God's Melting Pot

God's Melting PotThe metaphor of the United States as a “melting pot” first gained prominence during the wave of European migration from the 1880s to 1910s. A simplistic assumption of the “melting pot” asserts that all American immigrants become the same, while a more nuanced understanding sees American diversity affecting everyone differently. Many critiques of the “melting pot” have been made throughout the 20th and 21st centuries: that the metaphor denies the presence of non-European Americans, that religion may not “melt away” as ethnicities seem to do, and that ethnicities do not disappear as quickly as expected.

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The “melting pot” is one of the strongest images of America’s appropriation of diversity, melting differences into something new. The term has caught the imagination of Americans for decades, while it has also generated a significant critique from those who argue that the image sacrifices differences to uniformity. Its popularity surfaced during the massive migration of Europeans to America between 1880s and 1910. This was the largest movement of peoples in history, bringing to America a new religious and ethnic diversity on such a scale that it challenged oldtimers and newcomers alike to rethink what it meant to be “American.” Originally, the motto of the republic, E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One,” had described the bonding of the many colonies into one federal union. Now it became a new challenge: the bonding of one people out of many immigrant ethnicities and nationalities.

More than 100 years before the great immigration of the late 19th and early 20th century, a French essayist had described America’s “new race” of people in language that prefigured the melting pot. In Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Hector St. John de Crevecoeur described with astonishment the man whose grandfather was English, whose wife was Dutch, and whose son married a French woman. This, he says, is the American: “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” He envisioned the melting away of divisive differences in religion too, as Catholics, German Lutherans, and Dutch Reformed farmers were now neighbors, not rivals. His book, though published in the late 1700s, gave future generations much to think about as they grappled with the issues of difference in American society.

It was a Jewish playwright, Israel Zangwill, who popularized the metaphor of the “melting pot,” evoking the image of the crucible of America’s great steel industry. His play, The Melting Pot, which opened in Washington D.C. in 1908, explores the intersection of Jewish identity and American identity. Its main character, David Quizano, a self-taught musician and composer, has come to America from Russia, where he had escaped a pogrom, forever scarred by seeing his entire family murdered before his eyes. David’s dream is, he believes, the American dream: that in this country of immigrants all the hatreds, the rivalries, the feuds of the old world will melt in the crucible that creates the new world. He proclaims, “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!”

But David’s optimism is tested when he falls in love with Vera, a Russian who is also a Christian. His more traditional and pragmatic Jewish relatives are appalled that he would consider marrying a non-Jew, and Vera’s family is horrified that she would consider marrying a Jew. The tension becomes a living nightmare when David and Vera discover that her father was the same Russian officer who supervised the pogrom in which David’s family was massacred. Can they really leave all this behind, all these old hatreds? Can they cross over the “rivers of blood,” as Zangwill wrote, that would separate them? Finally they do, but not without being challenged to their depths by the vision of the melting pot.

When Theodore Roosevelt saw the play on its opening night in Washington D.C., he said, “We Americans are children of the crucible.” Zangwill’s play thrust the image of the melting pot into public view in the midst of a record-setting decade of immigration. The image has come to bear many meanings of American identity. At its most static, it has meant the melting away of the customs and ways of the “old country” to conform with the new. Here the cartoons of the Detroit’s Ford Motor Company’s “English School Melting Pot” come to mind: Immigrants in their national costumes find themselves on the wheel of change, dipped into the melting pot and only to emerge as real Americans, wearing house dresses and business suits and carrying American flags. In this vision, having a share in America means shedding particularity.

At its most dynamic, however, the melting pot is an image of the process of change that both immigrants and native-born Americans undergo as they encounter one another on American soil. Both the immigrants and the nation are changed in the process. In this sense, the historian Philip Gleason has called it a “transmuting pot.” This seems to be Zangwill’s point, at least as he makes it in his afterword to the play. The melting pot does not mean the loss of one’s ethnic, cultural, or religious identity. For him, “American amalgamation is not assimilation or simple surrender to the dominant type.” Rather, it is the “give and take by which the final type may be enriched or impoverished.”

It is also important to note what is missing from this vision of the melting pot. There were no African Americans, no Cherokee, no Chinese in the crucible of America as the image came to be used and popularized. Zangwill never imagined Asians as part of the melting pot where the “races of Europe” were being refined and reshaped into a new race. And in neither Crevecoeur nor Zangwill is there mention of Native Americans as having a role in creating the new stock of people in the new world. And, as Nathan Glazer has pointed out, there is also no mention of blacks when the melting pot image is invoked or when it is criticized by the advocates of cultural pluralism.

The image of the melting pot has persisted through the 20th and into the 21st century, but not without serious criticism. In 1964, Philip Gleason summed up the many cultural uses of the term in his article, “The Melting Pot: Symbol of Fusion or Confusion?” He concludes that the “most serious distortion” of the melting pot image was the idea of “uniformity of product.” He writes, “Unconsciously, one suspects, many people came to feel that there was something wrong with immigrants if they did not visibly start ‘blending.’”

