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The Nation of Immigrants Myth

The creed is half true at most and is a weapon for those who want to dissolve this country.

“We are a nation of immigrants.” It is every American politician’s incantation, usually prefatory to some shibboleth lauding “strength in our diversity.” The creed of America as nation-of-immigrants (hereafter the “NOI creed”) is now unquestioned by Americans and foreigners alike.

The NOI creed’s assertion of national rootlessness justifies official multiculturalism and mass immigration. American schoolchildren are taught that the Statue of Liberty is a monument to immigration and that e pluribus unum on our currency celebrates the melting pot. Deutsche Bank recently published an analyst’s report, by a Polish immigrant in New York, lamenting a perceived rise in anti-immigration sentiments in the United States and instructing us that here “actually everybody is an immigrant,” so restricting immigration “would be devastating and virtually unthinkable.”

The creed is a half-truth but useful to social engineers transforming this country in ways alien to our history and heritage. Immigrants in the millions have come to the United States, most in waves beginning in the 1840s. Many immigrants and their descendants have contributed mightily to America. Others have contributed to the crime statistics. Some tried America, then went home. Nevertheless, the NOI creed is literally false: Despite thirty-plus years of mass immigration set off by the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, the vast majority of Americans are still American-born children of American-born parents. It is also historically false: Scores of millions of Americans are neither immigrants nor descendants of immigrants.

As for the Statue of Liberty, it is a gift from France to honor the centennial of American independence. Emma Lazarus’ “Give me your tired…”—a cri-de-coeur against Russian pogroms—is a later add-on. E pluribus unum explicitly commemorates the union of thirteen British colonies into one nation. The statue and the motto do not celebrate immigration; they salute the achievement of the settlers who founded those colonies and, in time, won independence from their Mother Country. It was the settlers’ nation, not empty wilderness, that later gave immigrants a new home.

To test the truth of the NOI creed, ask what a true nation of immigrants would be. Absent a founding group or majority, it would be no nation at all, but a random gathering of people of assorted races, religions, and nationalities, united only by their presence in the same land. With no native culture to provide national unity, the population would tend to fragment on racial and ethnic lines, ensuring division and strife as groups pursue their interests at each other’s expense. That may be our multicultural future. It is not the American past.

American history is the story of a varied nation with a distinct founding culture, one that remained dominant while assimilating—and being subtly changed by—later arrivals. That American culture is British, largely English, in origin, traditions, and religion. This article’s language is one small example.

By 1776, British colonists—mostly English, but with strong Scottish, Welsh, and Irish contingents, along with New York’s Dutch colonials and later German arrivals—had created an American branch of British civilization. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, they were long-settled: almost 170 years in Virginia, over 150 in Massachusetts. At great effort—and at the expense of the Indians they uprooted and the African slaves they imported—colonial Americans formed a nation in their own image. The diversity of their settlements reflected the variety of their British origins. David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial Albion’s Seed traces four great British colonial migrations that leave their mark still: Puritans from East Anglia to New England, Cavaliers from the West Country to Virginia, Quakers from the Midlands to the Delaware, and northern Britons, including the Scots-Irish, to the American backcountry.

Revolutionary Americans, the United States’ founders, were fairly homogeneous: 80 percent of British origin (60 percent English, 20 percent Scottish and Scots-Irish), most of the rest Dutch and German—the great majority American-born. Overwhelmingly Christian, 98 percent were Protestants. (Not included in these percentages are American Indians, who had no part in the political life of the colonies, and African slaves and freemen, who were largely excluded from political and social life.) These descendants of colonial settlers were American natives, if by America we mean the United States.

Samuel Huntington makes a useful distinction between the settlers of a country and immigrants to it. It helps answer whether the United States is truly a nation of immigrants or an organic nation with an ethnic and cultural core: a nation of the settlers’ posterity augmented by immigrants and their posterity. In Huntington’s words:

Immigrants are people who leave one country, one society, and move to another society. But there has to be a recipient society to which the immigrants move. In our case, the recipient society was created by the settlers who came here in the 17th and 18th centuries. … They came in groups to create new societies up and down the Atlantic seaboard. They weren’t immigrating to some existing society; indeed, they often did whatever they could to destroy whatever existed here in the way of Indian society. … It was [the settlers’ Anglo-Protestant] society and culture that…attracted subsequent generations of immigrants to this country.

One demographic study concluded that, had there been no immigration after 1790, the settlers’ posterity alone—including African slaves’ and freemen’s descendants—would have grown by 1990 to approximately half the size of the actual population, which implies roughly half of Americans still have roots in the founding stock whose existence the NOI creed denies.

The federal structure the Founding Fathers erected for the United States is firmly grounded in their British heritage and American experience. No surprise: they were overwhelmingly of British descent, mostly English. Those who signed the Declaration and the Constitution knew of Locke and Enlightenment philosophes but knew their native law best: the English Common Law. Common Law remains the bedrock of every state’s law, with the unique exception of Louisiana. The rights of Englishmen were the animating spirit of the Bill of Rights, meant to secure them more effectively in America than they often were in England.

Despite the evidence of American history, the NOI creed is entrenched, as is its corollary: the idea that the United States is a “propositional nation” with no ethnic basis, defined entirely by allegiance to the Declaration’s propositions. It is worth asking why. Acknowledging that America is a nation like others, with a native stock and traditions, does not deny the contributions of millions of immigrants and their descendants. Nor does it imply that Americans of immigrant descent are somehow lesser citizens. American success is the work of settler and immigrant alike. The propositional nation idea, that America’s British origins are immaterial to our national character, is also a half-truth. One has only to look at Mexico or Brazil to see how differently Spanish and Portuguese settler nations developed. An America that abandons its heritage and founding culture will be a different, and poorer, place. As Russell Kirk put it: “So dominant has British culture been in America, north of the Rio Grande, from the seventeenth century to the present (1993), that if somehow the British elements could be eliminated from all the cultural patterns of the United States—why Americans would be left with no coherent culture in public or in private life.”

Why, then, such pressure to pretend that the United States is not really a country but an inhabited idea? One reason may be the attractiveness of the propositional nation idea to immigrant groups that do not want to feel second-class next to the natives. A benign motive but unnecessary: the United States accords no preference to settlers’ descendants. Another is that the NOI, dedicated to a democratic proposition, provides a pretext for foreign interventionism: is it not the highest calling of such a state to democratize, through conquest and occupation if necessary, the less-fortunate rest of the world whence its immigrant-citizens came?

America’s integrity is strained by multiculturalism, affirmative action, and mass immigration. The NOI creed is most convenient for those in government, ethnic pressure groups, and academia who want to cut America loose from her history and traditions to recast her as a multicultural mélange they can rule by distributing spoils to contending groups. In short, the creed has become a weapon for those who would dissolve America as it has evolved and replace it with something else. Those who would conserve this country need to know enough history to refute it. 

Howard Sutherland is an attorney in New York.

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