The (Endlessly Evolving) American

This tweet directs us to a post by Gregory Rodriguez (I had not read him before), who offers thoughts on from where he feels Trumpism comes: “whiteness”:

I will say it is worth a read. It caught my eye especially because as a few of you may know I have something of an interest in the late British colonies and early independence USA. A good place here to begin considering his post is, I think, with his assertion of this:

Of course, America’s woeful response to the coronavirus has been an object lesson in the importance of presidential leadership. But more importantly it has also revealed the extent to which whiteness has devolved into a force that threatens the common good. Despite the fact that masks have been shown to slow the pandemic, several national surveys have shown that whites are significantly less likely to wear them in public than are nonwhites. Does partisanship play a part in this behavior? Absolutely. But there’s a deeper and longer story about the meaning of America that explains this and other antisocial behavior a whole lot better.

That meaning according to him is “whiteness” coupled with whites’ extolling of individuality and a distrust of government is a national threat. White Americans, he contends, unlike Black, Native, and brown Americans, might be said by now to be “post ethnic.” As a result – to try to sum up – many are “lonely and empty,” and lacking a sense of community and purpose, and so are little but flag-waving, hyper-obsessive individualists, and hollowed out chauvinists, who will rally ’round the banner of any charlatan who promises them “greatness,” with President Donald J. Trump being now the latest one.

[“The Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, 1817. Photo by me, 2020.]

This situation did not come about overnight, but, he argues, is the result of a demand since 1776, and especially since World War I, from ruling whites that white newer immigrants must give up their “cultures” (particularly, there should be no “hyphenated” Americans) and “assimilate.” In contrast, Blacks and unsurprisingly anyone else who could not “pass” as white could not similarly “assimilate” into such “whiteness.” And with Europeans and their white descendants constituting the bulk of the US population, “whiteness” therefore became synonymous with being an American. After centuries of such white supremacy this current generation now includes many whites – especially Trump voters – who are finding it inconceivable that a Black or a non-European immigrant could ever become truly as “American” as they (as whites) are; and in an increasingly “diverse” country those whites are now becoming angry at a loss of political power and presumptive ruler status as the “real” Americans, with one consequence being they are willing to undermine the wider social good in the pandemic with the attitude of, basically, “Sc-ew you, Cuomo. Give me liberty, or give me death. I ain’t wearing no socialist mask.”

That seems reasonable. However, though, the more I thought about it, I realized I was troubled by it; it struck me as too simplistic. For the boundaries of our varied identities (and we all have numerous ones) are never straight or absolute; there are always blurry overlaps and exceptions.

Beginning with the 1600s New England Puritan settlers, Mr. Rodriguez surveys the centuries since then having clearly already arrived at his verdict, so pushes forward only those incidents, observers, and opinions that he seemingly believes support it. For example, Theodore Roosevelt, a complicated man and considered one of the greatest presidents by most historians who have also been long aware of his numerous faults, is dismissed as “a racist who lauded the ‘domineering masterful spirit’ of the white race and considered blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese incapable of living in a democratic society.” And, yes, there is no doubt Roosevelt held what we would today consider at times at best “problematic” views on race. Yet when that same Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House, Roosevelt received a torrent of criticism and abuse, including from a southern senator who assailed him: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n-gger will necessitate our killing a thousand n-ggers in the South before they learn their place again.” We could reasonably state that by our standards today nearly every white American born in the 18th and 19th centuries was in some form or another a racist, but are we to label Roosevelt and that senator as being racist birds of a feather when that senator was obviously a helluva lot MORE racist than was that president who reached out to the Black Civil Rights leader, educator, and author? Moreover, as for southern Europeans, while Mr. Rodriguez correctly notes Roosevelt indeed rejected anti-immigration sentiments directed at them (the decade that saw the largest number of Italians enter the US was during his time in the White House), prior to his presidency and unnoted by Mr. Rodriguez is that in 1891 Roosevelt had privately approved of the New Orleans lynchings of nine Italians.

[Near Port Jervis, New York. Photo by me, 2020.]

