Americanism

"Of all the countries in the world, we and we only have any need to create artificially the patriotism which is the birthright of other nations."
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Whenever we stand in need of intricate knowledge, balanced judgment, or delicate analysis, it is our comfortable habit to question our neighbors. They may be no wiser and no better informed than we are; but a collective opinion has its value, or at least its satisfying qualities. For one thing, there is so much of it. For another, it seldom lacks variety. Last year the American Journal of Sociology asked two hundred and fifty 'representative' men and women 'upon what ideals, policies, programmes, or specific purposes should Americans place most stress in the immediate future,' and published the answers that were returned in a Symposium entitled, 'What is Americanism?' The candid reader, following this symposium, received much counsel but little enlightenment. There were some good practical suggestions; but nowhere any cohesion, nowhere any sense of solidarity, nowhere any concern for national honor or authority.

It was perhaps to be expected that Mr. Burghardt Du Bois's conception of true Americanism would be the abolishment of the color line, and that Mr. Eugene Debs would see salvation in the sweeping away of 'privately owned industries, and production for individual profit.' These answers might have been foreseen when the questions were asked. But it was disconcerting to find that all, or almost all, of the 'representative' citizens represented one line of civic policy, or civic reform, and refused to look beyond it. The prohibitionist discerned Americanism in prohibition, the equal suffragist in votes for women, the biologist in applied science, the physician in the extirpation of microbes, the philanthropist in playgrounds, the sociologist in eugenism and old-age pensions, and the manufacturer in the revision of taxes. It was refreshing when an author unexpectedly demanded the extinction of inherited capital. Authorship seldom concerns itself with anything so inconceivably remote.

The quality of miscellaneousness is least serviceable when we leave the world of affairs, and seek admission into the world of ideals. There must be an interpretation of Americanism which will express for all of us a patriotism at once practical and emotional, an understanding of our place in the world and of the work we are best fitted to do in it, a sentiment which we can hold as we hold nothing else—in common, and which will be forever remote from personal solicitude and resentment. Those of us whose memories stretch back over a half a century recall too plainly a certain uneasiness which for years pervaded American politics and American letters, which made us unduly apprehensive, and, as a consequence, unduly sensitive and arrogant. It found expression in Mr. William Cullen Bryant's well-known poem, 'America,' made familiar to my generation by school readers and manuals of elocution, and impressed by frequent recitations upon our memories.

O mother of a mighty race.
Yet lovely in thy youthful grace!
The elder dames, thy haughty peers,
Admire and hate thy blooming years; With words of shame
And taunts of scorn they join thy name.

There are eight verses, and four of them repeat Mr. Bryant's conviction that the nations of Europe united in envying and insulting us. To be hated because we were young, and strong, and good, and beautiful seemed, to my childish heart, a noble fate; and when a closer acquaintance with history dispelled this pleasant illusion, I parted from it with regret. France was our ally in the Revolutionary War. Russia was friendly in the Civil War. England was friendly in the Spanish War. If the repudiation of state debts left a bad taste in the mouths of foreign investors, they might be pardoned for making a wry face. Most of them were subsequently paid; but the phrase 'American revoke' dates from the period of suspense. By the time we celebrated our hundredth birthday with a world's fair, we were on very easy terms with our neighbors. Far from taunting us with shameful words, our 'haughty peers' showed on this memorable occasion unanimous good temper and good will; and Punch's congratulatory verses were among the most pleasant birthday letters we received.

The expansion of national life, fed by the great emotions of the Civil War, and revealed to the world by the Centennial Exhibition, found expression in education, art, and letters. Then it was that Americanism took a new and disconcerting turn. Pleased with our progress, stunned by finding that we had poets, and painters, and novelists, and magazines, and a history, all of our own, we began to say, and say very loudly, that we had no need of the poets, and painters, and novelists, and magazines, and histories of other lands. Our attitude was not unlike that of George Borrow, who, annoyed by the potency of Italian art, adjured Englishmen to stay at home and contemplate the greatness of England. England, he said, had pictures of her own. She had her own 'minstrel strain.' She had all her sons could ask for. 'England against the world.'

