Recently, two Republican members of Congress, Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona, floated a plan to launch the “America First Caucus.” A memo about the caucus’ goals cited the importance of America’s “Anglo-Saxon political traditions,” and warned that mass immigration threatens the “unique identity” of the United States.
Liberals and conservatives denounced in unison the supposed bigotry of Green and Gosar’s plans. In Time, Mary Rambaran-Olm, a researcher on race in early England and a research fellow at the University of Toronto, did what academics do best: denounce a thing as racist while confusing the matter into oblivion with “nuance.” Yet, according to conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, the “remarkable thing about this whole project isn’t its racism or nativism but its stupidity.”
Goldberg asserts that the “most enduring Anglo-Saxon political institution was monarchy,” and “our institutions aren’t ‘Anglo-Saxon,’ they’re Anglo-American,” and also French, Dutch, Greek, and Roman. Would Goldberg make such angry equivocations about what constitutes the identity of Israelis? The Jewish people have a sense of identity and heritage of which they can be proud, but simply making that point to Goldberg is to invite hysterical accusations of anti-Semitism.
Indeed, the knives of scrutiny are never applied to minorities, who are in fact encouraged to exaggerate their accomplishments. The Aztecs, says Sebastian Purcell, assistant professor of philosophy at SUNY-Cortland in New York, were superior philosophers to the Greeks. There is very little evidence to support that claim, but denying its validity is an act of racism. Further, the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were black, and any dissent is merely a testament to the history of scientific racism in the United States. In 2015, Routledge published a book with a title that was, in and of itself, a bold claim whites would never be allowed to make: How Blacks Built America. And that is the issue.
For years, whites in America were told that it is fine to celebrate German or Dutch or Anglo heritage, but that “white” was a fake or problematic category. The current controversy shows that this was always in bad faith. Hating white Americans, denying them the same sense of identity—and thus dignity—that is afforded to every other group was the point. And before denying the existence of a common culture, critics used to acknowledge America’s Anglo-Saxon roots if only to spite them.
Harold Cruse, a black American academic and Communist, lamented in 1967 that “America is a nation that lies to itself about who and what it is. It is a nation of minorities ruled by a minority of one—it thinks and acts as if it were a nation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.” Cruse complained that Americanization into Anglo-Saxon cultural patterns “effectively dissuaded, crippled and smothered the cultivation of democratic cultural pluralism in America.”
“This white Anglo-Saxon ideal, this lofty dream of a minority at the summit of its economic and political power and the height of its historical self-delusions, has led this nation to the brink of self-destruction,” Cruse wrote.
David Hackett Fischer’s tremendous 1989 study of the American population divided British settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries into four groups based on their origins in England. He concluded that virtually all early Americans spoke English, were Protestant, and adhered to British legal traditions—Anglo-Saxon law.
“In a cultural sense,” Fischer wrote, “most Americans are Albion’s seed, no matter who their own forebears may have been.” The legacy, Fischer added, “of four British folkways in early America remains the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States today.”
In his 1993 book on America’s Anglo-Saxon inheritance, Russell Kirk wrote that so “dominant has British culture been in America, north of the Rio Grande, from the seventeenth century to the present, that if somehow the British elements could be eliminated from all the cultural patterns of the United States—why, Americans would be left with no coherent culture in public or in private life.”
The same year Cruse died, famed Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published a book on American identity, in which he documented that the settler population that contributed to America’s core documents, institutions, and folkways was, by 1790, 98 percent Protestant, 80 percent British, and 60 percent ethnically English, with the remainder being largely German and Dutch.
Six Elements of Being American
Long before Cruse, Fischer, Kirk, or Huntington’s thoughtful commentary, the settlers themselves were aware of their heritage.
In Federalist 2, published in 1787, John Jay outlined six elements that made Americans: shared ancestry, shared language, shared religion, similar conceptions of government and law, a shared culture, and a shared historical experience. As new arrivals came, Jay said in 1797, the settler population had a responsibility to “see our people more Americanized.” The original draft of the Declaration of Independence itself was more particular than universal, with Thomas Jefferson mentioning “consanguinity,” distinguishing between “our common blood,” and that of “Scotch” and “foreign mercenaries.”
A remarkable part of America’s story has indeed been Americanization, whereby newcomers have managed to integrate into the common culture established by the mainly Anglo-Saxon descended dominant core populations. The late Justice Antonin Scalia balanced pride in his Italian heritage with an understanding of that inheritance.
“Diversity alone is not what makes a great nation . . . Diversity alone makes some of the tribal societies of the world that never quite make it,” he said on a panel in 2006. “It’s part of our tradition that everyone can be American,” Scalia went on, “but there has been a common culture—you don’t have to belong to it, but there has been that.”
Scalia recalled the indignation he felt as a junior in college studying abroad when his French-Swiss professors would constantly refer to “les pays Anglo-Saxons”—the Anglo-Saxon countries, meaning Britain, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. “I said, you know, ‘Hey, my name is Scalia, and I’m as American as anybody. Look at this face, is this an Anglo-Saxon face?’” By the end, Scalia balanced his Italian heritage with an inherited culture that “originates with English culture, and that includes Shakespeare, it includes nursery rhymes that we all know, and that we use as examples—that’s our common culture.”
Scalia’s defense was ironic. It appears that few are more opposed to defending that common culture than its own descendants—certainly in elite circles where these ideas are debated. Apart from a minority taking up the side of the defense, white conservatives in the United States are torn between denouncing or diminishing the notion of “Anglo-Saxon” anything and affirming that America is, above all, an idea or set of self-evident truths, which may reveal something about the vanishing Anglo-Saxon minority.
A Revolutionary Moment
In his July 1999 review of Kevin P. Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars, Samuel T. Francis took aim at the Whig view of history and its standard-bearers. The “Cousins’ Wars” are the English Revolution of 1640-1660, the American War for Independence of 1775-1783, and the American Civil War of 1861-1865, in which, according to Phillips, Anglo-Saxon peoples fell squarely on the side of “progress and liberty,” opposed to the anti-modern forces of reaction.
“In the full, three-century context, Cavaliers, aristocrats, and bishops pretty much lost and Puritans, Yankees, self-made entrepreneurs, Anglo-Saxon nationalists, and expansionists had the edge, especially in America,” Phillips wrote. Phillips does not, however, consider that it may have been the victory of certain Anglo ideas that spelled their own eventual demise.
“If the 20th century has been the Anglo century, and the Anglos have been driven by the kind of modernism that Mr. Phillips sees triumphing in the 1640s, 1780s, and 1860s,” Francis rebutted, “then these same forces might reasonably be held responsible for the incipient disappearance of the Anglo-Saxon peoples within the borders of the very lands their ancestors conquered and settled.”
“In the short run,” Francis concluded, “the kind of modernism Mr. Phillips ascribes to the victors in the Cousins’ Wars may conquer new countries, develop new sources of wealth, and spread liberty as far as it can reach, but its very success may also lead to its own destruction as the liberty it sows poisons the soil of its own civilization, the wealth it produces corrupts, and the conquered give laws to the conquerors.”
The debate Green and Gosar sparked is more important—and revealing—than either the caucus or its ostensible project. Because it shows that the challenge confronting the Right isn’t a conservative but a revolutionary one, in which it will need to foster a new way rather than replicate the old if it is to advance into and conquer the future.