The “Melting Pot”

Wikipedia’s article on the “melting pot” is interesting. Here’s a quote from J. Hector St. John de Crevecour:

“…whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes… What, then, is the American, this new man? He is neither a European nor the descendant of a European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared.”− J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer.

And from a magazine article in 1875:

The fusing process goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even– transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. Uniform institutions, ideas, language, the influence of the majority, bring us soon to a similar complexion; the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot.”[1]

And Henry James:

“Understand that America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, your fifty languages, and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”[3]

What really established the term “melting pot” was a 1905 play of that name by Israel Zangwill (this seems to be the full text of the play). Wikipedia’s summary:

In The Melting Pot (1905), Zangwill combined a romantic denouement with a utopian celebration of complete cultural intermixing. The play was an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in New York City. The play’s immigrant protagonist David Quixano, a Russian Jew, falls in love with Vera, a fellow Russian immigrant who is Christian. Vera is an idealistic settlement house worker and David is a musical composer struggling to create an “American symphony” to celebrate his adopted homeland. Together they manage to overcome the old world animosities that threaten to separate them. But then David discovers that Vera is the daughter of the Tsarist officer who directed the pogrom that forced him to flee Russia. Horrified, he breaks up with her, betraying his belief in the possibility of transcending religious and ethnic animosities. However, unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, there is a happy ending. At the end of the play the lovers are reconciled.

Reunited with Vera and watching the setting sun gilding the Statue of Liberty, David Quixano has a prophetic vision: “It is the Fires of God round His Crucible. There she lies, the great Melting-Pot–Listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth, the harbor where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight.” David foresees how the American melting pot will make the nation’s immigrants transcend their old animosities and differences and will fuse them into one people: “Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.”

Zangwill thus combined the metaphor of the “crucible” or “melting pot” with a celebration of the United States as an ideal republic and a new promised land.

The conception of the “melting pot” by these authors seems to be specially American. It is tolerant in one sense, less so in another. It is tolerant in that it doesn’t judge anyone by who their ancestors were, by their racial or ethnic background. All that can be forgiven and forgotten. But it also must be forgotten: one is not supposed to cling to it, to insist on remaining Russian or Irish or German or whatever. One is offered a new identity, and one is supposed to accept it, not nurse one’s old identity. Americans approve of all sorts of nostalgia for this or that “old country,” but without taking it too seriously. A “balkanized” America where (as in Yugoslavia) people cling to age-old communal differences and regard neighbors with the other identity as the enemy would strike any American patriot with horror, though we’re not too afraid of it because Americanism is such a potent force that it can easily overcome rival identities. America is a post-ethnic nation.

While America has long since closed its borders to most aspiring immigrants– alas!– the ideal of the “melting pot” still has influence. I think I can speak for most Americans in saying that they would find it both unfair and strange to judge a person, or exclude him, based on his ancestry, or even his country of birth, as distinct from his legal immigration status. Is it possible to become American? Of course! But is it possible to become British, or German, or French, or Swedish? My impression is that that’s much harder. It would involve a bit of reconceptualization of those national identities to make them as open to newcomers as the American identity has been from the beginning. Being American has nothing to do with one’s remote ancestors, but being British, French, or German does have something to do with one’s remote ancestors. I suspect this is one reason Europe seems to find it harder to absorb immigrants than America does. Another reason is that a larger share of immigrants to Europe are Muslim, while Europeans are largely irreligious. They are almost at opposite poles. In America, mainly Christian immigrants from Latin America don’t differ much religiously from the mainly Christian native population. A third reason is the welfare state.

Now for the abstract question: Is the “melting pot” necessary for open borders? Does a country that will host large immigrant populations need to have a culture that they can understand, absorb, and participate in, and that stands ready to accept them as members? And do immigrants need to be willing to accept the culture and identity of their host country, and allow it largely to displace their former loyalties, frame of reference, contacts?

Well, I think the answer is “no.” It’s quite possible for people to co-exist peacefully without melting together into one culture. Certain moral objections might be made to such a situation, but they would have far less force than the moral objections that reason makes to the partitioning of humanity into geographically segregated nations with opportunities that differ vastly from one nation to the next and are much diminished by this segregation even for those who draw relatively favorable cards from the deck of life. Such intermingling of peoples has its moral benefits, too: a more interesting world, with more opportunities to learn, and to profit from our differences through specialization and trade. Still, the questions of what makes good neighbors and what good neighbors are good for– the charm of the familiar, the sense of being at home— are important ones that need to be thought through. Cosmopolitanism is glorious, but it doesn’t have a monopoly of virtue.

The irony is that the neighborliness/familiarity/conformism which America and other rich countries tried to purchase at the terrible price of closed borders now seems to be unraveling on its own. We are “coming apart,” as Charles Murray observes; the “big sort” is underway. Back in the 1960s, the Baby Boomers found conformism stultifying and rebelled against it, and now people are pursuing their individuality further and further from any common cultural center. It’s just the opposite of the old “melting pot.” The new norm is to embrace diversity.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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