In the same exclusive spirit, American school boards proposed that American school-children should begin the study of history with the colonization of America, ignoring the trivial episodes which preceded this great event. Patriotic protectionists heaped duties on foreign art, and bade us buy American pictures. Enthusiastic editors confided to us that 'the world has never known such storehouses of well-selected mental food as are furnished by our American magazines.' Complacent critics rejoiced that American poets did not sing like Tennyson, 'nor like Keats, nor Shelley, nor Wordsworth'; but that, as became a new race of men, they ‘reverberated a synthesis of all the poetic minds of the century.' Finally, American novelists assured us that in their hands the art of fiction had grown so fine and rare that we could no longer stand the 'mannerisms' of Dickens, or the 'confidential attitude' of Thackeray. We had scaled the empyrean heights.

There is a brief paragraph in Mr. Thayer's Life and Letters of John Hay, which vividly recalls this peculiar phase of Americanism. Mr. Hay writes to Mr. Howells in 1882: 'The worst thing in our time about American taste is the way it treats James. I believe he would not be read in America at all if it were not for his European vogue. If he lived in Cambridge he could write what he likes, but because he finds London more agreeable, he is the prey of all the patriotisms. Of all vices, I hold patriotism the worst, when it meddles with matters of taste.'

So far had American patriotism encroached upon matters of taste, that by 1892 there was a critical embargo placed upon foreign literature. 'Every nation,' we were told, 'ought to supply its own second-rate books,'—like domestic sheeting and ginghams. An acquaintance with English authors was held to be a misdemeanor. Why quote Mr. Matthew Arnold, when you might quote Mr. Lowell? Why write about Becky Sharp, when you might write about Hester Prynne? Why laugh over Dickens, when you might laugh over Mark Twain? Why eat artichokes, when you might eat corn? American school-boys, we were told, must be guarded from the feudalism of Scott. American speech must be guarded from the 'insularities' of England's English. 'That failure in good sense which comes from too warm a self-satisfaction' (Mr. Arnold does sometimes say a thing very well) robbed us for years of mental poise, of adjusted standards, of an unencumbered outlook upon life.

It is strange to glance back upon a day when we had so little to trouble us that we could vex our souls over feudalism and fiction; when—in the absence of serious problems—we could raise pronunciation or spelling into a national issue. Americanism has done with trivialities, patriotism with matters of taste. Love for one's country is not a shallow sentiment, based upon self-esteem. It is a profound and primitive passion. It may lie dormant in our souls when all goes well. It may be thwarted and frustrated by the exigencies of party government. It may be dissevered from pride or pleasure. But it is part of ourselves, wholly beyond analysis, fed upon hope and fear, joy and sorrow, glory and shame. If, after the fashion of the world, we drowsed in our day of security, we have been rudely and permanently awakened. The shadow of mighty events has fallen across our path. We have witnessed a great national crime. We have beheld the utmost heights of heroism. And when we asked of what concern to us were this crime and this heroism, the answer came unexpectedly, and with blinding force. The sea was strewn with our dead, our honor was undermined by conspiracies, our factories were fired, our cargoes dynamited. We were a neutral nation at peace with the world. The attack made upon our industries and upon our good name was secret, malignant, and pitiless. It was organized warfare, without the courage and candor of war.

The unavowed enemy who strikes in the dark is hard to reach, but he is outside the pale of charity. There was something in the cold fury of Mr. Wilson's words, when, in his message to Congress, he denounced the traitors 'who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life,' which turned that unexpansive state-paper into a human document, and drove it straight to the human hearts of an injured and insulted people. Under the menace of disloyalty, Americanism has taken new form and substance; and the President's message, like the potter's wheel, is moulding this force into lines of strength and resistance. We have seen all we want to see of 'frightfulness' in Europe, all we want to see of injustice, supported by violence. We are not prepared to welcome any scheme of terrorization in the interests of a foreign power, or any interference of a foreign power with our legitimate fields of industry. Such schemes and such interference constitute an inconceivable affront to the nation. Their stern and open disavowal is the shibboleth by which our elections may be purged of treachery, and our well-being confided to good citizenship.

