Assimilation, the fertile union of many peoples, has always been a core strength of the country. Each group contributes national characteristics that add to the overall quality of life. An English visitor in 1804 noted the diversity of manners in the United States, derived from “the continual influx of a vast number of foreigners,” such as the “frugality and plainness of the High and Low Dutch, the industry and parsimony of the Scots, the genius, conviviality, and want of economy of the English, the hardiness of the Irish, who are of the lower order, and the frivolity of the French.” Yet “they all, sooner or later, give way to the general mass of American customs, which long usage and republican genius have established.”
In 1814 then-New York City Mayor DeWitt Clinton praised the beneficial effects of the multinational character of America. “Perhaps our mingled descent from various nations may have a benign influence upon genius,” he wrote. “The extraordinary characters which the United States have produced may be, in some measure, ascribed to the mixed blood of so many nations flowing in our veins.”
There was no official assimilation process, no government procedure other than the varied citizenship requirements. Assimilation came largely through immersion, and it worked. People adapted to life in America as a natural consequence of wanting to be here. They did not come as immigrants to remain immigrants, they came to build lives. Ethnic enclaves in cities rose and fell and were replaced by other groups as the earlier waves integrated into the society at large, leaving behind place names and restaurants. Children born in the United States of immigrant parents quickly adopted the culture of the country, because it was in fact their country. Schools that taught in native languages and without government subsidy folded over time because as demand dried up. The same was true of foreign language newspapers that flourished then receded. People wanted to learn English and the culture encouraged them to do so. Coming to America meant making the effort to be an American.
The ideal of assimilation was summed up in the expression “the melting pot.” The term was popularized by a play of the same name by Israel Zangwill, a British writer and son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Poland. The play was a rousing dramatization of American immigration, invoking imagery of the fusion of peoples in this country that echoed previous generations’ belief in America as part of the unfolding of a divine plan:
‘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. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian—black and yellow. Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the kingdom of God. Ah, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races come to labor and look forward.
The New World was indeed forward-looking, not bound by the petty, timeless irresolvable disputes that wracked the rest of the world. America was a new creation, a clean slate, where people left behind the struggles of the old world. The romantically named hero, David Quixano, who emigrates after his family is killed in a pogrom, declares that “America is God’s crucible.” He addressed the immigrants at Ellis Island, “in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and your histories and your fifty blood feuds and rivalries.” But they were to abandon the past, because “these are the fires of God! 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.” And in fact the U.S. has been remarkably free of echoes of the ethnic and national conflicts abroad. The sectarian and national struggles of Europe, Asia and the Mideast were settled at the dinner tables and in the bedrooms of America.
“The Melting Pot” was a popular hit of the 1908-09 theater season, and touring the U.S., was acclaimed as a masterpiece and the great American play, even though – or particularly because – it was written by a British Jew of East European extraction. Not everyone lauded it; a New York Times reviewer opined that “’The Melting Pot’ is sentimental trash masquerading as a human document. That is the sum and substance of it.” But after the opening in Washington D.C. in October 1909, Theodore Roosevelt shouted from his box, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play.”
Roosevelt, who had left the White House the previous March, was president during the peak years of the late 19th/early 20th Century immigration wave. His record on the issue was mixed – for example he fought to end the segregation in California schools that excluded the Japanese, though had to accept a “gentleman’s agreement” with Japan to restrict future immigration. But he was a believer in the positive value of immigration and the contributions made by people who came to this country seeking to be Americans. In an oft-quoted letter from 1919, he laid down his views on the mutual responsibilities of the immigrant and his adopted country:
In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag… We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.. And we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.
In a 1915 speech Roosevelt denounced “hyphenated” Americans, those who held exclusionary allegiances to their places of origin (which included the United States), noting that “Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul,” and anyone “heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else.” He warned that “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.”
In Roosevelt’s view the person who clings inordinately to their cultural origins “plays a thoroughly mischievous part in the life of our body politic. He has no place here; and the sooner he returns to the land to which he feels his real heart-allegiance, the better it will be for every good American. 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.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.