by Pilgrim's Pride | July 17th, 2012
Of all the words used to describe the people, land, and sovereign states of North America, none is more widely used and misunderstood than the very adjective itself, “American”.
What is it and what does it mean?
Well, first of all, we examine it as a word in our mother tongue, English. It is an adjective, which usually modifies a noun. The root comes from famed 16th C navigator Americus Vespucius (as he called himself in Latin) so honored by German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller. But you learned all this in high school so we’ll move on to the crux of the matter.
In 1507, America was still a great unknown and seen to be a grand prize for the world powers of the day. Mainly, they desired America for her extractable resources, leading to some of the most unfortunate and needless bloodletting known to history at the hands of the day’s reigning unipower Spain.
However, what truly captured the imagination of the world was the strip of land along the Atlantic coast and the activities of the amazing inhabitants thereof.
Not French North America (Canada).
Not Spanish North America (Mexico).
Not Dutch North America (New Netherlands).
English North America.
(Okay, if you want to get all pedantic it was British North America but no one, not then not now ever said the Americans rebelled and broke from the king of Britain!)
And here is where history intersects language because the people who lived along that Atlantic coastline were not known as English — although they were Englishmen in the main and all were subject to the king of England — they were known as the American-British or simply the Americans.
So “American” is an adjective that described the (okay!) British subjects up to the 4th day of July, in the Year of Our Lord 1776. It was used colloquially by the entire world and the name stuck. Henceforth, the divers occupants of formerly British North America would be called Americans.
No longer “English” and not “United Statesers”. Not “USAns” nor “USers”
It should go without saying — but it does not go without saying — that this is the “new nation” everyone bragged about then and at least until Lincoln called it out in his Gettysburg Address of 1863.
The Americans were a nation. A new people. A new race.*
And also a very, very old race because their main rootstock came from the British Isles and those people were a people for perhaps 9,000 years (e.g., Adrian Targett.)
“But what about the Dutch and the French and the Scotsmen and the Portuguese and everyone else that wasn’t English?”
They were called Americans, too, and were the inspiration for “e pluribus unum” as they tended to live among their own in their own favored colonies. Thus we had Anglo-Saxon New England and Pennsylvania allying with Britonnic Virginia and her sisters in the South. Stout German Protestants making common cause with French Protestants (the aristocratic Huguenots and their people) fighting shoulder to shoulder with Dutch aristocrats and their indentured servants in New York.
All would be called “American”.
Their children and grandchildren for all time are the posterity boldly proclaimed in the famous Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. After all, a man will do anything even die for his children. I don’t know a one who would die for money or an alien stranger as a matter of principle.
In other words, the Americans of 1776 undertook rebellion and treason against their king, sometimes pitting father against son as with Benjamin Franklin and members of this writer’s own Revolutionary family. And they did it such that their children and their children’s’ children might have a better life than they.
It was only natural that the Old World’s inhabitants were attracted to the new nation-state “America” (not Canada, not Mexico) in their millions. On arrival, in exchange for a promise of good behaviour, the alien immigrants were permitted to use the national name for themselves and they wasted no time in the renaming. And why not? It was the hottest ticket in town!
Unfortunately, this set a precedent that proved disastrous for the posterity of 1776. Along the way, especially thanks to the 14th Amendment, noxious despite its good intentions, membership in the American nation became confused with the legal technicality of United States citizenship — after all, all Americans were citizens of the United States and the confusion did not harm and in fact reinforced the fusion of nation, state and country into a cohesive, unified America e pluribus unum.
Whoever might have guessed, that a few short years after the War Between the States slaughtered the grandsons of the Revolution by the hundreds of thousands, maiming ten times as many, sometimes ending family lines that had survived tens of thousands of years, those that “did not die in vain” and their children never born, would be replaced en mass by millions upon millions of foreigners and outright aliens, all of whom clamouring to call themselves “American” yet refusing to relinquish their Old Country ties and, to this very day, identify themselves with a hyphenated second adjective to modify “American”?
(No apology for my James Fenimore Cooper inspired sentence construction. Long, complex sentences were normative in the time before sound bites and bumper stickers.)
One wonders if such people ever desired to become American … or if they had other more practical motives that dominate their agenda a century later.
We shall discuss this phenomenon in a future essay.
Until then I am sincerely yours,
The Pilgrim’s Pride
Post-script: Yes yes yes it is possible and common for a foreigner to so completely desire to be American that he in fact becomes American. Such immigrants forsake the Old Country and never speak of it again. No hyphen dare traverse their lips and, so far as all the world knows, William Brewster minister of the Mayflower expedition and George Washington, Father of His Country were their blood fathers too.
The others, those celebrated as Lazarus’s macabre “Huddled Masses and Wretched Refuse” would have been met with armed force had they attempted entry to America a scant few decades before. Such as these may and sadly are “United States citizens” but they are not and never shall be Americans.
* recall that “race” meant then what “ethnicity” means today. Even in the 20th C “race” meant a specific people related by blood, with a common history and a common future. Winston Churchill, an Anglo-American by parentage, spoke of “the nation and the race dwelling a round the globe” in his famous Lionheart speech some years after the end of of the second World War. The vulgar use of race to mean skin color came about shortly afterward, according to the use in the US south. Most unfortunate, don’t you think?
A good discussion of early Republican citizenship practices: Responses to Immigration – Reform and Restriction