October 2, 2004


One Nation, Out of Many (Samuel Huntington, American Enterprise)

America's core culture has primarily been the culture of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century settlers who founded our nation. The central elements of that culture are the Christian religion; Protestant values, including individualism, the work ethic, and moralism; the English language; British traditions of law, justice, and limits on government power; and a legacy of European art, literature, and philosophy. Out of this culture the early settlers formulated the American Creed, with its principles of liberty, equality, human rights, representative government, and private property. Subsequent generations of immigrants were assimilated into the culture of the founding settlers and modified it, but did not change it fundamentally. It was, after all, Anglo-Protestant culture, values, institutions, and the opportunities they created that attracted more immigrants to America than to all the rest of the world.

America was founded as a Protestant society, and for 200 years almost all Americans practiced Protestantism. With substantial Catholic immigration, first from Germany and Ireland and then Italy and Poland, the proportion of Protestants declined--to about 60 percent of the population by 2000. Protestant beliefs, values, and assumptions, however, have been the core element (along with the English language) of America's settler culture, and they continue to pervade and shape American life, society, and thought. Protestant values have shaped American attitudes toward private and public morality, economic activity, government, and public policy. They have even deeply influenced Catholicism and other religions in America.

Throughout our history, people who were not white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants have become Americans by adopting America's Anglo-Protestant culture and political values. This benefited them, and it benefited the country. Millions of immigrants and their children achieved wealth, power, and status in American society precisely because they assimilated themselves into the prevailing culture.

One has only to ask: Would America be the America it is today if in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.

The unfolding of British Protestant culture in America didn't just happen; it was orchestrated by our founders. As immigrants poured in during the late eighteenth century, our forefathers saw the need to "make Americans" of the new arrivals on their shores. "We must," John Jay said in 1797, "see our people more Americanized." At the peak of this effort in 1919, Justice Louis Brandeis declared that Americanization meant the immigrant "adopts the clothes, the manners, and the customs generally prevailing here…substitutes for his mother tongue the English language," ensures that "his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here," and comes "into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations." When he has done all this, the new arrival will have "the national consciousness of an American." The acquisition of American citizenship, the renunciation of foreign allegiances, and the rejection of dual loyalties and nationalities are key components of this process.

During the decades before World War I, the huge wave of immigrants flooding into America generated a major social movement devoted to Americanizing these new arrivals. It involved local, state, and national governments, private organizations, and businesses. Americanization became a key element in the Progressive phase of American politics, and was promoted by Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and other leaders.

Industrial corporations established schools at their factories to train immigrants in the English language and American values. In almost every city with a significant immigrant population the chamber of commerce had an Americanization program. Henry Ford was a leader in efforts to make immigrants into productive American workers. "These men of many nations must be taught American ways, the English language, and the right way to live," he stated. The Ford Motor Company instituted a six- to eight-month English language course that immigrant employees were compelled to attend, with graduates receiving diplomas qualifying them for citizenship. U.S. Steel and International Harvester sponsored similar programs, and, as one scholar has said, "a good many businessmen inaugurated factory classes, distributed civics lessons in pay envelopes, and even subsidized public evening schools."

A huge number of private nonprofit organizations also became involved in Americanization activities. The YMCA organized classes to teach immigrants English. Ethnic and religious organizations with ties to incoming immigrants actively promoted Americanization. Liberal reformers, conservative businessmen, and concerned citizens founded organizations such as the Committee on Information for Aliens, the North American Civic League for Immigrants, the Chicago League for the Protection of Immigrants, the Educational Alliance of New York City, the Baron de Hirsch Fund (aimed at Jewish immigrants), the Society for Italian Immigrants, and many similar organizations. These groups counseled newcomers, provided evening classes in the English language and American ways, and helped them find jobs and homes.

In due course, more than 30 states passed laws establishing Americanization programs. Connecticut even created a Department of Americanization. The federal government also became active, with the Bureau of Naturalization and the Bureau of Education competing vigorously to further their own assimilation efforts. By 1921 some 3,526 states, cities, towns, and communities were participating in Bureau of Naturalization programs.

The central institution for Americanization was the public school system. Indeed, public schools had been created in the nineteenth century and shaped in considerable part by the perceived need to Americanize and Protestantize immigrants. "People looked to education as the best way to transmit Anglo-American Protestant values and to prevent the collapse of republican institutions," summarizes historian Carl Kaestle. In 1921–22, as many as a thousand communities conducted "special public school programs to Americanize the foreign-born." Between 1915 and 1922, more than 1 million immigrants enrolled in such programs. School systems "saw public education as an instrument to create a unified society out of the multiplying diversity created by immigration," reports Reed Ueda.

Without these Americanizing activities starting in the early 1890s, America's dramatic 1924 reduction in immigration would in all likelihood have been imposed much earlier. Americanization made immigration acceptable to Americans. The success of the movement was manifest when the immigrants and their children rallied to the colors and marched off to fight their country's wars. In World War II in particular, racial, ethnic, and class identities were subordinated to national loyalty, and the identification of Americans with their country reached its highest point in history.

National identity then began to fade. In 1994, 19 scholars of American history and politics were asked to evaluate the level of American unity in 1930, 1950, 1970, and 1990. The year 1950, according to these experts, was the "zenith of American national integration." Since then "cultural and political fragmentation has increased" and "conflict emanating from intensified ethnic and religious consciousness poses the main current challenge to the American nation."

Fanning all of this was the new popularity among liberal elites of the doctrines of "multiculturalism" and "diversity," which elevate subnational, racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, and other identities over national identity, and encourage immigrants to maintain dual identities, loyalties, and citizenships. Multiculturalism is basically an anti-Western ideology. Multiculturalists argue that white Anglo America has suppressed other cultural alternatives, and that America in the future should not be a society with a single pervasive national culture, but instead should become a "tossed salad" of many starkly different ingredients.

The appropriate reaction then is to destroy multi-culturalism and restore Americanization--with all it implies--rather than to attack immigration itself. The immigrants come here seeking America; it's not their fault we're frittering it away.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 2, 2004 7:59 PM

Well, yes and no.

In Hawaii, the public schools were divided in the 1920s into regular public schools and English Standard Schools to prevent immigrants from gettin' uppity ideas.

Catholics made it a mortal sin -- meaning burn in hell forever -- to send children to public school.

My Italian ancestors did not learn to speak English in public schools. They learned on the street.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 3, 2004 2:36 PM
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