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.

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