As a typical under-educated/mis-educated American, I’ve felt compelled to educate myself about American history, especially the complexities of early American history. As a descendant of Europeans from many generations ago, I’m interested about the early immigrations during and after the colonial period. Specifically as a descendant of non-English immigrants, I’m most focused on the ethnic/cultural diversity that formed America, thus setting the stage for everything that followed.
I’ve always been bothered by the white supremacists and their more mainstream cousins, the WASP supremacists. American supremacists often advocate a narrowing of all American culture(s) down to a single monoculture, a supposed original and unique American culture. The ironic part is that this is a very modern idea which goes against traditional European cultural diversity. Even the definition of ‘Europe’ has constantly been argued about since the concept was first mentioned. Some don’t consider the British Isles to be part of Europe. Also, the Finnish are genetically and culturally distinct from the rest of Europe and Britain. The British Isles alone consist of massive diversity caused by the interaction of numerous groups of people from all over Europe. There is little of the original native cultures left in most of Europe and the British Isles.
In America, the early non-English immigrants didn’t just assimilate to English culture. First of all, early America had a diversity of cultures and so there was no single culture to assimilate to. Second, most early immigrants were quite fond of their own culture and many resisted assimilation for generations. Third, many of the colonial governments didn’t seek to force people to assimilate.
Assimilation and the development of a monoculture only became central in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when immigration was curtailed and federal laws enforced a single language onto all public schools. Furthermore, there was the rise of the KKK which was a systematic terrorizing of anyone who didn’t conform to their view of American culture (whites as well as blacks). Anti-immigrant, anti-German, anti-Italian, and anti- all kinds of things commanded much attention from the political and economic elites. An age of conformity arose in early 20th century which came to fruition in the 1950s which is why conservatives idealize the monocultural 1950s instead of the multicultural 1850s or, for that matter, the 1750s.
The supremacists too often have sought to enforce their conservative vision onto all of American history, a romanticized revisionism that conveniently ignores all of the complex factual details. For example, they deny the democratic reformists of the revolutionary era and post-revolutionary era who pushed for radically liberal and progressive policies: feminists and socialists, slavery abolitionists and alcohol prohibitionists, working class free soilers and civil rights activists, Pennsylvania democrats and Whiskey rebels, etc. Beyond this, there were the Native Americans fighting for their own freedom and in some cases their own democratic societies, and there were black revolutionaries either fighting against the British empire or else the American slave-holders.
Early America, even before the revolution, included vast racial and cultural differences, vast religious and political differences, and vast inter-mixings of all of this in different combinations in different places (most American ‘whites’ probably have some non-European genetics, and most American ‘whites’ don’t know about this because mixed-race people tended to pass as whites whenever possible), but even the inter-mixings ended up creating ever new distinct regional cultures, religions and languages/dialects. It was only with the rise of radio and television’s national reach (and their use as vehicles of propaganda during the World Wars) did more Americans begin to think of themselves as a single unified culture, an imagined WASP culture that had always ruled over and united all of America; anyone at that time who thought otherwise wasn’t given a voice in the mainstream media.
I’m writing about this topic in order to begin to grasp the larger picture of how America began. I’ve been reading many books lately that have given me great insight, but I’m still processing that information. You can learn a lot by reading books as I’ve been doing, although almost all of the info I’ve been reading about can even be found in such easily accessible sources as Wikipedia (in fact, you’ll probably learn more accurate info and useful analysis from Wikipedia than you ever gained in grade school). In this Information Age, any American can learn about the intricacies of American history if they so desire.
This topic is a bit overwhelming, though. Some of the complexity of the subject can be seen just from a simplified map of colonial North America (1750):
Spain was the first to permanently colonize North America and claimed the largest portion of the Americas. The French later claimed a territory that challenged Spain’s dominance in North America. However, it wasn’t until Britain gained French territory that the largest battle of colonial empires would happen in North America. The British were slow to invest in their colonies, but because of Spain’s waning empire they were able to expand.
“In the late 16th century, England, France, Spain and the Netherlands launched major colonization programs in eastern North America. Many early attempts—notably the English Lost Colony of Roanoke—ended in failure, and everywhere the death rate of the first arrivals was very high, but key successful colonies were established. European settlers came from a variety of social and religious groups. No aristocrats settled permanently, but a number of adventurers, soldiers, farmers, and tradesmen arrived. Ethnic diversity was an American characteristic as the Dutch of New Netherland, the Swedes and Finns of New Sweden, the English Quakers of Pennsylvania, the English Puritans of New England, the English settlers of Jamestown, and the “worthy poor” of Georgia, came to the new continent and built colonies with distinctive social, religious, political and economic styles. Occasionally one colony took control of another (during wars between their European parents), but unlike in Nova Scotia they did not expel the previous inhabitants, but instead lived side by side in peace.”
