What Is an American?

M. RENAN says that by scientific requisition five things are necessary to constitute a race and entitle it to be considered an independent member of the human family. They are, a language of its own, a characteristic literature, a religion, a history, and a code. Now we have none of these titles; we are not a race. But many of the leading peoples of Europe fail by some of these tests; they cannot be allotted a separate place in the human family: nevertheless they have their distinct individuality; they are recognized not only by their political acts but by their characteristics. Take Russia, whose modern history virtually begins with Peter the Great, not half a century before our own: within the present era Russia has been overrun, at least in part, by Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Bulgarians, Huns, Lithuanians, Mongols, Tartars, Celtic and German tribes, and more besides. Most of them have had a hand in making her laws and her language. In Russia of to-day are to be found all the principal varieties of the Christian faith, all the creeds of Europe and all those of Asia, with their subdivisions of sect. In the Dachkoff Museum, founded at Moscow on the occasion of the Sclavonic Congress of 1867, there were exhibited groups of manikins in the costume of the states or tribes which compose the Russian empire: Samoyedes, Lapps, Finns, Esthonians, Tartars, Circassians, inhabitants of Great and Little Russia, Moldavians, Jews, Kalmucks, Georgians, and many more. These all came as conquerors or colonists, or were themselves conquered and incorporated; they did not come as immigrants, exiles, or convicts; they have not merged nor fused themselves, nor lost their peculiarities of feature, language, costume, or creed, let Russia is Russian; her nationality is definite if not homogeneous; there is a Russian type, character, policy, church.

To America there have come English, a few French, a great many Irish and Germans, and not enough from any other country to be taken into the question; all these are Europeans and Christians. We have, moreover, the native red Indian and the imported African, who may be set aside as practically out of court. Which of these elements represents the American, the citizen of the United States, or enters most largely into his composition? How far do they combine to form a national character?

Where the French settled in bodies, as on the Mississippi, they have created a variety of the human species known by the name of Creole, with a physiognomy and a lingo of its own, which nobody at home or abroad ever thinks of as American. If it be to French influence that we owe our brag, our facility of expression, our love of dress, and sundry other lively propensities, it has not wrought upon us through the French in our communities. How far we have the Irish to thank for our slackness, our want of system, our tolerance of disorder moral and material, it is impossible to say; it is certainly to them that we owe Roman Catholicism as a factor in our social and political problems; but the Irish, we know, are assimilated so rapidly and easily that under ordinary conditions the Celtic type disappears even in the second generation, and its speech, habits, and ideas conform to those of the people by whom it is surrounded. The Germans have less facility for being absorbed; it is not for yesterday’s immigrant only that we print so many advertisements in double columns of German and English, — the only public bilingual notices to be found in this country, we believe. The genuine Dutch stock of the Mohawk and Hudson regions has passed into the bone and sinew of New York State, imparting many admirable qualities; the Pennsylvania Dutchman, who is not Dutch at all, but German (Deutsch), remains after two centuries unannealed; his miserable dialect is in active use, deteriorating from generation to generation without coming much nearer the language of the country; he exercises no influence, but resists all, and sticks in our midst, an undigested lump. But the Germans who throng our cities, especially in the West, have done their share in forming national tendencies; not very important ones, perhaps, but marked: from them we have taken the habit of drinking beer, as far as it prevails, which our maltloving English founders did not naturalize; from them the practice of beautifying our burying-grounds, our increasing love of music, our fondness for the country and the open air, which we enjoy far more in the German than in the English way; the transcendentalism of part of the country, the real deep sentiment, as well as the shallow sentimentality, which pervades our sayings and doings, is of Teutonic origin; the English have neither the virtue nor its corresponding vice.

