Segment from The Melting Pot


Historian Bruce Schulman helps explain one of Teddy Roosevelt’s most famous speeches, when he declared: “there is no room for hyphenated Americans.”


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NATHAN: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly.

JOANNE: I’m Joanne Freeman.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh.

JOANNE: Brian, Ed Ayers, Nathan, and I are all historians. Each week, we explore a topic that’s been in the news. And we’re going to start today’s show in New York City in 1915.

It’s Columbus Day, and a crowd of 2,500 people is gathered in glittering Carnegie Hall. The Knights of Columbus, an Italian fraternal organization, is hosting an event. It’s a celebration of Christopher Columbus, a source of Italian-American pride and a man that many considered to be the first Italian immigrant or, as some saw it, the first immigrant to America of any nationality.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: Four centuries and a quarter have gone by since Columbus, by discovering America, opened the greatest era in world history. It is eminently fitting to make an address on Americanism before this society.

BRUCE SCHULMAN: And Theodore Roosevelt, the former president, war hero, is addressing the subject of what it means to be an American–

NATHAN: This is historian Bruce Schulman.

BRUCE SCHULMAN: –of whether people from other countries can fully be American, whether you can trust the loyalty of immigrants and their children.

NATHAN: He says this address remains a touchstone in the debate over multiculturalism.

BRUCE SCHULMAN: So Roosevelt, in the speech, says that there is no room in this country for “hyphenated Americanism.”

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all.

BRUCE SCHULMAN: A hyphenated American is someone for whom an essential part of his or her being is their ethnic background, their ties to that other country, that other culture, that other tradition.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: 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 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.

BRIAN: Roosevelt’s speech came at a critical moment. As the First World War thundered across Europe, the former president and other leaders feared immigrants would not be loyal to the United States if and when America joined the conflict. But Schulman says Roosevelt’s address reflected an additional concern.

BRUCE SCHULMAN: In the period between 1880 and World War I, some 20 million foreigners emigrate to the United States. In fact, the majority of the population of some of the largest cities are either immigrants or their native-born children. So the great problem for Americans at the turn of the century is, can the United States accommodate itself to this massive wave of immigration and still retain its democratic institutions, still retain its national identity? How will it do it? And there are various responses.

BRIAN: Many Americans were convinced that this wave of immigration posed a mortal threat to the republic. These were nativists, who believe that–

BRUCE SCHULMAN: The white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition is what defines the United States. It’s a racial, or ethnic, version of nationalism. And people can only be Americans insofar as they fully endorse that. And, in contrast to that, people like Theodore Roosevelt championed a civic notion of American identity.

BRIAN: That civic notion of American identity, Schulman says, is one based on a devotion to democratic values. So Roosevelt was deliberately pushing back against the nativists.

BRUCE SCHULMAN: And so what Roosevelt is saying at the Carnegie Hall speech is that being American is not a matter of where you come from. It’s not a matter of what religion you have. 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 anyone else.

BRIAN: Sounds pretty progressive. But Roosevelt’s open-to-all brand of Americanism was only progressive by the standards of the early 20th century. It’s not a celebration of America’s ethnic diversity.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: We of the United States need, above all things, to remember that, while we are by blood and culture kin to each of the nations of Europe, we are also separate from each of them.

BRUCE SCHULMAN: This is the vision of assimilation into a single, composite, American culture. On the one hand, it’s inclusiveness. It’s saying that anybody can be American. On the other hand, it’s insistence that you can’t retain your culture, that having some kind of mixed identity, is not really allowed into this vision.

JOANNE: The next day, the New York Times ran a headline that blared “Roosevelt Bars the Hyphenated.” But it’s important to note that, in his speech, Roosevelt had only certain groups in mind.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: –an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans, or Italian-Americans, each preserving–

BRUCE SCHULMAN: So in that list, he doesn’t even mention the millions of people who have come from Eastern and Central Europe, from Russia, from the Ottoman Empire, from Mexico.

JOANNE: In other words, the welcome mat did not extend to Asians or, basically, anyone who wasn’t white at the time.

BRUCE SCHULMAN: But the fact is that the battle over the nature of American identity– is it defined by race ethnicity? Is it a matter of blood? Is it a melting pot that requires a kind of assimilation to a common set of norms? Or is it a tapestry, a salad bowl, of diverse groups that retain their distinct identities? Now, that battle is still very much undecided.

NATHAN: And that battle touches on a tension at the heart of American history. What does it mean to be an American? And who gets to decide?