Does Americanization Americanize?

"Many politicians and some students have lacked the courage to say what one, like myself, of foreign descent should frankly assert and defend — that this is, and must remain, an essentially and fundamentally American country."

‘I have a solemn vow registered in heaven that I will preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ These words, spoken by President Lincoln at a critical moment in the life of the Republic, are, in substance, what the alien repeats when admitted to American citizenship. Imagine, however, what must have been their significance to Abraham Lincoln, and what, at best, they possibly can mean to tens of thousands of new Americans’ when reciting them in the oath of allegiance which makes them our fellow citizens! And yet we wonder why things are not all as they should be today, and why we should be obliged to ask ourselves again, as we did half a century ago, how it is that ‘an instructed and equal people, with freedom in every form, with a government yielding to the touch of popular will so readily, ever would come to the trial of force against it.’

Of the causes behind the existing unrest this paper will attempt to deal with only one phase — our attitude and policy toward the immigrant as a potential citizen, premising the statement that such attitude and policy have labored under one fundamental error: the failure to distinguish clearly and consistently between the human rights of immigrants and their political rights, between our human duties toward them and our political duties toward our commonwealth. To their human rights and to our human duties toward them we shall refer here only incidentally, dwelling instead upon the study of a policy which has tended, and tends, to grant political rights to very large numbers of aliens wholly unprepared for American life, and utterly unqualified for participation in the government.

As we look back, we see that three methods or processes have found favor among us at various times as means of converting the alien into an American: naturalization, assimilation, and Americanization. The first, which once was supposed to possess a sort of special sanctifying grace per se, has sunk back in public opinion to its purely legalistic function; the second has been relegated with the melting-pot to the top shelves of social laboratories; while the third is now the object of a nation-wide ‘drive.’

There is something both stirring and touching in the almost religious belief that many Americans held regarding naturalization in the early days of immigration to this country: they honestly and sincerely relied upon it as an almost instant solvent for changing a German or a Swede into an American; they looked upon it, in their intense patriotism, as a rite with well-nigh sacramental and mystically spiritual effects.

With the decline of the belief in naturalization as an infallible process of transformation, there came into favor, as a spiritual aid to the former, the less legalistic process of assimilation. The method sounded logical and was picturesque and attractive. We all fell under its sway more or less, especially the social workers and the schools of philanthropy. It was, on the whole, a useful movement, not only because it showed the essential inadequacy of naturalization, but especially because it made us realize very vividly the human rights of the alien in our midst and our indifference to such rights.

The war, which passed like a steam-roller over numberless favorite and popular theories, served also to show the limitations of assimilation as we had attempted to develop it and the strength of alien nationalism, even — and indeed especially — in what we had hopefully considered safe and ‘desirable’ North European stock.


The ancient problem being still with us, and looming large on the background of present-day labor unrest, American optimism promptly has come to the rescue with a new and sure remedy — Americanization. It is part of our enthusiastic idealism, part of our ‘habit of practical performance,’ to wish to correct every trouble and right every wrong quickly; and, in order to do it quickly, we often refuse to see any subtle and intimate complexity in the problems which confront us, but cheerfully and rather naïvely ‘simplify’ them and reduce them to ‘essentials,’ which can be, as it were, surgically treated with ease and precision.

But there are problems and processes so obscure and complex in their causes, so slow, intricate, and subtle in their development and ramifications, as to be refractory to any simplification and impossible of any accelerated or swift solution. One of these is Americanization, which, like every essential and effective change of nationality, involves two distinct processes and two vital decisions in a man’s life: a divesting one’s self of a deep-rooted patrimony of ideas, sentiments, traditions, and interests, and an honest and whole-hearted acceptance of, and participation in, an entirely new set of ideas, sentiments, traditions, and interests.

In order to grasp the difficulties in the way of real, and, therefore, of the only worthwhile Americanization, let us consider the processes involved in the reversal of such conversion. Think how suspicious we are of any instance of de-Americanization; how suspect, for instance, to the popular mind is the Anglicization, not only of a Waldorf Astor, but even of a Henry James, and, generally, how taboo is the man who ‘turns.’