Yet of course, beyond discussion, the basis of our nationality is English; our standards like our language are English, however much we may modify, improve, or corrupt. This being the case, why are we so different from the English? Why is it that when a representative American is spoken of, nobody thinks of a creature in the least resembling an Englishman? What is our physical type? The tall, straight, slender, yet muscular form, large deep eyes with sweeping lashes, clear complexion, splendid teeth, calm and serious mien, which one sees commonly among the Maine and New Hampshire lumbermen, which we knew so well in the Western regiments during the late war, and which one meets with nowhere else in the world? Or the sallow, puny, illmade, insignificant, nervous, restless human creature whom we know anywhere at a glance for a compatriot? Whence come our preference for the knife or pistol as arbiter instead of the fist? the duel instead of law and damages? our excitability, our sensitiveness, our propensity to humbug and be humbugged, our ideality, our headlong haste, our deadly inertia? None of these are English; they cannot all be the result of youth, climate, republican institutions. Finally, who is a representative American ? Is he an Adams, a Jefferson, a Lincoln, a Barnum, a Butler, or a Fisk? Are Longfellow and Lowell, Hawthorne and Emerson, our representative literary men, or Bret Harte and his followers ? Are we the most practical or the most speculative of people? The greediest of gain or the most reckless of expense? The most lawless or the most superstitiously law-abiding? The rashest or the most calculating? The most phlegmatic or the most thin-skinned? The broadest or the narrowest ? The chariest of words or the most inveterate talkers? The most indifferent or the most subservient to public opinion ? We are cited as the embodiment of all these and many other opposite qualities; which is the true view? or do all extremes meet in us?

Nobody who has come into contact with Europeans of the upper classes can have failed to be struck by the extraordinary freedom of their demeanor, their disregard of “what people will say,” their indulgence of oddity and eccentricity, as compared with ourselves. What are called “ characters,” men and women of unbridled individuality, are about ten among Europeans of assured social position to one with us. On the surface this seems a strange result of republicanism, but the reason of it is easy to discover. In societies where there is a privileged class each member of that class becomes a privileged person, supremely oblivious of the existence of everybody except those within his own parallels; and as it is pleasanter to follow one’s vagaries than to conform to general rules, each goes his own way, giving and asking no account, extending the same indulgence which he takes for himself; this is to be best observed among English people of position, whose natural coarseness sets in relief peculiarities and pranks which lose their rough outline under the urbanity and polish of other foreigners of the same grade. With us, on whom the pressure of democracy weighs from the cradle, who are subjected to the scrutiny and judgment of the whole community, whose comfort depends in great measure on our doing as others do, there is necessarily much external similarity; we regulate our dress, hours, habits, and outer walk and conversation a good deal by custom; thus, although the long-haired man who wears his boots over his trousers has become the typical Yankee to foreigners, long hair and tucked-in trousers would excite much more attention in any city of our Atlantic sea-board than in London, Paris, Vienna, or Rome. There is far less salient personality among well-bred Americans than among any other civilized people of the same class. But the forces which plane us down to this level have no influence on our opinions, and there is no comparison possible between any other people and ourselves in the habit of individual, independent thought. All others hold certain beliefs and notions because they are those of their class, church, club; convictions and conclusions of their own they rarely have; under the surprising variety of exterior they present an incredible monotony of mental aspect. Nowhere is this fact so noticeable as among the English, whose freaks of conduct are the most daring. But nobody gives the law to us in matters of opinion; nobody here thinks this or that because any set of people think so; some of us follow the lead of a newspaper, a preacher, or a political party, but it is because they express our own ideas in the main. The majority may prescribe to us in matters of form; we do our thinking for ourselves.

