‘American’ is a Race

While the Left in the United States celebrates the demographic decline of Whites in the country, the mainstream Right has chosen to create a false narrative that the United States was founded as a nation of “ideas” and that race has never been the defining factor for American identity. This viewpoint is either woefully ignorant of American history or is meant to misrepresent the founding of our nation and the beliefs of the Founders.

The modern view that America has never been defined by race has penetrated the highest office in government. Former president George W. Bush said in his inaugural address in 2001 that,

America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them; and every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American. [1]

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina agrees. In 2018 he wrote,

I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals. The American ideal is embraced by people all over the globe. It was best said a long time ago, E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One. Diversity has always been our strength, not our weakness. In reforming immigration we cannot lose these American Ideals. [2]

Not just politicians but conservative activists as well reiterate this view. In a speech he gave in Israel, Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk said,

I reject this idea of dual loyalty. I have loyalty to ideas. And, of course, I love the Grand Canyon, I love the Rocky Mountains, and I love Boston. I love Chicago. But if all that disappeared, and all I had was ideas, and we were on an island, that’s America. That’s Israel. That’s what people have to realize: America is just a placeholder for timeless ideas. And if you fall too in love with the specific place, and all this, that’s not what it is. Israel would be an exception, because there is a holy connection to this land. [3]

Apparently the descendants of the Founders have no “holy” connection with the land on which they founded this country. And we should not take it as any great loss if we were to lose large segments of the country to invaders because our “ideas” would still survive.

Curiously, these conservatives do not quote any of the Founders themselves in order to justify their positions. A study of what the Founders wrote on the subject demonstrates why this is the case. The Founders who wrote on the subject of race and American identity were clear that the two were inseparable. We do not see celebrations of diversity nor do we see any semblance of this absurd idea that our nation is simply an idea. A nation is a people and looking at the writings of our Founders it is evident that it is a specific people.

First, we can look at the first naturalization law ever passed in the United States. The Naturalization Act of 1790, signed into law by George Washington, defines an American citizen as “a free white person who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years [4].” Over the years there were alterations made to the language of the act but the “free white persons” requirement was not removed until 1866 when freed African slaves and their descendants were granted citizenship. From 1790 to 1866 presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Quincy Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Lincoln all presided over a United States that only allowed Whites to be citizens.

In their individual writings, the Founders clearly laid out their sentiments on the subject. In his autobiography written in 1821, Thomas Jefferson wrote,

Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [African slaves] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu [equal footing] filled up by free white laborers. If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up. [5]

Jefferson expressed similar views as far back as 1785 when he wrote Notes on the State of Virginia,

It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. [6]

Not only did Jefferson see integration with blacks as a danger to the nation, but he also saw danger of a similar fashion with immigrants from Europe. Again in Notes of the State of Virginia, he asks whether the importation of foreigners is a “good policy.” He suggests an example where the State of Virginia can double its population in one year from this importation and calculates that this doubling would occur roughly 27 years sooner than if the population doubled from births of current residents alone. He concludes,

Is it not safer to wait with patience 27 years and three months longer, for the attainment of any degree of population desired, or expected? May not our government be more homogeneous, more peaceable, more durable? Suppose 20 millions of republican Americans thrown all of a sudden into France, what would be the condition of that kingdom? If it would be more turbulent, less happy, less strong, we may believe that the addition of half a million of foreigners to our present numbers would produce a similar effect here. [7]

Jefferson wrote this at a time when only Whites could be citizens and even acknowledges that the majority of these immigrants would come from England but despite that he believed that Americans had grown distinct and these immigrants,

will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass. [8]

A “homogenous” population is the exact opposite of a diverse population and yet that is precisely what Jefferson sought to attain.

