Thursday 24 March 2016

Is America a nation founded on a creed or on British stock and culture?


G.K. Chesterton said in 1921
America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. 
The US's House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, thinks so. He told interns in Congress this week that
America is the only nation founded on an idea not on an identity.
But is that right? Forty years after the American declaration of independence the South American republics were founded by deists and Freemasons based on the same creed. The
outcome was very different.

I blogged recently about the rise of 'proposition nations' based on values and how there are huge pressures on European countries to move from being ethnic states to being proposition nations, but many Americans argue that they are not a proposition nation either. The wonderful, formerly British, journalist, John O'Sullivan ‏whom I read each morning in the Daily Telegraph over breakfast in my teens, pointed out just now on Twitter 
several nations founded on an idea. USSR for instance, It's just that they tend not to stay around.
This discussion has been going on for some time in America. You may want to pay 
US ¢25 and read this article. For free you can read the speech another ex-British journalist, John Derbyshire, was prevented from giving last month at Williams College in Massachusetts on ”The National Question: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity In the 21st Century”. The students had invited him to be part of their “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series of talks, talks designed to bring controversial viewpoints to the campus. It wasn't the students who prevented him doing so, as has happened with a number of speakers recently in American and English universities, including at Williams. This order came from the college president.

The truth is that America, meaning the thirteen colonies that became the USA, was a community of mostly British settlers, some owning African slaves, united by ethnic identity and British culture. Americans, those on the winning side in the Revolutionary War, adopted a creed as rhetoric which then refined and moulded them. 

This creed was not their invention. It consisted of British Whig ideas and eighteenth century Britain's idea of being a Protestant nation with a divine mission. George Washington has been aptly called a great Englishman, though I would call him a traitor. Benjamin Franklin was another Englishman, who complained about swarthy, stupid German settlers as being unused to freedom and speaking English with a thick accent.

I used to think Ann Coulter less a serious commentator than a sort of political comedian and what Romanians call a terebalista, someone trying to shock for the sake of it, but in the last few years she has become one of the people talking most interestingly about mass migrations from the poor to the rich world. In this interesting interview she said
Americans seem to be under the impression that they don’t have a country at all, but rather live in something like the international waiting room in JFK Airport. America is not a ‘nation of immigrants’, it is not ‘an idea’, it was never ‘diverse’ and ‘diversity’ is a catastrophe. If America were an idea, every country on earth could be America.
Her point is that America before 1965 was not very diverse. As she wrote in 'Adios, America',
Even as late as 1990 — a quarter century into Teddy Kennedy’s scheme to remake the nation — half of the American population traced its roots to the black and white populace of 1790.
Nearly the entire white population of America from 1600 to 1970 came from a geographic area of the world about twice the size of Texas. The entire black population came from an area of West Africa about the size of Florida.
Europe is bigger than twice the size of Texas and not all slaves came from Benin but her general point holds good that most Americans fell into two communities, one of European descent and the other of West African descent. 

It is interesting and surprising that apart from Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan and Paul Gottfried very very few American commentators are talking about legal immigration. America is a country that takes more immigrants than any other country and since 1970 90% of them have been from the Third World. 

Three years ago it was reported that the majority of babies born in the USA were non-white and in a decade or two the majority of Americans will be non-white. This is the elephant in the drawing-room that is not discussed when illegal immigrants are. It's the reason why many Americans, particularly older ones and poorer ones, are drawn to Donald Trump. This includes some black Americans (many or most American blacks feel threatened by and dislike immigration). The truth is that Donald Trump, who in many ways is a left-of-centre candidate, and Hillary Clinton are competing for working class votes.

On the other hand perhaps the new Americans, whether Mexican or Muslim, will be as much Americans as the WASPs. Not knowing America (except for five hours in Buffalo in 1980) I am not in a position to say. G.K. Chesterton in 1921 again.
The Americans are very patriotic, and wish to make their new citizens patriotic Americans. But it is the idea of making a new nation literally out of any old nation that comes along. In a word, what is unique is not America but what is called Americanisation. We understand nothing till we understand the amazing ambition to Americanise the Kamskatkan and the Hairy Ainu. We are not trying to Anglicise thousand of French cooks or Italian organ-grinders. France is not trying to Gallicise thousands of English trippers or German prisoners of war. America is the only place in the world where this process, healthy or unhealthy, possible or impossible, is going on. And the process, as I have pointed out, is not internationalisation. It would be truer to say it is the nationalisation of the internationalised. It is making a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles.
Chesterton was writing three years before the Immigration Act 1924 excluded Kamskatkans and Hairy Ainus, sharply reducing East European and stopping Asian and African immigration for forty years.

