Americanization: The Other Side of the Case


BEFORE putting the patient under the anæsthetic and operating on him, give him a chance to say a few words; they may help the wise doctors in their diagnosis, and may suggest the kind of operation to be performed. It is no consolation to the patient or to his friends to say that the operation was successful but the patient died. ‘Americanize the foreigners’ is the cry heard all over the country. Several state legislatures have already passed laws, more or less practical, to satisfy this hysterical cry, and the present session of Congress has similar legislation on its programme. I say hysterical advisedly, for the reason that it looks so to the ‘ foreigners ’ who have gone through the mill, who are in better position to know the situation, and can judge better the results of ill-advised attempts by legislators to make to order Americans out of ‘foreigners.’ It is not a question of principle with us alien-born American citizens; but the means by which ‘foreigners ’ are sought to be Americanized give us cause to raise our voices in protest. By all means, let those who seek the bounty of this liberal country to settle here permanently become in spirit and in truth Americans; and let those who come here temporarily, so long as it pleases America to admit them, gratefully accept her munificence, and observe scrupulously all her laws; but the question is, can a ‘ foreigner ’ become a true American by force? Some of the legislation already passed, and some of the methods contemplated, savor strongly of force. Is that wise? Is it practical? Is it American?

I preface this, so as not to be misunderstood. Although bom in far-off Czecho-Slovakia, under the shadow of the snow-capped Tatra, I can without boasting say that I yield to no one in my loyalty to the Stars and Stripes; and if I differ in my views as to the methods to be used in Americanizing those who, like me, were born in other countries, I do it out of love for my adopted country, and because I am anxious to see these efforts crowned with success. We who are Americans by our free choice (pardon the boast) deplore sincerely the faults of our compatriots, and are most anxious to see them remedied; we are heartily in favor of any practical movement on the part of American-born citizens to help these people to become true Americans, in the full meaning of the word; but we say that you will never succeed by using the same methods as drove many of them to seek the shelter of free American institutions. Do not transplant Prussia or Hungary to the shores of liberal America. Prussian and Magyar methods have proved to be a failure: the Irish nation is a fairly lively corpse, in spite of the fact that the prohibited Celtic language is almost reckoned among the dead languages. Remember this: a parrot does not become a man by learning to say, ‘ Polly wants a cracker,’ or to swear like a sailor. Do not confuse the means with the end: a man can commit treason in English as readily as in Hottentot.

First of all, why this hectic outcry just now? Why this feverish activity to remedy by legislation the evils which grew up through years of neglect, nay, almost brutal opposition, on the part of the American-born; through years of galling ridicule and heartless exploitation; through years of contempt and prejudice? Let us face the facts squarely. Is it because of the activities of the paid agents of foreign governments during the war? Is it because of foreign and native propaganda now? Why does not the government deal with individuals according to their just deserts? Why does the government so scrupulously adhere to the constitutional safeguards of individuals in its proceedings against those who openly renounce and ridicule them? Could anything be more humiliating than the arrogance of the departing Emma Goldman? Of all the ‘ foreigners ’ whom it is proposed now to Americanize only a negligible percentage is dangerous to American institutions, and the government of such a powerful nation ought to have no trouble in getting rid of these.

Some of them are crude in their manners, illiterate, and ignorant of the fine points of our Constitution; but at heart they are loyal to their new country; their greatest desire is to become like Americans, whom they admire; their greatest boast is that they are citizens, and they almost worship their ‘second papers,’if they have been able to get them. I need not cite proofs of this: it is inscribed in letters of blood on the pages of American history. To-day many of them are, besides, bound to this country by gratitude for the help which it extended to their oppressed brethren in the land of their nativity. During the war they looked upon the Stars and Stripes, not only as the flag of their adopted country, but also as a symbol of hope, a guaranty of freedom to their mother countries: and so it is now.

They are living beings, and it is the essential principle of life to respond to favorable environment. All efforts at their Americanization should be founded upon this principle. Remove difficulties out of their way, create a favorable environment, and they will respond to it. Do not place new difficulties in their way.