Jefferson was not alone in these sentiments. In 1787, Founder and the first Chief Justice of the United States, John Jay wrote in the Federalist Papers,

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. [9]

In 1802 in his Examinations, Founder and the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton said,

The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias, and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family. [10]

Later he added,

The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others, it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils. It has been often likely to compromise the interests of our own country in favor of another. The permanent effect of such a policy will be, that in times of great public danger there will be always a numerous body of men, of whom there may be just grounds of distrust; the suspicion alone will weaken the strength of the nation, but their force may be actually employed in assisting an invader. [11]

And again,

The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency. [12]

Similar views were held by Benjamin Franklin who wrote 50 years earlier in his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,

The Importation of Foreigners into a Country that has as many Inhabitants as the present Employments and Provisions for Subsistence will bear; will be in the End no Increase of People; unless the New Comers have more Industry and Frugality than the Natives, and then they will provide more Subsistence, and increase in the Country; but they will gradually eat the Natives out. Nor is it necessary to bring in Foreigners to fill up any occasional Vacancy in a Country; for such Vacancy (if the Laws are good, § 14, 16) will soon be filled by natural Generation. [13]

And,

Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. [14]

Far from being unconcerned with race issues and identity, Franklin was specific in his desire to increase the number of ‘white people’ in the world. His desire to increase the White population and his warnings of the negative effects of importing foreigners, is in direct contrast to the idea that America is not a race but an idea and that nonwhites could become part of the American identity.

President Andrew Jackson was no stranger to conflicts with nonwhites, having fought against the Creek Indians and in the First Seminole War. His interactions with the Indians clearly shaped his views on them. Concerning the treaties designed to remove Indian tribes from Florida, Jackson told Congress,

those tribes can not exist surrounded by our settlements and in continual contact with our citizens is certain. They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear. [15]

Jackson like those before him saw whites as a distinct race that could not coexist with the Indians. Just as Jefferson before him, he saw that diversity would lead to conflict. Nowhere does Jackson argue that Indians were Americans or could become Americans.

In the middle of the 19th century, blacks too were still regarded as non-citizens and one of the most popular court cases in our history explicitly laid out that fact. In the Dred Scott v. Sanford case of 1856, Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that,

A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States. When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State, and were not numbered among its “people or citizens.” [16]

In the years leading up to the Civil War there were many disagreements in the country. But a disagreement about who could be defined as an American was not one of them. In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858, Stephen Douglas said in his opening speech,

I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this Government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent. [17]

That statement may not come as much of a surprise to the reader, but what about Abraham Lincoln’s views? Surely the Great Emancipator fired back that America is only an idea and that blacks could readily become Americans if only given the chance. This is not the case however. In the fourth debate Mr. Lincoln responded,

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. [18]

Mr. Lincoln’s statement is nearly identical to Jefferson’s from half a century earlier.

One final example comes from a less frequently discussed but still eminently important Founding Father of the United States. Noah Webster is best know for his eponymous dictionary first published in 1828. Webster earned the title “Father of American Scholarship and Education” as a result of his work. The original 1828 Webster’s dictionary defines an American as,

A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America. [19]

This definition remained unchanged in the second edition in 1841 and all subsequent republishing's until after the Civil War.

E Pluribus Unum

In the Lyndsey Graham quote above, Graham invokes the U.S. motto E Pluribus Unum in order to demonstrate that the Founders had diversity in mind when they were building the country. This sentiment is echoed by conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager in his 2019 article entitled “Clarity About Nationalism.” Prager writes,

One should add that nationalism is evil when it celebrates race, but that is not nationalism; it is racism. Nationalism and racism may be conjoined, as German Nazism did. But they are not definitionally related. While some Americans have conjoined American nationalism with race (such as the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan and currently various fringe “white identity” movements), American nationalism, based as it is on the motto “e pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”), by definition includes Americans of all races and ethnicities. That is how conservatives define American nationalism. I have never met a conservative who defined American national identity as definitionally “white.” [20]

Based on this view, Prager would label every Founder of America racist. Nevertheless, it is a completely inaccurate assessment.

A study of the motto’s history shows that it has no connection whatsoever to racial diversity. The motto was suggested by a committee that included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams [21]. The design of the Great Seal which included the motto was given to a man named Charles Thomson. Mr. Prager does not quote Jefferson, Franklin, Adams or Thomson in his article and it is obvious why he did not. Charles Thomson himself explains exactly what our nation’s motto represents. In 1782 he wrote,

The Escutcheon is composed of the chief [upper part of shield] & pale [perpendicular band], the two most honorable ordinaries [figures of heraldry]. The Pieces, paly [alternating pales], represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unites the whole & represents Congress. The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the Chief and the Chief depends on that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the preservation of their union through Congress. [22]

The many in no way refers to other races or peoples but to the thirteen states all united into one. Mr. Prager’s use of the motto to support his conclusion is unfounded.

The only source Mr. Prager does cite on the subject is the entry for ‘nationalism’ from dictionary.com. If he had looked into the origin of the word ‘nation’ he would have disproved his own argument,

nation (n.)

c. 1300, nacioun, “a race of people, large group of people with common ancestry and language,” from Old French nacion “birth, rank; descendants, relatives; country, homeland” (12c.) and directly from Latin nationem (nominative natio) “birth, origin; breed, stock, kind, species; race of people, tribe,” literally “that which has been born,” from natus, past participle of nasci “be born” (Old Latin gnasci), from PIE root *gene- “give birth, beget,” with derivatives referring to procreation and familial and tribal groups. [23]

Or,

What is a NATION?

A people, or aggregation of men, existing in the form of an organized jural society, inhabiting a distinct portion of the earth, speaking the same language, using the same customs, possessing historic continuity, and distinguished from other like groups by their racial origin and characteristics, and generally, but not necessarily, living under the same government and sovereignty.[24]

It seems difficult to accept that those like Mr. Prager are simply ignorant of the history of American identity since these references are so easy to find. It is more likely that these so-called conservatives have an agenda all their own and that agenda certainly does not align with the views of our Founding Fathers.

References

  1. Presidential Inaugural address, 21 January, 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1129289.stm
  2. Press Release Jan 12 2018. https://www.lgraham.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2018/1/graham-on-daca
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZlmGA8MvOw
  4. Naturalization Act of 1790, https://www.mountvernon.org/education/primary-sources-2/article/naturalization-acts-of-1790-and-1795/
  5. Writings: Autobiography, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Notes on the State of Virginia, Travel Journals, Public Papers, Addresses, Messages, and Replies, Miscellany, Letters, by Thomas Jefferson and Merrill D. Peterson, Literary Classics of the U.S., 1984, p. 44.
  6. ibid, pp. 210–212.
  7. ibid, p. 212.
  8. ibid, p. 264.
  9. The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton et al., Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 15.
  10. The Examination Number VIII, by Alexander Hamilton, [12 January 1802]. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-25-02-0282
  11. ibid.
  12. ibid.
  13. Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, by Benjamin Franklin, № 21. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-04-02-0080
  14. ibid, № 24.
  15. Andrew Jackson, Fifth Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1833.
  16. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856) §I, 4–5
  17. First Lincoln-Douglas Debate, August 21, 1858. https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debate1.htm
  18. Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate, September 18, 1858. https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debate4.htm
  19. Webster's Dictionary: Unabridged, by Noah Webster, 1828. http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/american
  20. Prager, Dennis. “Clarity About Nationalism.” Townhall, Townhall.com, 25 June 2019, townhall.com/columnists/dennisprager/2019/06/25/clarity-about-nationalism-n2548886
  21. The Great Seal of the United States, U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of Public Communication, 1996, p. 3
  22. Thomson, Charles, Remarks and Explanation, Adopted by the Continental Congress, June 20, 1782, quoted from The Great Seal of the United States, 1996, p. 6
  23. “Nation (n.).” Index, https://www.etymonline.com/word/nation
  24. “What Is NATION? Definition of NATION (Black’s Law Dictionary).” The Law Dictionary, 31 Jan. 2014, thelawdictionary.org/nation/

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