What Is An American?

Horace Kallen (1882-1974) was a Polish-born American philosopher well respected for an article entitled “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot: A Study of American Nationality,” which appeared in The Nation in 1915, in two parts. In this article, Kallen discusses the principle of liberty and Americanism from the time of the revolutionary war in America to the time of his writing in 1915. He ably addresses the then and now current issue of applying the principles incumbent in the Declaration of Independence of life, liberty and happiness, over time, in a changing country and changing world.

The American revolutionaries did not demand freedom and democracy on behalf of all residing on colonial soil at the time of the Declaration. Kallen argues that the signatories were probably not “abolitionists” in tenor and temperament, and they, themselves, “owned other men.” (190) The literal text of the Declaration ably applies words of liberty and freedom to the entirety of American society. (190) In Kallen’s view, Americanization is possible and necessary if we, as citizens, adopt a shared self-consciousness and like-mindedness based upon the Declaration and its fundamental principles.

Necessary in Kallen’s mind is the “Americanization” of our society, every person in each generation. The philosophy of the Declaration and of being an American cannot be inherited. America is a country and society of diversity and, continues in existence as it began, as one of newcomers. All must be taught to be Americans, both the descendants of forefathers as well as immigrants newly arrived. Kallen illustrates the efficacy of the Declaration beyond the American Revolution.

In Kallen’s view of history, the Declaration of Independence is “an instrument in a political and economic conflict” rather than a document setting forth “abstract principles” or “formal logic.” (190) It constituted both “offense” and defense” within the context of the era of Revolutionary America. The function of the Declaration was to “shield” “national rights” from those seeking to enforce the “superiority” provided by a government founded upon a belief in authority conferred by “divine right.” (190) The political and economic peril of the colony was the “occasion” giving rise to the Declaration; the cause was the “like-mindedness” and “self-consciousness” shared by the ethnically homogenous colonials in mental peril. (191) At the time of his writing in 1915, Kallen believed that ethnic diversity, development and preservation in art, literature and culture are only possible with homogeneity, self-consciousness and like-mindedness which he found resulting in individuality and autonomy by 1915.

Yet, after the Revolution, in the 1810’s to 1820’s, the British inhabitants lessened in majority as they, themselves, migrated westward and faced relative diminution with European immigration. This resulted in ethnic and religious diversity. They, too, sought economic and political liberty and freedom. The immigrants of Ireland, Germany, France, Scandinavia and Slavic territories were present. And, in Kallen’s words, also were, in the American South, “nine million negroes, whose own mode of living tends, by its mere massiveness, to standardize the ‘mind’ of the proletarian South in speech, manner and other values of social organization.” (192)

All residents, suggests Kallen, are “Americanized” over a period of six to seven years. (192) For, those present during colonial times, new immigrants, and citizens of our modern era are included. America’s abundant environment makes this possible in permitting a free choice, laissez-faire economy. In words that are truly applicable today: “What poverty and unemployment exist among us is the result of unskilled and wasteful social housekeeping….” (192) For, “economic equilibrium” must be reached within a population steeped in abundant resources. (192) A democratic government and meritocratic, market economy establish Kallen’s America.

Our cultural and religious diversity grew as the population spanned from East to West. The once American aristocracy of the Anglo-Saxons of New England gives rise to a cultural leveling unto an equality at the highest plane through free social contracts and the imitation of meritocracy based upon a free enterprise market. (192) With transportation and mobile populations and public schools, America becomes a country of an American race. Said by Kallen as it might be said today.

Kallen describes the efficacy and value of the principles of the Declaration. He subtly states that our founding principles have been newly understood. We no longer profess that all men are equal, but, as of 1914, rather that some men are better than others. In his words, “’Human rights versus property rights’ is merely the modern version of the Declaration of Independence.” (193) Further, attention in America was in 1915 focused on the “equalization of the distribution of wealth,” in Kallen’s analysis, “not socialistically,” but presumably economically and politically as sought by the signers of the Declaration. Kallen views this the “dualism” of the “rich and poor” coming to an end. (193) For, the newfound ethnic diversity in the marketplace no longer permits ethnicity to achieve class domination or monopoly. Rather, difference is based upon achievement in a laissez-faire economy based upon merit. Legal restrictions in the marketplace would only be required to counter greed profiting improperly from child labor and illiterate immigrates, etc. (193)

The “fundamental institutions” of America are a “durable expression” of our “ethnic and cultural unity” as a “free and equal” citizenry. “’American’ is an adjective of similarity applied to Anglo-Saxons, Irish, Jews, Germans, Italians, and so on.” (193) And as Kallen’s most fundamental theory in this article, he suggests that the similarity of Americans is “one of the place and institution, acquired, not inherited, and hence not transmitted.  Each generation has, in fact, to become ‘Americanized’ afresh and, withal, inherited nature has a way of redirecting nurture of which our public schools give only too much evidence.” (193) As a result, class consciousness is not coextensive with racial division as the second generation seeks similarity. (194)