Yet withal we think very much alike. The territorial vastness which leads us to add innumerable ciphers to the smallest denominator in our estimates of ourselves, accustoms us to horizons in whose extent proportion is lost and views are falsified. We forget that bigness is not greatness; in the spaciousness of our land we overlook its emptiness; in our confidence of its breadth to contain the development of all the problems of the future, we lose sight of its lack of a long past and all which that bequeaths; we congratulate ourselves on our freedom from the trammels of usage and prejudice, while we might deplore our absence of standard and precedent. As the Pacific widens on our ken with a nearer neighborhood to the alien East beyond, the Old World across the Atlantic, to which we must look for experience and examples, is fading from our sight. We had a class of men once, not long ago, in whom reverence for all that was venerable, love for all that was beautiful, sympathy for all that was noble in that Old World gave breadth and firmness to their zeal for the fresher, purer, truer life which they believed was to be found in the New; they drew strength and solidity from roots which, struck deep into the past, while the free air and sunshine of untainted spheres gave sap and vigor to their growth. There are specimens of them still; as a class they are dying out: were they Americans or not? There is a class of men, growing more numerous every day, who openly deride and despise the past; they have no respect for its wisdom, no affection for its antiquity; they are deaf to its authority, blind to its loveliness; tradition, association, have neither charm nor sanctity for them. Ignorance is not so much their bane as insensibility; they are often keen, fresh, original, even brilliant; but on what shallow ground, amid what stones and brambles have they sprung up! what a weedy luxuriance of growth, what a crude and meagre fruitage, is theirs! What scrubby standards, what raw results they offer us! If they have not the prejudices of age they have the more irrational ones of greenness. Skepticism and cynicism ferment all that they produce; for time-honored ideas and hallowed names they have only a wink and a tongue thrust into the cheek. Are these representative Americans? They are not necessarily bad men, but they make others bad. “ Bad taste leads to crime,” said an acute Frenchman; bad style tends to bad notions; flippancy and coarseness destroy delicacy, earnestness, respect, and self-respect; men cannot make a mock of honor, reverence, enthusiasm, sentiment, courtesy, and uphold honesty, courage, plain-dealing; habitual sneering lowers the tone, corrodes belief even in one’s own professions, spreads like mold over freshness of feeling. No one’s practice comes up to his standards; therefore we should keep our standards as high as we can, that in falling short of them we may not fall too low. Slang has hurt us all because it tends this way. The boast of this school is their freedom from hypocrisy and sham; that is a good thing, but inasmuch as it has become proverbial that hyprocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue, we need not pride ourselves on having got rid of the mask until we have got rid of the brazen front which it hid; a little decent hypocrisy would seem almost a grace after the impudent frankness to which we have become accustomed. As to sham, there is more of it than ever, and affectation and cant; only, as it is the affectation of low instead of high sentiments, it is within everybody’s scope. We are very badly in need of an infusion of Quixotism; we are suffering from a diseased want of imagination. At the same time we are suffering badly from a want of knowledge of facts. We foster our self-complacency with our common-school system, on strength of which we are fond of calling ourselves the best - educated people in the world; let us make the comparison not between the least but the best educated classes of our own and other countries; let us set so-called cultivated Americans beside cultivated Europeans, and we shall have a gauge for our baseless presumption, our crass ignorance. There is no phrase so common with us as “ the best in the world,” It is not enough to assert that we have the best climate, the best soil, the best government, which is possible, but we likewise have the best army and navy, the best theatre, the best art, the best roads and streets, the best manufactures of every sort, including carpets, silks, watches, and wine; and these assertions generally come from judges who have never been in any other part of the world. A saving discontent and self-depreciation may be found among private individuals; a prominent journal (conducted by a foreigner) may tell us unpleasant truths without mincing them, but when do we meet with such expressions in the mouths of our public men, unless they be partisans of the opposition ? It brands a man as a bad citizen if he compare anything at home unfavorably with anything elsewhere, on earth or in the heavenly Jerusalem. Wonderful country! astonishing people! who produce nothing secondrate, even on first experiment.

After ignorance, the most universal quality which the present querist has been able to discover in his countrymen is vulgarity. To begin with, that quality is almost the prerogative of the Saxon; in the Latin races it hardly exists; the Germans have plenty of it, the English a superabundance, but we have made it a specialty. Our statesmen show it in sprinkling their speeches with cheap classical quotations and literary allusions which the mass of their hearers do not understand; our popular preachers by mixing up gross familiarity and mawkish personality in their treatment of sacred things. Our militia officers are forever on parade with their eternally recurring title; our corporations are incessantly giving themselves banquets with the pomp and emphasis of a national celebration; dinners and suppers, Bibles, swords, and pieces of plate, are always being tendered by men nobody ever heard of, to men nobody ever heard of, for doing nobody knows what; our private citizens have a mania for offering receptions to strangers chiefly distinguished by bad standing in their own country or by having abused ours; a mania likewise for calling themselves committees, and for driving about in hired barouches; a mania for interviewing, for excursions with brass bands. Our young women publish themselves as Miss Nellie, Vinnie, Lulu, Katie. The entries we make in the travelers’ book at hotels abroad are peculiarly ingenious; whatever nonsense an Englishman, a Frenchman, or a German may inscribe reflects ridicule only on himself; our people have the happy gift of making their entire nation disgusting by their remarks.