Even ignoring the vast majority of North America controlled by Spain, France and Russia, the British colonies themselves were very diverse. Britain gained the New Netherland colony and renamed it New York, but the Netherland culture and political tradition was maintained: cultural diversity, religious freedom, freedom of speech, free trade, and a certain amount of racial equality in that free blacks could own land and businesses. Also, non-English immigrants (mostly Germans) formed the majority of the Pennsylvania colony. Germans were among the first immigrants in British colonies and their descendants now form the largest percentage of the US population. Germans and other Northern Europeans, by forming ethnic enclaves, maintained to varying degrees their distinct cultures and languages into the 20th century (the German Amish still maintain a separate culture and language; demonstrating their separateness, they commonly refer to outsiders as ‘English’).
All of the colonies were majority Christian, but other religious adherents could be found, specifically Jews and Muslims. Some were allowed to practice openly, even forming communities; others such as Muslim black slaves were among the first Americans to have religious freedom denied to them. To varying degrees, some non-monotheist slaves maintained their African religious practices. Interestingly, Jefferson included all religions as part of his vision of religious freedom:
“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
~ Autobiography (1821), in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom.
Another interesting point to consider is that blacks formed the majority in the Carolina colony and large percentages in other colonies as well such as Virginia which is the oldest British colony. Why this is interesting is that black slaves raised the children of the slave owners and thus it was blacks with their African culture that shaped the minds of generations of upper class white children. Some have theorized that elements of the South’s unique culture is African in origin.
Furthermore, consider the rarely mentioned fact that Asians have been in America since the 16th century. The largest early immigrations of Asians happened around the same time of the largest European immigrations. A lot of the American economy and infrastructure (such as the railroads) was built with Asian labor. Because of longstanding racial prejudice against them, Asians have maintained separate cultures, religions and languages since they first immigrated. The West Coast has had large Asian populations for a very long time.
Many things that we consider as American didn’t originate from the English. Classical liberalism was first implemented on a society-wide scale in Netherlands and the New Netherlands colony. Besides the multiculturalism of New Netherlands, the other model of American multiculturalism originated from the French who settled New Orleans where the French, German, Filipino, African and Native American cultures freely mixed. The style of the typical log cabin originated from Swedish immigrants. The common design of the Conestoga wagon used by most pioneers was designed by German immigrants. The freedom-loving cowboy culture was developed among Spaniard colonists and the children they had with Native Americans (think about that when a white Republican politician tries to prove his American character by playing the role of cowboy; also, consider Texas and the Southwest was originally a part of Spain’s territory and has always had a majority Spanish culture). The profitable commodities of corn and beans, of course, were agricultural plants developed by Native Americans. The Heartland culture of the Midwest is based on the culture of Germans and Scandinavians, and this Heartland culture was the breeding ground for American progressivism and municipal socialism. The Scots-Irish brought to America the values of military valor/bravado, strident independence/individualism and evangelical fundamentalism; they were some of the first Americans who learned how to effectively fight against and fight in the manner of Native Americans, techniques they would early on use to terrorize other colonists and later on use during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
The English tradition represents a very small part of American culture. Even England itself is a multicultural place and has been for a very long time. England was at various times controlled by, conquered by, or genetically mixed with other people from other countries. It was conquered by the Romans which is why Britains have African genetics. The Romans had to deal with the Germans who they never were able to conquer, the Germans having originated from Scandinavia. The German Vikings brought their culture, language and genetics into the British Isles (in fact, the English language originates from a Low German dialect, specifically from the language of the Angles and Saxons). Eventually, many Northern Europeans settled there and created a permanent culture. The Normans, for example, conquered England and it was the Normans that Southern aristocrats modeled themselves after. The Normans were Germans who had first settled in France before conquering England. Even though the early German colonies in North America failed, German culture(s) was essentially introduced again through the colonizing efforts of France and Britain.
An interesting factor to consider is how Europe has been culturally divided similar to America. Northern Europe was dominated by the Scandinavian/German/Protestant influence and Southern Europe was dominated by the Roman/Catholic influence. The highest concentrations of Catholics in the United States are where the Catholic French and Catholic Spaniards first settled:
Ignoring the French influence, I’ve always been fascinated by how the United States immigration patterns mimicked European ethnic regions. Many Northern Europeans settled the Northern regions of the US and many Southern Europeans settled the Southern regions of the US. This is how different regions of the US have maintained distinctive cultures throughout American history. Here is a map showing the ethnicities in America (those identifying as ‘American’ in Appalachia and the South are mostly Scots-Irish):
There never has been a single American culture. And it is unlikely there ever will be a single American culture. Or, at least, it would probably take a few more millennia of a melting pot to accomplish that.