The greatest obstacles to the speedy Americanization of ‘foreigners’ are the ridicule of, contempt for, and prejudice against them on the part of native Americans. In showing this, I will confine myself to the experience of the Czecho-Slovaks, so that I may be able to make out a concrete case, and because I am best acquainted with their spirit and situation. The Bohemian or Czech portion of the Czecho-Slovaks are old settlers in this country; most of them are considered as Americanized. The Slovak immigration is rather recent, and is included in that invidious term, ‘foreigners.’ The first immigrants came here, or rather were brought here, by American agents scouring Europe for laborers; so that originally they were sought after. They first settled in the hard-coal regions of Pennsylvania. After them came thousands seeking larger opportunities, or fleeing from Magyar political persecution. That they are hard workers and economical, every one concedes. But it is said in justification of the existing prejudice, — if class prejudice can be justified, — that they have so many bad habits, their manners are so uncouth, their dress so ridiculous and crude, they live in such an unsanitary way, they are such drunkards and fight so much — in fact they are chronic trouble-makers. There are two other specifications, of a different nature, charged against them: that they constitute the cheap labor of the country and compete unfairly with the American laborer, and that they come here only to save up money and take it home with them, thus taking out of the country a large portion of its capital. Before answering these accusations categorically, let me say this in general: they are deeply religious, no matter what religion they profess; there are hardly any professional hardened criminals among them; and there are no anarchists.

It may be a little humiliating to proud Americans to know that the manners of these ‘foreigners’ deteriorate in the United States. They have lost many good points by their contact with Americans, principally on account, of bad example. Trained in the hard school of centuries of servitude under the most cruel masters, the Slovaks are naturally respectful to their superiors, — not necessarily servile, — retiring and law-abiding; they are trusting, kind-hearted, and cheerful. To them the state and its authority are things sacred. True, the laboring class does not possess the polish of the salon, cannot wear a tuxedo with grace and elegance; but are American laborers courtiers? They learned to chew tobacco in America, but nothing is more repellent to them than to see the cheek of a well-dressed man bulge with a ‘quid,’ and they cannot understand how a man in an exalted position, say a judge in the courtroom, can squirt tobacco-juice under the bench. Their dress may appear ridiculous; but when milady turns up her puissant nose at the unshapely dress of her Slovak sister, let her remember that she looks so ungainly because she is trying to imitate Parisian fashions; in her native country she wore lace and embroidery over which milady would rave, and that made with her own hands; she wore the finest hand-made linen, her own product from the flax to the garment. She has not tortured her shape all her life out of the proportions which nature bestowed on her.

They will amuse themselves on Sundays in a boisterous manner, have music and dancing. It should not be, even if there is no real harm in it, if for no other reason than out of deference to American customs. At home they did it mostly in the open air, under some spreading tree, and they hardly realize the difference when done in confined quarters.

Now about their housing conditions. Here the same statement applies as to their manners: they live here, as a rule, worse than they did at home. Who is to blame? The first settlers lived exclusively in company houses, and thousands of them still use such quarters as their employers supply them. Those living in cities mostly occupy houses from which proud American families draw rents. And what exorbitant rates they pay! At the rate which they pay for their two or three rooms they could rent palaces, if counted by rooms. In the old country, no matter how humble the cottage, it had a small plot of ground around it and the flower-garden in front of it was one of the housekeeper’s greatest prides. A large coal company in Pennsylvania, in recent years, has made some effort to better the housing conditions, and now in the blooming front gardens you can see the reproduction of some old country village. The Slovak women are the largest buyers of stove-polish, and no other women spend as much time on their knees scrubbing the floors.

So long as the American government drew large revenues from the sale of liquors, who dares to accuse them of disloyalty because they drank a good deal? As to being trouble-makers: if the facts were thoroughly sifted, it would appear that in the majority of cases the fights at celebrations were caused by American hoodlums who wanted forcibly to share their kegs of beer, which the ‘hunkies’ naturally resented. I need not describe how much the first settlers in the hard-coal regions of Pennsylvania suffered at the hands of a certain organized gang of another nationality, dozens of whom finally expiated their crimes on the gallows. We heard of their terrorism four thousand miles away.


