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Nation of Origins

Map courtesy of Library of Congress

Nation of Origins
UMaine historian looks at the colonial roots of American multiculturalism

About the Map: A Map of Pensilvania, New-Jersey, New-York, and the Three Delaware Counties. L. Hebert, sculpt. Second edition, published in Philadelphia, 1752. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Liam Riordan
Liam Riordan

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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 second-guessed.

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, he says.

"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
January-February, 2008

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