Teddy Roosevelt’s Definition of “American”

A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted this meme on his Facebook page. My attempt to engage in a discussion regarding TR’s statement was vociferously shut down by another “friend”, so my opinion appears as today’s blog post.

Teddy Roosevelt (“TR”) makes some serious assumptions based on opinion and misunderstanding of the human experience in this statement.   It’s a short statement, but it redefines the term “American,” changing it from an adjective describing a person’s place of origin or inhabitants, to a determination of patriotism.

When I asked what TR’s definition of American is, I had the tables turned on me.  I was asked how I define myself as an American.  I responded, “I define myself as an individual, part of many groups. I am also German, Jew,  American, Mormon, female . . . I don’t let those groups define me.” I define myself in many ways, but according to TR, there’s a problem with that.  He says that tolerance of people based upon race and place of origin “is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American . . . There can be no divided allegiance here.”

Crap.  I’m in trouble.  But I was born here, so does that mean I am exempt from these requirements of patriotism?

There are so many problems with TR’s definition of American.  As my Facebook friend points out, there are two widely accepted definitions of American. The first: “of or pertaining to the United States of America and its inhabitants.”  The second: : “a citizen of the United States of America.”  My personal definition of American aligns more closely with a less-understood, and more politically correct,  definition: “of or pertaining to North or South America; of the Western Hemisphere.” When we call citizens of the United States of America “Americans”  we are ignoring all other Americans including Canadians, Mexicans, inhabitants of the Central American countries, and all of South America.  We are so Eurocentric here that we forget that the people who actually belong to this land prefer not to be called American at all. We call them Native Americans or Indians.

Consider this story that was shared in my Facebook feed:

(I’m waiting in line behind a woman speaking on her cellphone in another language. Ahead of her is a white man. After the woman hangs up, he speaks up.)

Man: “I didn’t want to say anything while you were on the phone, but you’re in America now. You need to speak English.”

Woman: “Excuse me?”

Man:*very slow* “If you want to speak Mexican, go back to Mexico. In America, we speak English.”

Woman: “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

I don’t know if the story is true (I hope it is), but the Navajo woman has made my point.  Our ancestors came as intruders. We pushed our way across the continent, removing the original inhabitants in any way necessary, and called it “Manifest Destiny.” I include the Mexican-American war in this implication.  What our ancestors did in the name of colonization and patriotism is not right.  It’s in the past. We can’t change it. What’s done is done. And now, TR tells us that “Any man who tells us that he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all.”

Part of my personal identity is that I am Jewish.  My grandmother came to the United States between the World Wars and decided that she would “assimilate.”  She left behind her religion and her culture in her attempt to become “American.”  She nearly succeeded too, except that her German accent always gave her away (to her chagrin).  Well, she never gave up European cuisine, and she did speak German to her German husband. Because of her accent, she reports that she was often on the receiving end of racial discrimination, especially during the Second World War.

My mother did not learn of her Jewish heritage until she was in her mid-twenties. And since that time, my mother and I have been working hard to relearn the customs and practices lost when Grandma “assimilated.”  To define what it truly means to be “in every facet an American,” one must consider where “Americans” come from.  Americans came here as political refugees who loved their country but could not safely remain because of differences in opinion.  Americans came here as slaves, captured like animals and chained in the underbellies of ships.  Americans came here as children of parents looking for something better. Others were told to assimilate to their new European oppressors or to stay on reservations.  Still others had their country taken away from them through acts of war, and are now being told they never had any right to be here in the first place. Today, most of us were born here, and many of us disagree with this so-called patriotism where we have to deny our parentage and live according to an “American Dream” that sometimes looks more like a nightmare.

Roosevelt’s assertion of patriotism is rife with logical fallacies, the most glaring is that of genetics.  He is claiming that origins determine character and that the only acceptable character is that of American.  He then asserts that one can deny origins, and forsake culturally defining characteristics to become American.  And the speech issue?  My grandmother spoke German and English fluently.  Was she supposed to speak English to her relatives that she left behind in Austria?  Should she have been writing her letters to them in English? Was she supposed to become monolingual even when she was tired, or homesick?  Wasn’t my mother missing out on a great educational opportunity by not being allowed to learn German?

I can think of ten arguments to this one particular statement.  But TR didn’t just speak out against immigration this once.  It was his battle cry for the remainder of his life.  And my battle cry is that of charity, the pure love of Christ, who told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and not only if those neighbors were legal “Americans.” If we can afford to reach out in love and share our abundance with others, shouldn’t we do it?

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2 thoughts on “Teddy Roosevelt’s Definition of “American”

  1. I have taught middle school in California where many 12 year olds have very little grasp of English.
    If you don’t work with people where they’re AT then there will be worse problems later. “English Only” usually builds resentments, alienation, and discourages people from making progress.

    • I was an ESL teacher in my previous life (last year); most of my students were fluent in Spanish. I could not even consider telling them to disregard the language of their parents in order to become better Americans. Patriotism by force is not patriotism. 🙂

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