In the early 1960s British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (who had an Indiana-born American mother) quipped that he had to deal with primarily two types of “anti-Britishness” among Americans: the first was that from Irish-Americans; and the second came from those who wanted to prove that their ancestors were at the Boston Tea Party. It is no secret that the United States of America was founded in 1776 by mostly the latter: descendants of people from the British Isles, with a minority from various northern European lands, including Roosevelt’s Dutch ancestors. Thus the broadly British identity became the basis upon which the new country was invariably built – the first seven presidents were born under British rule and were of British descent – and, at that time, to be British was essentially synonymous with being “white.”

The Founding Father “elite” and their families were far more widely traveled and more literate than most Americans, who rarely (if ever) ventured more than about 100 miles from home and wrote comparatively little that has come down to us. One of the latter was Mary Cooper, who lived on a farm outside of Oyster Bay, New York, and is more than a name and dates on a churchyard grave headstone to us now only because uncommonly she kept a diary that starts in 1768 (when she was fifty-four), breaks off in 1773, and it survived. (She lived until 1778 and there is probably more of it, but the rest has not been found.) Her (often short) entries on daily living, family hardship, the weather, and on faith, are amazing reading still:

August the 20 [1769], Sabbath. Like for rain but the shower went by us. I and Ester went to meeten. Some Indans and one Black man com from Montalk. Ben Jethrow and Siah Baman preach all day long and while late in the night. I and Ester come home alone very late in the night. I fell in the Brook. I am tired and very much distrest.

That entry is typical. How much Mrs. Cooper actually thought or felt about being a “soon-to-be” American is unclear. What we do see for sure is she was a woman, wife, mother, and grandmother, trying just to survive from one day to the next until her Lord called her from this life.

Between 1775-1783 those who clearly did care tore down the statues of British King George III; but the institutions of the new US government were still greatly influenced by British traditions. (American lawyers-to-be still read Blackstone.) The cultural norms of most of the population, including the population being about 98 percent Protestant, were rooted in their British heritage. (Straining to make common cause with Roman Catholic Quebec during the War of Independence, in early November 1775 General George Washington had to order “Guy Fawkes” NOT to be observed in the new American army.) Political independence could hardly have been expected instantly to overturn a couple of centuries of what had been the societal norms before.

[The 1775-1777 “Grand Union” flag. The first flag of the United States. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

Many of those who thought about these things clearly believed themselves to be an emerging new people, born and raised on the American continent, a reality they held that British especially over in Britain did not fully understand; many “tories” – essentially Americans who still considered themselves British and did not want to accept US independence – fled the country or were chased out of the new US. (For example, a young aide of the Duke of Wellington’s had been born in New York City and in 1815 died in agony in a small farmhouse days after Waterloo as his British wife struggled and failed to save his life after he had suffered a hideous wound; his family had not wanted to remain in the independent US so they left – along with tens of thousands of others who ended up similarly in Britain, in Canada, or on British-ruled islands in the West Indies.) In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson writes indifferently of his British Isles family heritage. In a letter, John Adams declares proudly that his family had been American for generations and he was not in the slightest English. (The same could not quite be said of his grandchildren from his daughter-in-law, Louisa Johnson, a British-born American – she had an American father and a British mother – who had never even visited the United States when in 1797 in London she married John Quincy.)

In 1776 the US had a population of some 2 million whites. (In comparison, in 1776 the population of Great Britain – excluding Ireland – was around 9 million and France’s was around 25 million.)

There were also half a million Black slaves. Those enslaved Blacks were amidst the US population, but not in it.

Native Americans were not counted as part of the US population because most lived in lands beyond the then US frontier or largely outside of the effective authority of the new US government. The centuries of interactions and ugly conflict with Native Americans is far too complicated for the scope of this post, but the bottom line tended to be then and for decades after that they – even if friendly with the US – were generally viewed as foreigners and foreign nations. Particularly if allied as many were also at times with the British, the French, and the Spanish, making war on them as enemy allies was not seen as unreasonable; and as “non-Americans” they could be relocated or just shunted aside much like Acadians or “tories” whenever it was deemed necessary. When eventually they invariably found themselves within US territory, the federal government’s policies toward them, usually concocted at the urging of state and local officials due to the fears and the greed of nearby whites, fell mostly on the sliding scale of somewhere between inept and insensitive even when undertaken with the best of intentions to vicious and genocidal at their morally inexcusable worst; and even those Natives who attempted to conform to US desires that they “civilize” and “assimilate” were often badly mistreated. (The horror inflicted on the Cherokee in 1838-39 being but one sorry example.)