A rapid and radical change must have taken place in our modes; there was a time, when Marryat and Dickens first came to this country, when we were laughed at for our pedantry and precision in speech, the puritanism and prudery of our manners. Perhaps we have been laughed out of them; certain it is that with the two foreign nations who see most of us, our women have become a by-word for lightness, our men for blasphemy and coarseness, and in this shape we figure upon their stage and in their literature. What has happened to us ? Are we rotten before we are ripe?

Ten years ago the two divisions of our country leaned upon their swords, breathless and bleeding from their long conflict; one half had been fighting and starving for what they believed their rights, long after hope was dead; the other had been truly battling for ideas, for the idea of country, of humanity, of justice, of liberty. Where are those Americans? Where, alas! In many places the day of commemoration does not even bring a garland to their graves. But is the very stock and seed exhausted? Where are their brothers, their sons, their kin? Were they Americans indeed, that the very type should have perished? Some one will say, Let the call to arms sound again, and you will see. But must we always be purged by blood and fire ? is there no other purification possible? Has a patriot no part to play in times of peace ? Some one else answers that their spirit is not dead, but that its inheritors hide themselves in shame and sorrow from the disgraceful spectacle of public affairs, that no honest man can work for his country now without soiling his hands. They are no worthy successors of those we lost ten years ago, who will not raise a voice or hand in active protest against the wrong they abhor. This is the attitude of a conscientious man who loves his country: “ He saw that society and liberty as well as government were in danger; he had little faith in a republic, and little sympathy with the sort of men with whom republican institutions would infallibly mix him up. . . . But he felt that it would not be the part of a good citizen or an honorable man to desert the helm because the sea was stormy, the vessel damaged, or the crew dirty and disreputable; he was convinced that the only chance for liberty and order lay in making the republic work if it were possible to do so, and for this object, therefore, he sacrificed many of his own tastes, and submitted to the defeat of many of his predilections and opinions. . . . Profoundly discouraged and sorrowful he certainly was, but he never altogether lost heart in the final redemption of his country, and never for one hour ceased to ponder and labor for it.” The men who find words to grumble, to bewail, to curse, to do everything but denounce, who find time for business, pleasure, rest, idling, but none for active opposition to the disgrace which they deplore, are only less guilty in degree than the men whose villainies are making our name a hissing at home and abroad. Their crime may not be greed of power or gain, but it is love of ease and quiet; their sloth is stronger than their principle. Ten years ago we had wrung from the world an amazed respect and admiration for our courage, our constancy, our unlimited power of self-devotion and sacrifice. What have we added to ourselves in these ten years? Several new varieties of infamy. What is the name of America now in Europe ? A synonym for low rascality.