Of all the countries in the world, we and we only have any need to create artificially the patriotism which is the birthright of other nations. Into the hearts of six millions of foreign-born men—less than half of them naturalized—we must infuse that quality of devotion which will make them place the good of the state above their personal good, and the safety of the state above their personal safety. It is like pumping oxygen into six million pairs of lungs for which the common air is not sufficiently stimulating. We must also keep a watchful eye upon these men's wives,—when they are so blessed,—and concentrate our supreme energy on uncounted millions of children, whose first step toward patriotism is the acquirement of a common tongue.

We are trying fitfully, but in good faith, to work this civic miracle. Americanization Day is but one expression of the nation-wide endeavor. When Cleveland invited all her citizens who had been naturalized within a twelvemonth to assemble and receive a public welcome, to sit on a platform and be made much of, to listen to national songs and patriotic speeches, and to take home, every man, a flag and a seal of the city, she set a good example which will be widely followed. The celebrations at Riverside, California and New York City's Pageant of the Nations had in view the same admirable end. Sentiment is not a substitute for duty and discipline; but it has its uses and its field of efficacy. Such ceremonies perseveringly repeated for twenty years might work a change in the immigrant population of to-day, were we secure from the fresh millions that threaten us to-morrow. That the Fourth of July should be often selected for these rites is perhaps inevitable; it is a time when patriotism assumes a vivid and popular aspect; but Heaven forbid that we should rechristen Independence Day, Americanization Day! However ready we may be to welcome our new citizens, however confident we may be of their value to the Republic, we are not yet prepared to give them the place of honor hitherto held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The name which perpetuates the memory of that deed is a sacred name, and should be preserved no less sacredly than the national life which was then committed to our keeping.

It is no insult to the immigrant to say that he constitutes one of the perils of Americanism. How can it be otherwise? Assume that he is a law-abiding citizen, that he knows nothing of the conspiracies which have imperiled our safety, that he does not propose to use his vote in the interests of a foreign power, and that the field of hyphenated politics has no existence for him. For all these boons we are sufficiently grateful. But how far does he understand the responsibilities he assumes with the franchise? how far does he realize that he has become part of the machinery of the state? and how far can we depend upon him in our hour of need? He knows, or at least he has been told, that he may not return home to fight for his own country, if he seeks American citizenship. He must resist a natural and a noble impulse as the price of his coveted 'papers.' But will there spring in his heart a noble, though not very natural, impulse to fight for us if we call our sons to arms? Can we hope that his native intelligence, unshackled by any working knowledge of our language, will grasp our national policy and our national obligations; and that—free from conscription—he will voluntarily risk his life in behalf of a government for which he has no inheritance of fidelity?

We have opened our doors to unrestricted immigration, partly because capitalists want plenty of cheap labor, which is not a good reason; and partly because the immigrants want to come, which is not a sufficient reason. They also—despite the heart-rending conditions depicted by Miss Kellor in the Atlantic Monthly for January—want to stay. Those who return to the higher standards of Europe do not materially affect the situation. They stay, and either surmount their difficulties, or, succumbing to them, fill our asylums, hospitals, and almshouses. For many years, foreign economists must have looked with relief at the countless thousands of derelicts who were supported by the United States instead of by their own governments. But even the satisfaction we have thus afforded does not wholly justify our course. Is it worth our while to fill the air with clamor over eugenics and birth-control, to build barriers around a marriage license and to dramatize impassioned pleas for sterility, when the birthrate of the Republic is nobody's concern? If the survival of the fittest means as much to the commonwealth as to the family, why should we fiddle over pathology while the nation burns?