Now take the other side of the picture: what did the ‘foreigner’ have to endure? Ridicule, contempt, persecution, exploitation, extortion, injustice, all of which was due to the prejudice against him. He is very seldom called by his name, is always referred to as ‘hunkie,’ or ‘dago,’ or the like; he is made on all sides to feel that he is despised, that he is a stranger and unwelcome. His children are discriminated against, no matter how hard he tries to bring them up according to the American standard. To bring this home: several times my little girl asked me, ‘Daddy, why does Jennie call me a hunkie?’ It hurts, and not everybody can take such matters philosophically, especially when he knows that his child is just as good as if not better than the other.

This ostracism by American-born children and young folk is bearing very disastrous fruit. Fine clean-cut young men of foreign parentage have gone wrong because compelled to associate with American scum. They are shunned by their equals, made to feel uncomfortable among them, and so they seek other society, often dangerous. And this discrimination is not always crude and brutal, owing to ignorance. Some years ago I had occasion to make an argument before the court in banc, three judges sitting. Some days later one of the judges was kind enough to compliment me on my effort, and added that Judge — had remarked upon the fact that a foreign-born attorney could acquit himself so well. And why not, pray? It would take volumes to describe the abuse, ill-treatment, discrimination, and even brutality which the ‘hunkies’ have to suffer at their work — work which the native American would disdain to perform but which must be done. Let us spread a pall of forgetfulness over it. Furthermore, only those connected with the practice of law know the amount of injustice and extortion that is practised on them. Prejudice often blinds even the jurists sitting as judges. Details could be given ad nauseam. At times it seems as if Americans thought that the ‘ foreigners ' have no ordinary human feelings.

It is true that the first settlers competed with American labor; but they soon learned their lesson. There are no stauncher supporters of organized labor than ‘foreigners,’ and they form the backbone of some large unions. Just now there is an outcry against them, and all the labor unrest is laid at their doors. But go to their meetings, and you will find that in some locals the only Americans are the officers who are their leaders. In whose hands is the national leadership? How many ‘foreigners’ are at the head of large labor organizations? The number of foreign agitators who are dangerous to American institutions is small: why does not the government eject them summarily? It is a principle of American jurisprudence that a man can renounce his country; why is not the reverse also true, that a country can renounce its citizen, after he has openly declared himself to be opposed to all organized government? Easily misled; blind followers; unfit for our institutions, it will be objected. Which is a greater crime, to lead astray or to follow astray? Besides, why is it almost impossible to abolish political bossism throughout the whole country? That is politics, I hear someone say.

It is true that many of them return to the old country and take money along with them, their hard-earned savings. Can they be blamed for wishing to return to more congenial personal surroundings and put up with political oppression which is more distant? The fact is that the United States should appreciate this propensity of the ‘foreigners’; it has saved the country many a labor crisis, and has automatically solved the question of unemployment, with which other countries have had to wrestle. The volume of travel by sea was a good barometer, and a very sensitive one, of business conditions in this country. When slack times came, the outgoing business of the steamship companies was brisk, and when conditions improved, the tide turned the other way. Thus unemployment was kept at a minimum. America should not begrudge the price in money that it had to pay for the solution of such a delicate problem.