A national character can hardly exist without a strong love of country. Notwithstanding our self-sufficiency nobody can claim that for us at present. Thousands of our people expatriate themselves because life is easier, pleasanter, or cheaper elsewhere; they carry their wealth and what weight they command (and that they forfeit in so doing) to other countries. Others stay at home and brag of the length of their rivers and width of their lakes; and by dint of stretching their sense of citizenship over so vast an area, their patriotism becomes so thin that it cracks in every direction. An infallible test is now being applied to us; an absolute gauge of the strength of our concrete enthusiasm. In eighteen months the first century of our national existence will be complete. Our after ages can see no anniversary so solemn as this. Our struggle into life is near enough for us to remember it with emotion; living memories link us to it still: it is distant enough to have become traditional, venerable. Who hails the approaching era with tenderness and veneration? It is not to be expected that the emigrant from Germany, from England, from Ireland, or even his rich and successful son, should glow at the recollections of '76; but does he not owe a grateful affection to the country of his adoption which has opened to him a road to fortune, political privileges, and possibilities of every sort which would have been closed to him in his own ? Nor can the children of the great new West, the men who have seen Chicago rise once from the prairie and once from her ashes, the bold and patient pioneers of Colorado and Nevada, who live and toil for the future, dwell so proudly and fondly on the past. Yet they might surely turn with pride and love to salute the bourne whence they started on their great march. They are now in the position of those who two hundred and fifty years ago came to plant their rooftree on our shores; like them they wage valiant warfare with the wilderness and the savage, to win new realms for civilization from barbarism and the hostile elements. They are our inland colonists, the pilgrim fathers of our western coasts; a hundred years hence they will be spoken of with those of 1606, 1620, and 1680, who are classed together to-day. Their names are to live and spread and be known among us, while others, long honored, may be slowly dying out; they carry on the traditions of the settlers of our soil; they are the parents of the broader land. By this title they should bind themselves with its past too, that hereafter their descendants may point back across a century to where they stand linked to the founders of the country by their participation in its first secular celebration.

And those who still dwell in the old places which know them, where the streets are called by their family names, and the trees were planted by their forefathers, — as the years bring round the hundredth return of days in which the old sword and musket they treasure did good service, how are they preparing to greet the anniversary of the great crowning act which consecrated that service, the birthday of their country? One of the thirteen original States, she whose title to local precedence is so indisputable that she could best afford to waive her claim, scuffles with selfish, vulgar tenacity for the central place, even if she shall occupy it alone, driving away her twelve sisters from doing honor to their common mother; the rest hold aloof from jealousy, indifference, or self-importance, separating themselves on a question of form, and will have no part nor lot in the matter; while from the Capitol we are exhorted every one to keep his holiday for himself, “ each State, each city, each town, each village, each hamlet, each hearth.” If this is to be so, what was the meaning of those years from 1860 to 1865? We have owned that the South was right; what reparation can we make her now that she is vindicated by our voluntary disintegration ?

It is futile to object at the present hour that an international exhibition is an inappropriate, ill-chosen form for such a commemoration. There are many who think that a grand gathering together of the representatives of all nations, the products of all lands, the tokens of general progress, is not an unfitting mode of illustrating the first completed cycle of a country whose citizens are the children of all climes, whose area is the field for all experiment, whose boast has been to foster the benignant arts of peace. Yet there can be no doubt in any unprejudiced mind that, when it did not meet with the approval of the people at large, the project should have been abandoned. And it might have been abandoned if any other had been brought forward in its stead with vigor and unanimity. But who proposed a more suitable expression of national feeling? Who suggested any other plan whatever, which should unite us all in seemly observance? What guarantee had disinterested promoters of the international scheme that if they gave it up there would be any universal patriotic manifestation, to exalt our anniversaries and fix them as landmarks for all time to come? Let this be remembered in fairness. And now objections are out of season; the only combination which has arisen marked by energy and concert has carried the day. All that remains for others is to coöperate heartily, or to show to the world, and — what is far worse — to ourselves, the deplorable spectacle of a country without solidarity, without a soul; an accidental conglomerate of uncongenial particles, a population of immigrants, a base mart.

If this supreme occasion of rekindling fires of enthusiasm at hallowed altars, of refreshing languid faith at pure springs, of gathering up sacred memories for example and excitement, of making solemn pledges to ourselves and one another for a future which shall redeem the present and be worthy of the past, of gaining an impetus which shall send us not forward in the slippery track of material prosperity but upward along the path traced for us a century ago by men of clean hands and single minds, of joining hand to hand along the coasts and across the centre of this vast continent until the pulse of brotherhood is felt throbbing from one common heart —if this chance be lost, the end is not far off.

With all the various and varying elements, influences, interests, which work upon us as a people, the only distinctive characteristics which we can share are fidelity to certain fundamental ideas and principles, regard for moral greatness and national honor and dignity, above all, patriotism — loyalty to our great, beautiful, cherishing country, and to each other as her offspring. Without this, there will be no more Americans and no more America.

PHILADELPHIA, September, 1874.