Miss Kellor is not the only kindhearted American who holds her countrymen to blame for the deficiencies of the immigrant. Her point of view is a common one, and has some foundation in fact. She censures us even for his dirt, though if she had ever listened to the vitriolic comments of the police, she might revise her judgment on that score. 'Can't you do anything?' I once asked a disconsolate guardian of the peace, who stood on a fine hot day contemplating the forth-flung garbage of the Israelite. To which he made answer: 'Did ye iver thry to clans out a sthable wid a toothpick?' And as this had not been one of my life's endeavors, I offered no further comment. But Miss Kellor touches a vital truth when she says that Americans will never weld a mass of heterogeneous humanity into a nation, until they are able to say what they want that nation to be, and until they are prepared to follow a policy intelligently outlined. In other words, Americanism is not a medley of individual theories, partial philanthropies, and fluid sentiment. A consistent nationalism is essential to civic life, and we are not dispensed from achieving consistent nationalism by the difficulties in our way. No multiplication of difficulties makes an impossibility. Upon what props did the Venetians build the fairest city of the world?

We cannot in this country hope for the compelling devotion which has animated Germany; still less for the supreme moral and intellectual force which is the staying power of France. Mrs. Wharton has best described the intelligence with which Frenchmen translate their ideals into doctrine. They know for what they stand in the civilized world, and the first 'white heat of dedication' has hardened into steel-like endurance. To the simple emotions of men who are defending their homes from assault have been added the emotions of men who are defending the world's noblest inheritance from degradation. 'It is the reasoned recognition of this peril which is making the most intelligent people in the world the most sublime.'

The problems of England are so closely akin to our own problems, and her perplexities are so closely akin to our own perplexities, that we should regard them with insight and with sympathy. We too must pause in every keen emergency to cajole, to persuade, to placate, to reconcile conflicting interests, to humor conflicting opinions,—termed by those who hold them, 'principles.' We too must forever bear in mind the political party which is in power, and the political party which waits to get into power; and we must pick our way as best we can by the cross-lights of their abiding hostility. We too must face and overcome the doughlike resistance of apathy. I have been told -though I refuse to believe it on hearsay—that British laborers have asked what difference it would make to them whether they worked for British or for German masters. It is quite true that British pacifists and British radicals have not only put this question, but have answered it, greatly to their own satisfaction, in American periodicals; but American periodicals are not mouthpieces of the British workmen. I make no doubt that if we were fighting for our lives, there would be found American pacifists and American radicals writing in British periodicals that no great harm would come to America if she submitted passively to invasion; and that whether their country's cause were right or wrong, the slaughter of her sons was a crime, and the wealth of her capitalists was a sufficient reason for refusing to do battle for her liberty. The painful certainty that we should never be free from the babbling of treason, any more than England is free from it now, makes Americanism (the Americanism which means civic loyalty founded on civic intelligence) shine like a far-of star on a very dim horizon.

At present disloyalty founded upon ignorance meets with more attention than it deserves. Why, after all, should two thousand people assemble in New York to hear Miss Helen Keller say that, in the event of invasion, the American workman 'has nothing to lose but his chains'? He has his manhood to lose, and it should mean as much to him as to any millionaire in the land. What new and debilitating doctrine is this which holds that personal honor is the exclusive attribute of wealth, and that a laborer has no more business with it than has a dog! The fact that Miss Keller has overcome the heavy disabilities which nature placed in her path, lends interest to her person, but no weight to her opinions, which give evidence of having been adopted wholesale, and of having never filtered through any reasoning process of her own. It is always agreeable to hear her speak about good and simple things. When she said in Philadelphia that happiness does not lie in pleasure, and that, although she did not expect to be always pleased, she did expect to be always happy, by doing what she could to make those about her happy, we gave our hearty concurrence to sentiments so unexceptionable. It was the way we ourselves should have liked to feel, and we knew it was our own fault that we did not. But when in New York she adjured workingmen never to enter the United States army, and informed us that all we needed for adequate defense were shooting galleries 'within reach of every family,' so that we could all learn—like the old ladies in Punch—to fire a gun, there was something profoundly sad in words so ill-judged and so fatuous. It cannot be a matter of no moment that, in the hour of our danger and indecision, thousands of people stand ready to applaud the disloyal utterances which should affront every honorable man or woman who hears them.