An American clergyman in Jerusalem told me that America always goes to extremes and will swing from extreme political correctness to racism. I must say I see no sign of that and don't expect the diversity ideology to weaken its grip in the next twenty years. But then in 1985 I didn't expect the Cold War to end for decades. Perhaps I am wrong and Donald Trump's popularity, though he is no racist, might be the beginning of a change in attitudes. 


  1. Hmmmm.... 5 hours in Boston in 1980? That's plenty of time! Plenty!

    Here is my take as a middle aged white guy in the USA who has a conceit that he has very small interest in western civ and history.

    The USA was a country where it ethnicity was very important but shared perceived values were more important. Take the Irish immigrant who worked hard to overcome prejudice by becoming mainstays of the military and police. One could still be proud of being of Irish descent but demonstrating their loyalty to the USA was much more important.

    I had an Indian immigrant co worker who told me that when he moved to the USA at the age of 10, that was the last time he was allowed to speak anything other than English in the family home.

    This was the idea of the mixing pot. Each could bring the wonderful gifts from their native countries but they'd be subsumed in to the greater american lifestyle.

    That is gone. We have the salad bowel now.

    Sorry for the poor writing.

    I find Coulter's quote odd. I don't understand her point. Diversity use to be at the service of the culture. Diversity was a means to an end -- American Excellence if you will. Now, IMO, Diversity serves it's own end. Diversity is the penultimate good. It's part of the same post Christian nihilism the rest of western civ is sick from...


  3. U.S based on British legal traditions through the prism of the Anglo-Scottish enlightenment. South American republics based on Iberian legal traditions through the prism of Franco-Continental enlightenment.

  4. The trouble with these sorts of questions is that they suggest an either/or answer. The second problem lies in the use of the term nation in the question. In terms of British culture, Britain itself was a country that reinvented its Constitutional framework when interests/circumstances dictated (1465, 1649, 1660, 1688, etc). These were interest driven changes. So was 1775, so was the 1776 refinement, so was the 1783 refinement, so was the 1787-8 refinement.
    America is a Constitutional Republic. It is a country, it is a federation and it is a series of interlocked states. It is a nation with a national anthem if we define the word nation one way yet those who define their nations by ethnicity would argue it was not. In the UK, a Scot would argue that Scotland was a nation yet the UK is the country that Scotland is a component member of. In the US, it would appear that a State has rights but not the right to secede from the Union. That makes the creed of the "nation" at odds with the creed of the States within it.

  5. What country is...
    Beliefs are strange reductions, I see quite a few ('necessary myths') hitting the proverbial fan - that is, reaching the polls in the US as elsewhere.

    Digressing: heard from Spain, there is a certain ring to your counting allegiance to Catholicism as an expression of dissent !

  6. Chesterton was in many ways a likable guy, especially if you're willing to half-close one eye a bit. but he got very impatient with these so-called "facts", and so should not be taken as a guide to what actually was happening in the world.
    for instance: "France is not trying to Gallicise thousands of English trippers or German prisoners of war. America is the only place in the world where this process, healthy or unhealthy, possible or impossible, is going on."
    bzzt wrong. there were already a baker's dozen of immigrant states in the world in 1921. And France has been absorbing significant numbers of immigrants since Louis XIV's time.
    Chagall, Gambetta, MacMahon, the Wild Geese. The percentage of "native French" who are descended from immigrants is comfortably into double digits.
    it tends to get overlooked because those people aren't -- you know -- /those/ people. But Chesterton could have looked at contemporary French literature or painting; in the Belle Epoque, those were full of first and second generation immigrants.

  7. The culture we were founded under was English, Scots-Irish, and German, with a later seasoning of Welsh. So which Britain are we talking about ? We adopted English manners and culture in the main. In 1740 their were almost more German colonists than those of British origin, particularly in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

  8. For a very long time, Americans were transplanted Englishmen. The "Boston Tea Party" was organized by Sam Adams and other radicals for ostensibly ideological reasons - as a protest - but, in fact, it was all about money and profit. Wealthy ship- owners and importers of tea like John Hancock, were being undersold by the tea of the British East India Company. The tea was dumped into Boston harbor not because it was a symbol of British "tyranny", but because it was CHEAP!

    Maybe this is why we stopped drinking tea. After the War for Independence, coffee may have become cheaper for Americans. I'm sure we used the expletive "bloody", but I can find no proof probably because the word was considered too obscene to publish. I've asked linguistic experts and this is their opinion.

    It is possible that the Constitution, which took on a sacramental aura unknown in other countries, may give the impression that America was founded on a "Creed".
    And, to some extent, it was - not always a good thing. It can lead to a moral arrogance and rigidity. I've read (and majored in European, not US history) that prior to the huge influx of immigration from Ireland, or at least until the 1830s, the US was far more British in culture, especially on the east coast, than what we think of as American. But I welcome the knowledge of others on this interesting topic.