Now, what efforts are being made to make the ‘foreigners’ forget all this, and to make them cheerful, loyal, and willing Americans? I am sure that no one wants to force them to become Americans: that would be un-American. The methods so volubly and voluminously discussed can be divided into two groups — educational and legislative. Settlement-workers are as thick as flies among the ‘foreigners.’ But these latter, for some reason or other, are not responding to kindness, it will be reported by some kind-hearted but rather meddlesome lady. It would be far better for her if she stayed at home and did her own knitting, put her own house in order. It would be well if this work were more sympathetic and less professional. The ‘foreigners’ do not want to be pampered, but neither do they want strangers to come among them with a better-than-thou air and try to ‘uplift’ them. The earnest ‘foreigner,’ with a little self-respect in him, hates to be made a public spectacle, to be exhibited like some rare bird or a freak of nature to boost the standing of some professional Americanizer, so that his salary may be increased. There is a suspicion among the foreign-born that all this hullabaloo now raised is artificial, that the professional Americanizers need it in their business. The war has created so many new professions, organizers, and charity workers, who need new outlets for their talents. I was present at one ‘Americanization meeting’ and was disgusted with it. ‘See,’ the professional seemed to say, ‘what I made of these savages; that is my work.’ I know of a Federal judge who has made more Americans, technically and spiritually, by his sympathetic talks when granting papers, than whole shoals of professional Americanizers. They fairly worship him, but the outside world knows little about it. But when it is done to the accompaniment of theatricals, the victim may remember what the boss called him at his job the day before, and he will not have a very high opinion of American sincerity.

Really all such work is unnecessary. The old generation, the original immigrants, will soon die out, and the public schools are doing all that can be done for the coming generation. Only one thing need be added to their present system; teach the American-born children to treat the others as their equals. The problem will solve itself, if you will remove the friction between native and alien-born, and keep meddlers, who cannot take the ‘ foreigner’s ’ view, from interfering with the natural process.

In the vast mass of literature spread broadcast over the country so far I have seen but one item which showed the proper spirit. The Massachusetts Bureau of Immigration gave out this motto: ‘Our foreign-speaking neighbors desire our friendship; we desire theirs. We should make these strangers in a strange land feel “at home”; that we want them to share “our house.” You can help make America united by special courtesy and patience in your daily contact with all who do not speak our language readily. Help make America, its institutions, and Americans dear to them, so that they, too, will become steadfast Americans.’

Sincere thanks from all ‘foreigners’ to the composer of this beautiful motto. In other words, Americanize the Americans first, and there will be no trouble with the ‘foreigners’; for all these various methods are not truly American. These ‘foreigners’ have a very high conception of Americanism. My teacher of English (and he was a Prussian), so far as I can remember (it was twenty-eight years ago), said to me: ‘John, no higher compliment can be paid to a man than to say that he is an American gentleman; the qualification “American” raises him above everybody.’ That was my first lesson in Americanism; quite often I was disabused; but when I meet with an American gentleman, I have no trouble in recognizing him from this description.


All the legislative programmes contain in one form or another a provision for forcing the ‘foreigners’ to learn the English language. That is a great mistake. By all means, raise the bars against immigrants as high as public policy demands; be very stringent in granting the foreign-born the supreme privilege of citizenship. It is right, nay, it is the duty of the country to protect itself against undesirables; but the language test is the poorest test that could be thought of. It is just as futile as the literacy test in the immigration legislation; it will produce results contrary to those desired. It will admit into the country and to citizenship the crook, the agitator, the dangerous criminal, and keep out the honest, hard-working man. The swindler, the agitator, and his like are usually educated men, and can easily comply with the provisions of such legislation; the ignorant, unlettered man is politically harmless.

It is also proposed by some to abolish the foreign-language press. That would be taking away from aliens the only means of acquiring information, and from the government the only means of reaching the ‘foreigners.’ I am surprised that no government officials raise their voices in protest after their experience during the war; after the help that they received from the foreign-language newspapers in counteracting the poisons spread by paid agitators of hostile foreign governments. They could also tell that they received voluntary information concerning meetings at which dangerous principles were advocated.

History has proved that language will not necessarily make a man a loyal citizen. What has England gained by forcing the Irish to learn the English language? Prussia tried to Prussianize the Poles by prohibiting the use of the Polish tongue, and Hungary tried to Magyarize its various nationalities by similar legislation; and what has happened? The principle of the oppressed nations was that action creates reaction; and the more the government tried to force a strange tongue on them, the more strenuously they opposed it.

