard Fillmore ran for the White House as the Know Nothing candidate. His platform included severe restrictions on future immigration, a ban on all foreign-born citizens in public office of any kind, increasing the waiting period for naturalized citizenship from five to twenty-one years, a requirement that public schools could hire only Protestant teachers, and a national mandate for daily Bible readings in all schools that could only utilize the Protestant Bible. Fillmore drew an impressive 23% of the popular vote, and claimed the 8 electoral votes of Maryland, finishing third behind the victorious Democrat (James Buchanan) and the first Presidential candidate of the new Republican Party.
After the War Between the States the American/Know Nothing Party completely disappeared and the nativist movement in general became an insignificant factor in American life for the next fifty years. In part, the reduction in anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner sentiment stemmed from the heroic participation by immigrants in the War for the Union. Germans in particular played a stunningly disproportionate role, with their strong opposition to slavery and their impassioned support for the federal cause: 516,000 German-born soldiers participated in the war, comprising an astonishing 23.4% of all Union troops. In short, the nativists didn’t give up their insistent opposition to a multi-cultural, diverse America, but they did come to recognize that even Catholic immigrants represented no long-term threat to the old ideas of the prevailing Anglo-Protestant culture. Germans and Irish and other newcomers proved themselves good neighbors who enthusiastically embraced American identity, with no effort to impose their foreign ways or alien traditions on others. Know Nothing fears about an organized conspiracy by the Pope to impose his rule on the United States (the subject of innumerable tracts and speeches and editorials for more than twenty years) proved just as groundless as the current paranoia about a secret plan for “North American Union” or “Reconquista” of the American Southwest.
3. THE NATION’S MOST PROMINENT LEADERS ALWAYS REJECTED THE NOTION OF SEPARATE ETHNIC IDENTITIES OR CULTURES, AND THE DESIGNATION OF “HYPHENATED AMERICANS.” In a famous 1915 address to an Irish Catholic Audience, former President Theodore Roosevelt made an unforgettable and passionate plea for the ideal of one nation, indivisible:
“There is no room in this country hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans. Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all…. The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic. There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”
President Woodrow Wilson, TR’s much resented old rival, emphatically agreed with Roosevelt on this essential point. “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”
These sentiments hardly represented a new idea; throughout the period of the nation’s heaviest immigration (as a percentage of the overall population) the public and our leaders affirmed near-unanimous agreement on the importance of affirming American, rather than ethnic or ancestral, identification. In December, 1888, Henry Cabot Lodge (later Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), gave a Forefathers’ Day address in Boston, declaring: “Let every man honor and love the land of his birth and the race from which he springs and keep their memory green. It is a pious and honorable duty. But let us have done with British-Americans and Irish-Americans and German-Americans and so on, and all be Americans… If a man is going to be an American at all let him be so without any qualifying adjectives; and if he is going to be something else, let him drop the word American from his personal description.”
The largest of all immigrant groups quickly embraced the assimilation and unqualified Americanism that Lodge demanded, aided by the anti-German sentiments that swept the country during World War I (when we renamed “sauerkraut” as “liberty cabbage”) and World War II. Demographers identify those of German ancestry as the largest single component of the current United States population, representing 50,764,352 individuals, or 17.1% of the total – a higher percentage than blacks, Latinos, Irish, or any other group. Yet few Americans of German descent affirm their ethnic identity or insist that they represent a separate, distinct culture within the Republic.
4. DESPITE THE ETHNIC PRIDE MOVEMENTS OF THE ‘60’S, THE “MELTING POT” HAS ALWAYS WORKED. In 1908, a melodramatic and updated version of the Romeo and Juliet story became a major stage hit and introduced a new term into the national vocabulary. The play “The Melting Pot” by immigrant poet and Zionist activist Israel Zangwill told the story of two lovers of bitterly divergent backgrounds who manage to make a new life together in New York City. The romantic hero, a composer named David who is at work on “An American Symphony,” tells his lover: “Understand that America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American!” Later, after the star-crossed romantics separate but re-unite, they stand before the setting sun and look out at the Statue of Liberty. David waxes poetic about the red-and-orange sunset: “It’s the Fires of God round His Crucible!” he exclaims. “There she lies, the great Melting Pot – Listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth, the harbor where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God!.”
