America is a nation of immigrants. America has always been a nation of immigrants. Or so we are constantly told. Strange, then, that the phrase did not become common until John F. Kennedy published a book with that title in 1958. “All Americans have been immigrants or the descendants of immigrants,” Kennedy declared, “even the Indians.” And why had all these immigrants come to America? Kennedy calls it “a highly individual decision,” though on the next page he acknowledges that some came “because they were bought and sold and had no choice.”
A Nation of Immigrants is an attempt to reconstruct the American myth. Like Parson Weems describing Washington and the cherry tree, Kennedy is not too particular about facts. His scattered affirmations of America’s anglophone heritage serve only to make palatable his description of America as a “nation of nations.” America’s great strength becomes its diversity.
Our leaders have taken this lesson to heart. Madeleine Albright hailed Kennedy’s book as a reminder that “the story of America is, above all else, the story of immigrants,” and that “America’s best leaders have embraced, not feared, the diversity which makes America great.” In 1997, Bill Clinton took the idea of a “nation of nations” to its logical conclusion. He announced that America needed a “third great revolution” to fulfill the promise of the Revolutionary War and the Civil Rights Movement. We needed “to prove that we literally can live without having a dominant European culture.” This view now dominates public life.
In February I attended a meeting of immigration activists in El Paso. One attendee told me that he winces when people hand out American flags at pro-migrant marches. He feels that immigrants should not be expected to show patriotism. In his view, there is something nativist, even xenophobic, in expecting them to assimilate.
Even in the Church, where a healthy patriotism ought to be cultivated alongside piety, I regularly hear people attack American culture and history. They speak as though they would rather abolish the American people than win them to Christ. “The language of the Church is not English,” I recently heard one bishop say. “It is the language of love.” True enough—but would an American have heard nothing at Pentecost? The Catholic faith boldly encompasses every nation and language. It does not license contempt for one’s own society. As Péguy observed, those who jeer at national heroes also tend to despise the saints.
Speaking of America as a “nation of immigrants” encourages contempt for our common culture, which originated with the English colonists and was spread across the continent by conquest, trade, and settlement. Those who derogate this great, though imperfect, inheritance imagine they are rebelling against the WASP establishment. In fact, they are conforming to one of the deepest WASP impulses: the Emersonian desire to reject one’s own birthright, the Thoreauvian impulse to rebel against even just authority. Burke wrote of America:
The people are Protestants, and of that kind which is the most averse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. . . . All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.
That America has ceased to be a self-consciously Protestant nation only underlines Burke’s point. America’s leading element rebelled against its own rebellion and dismantled its own establishment. Those who remain proudly Protestant have nobly resisted this self-devouring tendency, which now issues in a post-Protestant progressivism full of contempt for both dogmatic commitment and national loyalty. The idea that America is a “nation of a nations,” or a “nation of immigrants,” is a secondhand WASP idea, something that the Catholic arriviste Kennedy affected along with sailing, the Ivy style, and casual adultery.
The man who first enunciated what Kennedy borrowed was the radical WASP Randolph Bourne. Born into small-town America in the 1880s, Bourne rebelled against his conservative surroundings and prophesied a new America enlivened by a rich mix of ethnicities. He dreamed of a “trans-national America.” For Bourne, America’s identity is in a liberating diversity, not a constraining unity; in open-ended progress, not the weight of tradition; in the future, not the past.
Bourne’s ideas continue to have a wide influence. In 2017, Jeremy McCarter, a friend of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s who co-authored Hamilton: The Revolution with the star, praised Bourne in the New Yorker for providing “the most sweeping rebuke” to Donald Trump. Hamilton’s revisionist exaggeration of America’s historic diversity is a pop version of Bourne’s philosophy.
Bourne’s celebration of diversity arose from his hatred of conventional Anglophone culture, which he associated with a hampering religious piety, Victorian morality, and closed-minded small-town life. He wanted to overthrow these things and replace them with a futuristic, pluralistic, distinctively American—and in being American, ultimately international—philosophy.
As he sought to cast off the American culture he found constraining, Bourne hoped that ethnics would carefully preserve their folkways. Bourne criticized Mary Antin, a Jewish immigrant who championed assimilation in her book The Promised Land. He mocked the striving immigrant’s “almost pathetic eagerness to make his way in the new land without friction or disturbance.” He condemned “cultural half-breeds, neither assimilated Anglo-Saxons nor nationals of another culture.” Nothing revolted him more than that immigrants’ “distinctive qualities should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity.” He wanted spice in life, and he expected immigrants to provide it.
Bourne exhibited what Eric Kaufmann calls “asymmetrical pluralism”: an inverse snobbery, whereby everyone else is expected to cling to old ways while cultural gourmands (the true Americans, it turns out) relish the resulting diversity. This creates a culture in which cosmopolitan post-Protestants schooled in nonjudgmental multiculturalism dominate.
Asymmetrical pluralism governs American life. Inside and outside the classroom, young Americans are encouraged to identify, however tenuously, with oppressed minorities. My ancestry is so mixed that I can claim no identity other than American mongrel. But people have tried to tell me that I am a “German-American,” and thus a testament to this nation of immigrants’ rich diversity. Never mind that my German blood looks and feels like all the rest. Never mind that my father hates the German language, which sounds Nazi to his ear, or that one of my grandfathers fought the Hun and the other occupied their ruined cities. Simply to be “American” is impermissible; one must identify as well with a distant country.
A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt insisted that my ancestors become “unhyphenated Americans.” If we judge this demand cruel, it hardly seems kinder to demand that their hopelessly assimilated descendant hyphenate himself. Certainly “German-Americans” have historically suffered prejudice. On August 5, 1855, a mob lynched twenty Germans in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1919, Nebraska, my home state, enacted a law designed to end all instruction in the German language. But I identify with, not against, American culture. I refuse to distance myself from its triumphs and its failings by dwelling on a mythologized experience of immigrant suffering.
When assimilation becomes suspect, a nation of immigrants becomes a nation of competing colonies. An immigrant comes to a new land and assimilates to the culture already established there. A colonist brings his culture with him and plants it in new soil. He does not seek to assimilate, any more than the first Pilgrims sought to become Indians.
Bourne understood the difference. He celebrated the prospect of “national colonies in America, deriving power from the deep cultural heart of Europe and yet living here in mutual toleration, freed from the age-long tangles of races, creeds, and dynasties.” A multiculturalist before his time, Bourne held the view that other races should not be expected to join America’s mainstream culture. The same view was held by “colonizationists” who believed liberated slaves could not become true Americans, and so should be sent to Africa to found a colony.
William Lloyd Garrison argued against sending Americans “back” to a continent they had never seen. In doing so, he offered the most eloquent rebuttal possible to those who see America as a nation divided into various hyphenated identities. He insisted that freed slaves were “not aliens; they were born on our soil; they are bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh.” Because I believe this great truth, I will always deny that America is a nation of immigrants. We are a nation of Americans.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.
Photo by Heide Couch.