Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Assimilation Is No Accident: 19th c. Yankee Attitudes Toward Franco-Americans


Circa 1890, Father E. Hamon, S.J. conducted interviews, visited communities, compiled lists, and crunched numbers regarding his French-Canadian fellow countrymen in the USA. His research eventually became the 1891 book Les Canadiens-français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre. This volume is among the earliest detailed views of these newcomers to the States.

With respect to his chosen subject, Fr. Hamon declares himself to be “ni un panégyriste ni un détracteur.” The author is true to his word, providing the most balanced contemporary account I have yet read of this period’s Franco-Americans. He spares neither their illusions nor the Yankees’.

The equanimity and sobriety of Fr. Hamon’s work lends credence to his account of the American attitude toward the Canadien émigrés. The following words, which apply perhaps more to the North than the South of the United States, ring as true today as they did more than 120 years ago. Writes Fr. Hamon:
A priest from the United States, observer and philosopher, knowing deeply the American character, depicted it to me something like this:

"The American is a man who, by traditions of family as well as by the fact of his education, does not consider hardly anything but the practical. He attaches a much greater importance to the material prosperity of his country than to religious ideas, to the obligations of conscience, or, in general, to a concern about another life in an invisible world.

Comparing America with the old countries of Europe, he finds America far superior, in the freedom of its institutions, and the ingenious inventions which, every day, increase individual well-being and the public fortune. In his eyes, what of these immigrants who, each year, reach the shores of the great Republic? Obviously [they are] men of inferior race, victims of despotism or misfortune, who come to seek in the States what they lacked in their own home, ease of life (l’aisance) and freedom. He welcomes them with philanthropy, he grants them the benefits of his free institutions, he will Americanize generously.

But to imagine that the domestic virtues of these émigrés, that their religious convictions especially, can produce some effect on the minds of Americans, this is pure chimera. What have they to learn from these poor and ignorant men? What new ideas could Irish, German, or Canadien immigrants bring him, a citizen of the most perfect and most prosperous Republic that ever was?

These migrants are, in his eyes, a material force that will enrich the country and make a fortune for those who will know how to use it. These are arms for work; he will be the head. He will employ these men in his factories and even give them preference over his fellow Americans, because immigrants work cheaper, and it is also easier to exploit them. But in this preference, there is neither sympathy nor special esteem, it is all simply a calculation of interest.” (35-37)*
Father Hamon continues by quoting his own translation into French of an article from the New York Times that supports the views of his acquaintance, the philosophical priest. Followers of this blog will remember that the Times both reported on and editorialized about New England’s French-Canadian influx as an ongoing regional concern with a tone that wavered between condescension and alarm.

Our author’s frank conclusion about Yankee attitudes towards his countrymen views Franco-American cultural survival from a tactical perspective:

Here then are the true feelings of Americans towards the French-Canadians [in the States]. They tolerate them, they do not like them, they see in them an element dangerous for the Republic, and if necessary they would not hesitate to take recourse to legal persecution to suppress or reduce a breed that shows itself resistant to Americanization… The goal [the Franco-Americans] propose is excellent: to keep their language and customs, and at the same time to keep their religion, but it will be better for them to act than to talk. In the United States they have no allies, and for support they cannot currently rely [only] on themselves. Their enemies or opponents are numerous, they have the strength in their hand, [and] it would be folly to provoke them by imprudent and unnecessary statements. (40) 

Hamon’s work reinforces two related theses. First, the French-Canadians who came to the New England states in the migrations of 1870-1930 had no intention of assimilating. The resistance to assimilation was not a mere gesture, a sentimental attachment to a beloved motherland, but based on an ideology called la survivance.

Title Page from E. Hamon's book
By the 1890s, the Canadiens-français had already maintained a separate culture under British rule for a century-and-a-half, the Acadiens for even longer. The Franco-Americans saw no difference between preserving their language and cultural heritage surrounded by Anglophones in Canada and preserving it in a similar environment in the USA.

Second, the Anglo-Americans regarded la survivance as dangerous and a campaign was launched in the press, the pulpit, and occasionally in the legislatures and on the streets, to prevent its realization.

Like a kettle on a slow boil, pressure on the immigrants to conform gradually increased. Beginning in the 1880s and into the early 20th c. there was a campaign to ensure that the Franco-Americans did not constitute a second Québec on the shores of New England. 

These two theses delimit the Franco-American experience in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Those Franco-Americans today who have lost their language, history, and consciousness of themselves as a people did not misplace them like a child who absentmindedly leaves her backpack on the school bus. This loss was no random occurrence, nor was it the result of the failure of individuals, nor was it in obedience to natural law. It was the product of an historical conflict.

Absent the perspective provided by these two theses, we fail to comprehend the choices made by our forebears. We misunderstand our origins and, thereby, ourselves.

*E. Hamon, S.J., Les Canadiens-français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre (Quebec: N.S. Hardy, 1891). Parenthetical page numbers refer to this book. The translations from Hamon’s French are my own.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The French-Canadian 'Alien In Our Midst': Nativism vs. Nationality in 20th c. America


In previous posts I discussed from a French North American perspective the early 20th c. eugenicist activities of Charles Davenport and the “master race” theories of Madison Grant.