The Yale Review quotes the remark of a 'foreigner' that Americans are always saying, 'I don't care.' The phrase is popular and sounds disheartening; but if we spare ourselves concern over trivial things (if, for example, we were not excited or inflamed by Captain von Papen's calling us 'idiotic Yankees'), it does not follow that big issues leave us unmoved. If they did, if they ever should, the word Americanism might as well be obliterated from the language. The consistent nationalism for which it stands admits of no indifference. It is true that the possible peril of New York- as defenseless as a softshell crab, and as succulent—is not an ever-present care to San Francisco. It is true that San Francisco's deep anxiety over Japanese immigration and land-ownership was lightly treated by New York. And it is true that Denver, sitting in the safety zone, looks down from her lofty heights without any pressing solicitude about either of her sister cities. But just as the San Francisco earthquake wrung the heart of New York, so the first gun fired at New York would arm the citizens of San Francisco. Only it might then be too late.

The Christmas cartoon of Uncle Sam holding a package marked 'Peace and Prosperity,' and saying with a broad smile, 'Just what I wanted!' was complacent rather than comprehensive. We want peace and we want prosperity, but they are not all we want; partly because their permanency depends upon certain corollaries, and partly because we do not, any more than other men, live by bread alone. The things of the spirit are for us, even as for heroic and suffering France, of vital worth and import. If we could say with certainty, 'All is gained but honor,' there are still some of us who would feel our blessings incomplete; but, as it chances, the contempt meted out to us has taken the palpable form of encroachment upon our common rights. Until we can protect our industries from assault and our citizens from butchery, until we can couple disavowal of past injuries with real assurance of safety in the future, peace limps, and prosperity is shadowed. With every fresh shock we have received, with every fresh sorrow we have endured, there has come to us more and more clearly the vision of a noble nationalism, purged of 'comfort-mongering,' and of perverted sentiment.

Cynical newspaper writers have begun to say that the best way to make Americans forget one injury is to inflict on them another. This is hardly a half-truth. The sinking of the Ancona did not obliterate from our minds the names of the Falaba, the Gulflight, the Frye, the Hesperian, the Arabic, and the Lusitania. Neither has the sinking of the Persia buried the Ancona in oblivion. And it is not simple humanity which has burned these names into the tablets of our memories. The loss of American lives through the savage torpedoing of liners and merchant ships might be doubled and trebled any summer day by the sinking of an excursion steamer, and we should soon forget. A country which reports eight thousand murders in a single year is not wont to be deeply stirred by the perils which beset our munition-workers. But when Americans have gone to their deaths though the violence of another government, or in the interests of another government, then the wrong done them is elevated to the importance of a national calamity, and redress becomes a national obligation. Because we do not wearily reiterate this patent truth does not mean that we have forgotten it. If words could save, if words could heal, we should have no fear, or shame, or sorrow. Nothing is less worth while than to go on prattling about a consistent foreign policy. The cornerstone of civilization is man's dependence for protection on the state which he has reared for his own safety and support.

The concern of Americans for America (I use the word to symbolize the United States) must be the deep and loyal sentiment which brooks no injustice and no insult. We have need of many things, but first and foremost of fidelity. It is a matter of pride and pleasure that some of our foreign-born citizens should excel in art and letters; that, under our tutelage, they should learn to design posters, model statuary, write poems, and make speeches. These things have their admitted place and value. The encouragement which is given them, the opportunities which are made for them, the praise which is lavished upon them, are proofs of our good-will, and of our genuine delight in fostering ability. But the real significance of the 'Americanization' movement, the summoning of conferences, the promoting of exhibitions, the bestowing of prizes, is the need we all feel of unification, the hope we all cherish that, through the influence of congenial work, immigrants and the children of immigrants will become one in spirit with the native-born. We could make shift to do without the posters and the symbolic statuary; we could read fewer poems and listen to fewer speeches; but we cannot possibly do without the loyalty which we have a right to demand, and which is needful to the safety of the Republic.

