Amid the George W. Bush administration's call
for immigration reform and allegations of civil rights violations in
the name of homeland security, the multicultural diversity on which
the nation has prided itself in recent decades is increasingly being
But that's nothing new.
Throughout American history, issues related to
religious, racial and ethnic diversity have bubbled up, especially in
times of national crisis, like reality checks on the country's
long-held self-characterization as a bastion of individual liberty.
Indeed, cultural diversity shaped the formation of
the nation, according to early American historian Liam Riordan.
Contrary to popular views of colonial America
reflecting either the Puritanism of New England or the slavery of the
South, the mid-Atlantic states were the proving ground for some of the
country's earliest multicultural growing pains. From the eve of the
American Revolution through the 1830s, Riordan examines diverse
cultural groups in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware that heeded
the growing call of nationalism to create a new American way.
In this Revolutionary period of stress and
transition, issues involved in living in a multicultural society
forced themselves to the forefront.
"The great uncertainty of the Revolutionary era
led to a search to try and figure out the basis of the new society
being created," says Riordan, a University of Maine associate
professor of history, whose most recent book, Many Identities, One
Nation: The Revolution and Its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic, focuses
on three groups in the region — Quakers, Pennsylvania Germans and
African-Americans. "That included the nature of public authority, how
to provide order and security, and how to protect group as well as
individual rights — very contemporary questions for us, as well."
Riordan's approach to early American
multiculturalism involves cultural and social history, anthropology
and historical ethnography. In his research of a 60-year period,
1770–1830, Riordan compiled a database on several thousand people,
taking "a close measure" of the everyday encounters in which cultural
diversity became significant or played out in a wide range of evidence
— from letters and diaries to tax lists and religious records to
newspapers, clothing, architecture and folk art.
He found that in the pluralistic mid-Atlantic
colonies, the American Revolution forced members of diverse ethnic,
religious and racial groups to choose patriot or loyalist identities.
Tensions only intensified as the struggle to build a unified front —
and, ultimately, a nation — continued in the postwar years.
"Local people's exploration of how one retains
ethnic distinctiveness — a cultural sense of self — while still
sharing in a broader public culture was perhaps the most pressing
political question of the postwar era," he says.
Identity politics has the potential to be both liberating and
repressive. For instance, Quakers' pacifist values contrasted starkly
with the patriotic spirit of the day. Their pacifism placed them
outside the patriot movement, Riordan says, and led to a dramatic
change in the Delaware Valley's political leadership. The Quakers,
whose members had been influential and prominent, were pushed to the
margin of Revolutionary society.
There was a general distrust of foreign cultures
and fear that newcomers would cause social turmoil. In the case of
Pennsylvania Germans, many Anglo-American leaders considered them
"swarthy and inferior," incapable of understanding English liberty and
in need of reeducation in charity schools.
"Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English,
become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to
Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our
Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?"
Benjamin Franklin asked his readers in a 1755 essay.
Such rhetoric is "a wonderful example of both
change and continuity in America's multicultural experience," Riordan
says. "You change some of the words around a little bit and he could
sound like a spokesman for anti-Latino immigration to California
today. Yet, his core argument that Germans were not white and had a
different ‘complexion' from Anglo-Americans strikes us as bizarre.
Studying early American cultural diversity can help us recognize the
deep roots of the United States as a multicultural society."
The American Revolution was a turning point in the
formation of white racial identity. For instance, among German
Reformed and Lutherans, there was broad support for the Revolutionary
movement and, as a result, their quasi-outsider status in colonial
British America changed. In what Riordan sees as a significant
transition, these "church Germans" acquired a more central place for
themselves in the new national society.
The Revolution also offered some hope to African
Americans. In the region Riordan studies, African Americans go from
overwhelmingly enslaved to overwhelmingly free in the 1790s. Once
free, African Americans used their roots in Christianity to found
churches and fraternal organizations. However, by the 1820s, their
efforts were met with escalating white violence that especially
targeted "signs of respectability" in the black community.
The identity politics of the broad Revolutionary
era took new form in the partisan politics of the Jacksonian movement
starting in the late 1820s. Andrew Jackson's election as the country's
seventh president included Irish American and German American
supporters in its coalition, while rejecting Native American and
African American efforts to participate in formal politics. This "new
significance to whiteness" brought the more dynamic possibilities of
Revolutionary identity politics to a close.
The link between the past and present is key to historical
scholarship like Riordan's. It also offers a perspective different
from the way much of the general public thinks of history and the
past. "At its core is the fundamental idea that the past and present
are closely connected to one another. Professional historians
negotiate between questions we're asking about ourselves today and how
that changes our perspectives on the past," he says.
History should not be the rote memorization of
2,000 key dates, individuals, battles and elections to "understand
everything you need to know about the past." It's not solely a quest
to understand the "truth" about the years gone by. Above all, history
is not static, says Riordan.
"The core of my research is about how to
understand diverse religious, racial and ethnic relationships in early
America, a theme of great interest today that also has deep roots in
our past," he says. "For a long time, we thought about Colonial and
Revolutionary America as solely the province of Englishmen. Clearly,
that distorts and flattens a much more varied early American society."
Examining group identity past or present elicits
sensitivity because it touches a "deep impulse to make sense of the
world by knowing and often disliking what you are not," Riordan wrote
in a chapter for the book Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters,
Projections. Today, he says, "many shy away from multiculturalism
because they fear group identity as an easily exploited façade."
But Riordan contends that cultural identities
valuably inform individuals' understandings of their world. "The
complexion of one's country has many facets that are enriched by
transcending strictly material markers," Riordan wrote.
While the meaning of diversity changes over time,
it's important, Riordan says, to try to understand the experience of
the people in that historical moment. And because the world confronts
us with complex issues we'd like to better understand, there's often a
sense of urgency to comprehend similar situations in the distant past,
"For decades, there was almost nothing said about
women, working people, Native Americans and African Americans in early
America. That very narrow sense of our past compromised our ability to
understand the world we live in today," he says.
"Only when a range of overlapping human
relationships are understood in their local context can we begin to
grasp how power operated and changed in a given society," Riordan
says. It's a subject that demands attention, he contends, because
disagreement continues about how best to reconcile distinctive group
identities with national unity.
by Margaret Nagle
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