Americanization, U.S.

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Americanization refers to processes of "becoming American," and to organized efforts to encourage the transformation of immigrants into "Americans." The term was in informal use in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, but it is most prominently associated with the movement of that name during the 1910s and early 1920s. The term is often used interchangeably with assimilation.

The "problem" of Americanization arises because American national identity must be constructed in the absence of primordial ethnic mythology, and in the face of exceptional diversity. There is general recognition that the United States is a "civic nation," rather than an "ethnic nation," in which devotion to "founding principles" is the source of national identity and community. The creedal nature of American identity carries the implication that anyone may "become American" by committing himself or herself to the nation's founding principles, and to their expression in distinctively American symbols and ways of living. However, the propositional nature of American identity carries with it the question of who is capable of the necessary understanding of, and commitment to, American principles, and to the ways of living that they are taken to imply. That seed of doubt has led Americans to scrutinize cultural differences, ethnic consociation, and race as potential indicators of the lack of qualification for trusted membership in the polity, and to insist on outward demonstrations of Americanization by those considered for membership.

American National Identity and Ideologies
of Americanization

The definition of American identity in ideological terms was elaborated in the early postindependence period. While the extent to which a new American people would emerge from the fusion of diverse strands of Europeans, as Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur's (17351813) famous "Letter from an American Farmer" rhapsodized, was questionable, what was firmly established was the association of American identity with individual "transformation."

Americanization in the nineteenth century.

Nineteenth-century Americans expected life in the United States to transform European newcomers into culturally compatible neighbors. While not directing specific "Americanization" efforts toward immigrants, American communities placed faith, in particular, in the common schools to be "culture factories" in which to inculcate principles of republican virtue, and to cultivate American habits and identities. A general pattern of acceptance of diversity and confidence in the workings of America's natural "melting pot" was not obtained until the 1890s.

The 1890s represent a crucial turning point that intensified the salience of ethnicity as an element of national identity, gave rise to the "Americanization movement," and, ultimately, resulted in long-lasting restrictions on immigration. A massive influx of new immigrants, primarily from southern and eastern Europe, combined with the perception of the frontier having closed, accelerated industrialization, rural emigration, recurring economic distress, perceptions of urban disorder and disorganization, labor conflict, and radical political agitation diminished Americans' faith in the naturally absorptive powers of American life and in a laissez-faire approach to immigrant absorption. So, too, did the development of a distinctively racialist ideology that identified Anglo-Saxon descent with authentic American identity and placed the new immigrants into inferior classifications.

Americanization in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The resulting effort to "Americanize" immigrant newcomers was part of the Progressive movement's broader efforts to construct a modern and cohesive social order, and also part of a new purifying national effort to cultivate patriotism among all Americans. As World War I approached, the priorities of immigrant adjustment would yield to the priority of coercively assuring loyalty through insistence on naturalization, quick acquisition and sole use of English, and adherence to "American" cultural norms.

Well before the official birth of the "Americanization movement" in 1915, educators began to grapple with what they determined were the needs of the increasing number of foreign-born adults and their children. Settlement houses and other agencies like the YMCA initiated programs and activities intended to familiarize immigrants with the language and cultural practices of the United States and to smooth the transition from "immigrant" to "American." Public schools began to adopt distinctive curricular, extracurricular, and disciplinary innovations intended to "Americanize" the children of immigrants. These included, among other measures, kindergartens, instruction in hygiene, manners, and the conduct of daily life, home visitations, and special classes for teaching English. During this phase of "humanitarian" Americanization, professionals sought to integrate immigrants into American life without harshly and rapidly stripping them of their homeland ties and concerns or of their culturally distinct languages, values, beliefs, and customary ways.

The Americanization movement that followed was multi-faceted and involved professional, popular, and political elements. Its participants were not of one mind, and some shifted their viewpoints and priorities over time. It is the coercive and strident activities of campaigns of the World War I period against "hyphenation," and, then, for "100 Percent Americanism" that have left the lasting image of the Americanization movement, and account for its repudiation in the 1920s.

