What’s the Debate?
What is the basis of American national identity? Other nations throughout the world have answered this question in a variety of ways. Their citizens might be unified by common language, shared religion, perception of “blood” lineage, or some combination of these. When the former Yugoslavia broke up, Serbs and Croats who shared a language split along ethnic and religious lines. In some countries, majority groups define the nation in their own image and expect minorities to conform, such as Kurdish minorities in Turkey. In the United States, this question has never clearly been resolved, in part because we are “a nation of immigrants,” with everyone except indigenous peoples having migrated here from somewhere else.
One source of national identity that civic education proposes is that all Americans, whether long established or newly arrived, share a political tradition—a set of ideals and practices that any person can learn, as indeed many immigrants do when they take their citizenship test. But this answer leaves us with other cultural questions. How much should immigrants remain loyal to their native cultures? Can their cultural practices and beliefs contribute to American national culture or should they assimilate to some existing standard? The best-known symbol of this process of assimilation is the “melting pot,” which became popular during the large wave of immigration at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet this symbol is itself ambiguous. What results from melting cultural identities: a uniform color or constantly changing shades depending on whether immigrants are German, Italian, or Somalian for example? What are the implications for the civic loyalties of particular groups? If an ethnic group does not want to melt, does that then leave them isolated from the American civic project?
What’s the Backstory?
In 1916, the journalist and cultural critic Randolph Bourne wrote what is still one of the most thought-provoking essays on the subject, “Trans-National America.” Little known today, Bourne had a brief, incandescent career during World War I, and then loomed for a time as a prophetic figure among younger intellectuals following his untimely death in 1918. Bourne had overcome congenital disabilities that left him with a short stature and extreme spinal curvature to become valedictorian of his high school. Because of his disability and family struggles, however, he spent five years in the workforce in Bloomfield, New Jersey before enrolling at Columbia University at the age of 23. There he bloomed into an earnest and eloquent writer, quickly becoming a spokesman for his generation. Bourne’s precocious writings on education, labor, and culture, influenced by his mentor John Dewey, earned him a leading role right out of college at the progressive journal The New Republic. He was also popular in the Greenwich Village bohemian scene, where the clarity of his voice was matched by his striking, charismatic presence.
How Did the Debate Play Out?
“Trans-National America” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1916, during the period of American neutrality before President Woodrow Wilson led the country into World War I in April 1917. Nearly three years of neutrality created an unusual political space in which, on the one hand, the U.S. stood proudly aloof from the violent clash of European nationalisms while, on the other, the question of American national identity became paramount. In particular, Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent, many of whom made up economic and political elites, questioned the loyalties of both German-Americans and immigrants from Eastern Europe. Anglo-American nativists directed their animosity against long established German communities in New York and the Upper Midwest, even as Establishment political figures such as former President Theodore Roosevelt hurled the epithet “hyphenated Americans” at these communities, questioning their patriotic loyalty over their opposition to declaring war on Germany (read Roosevelt’s “Americanism”). In turn, Anglo-American efforts to enforce their version of national identity with the slogan “100% Americanism” stirred up a strong reaction from many other ethnic groups. “The melting pot has failed,” as Bourne observed at the beginning of his essay.
In spite of these tensions, Bourne saw the moment as an opportunity to reconceive national identity not as melting pot but as a dynamic, cooperative effort—a “federated ideal”— to integrate cultural diversity without losing the vibrant character of each ethnic community. To do this, he offers the historical perspective that even English settlers were once immigrants themselves, and that American national culture was built not only from their traditions, but also reinvigorated by each successive wave of immigrants—Irish, German, Scandinavian, Italian, Jewish (and those, we might add, that Bourne overlooks: Hispanic and African). To define American identity in Anglo-Saxon terms, he argues, is to give priority in allegiance to England rather than seeing America as a tapestry of national characters. In this respect, America was the “first international nation,” providing a political space to seek cooperation among many “nations” through the democratic institutions of the United States.
In Bourne’s vision, one hears prescient strains of Wilsonian internationalism and the United Nations. But he notably grounds his vision in interpersonal encounters, modeling this new cosmopolitan spirit on his experience at Columbia, where the children of various ethnicities forged a composite identity through intellectual sympathy and understanding. Bourne also believed that each group should retain its cultural identity through dual citizenship and free migration after the war. What every group would share was loyalty to American civic institutions, such as elections, public service, and freedom of speech and religion.
So What Happened?
The potential to realize Bourne’s vision was tragically short-lived. President Wilson, pressured by Anglo-American economic ties and provoked by German submarine warfare, declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917, and the tide of nativism flooded the political landscape during frenzied mobilization efforts. Civil liberties were undermined as vigilante groups persecuted German-Americans and the government jailed immigrant socialists for their support of the Russian Revolution. Bourne himself was increasingly radicalized in opposition to the war, for which he lost nearly all outlets for his writing. He became an isolated yet still penetrating critic before his death at age 32 in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Later seen as a martyr for his opposition to a misguided war, Bourne was an icon of cultural radicalism for the Lost Generation of the 1920s. But his optimistic vision of a transnational America got lost amidst postwar nativism. With the increasingly diverse face of America today, and opposition to it that persists in some parts of our society, Bourne’s ideas have taken on new relevance for the challenges of integrating cultural difference within a unified national identity.
Clayton, Bruce. Forgotten Prophet: The Life of Randolph Bourne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.
Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002 .
Lasch, Christopher. The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963. New York: W.W. Norton, 1965. 69-103.