“To be an American,” political theorist Carl Friedrich once said, “is an ideal; while to be a Frenchman is a fact.”

I was surprised to see the likes of that noted. Because it is an odd choice of quotation to apply to the 21st century. For if that 20th century assertion by Friedrich was once possibly true about France, it is by now an idea that is riddled with holes.

Ask random people in France currently what being “French” is. Start by asking it first in a village in the Loire Valley where ancestries go back three centuries; and then in Paris’s chic 16th arrondissement; and then outside of that city in, say, Vitry-sur-Seine among recent immigrants. Just as you would get varying answers about “Americanness” among Americans of varying backgrounds, you will get decidedly different answers about being French depending on which “French” you ask.

So is it accurate to claim that to be “French” in this 21st century is somehow “a fact,” while to be American is NOT a fact? I would say no.

Mr. Rodriguez also cites this:

Two years after Tocqueville published Democracy in America, Bohemia-born Francis J. Grund came out with his own book on the American character In it he argued that America was merely a vessel through which its citizens expressed themselves. “An American,” wrote Grund, “does not love his country like a Frenchman loves France, or an Englishman England: America is to him but a physical means of establishing a moral power, the medium through which his mind operates—‘the local habitation’ of his political doctrines.” He went on to add, that, to the extent that Americans did love their country, they loved it not as it was, but as they hoped it would one day be.

I feel it is worth noting that Grund is wrong there: white Americans did have an underlying general identity in at least their inherited “Britishness,” and as the generations inevitably passed something “new” had been coming together that was a mishmash of that heritage combined with what they were experiencing in their new US polity. One small example: we can reasonably state that while both were clearly British-influenced, early-1800s novelists Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper writing tales set on the North American continent were among the first actual American novelists.

Also let us ask what is wrong with an aspect of any character that aspires to do better? Is contentment with an imperfect status quo a good thing? After all, if many Americans – white and Black – had not sought to change that status quo, how much longer would, say, slavery have persisted?

[Sign at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Virginia estate. Photo by me, 2011.]

And is there something “unique” in Americans’ idealism in craving to better the country they love? Even implying Europeans love their countries “as is,” and therefore do not aspire as readily to see them become better places, is (and was) preposterous. A mere two generations before Grund, the French Revolution (1789-1799), for one, was certainly compelling evidence that masses of French were idealistic and determined to improve their France and their children’s futures.

Incidentally, if you had not heard of Grund until now, don’t feel badly. He was a minor figure whose output honestly does not really merit the attention he receives here. Another Tocqueville he was not.

[De Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Photo by me, 2020.]

Which leads us to somewhere that also receives little attention but I believe should receive far more. It is a major blind spot in any discussion of “Europeanness” and “whiteness” as the aim of “assimilation” in the US to treat the US as some hemispheric island and fail to recall that everywhere else in the Americas from Mexico to Argentina are also immigrant-based. Similar to the US, most other countries in the Western Hemisphere also have birthright citizenship (unlike most places in Europe and other countries around the globe). However, it is the US that is always singled out as an “immigrant society” in the Americas largely because of the desire of some in it to espouse a somehow exceptional American “universality” (the idea that anyone on the planet is a potential American); and we see that “universality” attitude in varying degrees from Jefferson – who agreed as president with Archbishop Carroll that there should be a Roman Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. – to Lincoln to Emma Lazarus to John Kennedy and even to Ronald Reagan, and among so many others.

Remembering that, we could try for argument’s sake here now simply to reword Friedrich’s assertion to reach to South America: “To be an American, is an ideal; while to be an Argentinian is a fact.” Is that accurate? Given its own immigrant heritage, is that any more “fact” for an Argentinian than for an American? That question is especially salient in the current US political context, for while those of (mostly) British descent were founding the US, to the south at the same time Mexico, Central, and South America were under mostly Spanish and Portuguese imperial rule after having been founded by Spanish and Portuguese settlers and immigrants.