Grant’s best-known book is The Passing Of The Great Race, which Hitler called his “bible,” and which was an influence on U.S. legislation in the 1920s restricting immigration. In 1930, Grant and co-author Charles Stewart Davison brought forth a volume of essays on the theme of immigration entitled The Alien In Our Midst or Selling Our Birthright For a Mess of Industrial Pottage.

Sandwiched between stirring quotations from the Founding Fathers, these essays bear such titles as The Control of Trends in the Racial Composition of the American People, The Howl for Cheap Mexican Labor, and The Permanent Menace From Europe (of Slavic and Jewish emigration).

Among these offerings appears an essay called The French-Canadian Invasion by Robert C. Dexter, Ph.D, dealing with Franco-Americans in New England. Dexter’s is among the book’s milder chapters tucked amid eugenicist screeds. Despite his measured tone, Dexter declares that the New England Franco-Americans of his day, “have certain peculiar characteristics which tend to make them far more difficult of assimilation” than other immigrant groups. (71)*

In his discussion of these “peculiar characteristics” Dexter sounds familiar themes such as the proximity of the Franco-American’s Québec homeland (he omits to mention the Acadian homeland of many Franco-Americans) and the famed “fecundity of the race.” He also revives a moderate form of the image popular in the 1880s and 1890s of a French-Canadian horde poised to dominate the northeastern States.

Dexter also offers this accurate observation:
English-speaking Canada has herself never assimilated the French-Canadians.They have always remained a separate group, speaking their own language and retaining their own culture and having succeeded in withstanding whatever pressure toward cultural unity there has been in the Dominion they desire to remain a separate group in the United States. (71f)

The writer quotes a Franco-American journalist and leading light of the late 19th c., Ferdinand Gagnon:
"Allegiance to a power does not change the origin of a subject or of a citizen; it only changes his political condition. In taking the oath of fidelity to the Constitution of the United States nothing changes in my life…What does take place then? There is simply concluded a political contract  which obliges me to observe the laws of the country …to defend its flag and to work for the greater prosperity of the nation … Nothing else passes between my conscience and my oath of allegiance." (74)
The history of French North America created a context for Gagnon to observe a distinction between one’s “origin” and one’s “country.” Gagnon believes that one’s nation may be distinct from the political entity to which one pledges allegiance, and his words to this effect echo the sentiment of an Acadien after 1713 or a Canadien after 1763. Gagnon writes of the allegiance “of a subject or of a citizen,” the first term applying to Canada and the second to the USA. The nation may endure in more than one “political condition.”
Page from Grant's and Davison's
The Alien In Our Midst

Since the 18th c., the French North Americans have been nations without a state. In emphasizing the continuity of national identity, in whatever political context it might inhabit, Gagnon’s generation retained the traditional survivance ideology of its forebears.

Gagnon’s text raises the question of what remains of participation in a modern Constitutional State, if we subtract adherence to the law, productive participation in the economy and, Gagnon adds, defense of its flag? What more could any State expect of a citizen? In Gagnon’s terms, what should “pass between a conscience and an oath of allegiance”?

But the nativists, on the pattern of Grant and Dexter, want more than mere participation, however energetic or ardent, in the politics, economics, and defense of the State. They want the immigrant to wish to exhibit the cultural cues that mirror the assimilationist’s image of an essential American.

The assimilationist wants not only the immigrant’s body but also the soul. It is necessary for the immigrant not only to act like an American, but also to think like an American, to be culturally American, whatever that might mean.

When we use the word culture we must acknowledge the breadth we are encompassing. Culture means not only language, religion, diet, the arts, and other equally obvious manifestations, but also such day to day matters as the volume with which one speaks; how close one stands to other people in casual interactions; how one responds in public meetings or performances; how (or whether) one negotiates; the rhythm of conversation; relationship to work; how one arranges one’s home and surroundings; the degree of privacy or publicity around religious expression. Culture includes all of this.

The Madison Grants hold the view that cultures, in this broadest sense, are arranged in a hierarchy determined by heredity. The immigrant, no matter how hard he or she tries to assimilate to the dominant culture, will never attain to membership in Grant’s “master race.” The specimen of an "inferior" origin may aspire to the manners and mores of his or her “betters,” but their best efforts must fall short if Grant’s eugenicist theories are to hold.

In the final paragraphs of his essay, Dexter gives his prescription for turning back the “French-Canadian invasion” of New England: forced assimilation of the generations born in the USA by means of the public schools. Dexter prefers, in fact, that children be required to attend public schools where English is the language of instruction.

He would require also, contrary to the traditions of New England, regulation of schools at the state level as a means of circumventing Franco-American control of school boards in municipalities where they comprise the majority.

Dexter mentions the strong interest of the Franco-Americans in educational policy since both they and Dexter recognize that schools are the incubators of the spirit. If assimilation includes the internal as well as the external, the private as well as the public, then formation is the key, and the schools must be the first line of defense against cultural “invasion.”

This bone of contention remains today: is there a cultural requirement for citizenship in a Constitutional State? Or is it, as Gagnon held, in toto a product of a social contract, a transaction entailing certain rights and related responsibilities and nothing more?

Reading Grant’s and Davison’s treatment of “the alien in our midst” it is startling how little the terms of this debate have changed in the better part of a century.

* Madison Grant and Charles Stewart Davison, The Alien In Our Midst or Selling Our Birthright For a Mess of Industrial Pottage (New York: Galton, 1930). Parenthetical page numbers refer to this book.