Yet, we all, for the most part, retain our ethnicity. There is no “American” race or ethnicity. (194) Rather, the forefathers of New England were aristocrats because of their being first to arrive as all such are aristocrats in Kallen’s thought. Arising are organizations looking back upon ancestors such as the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution in face of confrontational immigrants. The homes of forefathers and noteworthy Americans are likewise enshrined, Kallen notes. We must note that such shrines have far continued since 1915 and include all racial groups long immigrated to America. Kallen foretold the result of “inevitable equilibrium between wealth and population.” (194)

In Part II of “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot: a Study of American Nationality,” Kallen shares his view that the American race arises from our like-mindedness which he professes gives rise to our nationality. (217) The English language is that of the majority, dominant classes. The weakness of the lesser classes promotes a sense of individuality and an inclination toward assimilation. A privilege of reinforcing language and religion of the lower classes lessens assimilation and Americanization, such as parochial schools. Kallen notes that President Wilson similarly objected to hyphenated identities and not referring to all citizens as Americans, though immigrants from another country. Kallen asks, though not challenging hyphenation: how do we achieve harmony within the cacophony of diversity of tunes that is America? For some “populations … national self-consciousness is perhaps the chief spiritual asset.” (217) In this respect, ethnic group self-respect grows with group cultural and economic development and the loss of the label “foreigner” and thus the becoming of being Americanized in public schools and libraries when they share their culture. These people came to America to escape persecution and or starvation and Americanization is a source of “spiritual self-respect” and inclusion within the “body-politic,” replete with the “responsibilities of American citizenship.” (218)

Americanization includes four phases. First, becoming well fed and assimilating to attain economic independence. Second, a comfortable return to one’s own sense of ancestry and nationality. Third, dissimilation begins with a focus on a group’s own art, literature and culture. Fourth, a maintenance of Americanization in political and economic relationships conducted in the English language, while cultural achievements related to nationality transcend from “disadvantages” unto “distinctions.” (219) America’s institutions are the cause and background of “cultural consciousness.” (219) In Kallen’s words: “Americanization liberates nationality.” (219)

In returning to the Declaration, Kallen reminds us that the forefathers did not possess ethnic diversity among them. In 1915, Kallen offered in contrast that democracy and federalism have encouraged the peopling of America’s land with all nationalities. Yet, in Kallen’s view, a laissez-faire capitalist economy may only be the subject of a government controlled by the plutocracy with the entire nation focused upon the country’s bountiful resources and wealth it produces. (219)

Of greater concern is ethnic unison as we sing “America” and focus on the “conditions of life” and not the “kind of life.” (219) American law and institutions are at issue. For, they do not support the unison and union required of Americanization. Kallen called for the nationalization of American educational institutions, abolition of parochial and private schools, abolition of teaching in a language other than English and the concentration of American and English history and literature. This, he believed, would achieve Americanization. For, required is a “unison of social and historic interests,” the subject matter of our existence. In part, American law and society long ago have demanded this in its academic institutions. No more is probably needed. Rather, American citizens need to defer to Kallen’s premise that each generation must learn our fundamental principles of freedom and liberty.

For, in addition to union, Kallen sought ‘harmony” among us. (219) We would eliminate waste and become more efficient in our social organizations and their interrelationships. By definition: “’Americanization’ – that democracy means self-realization through self-control, self-government, and that one is impossible without the other.” Our organizations must be in harmony one with another. To do so, all must be given conditions “under which each may attain the perfection that is proper to its kind.” (219) This selfhood is inalienable yet achieving it requires “‘inalienable’ liberty.” (220) We derive this from our ancestral endowment and happiness, in Kallen’s words: one’s “psychophysical inheritance.” (220) A democracy assumes that this is necessary for the self-realization of one’s innate original being. Government acts as an “instrument” to achieve democracy by liberating and protecting. To eliminate the waste and social chaos among ourselves, our organizations and our government, we must abide original principles of the Declaration and our founders. Kallen deems this the freeing and strengthening of our ethnic groups by our fundamental law and institutions and the achievement of self-realization and individuality.

Without the foregoing, Kallen believed that social and political chaos reigned, and perhaps it still does. Yet, in his optimism, Kallen suggested that government, as an instrument was flexible and subject to change and reform, in response to “changing life” and “changing opinion.” (220) “Intelligence and wisdom prevail over politics.” When our inalienable talent and ability transcend the confusion of our “common life” a great democracy emerges. Kallen stated that it is a “Federal republic in substance a democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously.” (220) This occurs as citizens self-realize unto the perfection of their kind. Do “the dominant classes in America want such a society?” (220)

(Horace Kallen, “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot: A Study of American Nationality,” The Nation, Part I (Vol. 100, No. 2590, pgs. 190-194, Feb. 18, 1915) and Part II (Vol. 100, No. 2591, pgs. 217-20, Feb. 25, 1915)).

Lori Gayle Nuckolls