Language is a very useful means to an end; also it is something to which a strong sentiment attaches; but it is a mistake to make the language an end, the test of a man’s loyalty. So long as a man is free to learn another language, he will do his best to learn it, if it is to his advantage; but if you try to force him to learn it, his opposition to it will at once be awakened. The psychology of this need not be discussed; it is a fact. The foreigners in this country realize the value of the English language, and are doing their best to acquire it; but let them find out that it is obligatory, and they will present a thousand and one excuses against learning it. For one thing, they will argue: ‘You call this a free country; we came here because we thought it was so; we fled from our native land because they wanted us to learn a strange tongue; and behold, America is doing the same thing.’ They do not object to the English language as a language, but they will more or less strenuously oppose it, if required by law to learn it. Their objections are not wholly for sentimental reasons; most of them are hard-working men, doing back-breaking labor in grime and amid intense heat which completely exhausts them; to require them, after a day put in at such work, to go to school and to learn a new language, at an advanced age, is almost inhuman. It is all very well for a professional Americanizer, sitting at his desk, with plenty of leisure, to learn another language; but it is a different matter for a hard-working man.

Besides, it is unnecessary: the new generation knows English; a great many young men and women are even ashamed of their mother-tongue. Outside of small villages, where the population is in some cases almost entirely foreign, the children do not speak their mother-tongue even among themselves. It is a common experience with some parents to be answered in English by their children when addressed in their mother-tongue. What advantage can be gained from arousing the secret opposition of these people by such legislation? Because of the undue importance given to language in European countries by their governments, it received an equally undue importance in the estimation of the people; language was raised by these means to the same sentimental heights as religion. It is not wise for legislators to meddle with sentiments not directly harmful to the country.

This problem of language will also solve itself, if left to its natural course. Liberal and generous treatment, in accord with the principles of Americanism, on the part of individuals in their daily contact with the ‘ foreigners ’ will do more than volumes of laws. Let every American constitute himself a committee of one to behave with ordinary courtesy toward the ‘foreigner,’ and not to discriminate against him, and he will respond wonderfully. He need not show ‘special courtesy’ as the Massachusetts Bureau asks: ordinary courtesy will be sufficient. The American is not asked to go out of his way to please the ‘foreigner’; he needs only to meet him half-way. If the government will supplement this by energetic action against the real undesirables, the country will have nothing to fear from the others. There is no one more disgusted with the dilatory, temporizing tactics of our government in dealing with these pests than the alien-born citizens.

It can be said with assurance that the solidarity of the United States during the past war, in spite of its very much mixed population, rested solely on its past liberality, these unpleasant features notwithstanding. The foreignborn population overlooked all that, and their love for their adopted country wiped out all past irritation, healed all their wounds when the great crisis came. Do not repay them with distrust and unnecessary burdens. Was not the Kaiser disappointed in his ‘American party’? And the evidence against the Germans seemed to be the strongest.

The position of the ‘foreigners’ here is analogous to that of the Christians in the days of persecution by the Roman Empire. They are treated, not as individuals, according to their deserts, but as a class, and the whole class is condemned. There seems to be a certain perversity that is unexplainable; indulgence to the individual transgressor and severity with the class. A man can openly renounce his allegiance, declaim against organized forms of government, denounce the right of the government to interfere with the individual, laugh at constitutional guaranties, and at the same time invoke them for his protection, and they will be granted to him; but you condemn a whole class without a hearing. It seems so un-American, for the American boasts of his fondness for fair play. Let Congress stop playing politics, catering to the popular clamor; let it pass stringent laws for the protection of the country, and wise and constructive laws to promote its future welfare; let the executive powers enforce those laws fearlessly; let them hunt down the violators, high and low, native or alien, and it will be found that those of Czecho-Slovak origin, naturalized or unnaturalized (I speak now for them alone), are as a class, loyal, law-abiding, hard-working inhabitants of the United States, and that there are no more criminals and traitors among them than among native-born Americans. What more is wanted of them?