    1. Might help that said constitution is so elegantly short & mnemonic - as if meant to be speaking to a crowd. Always wondered how it got to look this way.

    2. I wish the European Union would copy large chunks of it, especially the First Amendment - the whole Bill of Rights probably without the right to bear arms which is too controversial.

    3. Europe has its own - many - ways of referencing constitutions ... Its Treaty is quite the different beast, reflecting this spirit of the land. Of course, I am regarding text as an ornament of context, knowing all too well that Ideas are not often trifled with to the extent I do.

    4. "For a very long time, to address the initial question, Americans were transplanted Englishmen."

      The assumption that only white people to count as Americans is deeply embedded in how some people think about the U.S.
      It is a reality-defying historical filter tied to an ongoing claim for special status.

      What it denies:

      * Hybrid Native-Euro societies emerged along the vast frontier from Ohio to north Georgia. These rough, intermixed frontier people were often considered the QUINTESSENTIAL Americans -- something new-born & distinct -- then came violent ethnic-cleansing in 1830-40s.

      * Whole states (SC, MS....) & many 100s of counties (Virginia to Texas) had transplanted AFRICAN majorities from their beginnings -- which defined culture, law, speech & politics.

      * Many areas of colonial America & then U.S. were heavily multilingual -- speaking German (Penn., St. Louis to Cincinnati to Chicago), Spanish (Texas to California) or French Louisiana.

      The OP question here (Is America a nation founded on creed or British culture?) really asks whether we should still deploy discredited filters, as we discuss history now in the 21st century.

      There never a defining ethnicity to the U.S. Some people always claimed there was. And some still do. But this place has always been multicultural.

      Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in Dec 1620. The first Africans arrived before them, unloaded as slaves at Jamestown Va in Aug 1619.

      Parts of the Eastern coastal regions were overwhelmingly white English. But others were overwhelmingly inhabited by African people (from Maryland's Charles county 54% to South Carolina lowlands 80%).

      By what filter would transplanted Englishmen alone be seen as defining early America, while transplanted Africans be treated as mute bystanders without significant impact?

      Why should we still filter this history and country using assumptions of people who believed in their own divine purpose and racial superiority?


  10. Oh, we're supposed to be a real nation. If we get propositional, it's all over. Nice Sam Francis quote here:
    Sam Francis on the "Propositional Nation"

    1. Agreed that nations hung on a creed are made dictatorial, while nationalism qualifies for a sort of natural totalitarianism ...

    2. Romania like all countries in Eastern Europe is built on nationalism. Nationalism worries me less these days than internationalism.

  11. You're right--and remember that the Great Vowel Shift occurred AFTER America was settled. In other words, Shakespeare spoke like we in America speak today, not like you in Britain speak today. Why then do the actors in Shakespeare plays have a modern British accent?

    1. Yes. I wince at John Wayne's centurion in the film saying 'He truly was the Son of God' in a Yankee accent. And Marlon Brando as Mark Anthony. Even though I know Shakespeare spoke with an accent somewhere between Devon and Dorset and New England. Certainly not in Gielgud’s public school vowels.
      Or further south than Boston? I did hear that Hillbillies in the Appalachians use Elizabethan words.

  12. I am "older" and most of The U.S. is NOT "drawn to Trump". Last nights polls show that fact . "Wasps" is a derogatory term. The writer should know better. And.. Once again .....naming names such as "vagabonds" and "exiles" is very outlandish . Any human should not be so ignorant as to writing those names .... ( notice I didn't write insane)......... If this person is a fan of Trumph...then she should NOT be writing those words about America and how we feel about our lives, loves, and racial mixtures . We are a melting pot and to be ABLE and have the freedom to make our own life choices is a marvelous thing......... ... I completely disagree with her statements . My British roots go back to the mid-1600s. ....... The quote beginning "nearly the entire white population of America" has been disproven many times. The entire article is offensive to all Americans .......... Maybe she should stop writing and do more studying ......


  13. Trump, in his gouache and bombastic way, has opened the flood gate for the vocalization of what many Americans have been keeping tucked away in their private thoughts for decades. No doubt the internet has also helped them realize that they are not alone in thinking that their country has been systematically dismantled by a relentless leftist guilt trip, aided by eternally compromising and often apologetic Republican handmaidens. Your point concerning Whigs in the Revolution is well taken. The Rebels never referred to themselves as revolutionaries but as Whigs or Patriots. "The Whigs [Rebels] seem determined to extirpate the Tories, and the Tories the Whigs… If a stop cannot be soon put to these massacres, the country will be depopulated in a few months more, as neither Whig nor Tory can live." Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene