The rhetorical claim that America is a “nation of immigrants” is so common that it is taken for granted. This propagandistic notion is beaten into our heads from childhood. But is this how the American nation traditionally saw itself?
I’ll look at quantitative data from Google engrams in a subsequent post. Here, we look something more qualitative: a speech from Theodore Roosevelt at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 1901. Roosevelt gave this speech less than two weeks before he became president, following the assassination of President McKinley. The theme of this speech, in which Roosevelt first gave his famous quip to “speak softly and carry a big stick”, argues for a more internationalist and less isolationist foreign policy, something that many in his audience would have found difficult to accept. Before moving to his more controversial theme, Roosevelt builds on common ground with his audience by emphasizing uncontroversial, safe ideas that were nearly universally accepted—that America is a “nation of pioneers”:
In his admirable series of studies of twentieth-century problems, Dr. Lyman Abbott has pointed out that we are a nation of pioneers; that the first colonists to our shores were pioneers, and that pioneers selected out from among the descendants of these early pioneers, mingled with others selected afresh from the Old World, pushed westward into the wilderness and laid the foundations for new commonwealths.
Even though Roosevelt was delivering this speech in Minnesota, a place that in prior decades had just been settled by large numbers of immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany, he barely mentions immigration, and uses assimilationist language, about mingling selected pioneers from the Old World with old stock Americans.
They were men of hope and expectation, of enterprise and energy; for the men of dull content or more dull despair had no part in the great movement into and across the New World. Our country has been populated by pioneers, and therefore it has in it more energy, more enterprise, more expansive power than any other in the wide world.
You whom I am now addressing stand for the most part but one generation removed from these pioneers. You are typical Americans, for you have done the great, the characteristic, the typical work of our American life. In making homes and carving out careers for yourselves and your children, you have built up this state. Throughout our history the success of the homemaker has been but another name for the up-building of the nation. The men who with ax in the forests and pick in the mountains and plow on the prairies pushed to completion the dominion of our people over the American wilderness have given the definite shape to our nation. They have shown the qualities of daring, endurance, and far-sightedness, of eager desire for victory and stubborn refusal to accept defeat, which go to make up the essential manliness of the American character.
How many politicians today talk about the “essential manliness of the American character”? Why not? What have we lost?
Above all, they have recognized in practical form the fundamental law of success in American life—the law of worthy work, the law of high, resolute endeavor. We have but little room among our people for the timid, the irresolute, and the idle; and it is no less true that there is scant room in the world at large for the nation with mighty thews that dares not to be great.
Surely in speaking to the sons of the men who actually did the rough and hard and infinitely glorious work of making the great Northwest what it now is, I need hardly insist upon the righteousness of this doctrine. In your own vigorous lives you show by every act how scant is your patience with those who do not see in the life of effort the life supremely worth living. Sometimes we hear those who do not work spoken of with envy. Surely the willfully idle need arouse in the breast of a healthy man no emotion stronger than that of contempt—at the outside no emotion stronger than angry contempt. The feeling of envy would have in it an admission of inferiority on our part, to which the men who know not the sterner joys of life are not entitled. Poverty is a bitter thing; but it is not as bitter as the existence of restless vacuity and physical, moral, and intellectual flabbiness, to which those doom themselves who elect to spend all their years in that vainest of all vain pursuits—the pursuit of mere pleasure as a sufficient end in itself. The willfully idle man, like the willfully barren woman, has no place in a sane, healthy, and vigorous community. Moreover, the gross and hideous selfishness for which each stands defeats even its own miserable aims. Exactly as infinitely the happiest woman is she who has borne and brought up many healthy children,
CNN wouldn’t dare air a speech with a statement like this without first giving trigger warnings, and then following it with weeks of outraged commentary calling for investigations and apologies.
so infinitely the happiest man is he who has toiled hard and successfully in his life-work. The work may be done in a thousand different ways —with the brain or the hands, in the study, the field, or the workshop—if it is honest work, honestly done and well worth doing, that is all we have a right to ask. Every father and mother here, if they are wise, will bring up their children not to shirk difficulties, but to meet them and overcome them; not to strive after a life of ignoble ease, but to strive to do their duty, first to themselves and their families, and then to the whole state; and this duty must inevitably take the shape of work in some form or other. You, the sons of the pioneers, if you are true to your ancestry, must make your lives as worthy as they made theirs. They sought for true success, and therefore they did not seek ease. They knew that success comes only to those who lead the life of endeavor.
It seems to me that the simple acceptance of this fundamental fact of American life, this acknowledgment that the law of work is the fundamental law of our being, will help us to start aright in facing not a few of the problems that confront us from without and from within. As regards internal affairs, it should teach us the prime need of remembering that, after all has been said and done, the chief factor in any man’s success or failure must be his own character—that is, the sum of his common sense, his courage, his virile energy and capacity. Nothing can take the place of this individual factor.
So, the part of his speech meant to be an uncontroversial recitation of how Americans almost universally saw themselves talked about pioneers and hard work, not about immigrants. It talked about the source of the American nation’s strength being that it was a nation of pioneers who settle and build and who believe in hard work, determination, and courage.
And that’s the way we need to start seeing ourselves again.