Or let us illustrate the process on a large scale as being nearer to our own problem: let us suppose that the French government, or a large section of the French people, had decided to attempt to Gallicize our boys of the A.E.F. while they were in France, and had made a nation-wide ‘drive’ to accomplish it in five years, at the end of which time any of our men who said they wished to change would have been admitted to French citizenship. Will any American claim that this would have worked at all, or that the French citizens thus secured would have been much of an asset or a help to the French nation?

I do not give this as a parallel example to the process of Americanizing our immigrants; but I do contend that, on the whole, the Gallicization of a million picked American youths, at a time of tense and stirring life, would have been infinitely easier and more possible than to convert a million mixed Spain, Russian, Greek, Slav, and Finnish peasants — or even French, British, and Italian subjects — into reliable American citizens, as we claim we can do in this country. To feel that the powers of attraction and assimilation of America are tremendous, is both true and patriotic; but to practise the belief that such powers can work miracles — such as the rapid conversion of the mixed and unstable immigrants of Europe into real American citizens — is sheer superstition and, as such, the child of ignorance.

The fact is that there is much loose thinking, inexactness, and sentimentalism on the subject of Americanization. The very fact that the first professorship of Americanization in this country was fitted into a department of political economy indicates how even trained minds tend to look at the process from too narrow a standpoint: for might it not reasonably be urged, with equal force, that Americanization belonged rather to the department of history, or of philosophy, or of psychology?

But consider some of the means in vogue today to secure Americanization: for instance, anything which betters a man, such as being taught to read and write, is, of course, in a roundabout way, Americanization; but why call it that, as something new, instead of using the exact word such betterment has meant for ages past — schooling? Imparting a knowledge of civics, government, and, history is likewise, in a sense, Americanization; but why claim for it a power that is no greater than and no different from what it was when the identical thing was called education? So, also, bringing the alien ‘into contact with what is best in this country,’ which a recent publication glibly announces as a ‘new method’ in this process, is in one sense Americanization; but is it not the same thing as what was more correctly called social or public service, or, more anciently, Christian duty?

Changing their name does not render inapplicable methods applicable, but only lulls us into a dangerous contentment. That the insufficiency or inadequacy of such methods is being grasped in certain quarters is evidenced by the conditions and provisos proposed here and there as necessary for the success of the ‘drive.’ Thus Secretary Lane, in a popular magazine, cautions his readers that ‘before we take up this work of the Americanization of others, we must first be certain that we have Americanized ourselves.’ The implication that even real Americans may be in need of Americanization shows the essential intricacy and slowness of the process, even at its best.

To understand the real significance of Americanization (and lack of clearness on this point is the root of the trouble) we must consider it in relation to the larger question of nationality, of which it is only a part or instance. One of the lessons of the Great War of peculiar significance to us in relation to our immigration problem is the tremendous strength of national or ethnic sentiment; indifferent men, average men, comfort-loving and peace-loving men, as we have dramatically witnessed, are, in the emergency of a real test of its power, ready to die for it. It makes heroes of phlegmatic Flemish burghers, and martyrs of ignorant Slav peasants; it reacts in the blood of thousands of our German-Americans, who, we had firmly believed, had been rendered immune to the old call of the blood by the circumstances of birth and education in the wholly new environment of American life. Right or wrong, happily or not, the racial call persists, potent, assertive, even audacious. Worthy or unworthy, we saw it destroy treaties and policies, learned theories, and the most carefully constructed checks and balances. In the face of a theory we discovered a condition; in the presence of an idealization of our own patriotism we found an equally strong and all-absorbing love of nation and of race in infinitely poorer, less advanced, and less blessed lands.

Why then imagine — especially, why do our colleges and universities imagine — that any large body of aliens can be Americanized quickly, if at all; that they can undergo a sort of miracle of trans. nationalization by any nation-wide ‘drive’ of kind words, by a smattering of education, or by new legislation? I do not say that Americanization is not possible, but I contend that history, science, human experience, and good sense point to the conclusion that mass Americanization or speedy Americanization (of the real kind, which, I trust, is the only one the colleges and the legislators want) is impossible by any of the methods suggested or applied.