Religion was one area where blending had its limits. In the 1950s sociologist Will Herberg proposed a modification of the idea, the so-called “triple melting pot” theory. He claimed that while ethnic differences could—and often did—melt away in the fire of the crucible, fundamental religious differences simply did not melt. There were really three different melting pots in America, he argued: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. He referred to the research of Ruby Jo Kennedy on immigrant marriage patterns which found that, on the whole, Protestants tended to marry Protestants, whether German or Swedish in origin; Catholics tended to marry Catholics, whether Irish or Polish; and Jews tended to marry Jews, whether German or Russian.

A decade after Herberg’s claim, students of American culture began to question the “triple melting pot” as well. Nathan Glazer and future U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a book about the new assertion of ethnicity called Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), while Michael Novak published The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972). In the 1970s, with the new Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist immigration, the question of the melting pot was raised once again. In the early 1990s, a Time magazine cover story on America’s new ethnic diversity was titled, “Beyond the Melting Pot.” It cited the Census Bureau statistics from the 1990 census: one in four Americans was non-white—either Hispanic, African American, Native American, or Asian and Pacific Islander. Those numbers have only increased in the first decade of the 21st century. Between 2000 and 2010, the growth in the Hispanic population accounted for more than half of the total growth of the U.S. population and during that same time Asians saw the largest increase by a single group identifying with one race, with an increase of 43%. The implications for America’s religious traditions follow. Although data on religious affiliations is not captured by the United States Census, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2008 released the results of a landmark “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” (updated in 2015), which offers a state-by-state snapshot of religious affiliation.

The questions of the first two decades of the 20th century are on the agenda once again. What is the process by which people of diverse cultural backgrounds become Americans? How does it occur? How much will Vietnamese, Thai, Tamil or Pakistani culture begin to melt? Will Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim identity fade or become stronger in the American context? Will religious identity prevail over ethnicity and produce, once again, multiple melting pots—Hindu, Muslim, Jain? These are the questions a new generation now brings to the critique of the melting pot.

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Letters From An American Farmer

J. Hector St. John Crevecouer’s “Letters” date from 1782 and were intended for readers in England. They provide insight into life in the American colonies, where Europeans of such diverse backgrounds are “melted into a new race of men.” In them, the author also reflects on what he thinks will be the effects of religious diversity, albeit intra-Christian diversity.

What attachment can a poor European emigrant have for a country where he had nothing? The knowledge of the language, the love of a few kindred as poor as himself, were the only cords that tied him: his country is now that which gives him land, bread, protection, and consequence: Ubi panis ibi patria, is the motto of all emigrants.

What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an 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. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.

Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared, and which will hereafter become distinct by the power of the different climates they inhabit. The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest, can it want a stronger allurement? Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed and to clothe them all; without any part being claimed, either by a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord. Here religion demands but little of him; a small voluntary salary to the minister, and gratitude to God; can he refuse these? The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an American.

…As I have endeavoured to show you how Europeans become Americans; it may not be disagreeable to show you likewise how the various Christian sects introduced, wear out, and how religious indifference becomes prevalent. When any considerable number of a particular sect happen to dwell contiguous to each other, they immediately erect a temple, and there worship the Divinity agreeably to their own peculiar ideas. Nobody disturbs them. If any new sect springs up in Europe, it may happen that many of its professors will come and settle in America. As they bring their zeal with them, they are at liberty to make proselytes if they can, and to build a meeting and to follow the dictates of their consciences; for neither the government nor any other power interferes. If they are peaceable subjects, and are industrious, what is it to their neighbours how and in what manner they think fit to address their prayers to the Supreme Being?

But if the sectaries are not settled close together, if they are mixed with other denominations, their zeal will cool for want of fuel, and will be extinguished in a little time. Then the Americans become as to religion, what they are as to country, allied to all. In them the name of Englishman, Frenchman, and European is lost, and in like manner, the strict modes of Christianity as practiced in Europe are lost also. This effect will extend itself still farther hereafter, and though this may appear to you as a strange idea, yet it is a very true one. I shall be able perhaps hereafter to explain myself better, in the meanwhile, let the following example serve as my first justification.

Let us suppose you and I to be travelling; we observe that in this house, to the right, lives a Catholic, who prays to God as he has been taught, and believes in transubstantiation; he works and raises wheat, he has a large family of children, all hale and robust; his belief, his prayers offend nobody. About one mile farther on the same road, his next neighbour may be a good honest plodding German Lutheran, who addresses himself to the same God, the God of all, agreeably to the modes he has been educated in, and believes in consubstantiation; by so doing he scandalizes nobody; he also works in his fields, embellishes the earth, clears swamps, etc. What has the world to do with his Lutheran principles? He persecutes nobody and nobody persecutes him, he visits his neighbours, and his neighbours visit him. Next to him lives a seceder, the most enthusiastic of all sectaries; his zeal is hot and fiery, but separated as he is from others of the same complexion, he has no congregation of his own to resort to, where he might cabal and mingle religious pride with worldly obstinacy. He likewise raises good crops, his house is handsomely painted, his orchard is one of the fairest in the neighbourhood. How does it concern the welfare of the country, or of the province at large, what this man’s religious sentiments are, or really whether he has any at all? He is a good farmer, he is a sober, peaceable, good citizen: William Penn himself would not wish for more. This is the visible character, the invisible one is only guessed at, and is nobody’s business.