It is therefore unreasonable to argue that the British-immigrant-created US is without a “main” culture, while a Spanish/Portuguese-immigrant-created polity possesses one. The fundamental difference between the US and the Spanish/Portuguese American empires was the US was composed mostly of Europeans and their descendants, whereas in the newly independent Spanish/Portuguese-speaking countries of Latin America native born whites were usually in the population minority, outnumbered (often substantially) by Native Americans, those of mixed descent, and enslaved (and freed) Blacks. Interestingly Mexican and South American immigration to the US in the last century is therefore the curious immigration phenomenon of descendants (at least usually partly) of sometimes relatively recent (the previous century or two) European immigrants to those countries while few in those similarly immigrant-based Central and South America espouse “universality” in them nearly to the extent we see in the US. (Naturally not everyone in the US agrees with the concept of “universality” either, of course, including – unsurprisingly – unapologetic reactionaries and racists.)

We might ask this too: How should a third country hosting an influx of English-speaking immigrants of all races and all backgrounds coming from Canada, the US, Britain, Ireland, India, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe define them as a broad group? As, perhaps, “Anglx?” Indeed should they even try to define them given the differences between someone from Connecticut and someone from Mumbai – although they both may speak English as a first language? For the debate now taking place in the US over a new label for Latinos, the non-gendered “Latinx,” is not dissimilar: it is merely another academic argument over a term for the descendants of immigrants of various nation-state backgrounds whose only real common denominator – in this case, aside possibly from Roman Catholicism – is that they all happen to speak the European language Spanish as a first language.

[Christopher Columbus. San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by me, 2017.]

Sadly we tend to forget now that from US independence in 1776 through the 1820s the US was something of a “model” and “inspiration” for Mexican, Central, and South American independence movements. Leaders there like Simón Bolívar were heroes to many white Americans, and South American revolutionary leaders’ pilgrimages to the US capital Philadelphia and later Washington, D.C. between 1790-1820 became common; often statues honoring such revolutionaries are seen today here and there in the US capital. Presidents Jefferson (1801-09), Madison (1809-17), and particularly Monroe (1817-25), heartily supported the South American independence movements. It was only the unfortunate 1846-48 US war with Mexico (which was seen in the far more populous US non-slaveholding northern states primarily as a “slave-expanding” conflict and so was deeply unpopular in those states; a young Abraham Lincoln, for example, vocally opposed it) and the 1850s “freelance” filibuster interventions (undertaken primarily by pro-slavery southerners) in Mexico and Central America that flipped the view of the US in the recently independent countries of the former Spanish empire from admiration to mistrust. Yet the US also had those still seeking cooperation and friendship: President Grant (1869-77), who had fought in Mexico, had returned home much impressed by Mexico and Mexicans and sought a warmer relationship with the country. But by then those south of the Rio Grande, including many in Mexico, had come to see the increasingly powerful Americans as having replaced the actual Europeans as the most feared and despised imperialists.

Back in the US, by the 1920s many “white” Americans were clearly feeling “overwhelmed” with the mass southern and eastern European immigration that had been coming their way since about 1870. And that a fear had set in too among them should hardly have been a shock: a president – McKinley – had been assassinated by the American-born “anarchist” son of a Polish immigrant, and European “anarchist” violence associated with southern and eastern Europeans had come to serve as one reason to restrict entry to those from those parts of Europe. (The accidents of history: that 1901 assassination brought Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency; he likely would never have been president had McKinley not been murdered.) That non-English-speaking and mostly non-Protestant immigration had also called into question more than ever the country’s founding heritage: the US had until then remember been rooted in its English-speaking, Protestant, mostly British, founding. (The Catholic Irish “famine” arrivals in the 1840s-50s at least spoke English.) Everyone who had come to the US as immigrants since 1776 had had more or less to fit into that “British” mould and that push for “assimilation” continued into the 20th century too, led by the US government, presided over by presidents Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09), Taft (1909-13), and Wilson (1913-21). So great-grandparent immigrants of mine from Italy may have named their US-born children “Vincenzo” or “Sofia,” but when those children grew up and they themselves had children they chose names such as “Jane” and “Richard” and not Gianna and Riccardo.

