Monday, 6 March 2017

One United People


I just came across by chance these words of the American revolutionary John Jay, in the Federalist Papers 2 (October 31, 1787):

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.
Readers know that I am alarmed by attempts to turn European countries into 'proposition nations' united by values. The USA and other new countries founded by European colonists are not ethnic states but I am not convinced that they are proposition nations either. The USA's core identity is (17th and 18th century) British. It seems that in 1787 it was also more or less a European-style ethnic state, despite the many German and other settlers. Franklin complained about how badly the Germans spoke English and how they had no feeling for freedom.

I blogged about this here. 

In a very interesting article published in 1995 which repays reading, Benjamin Schwartz dealt with and exploded what he calls the American 'diversity myth' and said:
"Until probably the 1960s, the "unity" of the American people derived not from their warm welcoming of and accommodation to nationalist, ethnic, and linguistic differences but from the ability and willingness of an Anglo elite to stamp its image on other peoples coming to this country."


  1. in the modern age, culture (religions, the arts, common values, language) are the unifiers of a nation (formerly it was a sovereign and a dominant language). Until the 1960s, the assumption was that when one moved to a new country/nation, one was obliged to adopt the social and cultural norms of that nation/country, and to adapt one's particular practices to that place (thus, Muslim accepting that the call to prayer cannot be done with loudspeakers, but only a single human voice; Jews accepting that kosher slaughter of animals would have to meet humane slaughter laws. the u.s. is the successor of the anglo-scottish enlightenment inspired republicans, but with a good dose of traditional Protestantism as the foundation for a society of common values.

  2. While I applaud your dipping into the Federalist Papers (#68 by Hamilton is proving especially relevant these days), you must be careful not to deify them. Jay shows that he's not quite in full touch with the young nation. The Germans in PA, the Dutch (Roosevelts, for instance) in NY, the Catholics in Baltimore, and the Scotch-Irish in the South & Appalachia make for more diversity than Jay acknowledges here. Of course, over time Ireland (Catholics), then Poland & Eastern Europe & Russia, including Jews, and Italians, and of course Chinese (laborers on the railroads), not to mention the fluid border in what once was Spanish and then Mexican land in the Southwest, have created all types of challenges. But what has worked amazingly well is the mixture of "American values" (democracy, fair play, law, individual initiative) and retention of much of the native culture. (Thank goodness for the outbreak of the ethnic restaurants in the U.S.!). While there are, I think, limits in the numbers of immigrants that a nation can assimilate (as well as the danger of driving down real wages), immigration, even in the very limited numbers that come into the U.S. today, is crucial and had given the U.S. a huge competitive advantage viz. economic strength and resiliency. Sorry, John Jay, but you missed the mark on this one.

    1. You are missing the point. Jay's words show how he saw things. I imagine his views were shared by many others. People like you love to point out how many settlers before 1776 were not British because you are using history to make political points about America today
      This is fine. Unfortunately American historians do so too.
      No one doubts that a lot of immigrants came after his day but I contend that America is united by the historical legacy of her British origins rather than values.
      Those values are of course 18th century British Protestant and Deist Whig values, the Tories having been defeated and chased out.

  3. In my opinion, Catholic Germans distributed Catholicism across America more than Catholic Irish who took it to the big cities.