And this largely because, as it has been said, ‘the central fact about nationality is not,’ as so many Americans believe, ‘a political force at all, but a spiritual force.’ Being largely a spiritual process, it may be swift and almost sudden with certain types of unusual men, and under certain very special circumstances; but for the great mass of aliens coming here, — and even for many children of alien parents, — the change can be only slow and subtle in its working, if it is to be real and enduring.

Many politicians and some students have lacked the courage to say what one, like myself, of foreign descent should frankly assert and defend — that this is, and must remain, an essentially and fundamentally American country, to be governed solely by American-minded men in an exclusively American way, and for wholly American ideals. Any compromise on this seems to me spiritual treason to the Republic. Shame to those of us, not of the old stock, who fail in these days of trouble for our country to defend with all our heart and mind what is first and foremost the heritage of freedom of the old stock, and is ours only in so far as we are individually worthy of it, and not because we can vote under it.

There have been too many sentimental pleas, too many spurious arguments about this being a land of immigrants and all Americans the children of immigrants. What is America, first and above all, if not the development, essentially, of Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking and doing, and, more specifically, of New England ideas and ideals? Nor must we overlook the fact that ‘in all history,’ as John Fiske has pointed out, ‘there has been no other instance of colonization so exclusively effected by picked and chosen men as in New England.’

Let us ask ourselves in full honesty what claim of equality of performance or of American qualities there can be between the great mass of immigrants and their children and those colonists and their direct descendants, except the sheerest of legalistic equality. Who will be so foolish, or so hypocritical, as to contend that the vast majority, or even a substantial number, of the immigrants who have come or are coming to this country can be classed as ‘the picked and chosen men’ of Europe? Political cowardice, squeamish conscientiousness, and cant have avoided a frank, open, and frontal attack against what is variously styled ‘the Irish vote,’ the ‘East Side vote,’ and the like, as if the toleration of anything but a thoroughly and wholIy American vote were not a gross failure in the practice of an elementary American duty.

What are all the schools and professorships of Americanization worthwhile we allow, in daily practice, such destructive distinctions in the political ‘ifs’ of the country? ‘For the successful conduct of a nation’s affairs,’ says President Hadley in his book, The Relation Between Freedom and Responsibility, ‘we must have a certain degree of conformity between its political institutions and the moral character of its members.’

The duty, then, of every Irishman and grandson of Irishmen, of every Italian and son of Italians, in this land is to conform his moral character to American political institutions; to conform, not his speech or even merely his vote, but his every thought and hope and plan — for it must be an unreserved spiritual conformity—to this, his country. There cannot be two nationalisms even if one is major and one minor, even if one claims to be American first and German second.


It will justly be urged that criticism is not necessarily helpful unless it is constructively suggestive as well as destructively analytical. While I do not believe that the current methods or plans for Americanization can bring about what is claimed for them, yet, in themselves, they are praiseworthy; in so far as they are new names for schooling, education, hygiene, and the Golden Rule, they are the minimum of what we should do — and should have begun doing decades ago — for a somewhat helpless and often ignorant and exploited class of our inhabitants, both alien and native. These are all part of our human duty and of our public duty to our fellow men.

The objection to such methods — which fail to Americanize, even though they may humanly improve, those beings subjected to them — is that, in effect, they accelerate and widen the inclusion of new ‘foreign votes’ in the American electorate. In this respect they perpetuate the basic error of all our immigration policy — that of inviting and hastening that purely legalistic Americanization known as naturalization. This, in a land swept by large migratory currents of varied and even nondescript nationalities, where manhood suffrage is the fundamental law, constitutes a real and growing danger.

No country has so cheapened the electoral franchise as the United States, by practically giving all the rights thereunder for the mere asking. The only controlling and controllable test is a certain arbitrarily fixed length of residence; for it will hardly be urged that the so-called ‘intention,’ supported by a declaration of forswearing allegiance to foreign potentates, and so forth, enters seriously into the transformation. Length of residence, that is, time (in a process which in the majority of cases requires some generations), if an element at all, should be a very long period. Some students have urged fifteen years, but to the writer, twenty-five years would not seem too long for what might be called a splendid political apprenticeship. Provision, however, should be made for shortening such apprenticeship upon proof of special qualities of a high order, or of public or quasi-public service rendered to this country.

