I think there is a general misconception of just what assimilation means to the ideal of “to be American”.
To understand American exceptionalism you must first realize that it was created by the American people, not scholars nor political theoreticians. It is a product of common sense as applied by the American people, any of them, all of them, individually and collectively, as to what people naturally do when they see “opportunity” and a map has been laid out that will lead them there.
Americans, once shown, took to the opportunity like ducks to water. Actually anyone would given the chance. And America has proven this too….that no matter how poor, backward, or the skin color, people can achieve anything if they’ll just sign onto the basic rules of reciprocity with their neighbors. The process is easy to understand, but the work is hard. And it usually takes three generations to learn the basics from the time one’s ancestors first get off the boat, but can be accomplished in as few as one-and-a-half for the hard-working, quick learner.
From the earliest times in America, it was understood that if people behaved in certain ways, the vast majority of the people could reach a measure of success in being able to pursue any opportunity that arose before them. That map had been drawn and proved for many years before it was finally engraved into law as the Constitution of the United States, after 250 years of trial and error. To succeed the people had only to learn to play by certain rules, to be polite with their neighbors, and keep Old World hatreds indoors.
By definition, this formula had to be fairly simple, as the trail was blazed by ordinary men and women for the use of other ordinary men and women. The three cornerstones of this new social arrangement were 1) sets of laws which applied to everyone equally, the Rule of Law, and another 2) was a marketplace in which people could engage freely, the Free Market, principally in buying and selling (trade) but later in the production of goods, and even later the selling of services. The final leg, being largely a religious people, 3) was the belief that the rights we enjoyed were Natural Rights endowed by a Higher Authority, so that no man-made laws could come between the people and those rights. If you’ll recall the founding Federalists (Madison and Hamilton) thought these rights were so universally accepted they didn’t need to be written down, while others, the founding anti-Federalists (Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, George Mason) thought they should write it down. So the Bill of Rights were tacked onto the Constitution to seal the deal, the most important 1436 words of fine print ever tacked onto a contract ever written by Man.
The glue that sealed these three legs into the stool that became the Constitution of the United States was a secular version of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, (Mt 7:12). An old friend, now passed, reweaved this rule to say “reciprocate with thy neighbor as you would have your neighbor reciprocate with you” which he called the Golden Rule of American Exceptionalism.
It’s instinctive in Man to want to build his own House, and to be able to pass it onto his children, to build on that house even more, and to form reciprocal relations with his neighbors so that this process can endure into perpetuity. In a nation of people pursuing this one thing, it won’t hurt the overall endeavor, then, if a few allow their house to fall into rot, or even burn it down. The rest of the houses will go on.
My friend, who’d seen a lot more than I had, went on to say that people all over the world instinctively know this road to opportunity to be a good thing when they see it, and, denied it in their own lands, would risk almost anything to come here to try their hand at it. I have always been simpatico to this thinking, for these kinds of people would make great Americans. But like you, I prefer it to be legal but most of all, genuinely inspired by a desire “to be American”.
I want only people here who will kiss this ground and bless our flag as their own.
In fact, in the period between the 1920s and 1950s, when the American public schools took up the task of formally assimilating hundreds of different nationalities, they built their curricula around patriotism, love of country and flag and heroes, and speaking “goodly English” first.
But back to the original notion of American exceptionalism, and the notion that assimilation is a necessary path toward achieving it. A mistake we make is in believing that assimilation applies only to new arrivals, immigrants. But even for Americans tracing their ancestry back to colonial times, everyone starts out as a blank slate and must be taught, from birth, if they are lucky enough, about those legs that hold up the American stool.
Like Christianity, this is what makes “to be American” a transcendent process, where each new generation must learn being American anew, or, eventually, be left to sink or swim on their own. And since we know the past fifty years in public education have been dedicated to destroying that process so that the state can gain greater control of the worldview and lives of our children, making the houses they build more dependent on government, we have been negligent in attending to our House.
Part of this misconception about assimilation stems from the belief that we were originally a homogeneous people. Yes, we were white, having brought our colored peoples here involuntarily. But the similarity stops there. We weren’t even necessarily WASP (White Anglo-Saxon-Protestant), a fiction proliferated by, you guessed it, the American Left in the 1950s and 60s, trying to do then what we now know they do best, trying to divide people into groups from which political alliances could be formed to defeat this whole idea of “becoming America”.
Nor were we ever monolithically religious. If, in 1700, you could actually find a Baptist, Puritan and Presbyterian on a street in Philadelphia, and refer to the three of them as “Protestant”, two of them would slap the taste right out of your mouth.
In America, the Puritans were first in time, and brought many great ideals of governance, and ironically, the notion of freedom of religion, yet were the most intolerant elitists under the sun about anyone else who was not like them. I’ve often compared those early Puritans to modern American liberals, exactly the same, only with one exception; that God has been entirely banished from their worldview.