This exuberant vision touched a deep chord in the nation in 1908 and still has the power to inspire a hundred years later. The ideal of the melting pot doesn’t make immigrant heritage irrelevant or extinct; it incorporates those traditions into the ever-emerging identity of “the American, this new man.” When asked to bring to mind favorite, classic American foods, many citizens would cite selections such as hotdogs (from frankfurters, a German import) or pizza (an obvious Italian import), if not tacos or chop suey. St. Patrick’s Day now counts as an American as much as an Irish, celebration and millions of people with no drop of Hibernian blood love to participate in the yearly revelry.
In academic circles, the “mixing bowl” or “cultural mosaic” theory challenged the melting pot ideal in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, championing the argument that ethnic identity never really melted away but rather combined with other elements like the flavorful ingredients of a salad. In 1972, Michael Novak’s influential book “Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics” looked at blue-collar Americans who, contrary to many expectations, stubbornly retained their Polish or Italian or Greek identities.
But in the 35 years since the ethnics looked so unmelatable, Novak himself would concede that their distinctive connections with old country norms and traditions has substantially dissolved. Intermarriage remains the most powerful engine of this process and, as in Zangwill’s play, continues its inexorable “roaring and bubbling.” Among all American ethnicities (with the singular exception of African-Americans) out-marriage has become a norm, not an exception – even within the Asian community (comprised significantly of recent immigrants), women marry white males nearly 50% of the time.
After two or at most three generations of life in the United States, all immigrant groups (very much including Mexican-Americans) largely assimilate – learning English, participating in communal life, and clearly identifying more with their American fellow citizens rather than the people of the old country.
5. EVEN THOUGH ALL IMMIGRANT GROUPS CONTRIBUTE TO AMERICAN IDENTITY, THEY HAVEN’T DONE SO IN LINE WITH THEIR PERCENTAGE OF THE POPULATION. As previously noted, more Americans today boast German heritage than British heritage, and yet no one could argue that the culture of the United States contains more Teutonic than English elements.
Despite the inane insistence of multi-culturalists that no one nationality deserves primacy in terms of contemporary American identity, it’s obvious that the earliest settlers from the British Isles played a wildly disproportionate role in shaping the nation. We speak English, embrace British traditions of jurisprudence and politics, even model our great universities on the medieval buildings at Oxford and Cambridge. America’s British heritage isn’t merely “first among equals,” but the obvious standard to which all newcomers have managed to adjust. A simple thought experiment can prove the point: recall (or imagine) traveling to one of the English-heritage nations (Canada, Australia or the UK) and the level of comfort and familiarity you’ll feel during your visit (even if you do have to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road). Then imagine a similar trip to Germany or China or Mexico or any nation of Africa, and you can count a vastly less comfortable culture that would require a far more complicated adjustment for any American, of any ethnicity. U.S. culture owes an incomparable debt to British culture—as David Hackett Fischer makes clear in his altogether invaluable book “Albion’s Seed,” even our sometimes mystifying and profound regional differences mirror the regional differences in England that distinguished and divided the early settlers. Scholars have even traced baseball, perhaps the most sacred of all American cultural icons, to English roots – or to the “city game,” played in London streets even before the first settlement at Jamestown.
Yes, various ethnicities eventually melt down in the “crucible” of America, but the resulting molten metal has been poured into forms and molds shaped long ago in England, Scotland and Wales.
6. THE CURRENT “DIVERSITY” OF AMERICAN LIFE IS REGULARLY DISTORTED AND OVERSTATED. For years, we’ve been subjected to outrageously misleading stories about “minorities” now constituting an American “majority” and about the implacable decline of the nation’s traditional white, Protestant identity. Obviously, those who pontificate in this tone only rarely check the census data. The most recent figures on U.S. racial percentages (from Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey) suggest that 74.7% of us (215.3 million people) identify as “white alone,” 12.1% (34.9 million) say we are “black American,” 4.3% are Asian American, and 7.9% say “some other race” or “two or more races.”