Next again lives a Low Dutchman, who implicitly believes the rules laid down by the synod of Dort. He conceives no other idea of a clergyman than that of an hired man; if he does his work well he will pay him the stipulated sum; if not he will dismiss him, and do without his sermons, and let his church be shut up for years. But notwithstanding this coarse idea, you will find his house and farm to be the neatest in all the country; and you will judge by his wagon and fat horses, that he thinks more of the affairs of this world than of those of the next. He is sober and laborious, therefore he is all he ought to be as to the affairs of this life; as for those of the next, he must trust to the great Creator.

Each of these people instruct their children as well as they can, but these instructions are feeble compared to those which are given to the youth of the poorest class in Europe. Their children will therefore grow up less zealous and more indifferent in matters of religion than their parents. The foolish vanity, or rather the fury of making proselytes, is unknown here; they have no time, the seasons call for all their attention, and thus in a few years, this mixed neighbourhood will exhibit a strange religious medley, that will be neither pure Catholicism nor pure Calvinism. A very perceptible indifference even in the first generation, will become apparent; and it may happen that the daughter of the Catholic will marry the son of the seceder, and settle by themselves at a distance from their parents. What religious education will they give their children? A very imperfect one. If there happens to be in the neighbourhood any place of worship, we will suppose a Quaker’s meeting; rather than not show their fine clothes, they will go to it, and some of them may perhaps attach themselves to that society. Others will remain in a perfect state of indifference; the children of these zealous parents will not be able to tell what their religious principles are, and their grandchildren still less. The neighbourhood of a place of worship generally leads them to it, and the action of going thither, is the strongest evidence they can give of their attachment to any sect. The Quakers are the only people who retain a fondness for their own mode of worship; for be they ever so far separate from each other, they hold a sort of communion with the society, and seldom depart from its rules, at least in this country.

Thus all sects are mixed as well as all nations; thus religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other; which is at present one of the strongest characteristics of the Americans. Where this will reach no one can tell, perhaps it may leave a vacuum fit to receive other systems. Persecution, religious pride, the love of contradiction, are the food of what the world community calls religion. These motives have ceased here: zeal in Europe is confined; here it evaporates in the great distance it has to travel; there it is a grain of powder enclosed, here it burns away in the open air, and consumes without effect.

[From J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (London: Thomas Davis, 1782).]

The Melting Pot: A Drama in Four Acts, Israel Zangwill, 1909

As a Jewish immigrant who had seen the worst of the pogroms against Jews in Russia, David Quixano, the main character of the play, has tremendous faith in America, his new land. He sees America as a place where the religious, national, and ethnic differences that had torn Europe apart can be overcome. Throughout the play, David, who is a composer, articulates his vision of America as a crucible or “melting pot.”  When he meets Vera Revendal, a young Russian settlement house worker who is Christian, difficult issues of identity and prejudice arise as the two are attracted to one another, as can be seen in the excerpt here.

Vera: So your music finds inspiration in America?
David: Yes, in the seething of the Crucible.
Vera: The Crucible? I don’t understand!
David: Not understand! You, the Spirit of the Settlement!

[He rises and crosses to her and leans over the table, facing her.]

Now 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 [graphically illustrating it at the table] in your fifty groups, with 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 the 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.

As much as Zangwill wanted to communicate the creation of a single American identity, his characters also struggle with the difficulties of overcoming both ethnic identity and the prejudice of others. Here Mendel, David’s uncle, astonished to hear David say he will marry Vera, points out the importance of maintaining a Jewish identity.

Mendel: This is true? This is not some stupid Purim joke?
David: True and sacred as the sunrise.
Mendel: But you are a Jew!
David: Yes, and just think! She was bred up to despise Jews—her father was a Russian baron—
Mendel: If she was the daughter of fifty barons, you cannot marry her.
David: [In pained amazement] Uncle! [slowly]  Then you hankering after the synagogue was serious after all.
Mendel: It is not so much the synagogue—it its the call of our blood through immemorial generations.
David: You say that! You who have come to the heart of the Crucible, where the roaring fires of God are fusing our race with all the others.
Mendel [Passionately]: Not our race, not your race and mine.
David: What immunity has our race? [Meditatively] The pride and the prejudice, the dreams and the sacrifices, the traditions and the superstitions, the fasts and the feasts, things noble and things sordid—they must fall into the Crucible.
Mendel [With prophetic fury]: The Jew has been tried in a thousand fires and only tempered and annealed.
David: Fires of hate, not fires of love. That is what melts.
Mendel[Sneers}:  So I see.

[From Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot: A Drama in Four Acts (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1919), 36-37, 94-96.]