Americanization has been defined as the instruction of immigrants in the English language and U.S. history, government, and culture. The push to Americanize immigrants has continually been a part of American society and education. However, at no time in the history of the United States was this effort as widespread as in the early decades of the twentieth century, particularly between the years 1914 and 1924, an interval referred to as the Americanization period. This entry looks at the roots of assimilationist ideas, the proponents and opponents of the movement, and the implementation and goals of Americanization.
Americanization has been a key educational issue since Horace Mann’s early nineteenth-century introduction of the concept of the common school. Mann believed the central and fundamental purpose of the public school was to teach good citizenship and democratic participation in order to produce a common culture for the good of society.
The first manifestation of Americanization occurred in the 1850s when large numbers of Catholic, Celtic, and Teutonic immigrants arrived in Protestant, AngloSaxon America. Nativists, Americans advocating stricter immigration laws, called attention to the increasing numbers of “undesirables,” predominantly Irish and German immigrants. The “Know Nothings,” named for their refusal to answer questions about their group activities, worked to prohibit undesirable immigrants from acquiring citizenship. Political Nativism reached its peak when supporters of the movement gained control of several state legislatures in the mid-1850s. However, interest in Nativist groups waned as national attention turned to the pre–Civil War debate over slavery and secession.
Immigration numbers did not increase dramatically until the first decade of the twentieth century. Immigration reached a historical high between 1901 and 1910, with 8,795,386 immigrants recorded. The next decade saw the second highest number of immigrants (5,735,811) despite the advent of war, with 93 percent of those immigrants coming from Eastern, Southern, and Central Europe. This influx of European immigrants, whose customs, languages, and traditions were different from those practiced in America, raised concern among the citizenry. Anglo-American citizens responded to their suspicion, fear, and wartime hysteria with a new nativistic movement. Americanization was seen as the way to strengthen the country by compelling immigrants to assimilate and become naturalized citizens.
The height of the Americanization period began with World War I and ended with the enactment of the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924. The beginning of war in Europe precipitated a return of U.S. resident aliens and naturalized citizens to Europe for the purpose of supporting those countries they considered their homelands. This exit caused many Americans to question the loyalties of all immigrants. The purpose of the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924 was to strictly curtail the number of immigrants from any one country.
Americanization was advocated by citizens in all levels of government and social strata. As early as 1904, Theodore Roosevelt used assimilation as a theme in his campaign for president, stating, “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language . . . and we have room for but one soul loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.” Woodrow Wilson, in a speech to new citizens in 1915 contended, “You cannot become thorough Americans if you think of yourselves in groups. America does not consist of groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American.” Calvin Coolidge in his state of the union address in 1923 said, “America must be kept American.” Elwood P. Cubberly, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, defined the purpose of the movement as that of breaking up ethnic groups and helping individuals assimilate to American culture, thereby instilling in them an understanding of the concepts of law and order propagated in Anglo-Saxon countries, as well as a respect for the democratic form of government.
Beginning in 1915, citizens were urged to turn annual Fourth of July celebrations into a celebration of American citizenship. The National Americanization Day Committee sponsored by The Immigrants in America Review, a quarterly publication, along with the U.S. Department of Labor, Immigration Service, urged communities across the country to organize local Americanization Day celebrations for the purpose of dissolving the boundaries between native-born Americans and newly naturalized citizens. The event, advertised through foreign language newspapers, was promoted as an opportunity for native-born citizens to honor naturalized citizens.
The Americanization theme took different forms. Royal Dixon, Vice President of the League of Foreign Born Citizens and author of Americanization (1916), urged the Americanization of both recent and not-sorecent immigrants. Emory Bogardus, author of Essentials of Americanization (1919) and a professor at the University of Southern California, advocated the Americanization of minority groups, including American Indians, Negroes, and Appalachian Mountaineers. Gino Speranza, author of Race or Nation: A Conflict of Divided Loyalties (1923), urged a return to the nation’s original Anglo-Saxon Protestant principles. In Reforging America: The Story of Our Nationhood, Lothrop Stoddard, a professor at Harvard University, urged all citizens to unite with one national loyalty.
Perhaps the most prolific writer and strongest advocate of Americanization was Frances Kellor, lawyer, settlement worker, editor of The Immigrants in America Review, secretary of the National Americanization Committee, and unofficial spokeswoman for myriad committees, divisions, and bureaus. Kellor promoted Americanization for both citizens and immigrants, clarifying America’s immigration policy as one of racial assimilation. She also interpreted the immigration influx as an economic asset, but proposed strict immigration policies and subsequent naturalization of immigrants in order to lessen exploitation.
Autobiographies from the period were replete with the Americanization themes of freedom and opportunity based in hard work and perseverance. The Autobiography of Edward Bok tells how an immigrant from the Netherlands rose from a modest beginning to become the long-time publisher of The Ladies’ Home Journal. Bok made reference to his desire to take advantage of all America had to offer, no matter how much work was involved, while relying on honesty, perseverance, speaking English, giving back to the country, and patriotism to bring him success.