Since Hispanics are (rightly) not identified as a “race,” (after all, movie star Cameron Diaz and baseball star David Ortiz hardly look like they share a racial identity) the 14.5% (41.9 million) who register as Hispanic can count themselves as any race; as it happens, 48% of them say they are “white.”
In other words, the notion that the United States has lost its traditional “white” majority is arrant nonsense: at the time of the Constitution, the population was 80% white, and it’s self-identified as 75% white today.
By the same token, the nation remains overwhelmingly Christian and Protestant, despite the claims of a “post Christian America: 79.8% of census respondents in 2001 identified themselves with one or another Christian denomination. Only 5.2% claimed membership in a non-Christian faith, with Jews (1.4%) the leaders in that group. Only 0.6% of Americans are Muslim, 0.5% Buddhist, and 0.4% Hindu.
The most rapidly growing segment in the survey involves those who say they have “no religion” or else identify as “atheist” or “agnostic” – a group that now represents 15% of the total. Though these irreligious Americans certainly constitute a force worth respecting (after all, consider all the recent bestsellers they’ve produced) they hardly amount to a separate, distinct culture: all the prominent atheist leaders and spokesmen say that non-believers remain largely indistinguishable from the faithful Christians next door, and they honor the same behavioral and communal norms (other than church attendance and Bible study, obviously) as their devout neighbors.
7. THE AFRICAN AMERICAN EXCEPTION. The black community remains the only important sub-group with a long-standing and current claim to a meaningfully separate cultural identity. The circumstances of African-Americans have been irreducibly different from the very beginning – as the only segment of the population that didn’t choose to come here, bore stigmatization as property and sub-human, and survived centuries of mistreatment through vile and violent bigotry. As previously noted, blacks developed a distinctive and separate culture because of their enforced separation for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, African Americans managed to make prodigious contributions to the “Melting Pot” process: what we consider distinctively “American” music evolved largely out of ragtime, blues and jazz which in turn derived from ancient African traditions. In other words, for all their separate and segregated status over the years, blacks have played a huge if often unacknowledged role in the development of the dominant culture.
Moreover, for all the differences between the “European-American” and “African-American” experience, the members of both huge groups remain vastly closer to one another than to compatriots in former homelands across vast Oceans. In his moving book “Out of America,” Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg writes about his experience for several on assignment in Africa, and the inescapable recognition that despite his black heritage he remains far more American than African. In part, the lack of serious African connection may reflect the cruel efforts to erase the cultural legacy of the Motherland by slave holders and other oppressors, but after 400 years on this continent no one could seriously question the American identity of our 35 million citizens of African ancestry. In fact, the spectacular economic and educational progress of so many African-Americans over the last fifty years involves precisely those individuals who’ve made the most enthusiastic embrace of that U.S. identity (in the tradition of the unabashedly and distinctively American Dr. King) rather than affirming separatist notions of Afro-Centrism.
In any event, even among African-Americans—our most distinctive and serious and enduring subculture – there’s never been mass support for the idea of carving out an ethnic homeland (the exclusive province of lunatics like Farrakhan) or repatriation to Mother Africa (only handfuls followed Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” craze or supported white efforts to carve a haven for ex-slaves in Liberia).
This means that despite the disinformation of political correctness, and the regular exaggeration of US diversity, our nation stands little chance of experiencing calls for dismemberment in the tradition of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Canada/Quebec, or even England/Scotland. When America went through a wrenching, supremely bloody struggle to preserve the union, that battle arose out of regional and political rather than ethnic differences (Irish and Jewish Americans, for instance, fought prominently on both sides of the War Between the States).
With relief and confidence, we can follow current events and the various separatist movements in Europe, where true multiculturalism continues to bear its invariably bitter fruit, as we watch the unfolding sorry fate of quarreling Flemings and Walloons in ill-arranged little Belgium, where the beer is stronger than any unifying nationalism and the chocolate’s sweeter than the future.