My mother once also told me to bear in mind that had her grandparents decided to move to Argentina (as quite a few Italians then did, including we know now Pope Francis’s father) instead of to New York at the turn of the 20th century, and had her parents born there then relocated to the US, and if she had been born in New York all the same, I would be considered in the US by the demographic “powers-that-be” to be “Latino” now. And an actual “Latino” Puerto Rican – and I believe Trump voter – relation of mine considers himself as American as George Washington and he is hardly alone in thinking that among “Latino” Americans either. Consider the surprising minority of US-born “Latinx” men who evidently voted for Trump in 2020 (and in doing so they may have won him Florida). In supporting Trump they too consider themselves thoroughly American, and ironically in their doing so we see how the “assimilationist” model in America in fact rolls on.

…Once the glue to an imperfect type of social cohesion, whiteness now threatens to undermine the social contract altogether. The reluctance that we have witnessed over the past months of both millions of individuals to wear masks and for state and local governments to mandate it were just the most glaring examples of a trend that’s been building for decades. The massive loss of human life will do nothing to change this. The meaning of America, the role of race in it, and a peculiar brand of nation building have allowed the emptiness of whiteness to even pass as nationalism. And once again, as whites continue to shed any semblance of communal tradition, they grab onto patriotic symbols and ideology in an attempt to anchor themselves…

Mr. Rodriguez more or less concludes there by arguing the non-mask-wearing-“resistance” among many Trump-supporting whites is their statement on maintaining the white supremacy of the 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries. Likely there is some truth in that among some few of them. Certainly whites are more split on the issue, but it appears much more to be an urban/suburban white (more likely to be pro) vs. rural (more likely to be anti) distinction, and, again, we should not forget that not all of Trump voting “mask-resistants” were (and are) whites; some (few) were Blacks and Latinos who were drawn to his leadership and it was entirely their right as Americans to vote for the candidate of their choice (even if that candidate unfortunately is a fascist).

[New York absentee ballot. Photo by me, September 2020.]

There is no doubt also now among the overwhelming majority of white Americans that Blacks are an integral part of the American polity in a way most whites did not feel of Blacks in 1776, or in 1861, or some even possibly in 1964. Similarly few white Americans think of Native Americans any longer as “foreigners.” (I will always remember a Native guide at Little Bighorn National Park in Montana about 15 years ago. The college age guy seemed to know all there was to know about all of the major combatants, from Sitting Bull, to Crazy Horse, and Custer, and others. And there we were, the visitors, most of us whites and a couple of Blacks, taking in his historical talk, chatting with him about details, and I found myself thinking how that stupid and bloody confrontation brought on by Custer’s ego had somehow brought us all together a century and a half later on the same spot… in peace… to remember it and hope tomorrow would be better for ALL of us.) The USA is a far more inclusive country in 2020 than it was in 1776.

We have always had trouble defining with precision what makes an American; but that is actually not a bad thing because that creates a flexibility about boundaries and allows the identity more easily to evolve. For instance, the VP-elect, as everyone knows by now, had a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, and she is not that uncommon any longer; Indians – “Hindoos” as Americans of the late-1700s who had heard of them referred to them, never expecting many of them ever to live in the US – are now among the newest large group joining in the American “assimilationist” mix, with hundreds of thousands of young Americans born in the US from India-born parents or grandparents.

The US started out mostly as a nation of Protestants of mostly British origins, but today few of us are directly descended any longer from those newly minted “Americans” of July 4, 1776. Despite all of our troubles it appears we do pretty well, generation after generation, on balance, in “creating” Americans from the latest new arrivals. That in itself is good evidence that being an “American” is not “nothing”: it is most definitely something.

[The Gettysburg Address. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC. Photo by me 2017.]

So presidential leadership probably has more to do with the “mask-resistance” issue than we may appreciate. Brazil, for instance, also has its own “populist” president who much like Trump derided the virus, and Brazil ended up with its own intransigence from “mask-resistants” there. Frankly had US “Dear Leader” President Donald J. Trump not been so negative about mask-wearing and instead encouraged their use, most of his supporters of ALL backgrounds would I believe have followed his lead… because his word is their command… because he is their… Dear Leader.

I know that was a very long and complex post. If you are still here, I am really impressed! I hope you are having a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