Length of residence was chosen because it was easily proved and easily ascertainable; but today no one could claim it as either a safe or even a rational test. There are services and sacrifices which an alien may undergo in this country a month after landing, of such a character as to entitle him to immediate or honorary citizenship; there are acts and omissions by an alien resident here ten years which should bar him everlastingly from citizenship or divest him of it if naturalized. The real test for citizenship should be political fitness and personal worthiness; and if the lawyers argue that these are too subtle and spiritual to be defined by statute, then it were better that we should suspend naturalization for half a century while we try to live down our past errors in this field.

This nation has two functions in history and toward mankind: first, to disseminate principles of democracy, freedom, and humanity among all men throughout the world; and, second, to be a nation characteristically American from top to bottom. It is this latter function that we have sacrificed — if not seriously endangered — by our policy and desire of forcing quick or accelerated Americanization, be it political or spiritual. The present ‘drive’ has already brought forth a number of bills in Congress which, in effect, would compel aliens, after a certain length of residence, to become ‘citizens’ or leave the country.

Yet the more ‘raw’ citizens (if I may use the term) you take in, helping the process by a veneer of Americanization, the more you threaten our characteristically American form of democracy. ‘If we believe,’ as I said several years ago before the American Academy of Political Science, ‘in the great system of self-government developed and stubbornly fought for by the English people through centuries of training and struggle, we may fairly claim that its continuance and stability will depend on a citizenship attached to and understanding its spirit and history and in sympathy with its political ideals,’ ‘We want and must have real spiritual allegiance; we want and must have only such citizens as think in terms of American life.’

As the finest contemporary exponent of America said, in his American Ideals, there is ‘one quality that we must bring to the solution of every problem, that is, an intense and fervid Americanism.’ Even in the great struggle now going on between capital and labor, ‘the outcome,’ as President Hadley has said, will depend ‘on the character of the people,’ that is, on whether our business shall be dominated by ‘the spirit of the Puritan.’

If such American spirit and such American citizenship cannot be obtained by any rapid process working on our alien masses, — and I contend that it cannot except in special cases, — then why encourage or permit the naturalization of such masses, or, as at least one Congressional bill provides, force American citizenship on alien residents? Naturalization is not the right of an immigrant, but a privilege which the United States can grant, withhold, or condition.

We are constantly concerned with the restriction of immigration, but it is a far more important matter for America to bar the immigrant from its body-politic than to shut him out from the country. Indeed, I believe we should encourage a back-and-forth alien migration, rather than a stable one which ends in becoming an alien colonization in our midst. If we cared for American more and for our political party or our labor union less, we would concentrate our efforts, not so much on excluding able-bodied alien workmen who are needed to help ‘develop the resources of our country, but more on the urgent and vital need of barring numberless ‘new-made’ citizens from our electorate.

For over fifty years the tendency in this country has been to make American citizenship easily achievable; today, when we begin, though darkly, to see the evil consequences of such largesse, we grasp at the slender raft of Americanization to escape the storm; and in the name of such an empirical and simplicist remedy, some of our Congressmen, with equal good faith and simplicism, propose legislation which, in effect, will add to our un-American or pseudo-American vote.

We cannot remedy the past, or cover our mistakes, by a resort to disfranchisement; but we can and should oppose any attempt, made in however good faith, to increase the number of such Americanized citizens within our body-politic, who tomorrow may have the power, as well as the desire, to change the character of our democracy. The foreign vote is already making itself felt in some parts of our country as a distinctly foreign vote. Let us then take to heart the words written many years ago by the most balanced observer and student of our immigration problem, Richmond Mayo-Smith; words which today sound like a patriotic warning: —

‘The change in social ideals wrought by the infiltration of peoples having different customs and habits of life can be detected only as these elements and habits of life gradually become dominant, and as we see the decay of habitudes which we had valued. We then exclaim against the degeneracy of the times, forgetting that we ourselves have admitted the elements which have superseded the old.’