In fact, the New England Puritans were so inhospitable and insufferable that migrants from Europe quit coming to American through Massachusetts, choosing the more congenial hospitality of the ports of Pennsylvania, and the welcoming arms of the Friends Society (Quakers) who eased their passage westward, following the rivers passages into the Shenandoah Valley and beyond, into the Carolinas, and from there, over the many years, the real westward march beyond the Appalachians.
Thanks to the Puritans America’s way west began in Philadelphia. It’s a wonderful story, so pull down your copy of Schweikart and Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States and reread those sections for new context, for it was that road from the Pennsylvania ports that caused the Shrenandoah Valley and Carolinas to be settled the way they were…thus 75 years later, their militias would make the difference in our great Revolution against the King of England.
So, American Exceptionalism is a term I use narrowly, as described above. I avoid scholarly interpretations of American Exceptionalism in part because most scholars have absolutely no sense of ordinary people practicing at the craft of being exceptional, the “can’t see the forest for the trees” rap scholars almost always fall off into when they try to interpret the actions of ordinary people.
To my mind the best way to describe the invisible hand of assimilation is to compare two of the greatest books of non-fiction prose ever written, one from the 19th Century, the other from the 20th. Besides their contribution to history both are also considered high forms of literature.
The first everyone knows, it’s Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, being observations made in the United States in early 1830s. I have two copies, one to adorn my bookshelf, and the other, like Schwikart & Allen’s (above), one to underline and dog-ear.
The other book was by Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a Journey Through Yugoslavia. Ms West was an English woman who traveled through Yugoslavia in the 1930s, in the years leading up to World War II. It’s 1150 pages of exquisite descriptions of the most ordinary, sometimes poignant, and sometimes awful, things. Every page is a stand-alone work of art, and to my mind, stands with T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom as a true work of 20th Century literary art.
Why I compare these two works is that Ms West describes a dark reality of life in Europe in the 1930s (and still today, including Russia and Ukraine) that had dissolved in America by the 1830s. Already into 200 years of settled history, America had dozens of ethnicities, yet none of the kinds of ethnic-based violence that tormented the Balkans in the 1930s. In the common areas where trade was conducted, people acted in accordance with the rules of the free market, and always with the reciprocity of common purpose. Group hatreds went indoors.
While ethnic gangs eventually grew in places like New York and Chicago, they were outside the law; outlaws… churches railed against them rather than encourage them, compared to some Catholic prelates in Croatia that encouraged against Orthodox Serbians, or Serbians priests did against their Roman neighbors in the 1930s. Again, this situation still exists there.
Compare from my personal experiences of immigrants from Slovakia, Montenegro, Serbia and Croatia….
In the 1970s I met a retired steel worker from Chicago who lived next door to my dad in Arizona. My dad was thrilled to know a man, John Stepanovich, from Montenegro, a place he’d never heard of. A bull of a man, he worked alongside Croats, Serbs and Slovenians, and liked or hated them almost entirely based on what he had learned in the Old Country. Yet they worked side by side for years. Another man I knew well worked in the Dayton area from the 1930s. He was a Roman Catholic from Slovakia. He likewise worked among virtually every central and southern European nationality, as the Midwestern mills were natural draws for their skills. In Dayton Papa Miluks raised his family in a neighborhood that was composed entirely of people from Slovakia, with their own church, St Mark’s. I attended his funeral there. None of the ethnic groups liked one another very much, so there were saloons that catered to each group. (I once visited a supply company in Connecticut where lobstermen and shrimpers wouldn’t even drink together on pay day) .
But as de Tocqueville remarked about life in the 1830s, if groups didn’t like another, they kept it indoors.
And sure enough, after a generation, when all their children graduate and leave the old neighborhood, then, if the grandchildren should marry outside the faith, it’s no big deal. Or did anyone see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?
I’ve told my friends in Orthodox Bulgaria that this is how it is in America, and they won’t believe me.
To my mind DeToqueville, who visited here in the early 1830s, remarked about American exceptionalism by not mentioning it, when he spoke of the way so many different people, in culture and language, seemed to get along, when the people of Provence, Normandy and Paris found it impossible to get along back in France.
American exceptionalism is remarkable because it was so commonplace and normal by contrast to how people got along back in Europe. And since they didn’t teach these things in those little schoolhouses on the prairie nor Sunday School in the 1830, one would naturally assume such reciprocity among neighbors came from the common language of their several religious faiths….all based on the simple command, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In other words, the pull of “being American” out-pulled the parochialism of the tribe, or the state and even religion, thus proving the original intent or result (I’ll let the scholars decide) of the Founders and their blueprint for a new nation.
A new way.
This war in America on assimilation is a two-front war, keeping immigrants from becoming Americans, and trying to redefine the very legs of the stool that make up this free nation; a natural right to freedom, free markets, rule of law and the freedom to form reciprocal associations…or something else.