For the main thing to be borne in mind is that Americanization does not mean only an increase of opportunity for the alien, an effort toward his permanent well-being. It means also service and sacrifice on his part. This is what citizenship entails, although voters and those who clamor for the vote seldom take into account such an inexorable truth. The process of assimilation must go deeper than the polling booth and the trade union can carry it. Democracy forever teases us with the contrast between its ideals and its realities, between its heroic possibilities and its sorry achievements. But it is our appointed road, and the stones over which we perpetually stumble deny us the drowsy perils of content. When we read Dr. Eliot's noble words in praise of free government and equal opportunities, we know that his amazing buoyancy does not imply ignorance of primaries, of party methods, and of graft. With these things he has been familiar all his life; but the creaking machinery of democracy has never dimmed his faith in its holiness. Remediable disorders, however grievous and deep-seated, afford us the comfort of hope, and the privilege of unending exertion.

To no one ignorant of history can the right of citizenship assume any real significance. In our country the ballot is so carelessly guarded, so shamefully misused, that it has become to some men a subject of derision, to many, an unconsidered trifle, to all, or almost all, an expression of personal opinion, which, at its best, reflects a popular newspaper, and, at its worst, stands for nothing less hurtful than stupidity. A recent contributor to the Unpopular Review reminds us soberly that, as the democratic state cannot rise above the level of its voters, and as nationality means for us merely the will of the people, it might not be amiss to guard the franchise with reasonable solicitude, and to ask something more than unlimited ignorance and the absence of a criminal record as its price. If every man—alien or native-born—who casts his ballot could be made to know and to feel that all the political forces of his country were mainly occupied for a hundred years in making that act possible,' and that the United States is, and has always been, the nation of those 'who willed to be Americans,' citizenship might become for us what it was to Rome, what it is to France,—the interpretation of honor, the symbol of self-sacrifice.

A knowledge of history might also prove serviceable in enabling us to recognize our place and our responsibility among the nations of the world. No remoteness (geographical remoteness counts for little in the twentieth century) can sever our interests from the interests of Europe, or lift from our shoulders the burden of helping to sustain the collective rights of mankind. We know now that the menace of frightfulness has overshadowed us. We know that, however cautiously we picked our steps, we could not, and did not escape insult and injury. But even if we had saved our own skin, if we had suffered no destruction of property, and if none of our dead lay under the water, the freedom of Europe, the future of democracy, and the rights of man would be to us matters of concern.

It is true, moreover, that friendship and alliance with those European states whose aspirations and ideals respond to our own aspirations and ideals are as consistent with Americanism as are friendship and alliance with the states of South America, which we are now engaged in loving. It is not from Bolivia, or Chile, or Venezuela, or the Argentina that we have drawn our best traditions, our law, language, literature, and art. We extend to these 'sister Republics' the arms of commercial affection; but they have no magic words like Magna Charta and le Tiers Etat to stir our souls an inch beyond self-profit. When we count up our assets, we must reckon heavily on the respect of those nations which we most respect, and whose good-will in the past is a guarantee of good-will in the future. It is worth our while, even from the standpoint of Americanism, to prove our fellowship with humanity, our care for other interests than our own. The civilization of the world is the business of all who live in the world. We cannot see it crashing down as it crashed in the sinking of the Lusitania and the Ancona, and content ourselves with asking how many Americans were drowned. Noble standards, and noble sympathies, and noble sorrows have their driving power, their practical utility. They have counted heavily in the destinies of nations. Carthage had commerce. Rome had ideals.

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