In a similar vein, autobiographies by Mary Antin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and Michael Pupin, a Serbian immigrant and eventual professor at Columbia University, told of the “American Miracle.” For Antin, the United States provided the miracle of free education, the beneficence of the police, and the equality of all. Pupin recounted his amazement at being treated with respect and kindness by a farmer, which taught him more about the spirit of democracy than any classroom. He learned more about the democratic election process when he saw the peaceful resolution of a disputed presidential election.
Culturally Pluralistic Ideas
Many, however, objected to the all-out assimilation of immigrants, and called for the unification of diversity, not its obliteration. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr of Hull House saw Americanization as an opportunity to help disadvantaged immigrants attain a higher standard of living. Immigrants could learn English at Hull House, but were encouraged to maintain their native languages and unique cultural practices. Addams contended that a person’s character should be valued above his or her ability to assimilate cultural norms. Addams and Starr hoped to see American society become more cosmopolitan through the convergence of old and new cultures.
Similarly, Horace Kallen and John Dewey saw Americanization not as assimilation, but as an opportunity to combine cultures. Dewey rejected the concept of the American race, noting that no single culture could provide a standard of conformity for other cultures. Kallen coined the term cultural pluralism to describe the United States as a commonwealth of combined cultures seeking common goals. He believed that ethnic diversity could enrich American civilization, and argued that one’s cultural heritage could not be abandoned in the manner that one might change one’s clothes, politics, or religion. Dewey and Kallen saw the American as a person who had successfully integrated two cultures to form a distinctly new culture.
Opposition to the Americanization movement hardly impacted popular opinion. The Americanizers were able to strike a chord in the hearts of the American public, convincing them that the assimilation of the immigrant was necessary for the wellbeing of the country. However, disorganization at the national level prevented the movement from attaining its goal of reaching all immigrants.
The general consensus of government agencies was in favor of the Americanization movement; however, no single agency was given full control over the establishment of a nationwide Americanization program. A bill enacted in 1915 provided federal monies to any organization, public or private, that desired to provide Americanization classes and established the National Americanization Committee, which organized the first Americanization Day. However, this committee was not given authority to coordinate the organization of classes at the national level.
There were at least ten governmental agencies and thirty private agencies that provided some form of Americanization training for immigrants, but without federal guidance, these agencies became rivals in the establishment of programs, often overlapping in services provided. Eventually, in 1924, at the same time the Johnson Immigration Act was passed, Congress made the Americanization movement official, with the U.S. Bureau of Education leading the program. The National Americanism Committee and the Division of Americanism were established by the Bureau of Education for the purpose of providing Americanization education for all immigrants.
Despite its leadership role in the waning days of the movement, the federal government did not attempt to manage the details of all Americanization programs, choosing to leave most plans and decisions to the local agencies that already had established Americanization programs. State and city governments as well as private organizations sponsored Americanization classes and were allowed to dictate their own standards for teaching English, democracy, and citizenship.
Church groups, civic organizations, local boards of education, and industries offered classes for the adult immigrant, while immigrant school-age children were immersed in mainstream American school classrooms, without the opportunity for special language programs. Publishers and authors, both private and public, offered many new textbooks designed to teach adult immigrants to read and write English in order to become naturalized American citizens. English language instruction was considered to be the quickest and most effective route to assimilation, “a door into your souls through which American life may enter” as noted by Judge Charles F. Amidon, while passing sentence on sedition.
The aim of the Americanization movement was to impose assimilation of all things American on immigrants, requiring them to abandon the cultures and languages of their homelands in favor of American culture and language. Three elements were considered necessary for immigrants to assimilate. Immigrants were expected to change the precepts within themselves that determined their attitudes and actions in order to adopt a spirit of democracy. In addition to inward change, immigrants had to change outwardly, putting on the habits and lifestyle of typical Americans. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly they had to learn the English language and use it regularly in all dealings, both public and private.
Full and complete assimilation was accepted as outward proof of an inner allegiance to the country. The goal of Americanization was to create a nation solidified in purpose and aspiration, which would allow the country to be impregnable to its enemies.
The purpose of Americanization classes was to mold immigrants into politically, culturally, and linguistically ideal Americans in order to become part of the American race.
- Bogardus, E. S. (1919). Essentials of Americanization. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press.
- Carlson, R. A. (1970). Americanization as an early twentiethcentury adult education movement. History of Education Quarterly, 10(4), 440–464.
- Dixon, R. (1916). Americanization. New York: MacMillan.
- Kellor, F. (1916). Straight America. New York: MacMillan.
- McClymer, J. F. (1978). The federal government and the Americanization movement, 1915–1924. Prologue, 10(1), 23–41.
- Olneck, M. R. (1989). Americanization and the education of immigrants, 1900–1925. American Journal of Education, 97(4), 398–423.
- Speranza, G. C. (1925). Race or nation: A conflict of divided loyalties. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
- Stoddard, L. (1927). Re-forging America: The story of our nationhood. New York: Scribner’s.
- Thompson, F. V. (1920). Schooling of the immigrant. New York: Harper Brothers.
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