During the final three years of his life, former U.S. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (R) gave considerable thought to the waves of European immigrants which were sweeping the nation; they had started in the mid-19th century and continued through the opening decades of the 1900s.
In most respects, these newcomers were T.R.’s idea of model immigrants of the era; that is, they quickly learned English and assimilated themselves unabashedly into the now sadly passé “melting pot.” They were eager to jump into the mainstream of American life and leave their impoverished past behind.
These mostly Roman Catholic Europeans-turned-Americans were not highly schooled, but they were far from being the “low information” voters we hear so much about today.
In an era before television and Internet, they gobbled up the news by reading newspapers and listening to the radio. They knew their stuff; they could tell you exactly where Montana was located on a USA map (never having visited the place), yet they endured the occasional insult from ignorant Protestant employers as well as passers by. No matter, they were a tough breed of late pioneers; they were happy to escape old Europe.
Roosevelt penned his thoughts about U.S. immigrants—and what it means to be an American—in two famous texts, dated 1915 and 1919. His statements are often quoted (and misquoted) by folks on both side of today’s immigration amnesty debate.
This newspaper first published Roosevelt’s words over a decade ago. In the intervening years, reader Shirley Whittman of Shoreham, Vt. kept the yellowed newspaper clipping of T.R.’s words and found some solace in reading it.
Last week, Mrs. Whittman called Denton Publications and wondered if it was time, again, to reprint the former President’s words.
Of course we’re always happy to respond to reader requests, so we have gone back and researched both Roosevelt’s 1915 letter to the Knights of Columbus of New York City and his 1919 letter to the American Defense Society. Both texts exhibit Roosevelt’s feeling on an emotional yet equally political and philosophical subject.
When you read T.R.’s words today, you realize that his argument about what it means to be a real American is on-going, evolving. In a modern world where many intellectuals would like to think nationalism is a thing of the past, stirrings of flag and country are actually being reinvigorated around the globe (witness China and Russia of late).
What follows are the words of Theodore Roosevelt assembled with the help of Reaganite Republican.com:
1915—”There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all.
“This is just as true of the man who puts ‘native’ before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen.
“Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance.
“But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else.
“The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities—an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans, or Italian-Americans—each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality than with the other citizens of the American Republic.
“The men who do not become Americans and nothing else are hyphenated Americans; and there ought to be no room for them in this country. The man who calls himself an American citizen and who yet shows by his actions that he is primarily the citizen of a foreign land, plays a thoroughly mischievous part in the life of our body politic. He has no place here; and the sooner he returns to the land to which he feels his real heart-allegiance, the better it will be for every good American.”
1919—“...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”
Roosevelt penned his final words on immigration on Jan. 3, 1919, three days before he died. Nearly a century later, many Americans and would-be Americans are divided, even brazenly resistant, to the idea of Roosevelt’s concept of Americanism.
Wither our America and T.R.’s ideal of Americans without a hyphen? Will we be able to stop the slide toward ethnic and political Balkanization, too? Uncertain—for the future is a veil through which no one, not even a president, can peer.