According to John Higham, the Americanization movement represented "nothing less than an alteration in the whole texture of nationalist thought." One-Hundred Percent Americanism demanded "universal conformity organized through total national loyalty." The new spirit of nationalism required complete identification with country so as to "permeate and stabilize the rest of [the individual's] thinking and behavior" (1970, pp. 204205). In this vein, citizenship classes included lessons not only on civic duties like voting, but also on "American" ways of performing routine tasks like cooking and cleaning, child rearing, and personal hygiene. "Becoming an American, immigrants were taught, involved making yourself over entirely" (McClymer, p. 109).

Perhaps highest on the Americanizers' agendas for remaking immigrants into Americans was conversion by immigrants from home-language to the use of English. For the most extreme among the "English First" crusaders, language was foremost a matter of loyalty. Professional Americanizers, however, emphasized that only a common language could guarantee the "community of interest" required for national unity. Among professional Americanizers, English was deemed necessary to facilitate the widespread social intercourse and participation that they so ardently championed.

Historians have not often been kind to the Americanization movement of the 18901925 period. Robert Carlson has labeled the Americanization movement a "Quest for Conformity" that demanded an unfair exchange, and, in general, was psychologically damaging to its putative beneficiaries. Gary Gerstle identifies the Americanization movement with coercive nation-building that almost destroyed German Americans as an ethnic group, limited the identities that Americans could adopt, and hardened the racial color-line. John Higham, while recognizing the mixed impulses of the movement, interprets the movement as fundamentally an episode in American nativism.

Not all historians, however, have viewed the Americanization movement in unrelentingly negative terms. The circumstances to which the Americanizers were responding were, given their perspectives, threatening and challenging. In the face of the massive immigration from parts of the world that heretofore had not been large sources of emigration to America, worries over whether democracy could function in the absence of a common language, common culture, and common commitment, were, in Robert Wiebe's judgment, reasonable. Stephan Brumberg is critical of academic critics of the Americanization movement who fail to appreciate the immigrant's real needs for structure and direction in an alien, threatening, perplexing, and dehumanizing environment. Moreover, the vocabulary of Americanization, with its proclamations of American symbols and ideals celebrating liberty, democracy, and equal opportunity, could be adopted by immigrant and American workers alike, to help forge an American working-class consciousness in opposition to the rule of capitalist elites.

While most historians have evaluated the Americanization movement by what it did to immigrants, Michael Olneck has questioned the proximate effects of Americanization and has argued that perhaps the largest significance of the movement was to create new "public meanings" rather than to have changed immigrants. Most significantly, the Americanization movement defined subsidiary identities as incompatible with "American" identity, delegitimated collective identities, relegated ethnic identities to the "background," and demarcated a supraethnic, shared public terrain of "American life" into which all were expected to "enter," as well as symbolically represented the abstract autonomous individual as the constitutive element of American society.

Americanization between 1930 and 1965.

During the 1920s occasional voices were raised against the project of a homogeneous America, and by the 1930s an ideology of "cultural pluralism" gained currency. With the rise of fascism in Europe, concerns over ethnic, racial, and religious tensions in the United States, the ongoing social and political incorporation of second-generation Americans, scholarly discovery of persistent ethnicity in the cities, and anthropological refutations of racialist doctrines, ideas of America as encompassing a potentially harmonious diversity consistent with assimilation took hold, and were reinforced during the mass mobilization for World War II. Cultural diversity would be tolerated within the context of shared national ideas and sentiments that ensured civic harmony and cooperation. Cultural pluralism in this form represented a powerful reaffirmation of American ideology as a basis of national identity.

Pluralism in the 1950s was "predicated on consensus around the American value system despite seeming to place a premium verbally on diversity" (Gleason, p. 62). Subsequently, American universalistic egalitarian and individualistic civic ideals appeared to triumph in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration Reform Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965. The triumph, in the view of some, was short-lived.

Americanization after 1965.

The emergence and legitimacy of Black Power and other ethnic nationalisms in the mid-1960s, antiVietnam War critiques and mass protests, and the adoption of policies encouraging ethnic identification, recognition, and rights, was seen by some to have replaced civic nationalism with a strong version of cultural pluralism, later to be termed multi-culturalism. In the process, assimilation joined the already discredited term Americanization as a term of opprobrium.

However, reactions against multiculturalism have occasioned calls for the revival of a civic ideology of American identity, and some have attempted to revive a modern ideal of Americanization. Significantly, academic and journalistic critics of multi-culturalism rarely claim to seek a return to the demands for homogeneity characteristic of the Americanization movement period, nor do they urge an end to ethnicity. John Higham advocates "pluralistic integration," in which individual rights and needs for group solidarity are balanced, as are universalistic principles and particularistic needs. David Hollinger propounds a model of "postethnic cosmopolitanism," which prefers voluntary to prescribed affiliations, appreciates multiple identities and communities of broad scope, and accepts the formation of new groups as part of the normal life of a democratic society. Peter Salins commends "Assimilation, American Style" that requires citizens to accept English as the national language, take pride in American identity, and believe in America's liberal and democratic egalitarian principles, and to live by a Protestant ethic of self-reliance, hard work, and moral rectitude, but does not demand cultural homogeneity. Even John Miller, who protests "The Unmaking of Americans" and the undermining of an earlier assimilation ethic by multiculturalism, argues not that racial and ethnic identities should be suppressed, but only that their expression remain confined to the private sphere. In its 1997 recommendations, the United States Commission on Immigration Reform recommended "taking back" the word Americanization, since it is "our word" that was "stolen" by racists and xenophobes in the 1920s. The Commission defined Americanization in ways that are consistent with the ideal of civic nationality. "Americanization," the Commission wrote, "is the process of integration by which immigrants become part of our communities and by which our communities and the nation learn from and adapt to their presence," and is "the cultivation of a shared commitment to the American values of liberty, democracy and equal opportunity" (p. 26). "The United States," the Commission continued,

is a nation founded on the proposition that each individual is born with certain rights and that the purpose of government is to secure these rights. The United States admits immigrants as individuals. As long as the United States continues to emphasize the rights of individuals over those of groups, we need not fear that the diversity brought by immigrants will lead to ethnic division or disunity. (pp. 2829)

Whether or not subsequent government action is as attentive as the Commission tried to be to the "cosmopolitan" elements in defining American identity is debatable, but government policies certainly evidence an ongoing commitment to Americanization. In 2001 the Congress replaced the Bilingual Education Act with the English Language Acquisition Act, which included replacing the United States Department of Education's Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs with an Office of English Language Acquisition. In 2003 Congress established the "Office of Citizenship" in the United States Department of Homeland Security. The Office of Citizenship is meant to work to revive and emphasize "the common civic identity and shared values that are essential to citizenship," according to a government fact sheet. And, despite apparent commitments to multiculturalism in the pubic schools, actual formal and informal practices, particularly those emphasizing the rapid acquisition of English, suggest that schools continue to regard "Americanization" as a priority, even if they do not use that term. What remains absent from the schools is the civics education component of Americanization that predominated during the 1910s.


At the juncture of the early twenty-first century, those made uneasy by America's increasing ethnic and linguistic diversity called, through such efforts as attempting to legislate an "official" status for English, for a kind of revived Americanization movement. While a majority supported proposals to make English the "official" language, acceptance of diversity nevertheless appeared embedded in expressed attitudes, and public-opinion studies strongly supported the conclusion that Americans' " preference for an inclusive nationalism coexists with the widespread acceptance of pluralism in cultural practices" (Citrin et al., p. 266). A "cosmopolitan liberal" view of American identity and polity appeared to predominate over either a multiculturalist or nativist view, and so we would expect coercive Americanization crusades to remain a thing of the past.

See also Assimilation ; Diversity ; Ethnicity and Race ; Identity: Personal and Social Identity


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Gleason, Philip. Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Higham, John. Send These to Me: Jews and Other Immigrants in Urban America. New York: Atheneum, 1975.

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Hollinger, David A. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

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Salins, Peter D. Assimilation, American Style. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Schultz, Stanley K. The Culture Factory: Boston Public Schools, 17891860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

United States Commission on Immigration Reform. Becoming an American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy: 1997 Report to Congress. Washington, D.C.: United States Commission on Immigrant Reform, 1997.

Michael R. Olneck

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Americanization, U.S.

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