Response to FWD: Roosevelt’s 1907 Quote on Immigration

In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag… We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.. And we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.

-Theodore Roosevelt 1907

It is unfortunate, I think, that this quote from Theodore Roosevelt is being forwarded without any kind of discussion or close interpretation. It does not simply stand in support of immigration reform (and I only guess that was what the forwarders’ intended) – if interpreted as appropriate for modern times, as I doubt it should be, it has much stronger implications for all modern American people.

How would you identify someone that was “in every facet” an American by Roosevelt’s definition – one with no divided allegiance and complete loyalty to the American people? Would they buy only American products, speak and think only in English (do you get to pick the language you think in?), invest only in American companies, burn their family heirlooms wherever another flag was present, disassociate themselves with their family history – for, seemingly, these are Roosevelt’s prescriptions.

And if that is what it took… then how many Americans would Roosevelt commend – certainly not the foreign-product-buying kind, employees of or investors in Toyota, Sony, et al., or even customers of American companies that outsourced jobs to reduce costs for the America consumption-addiction. All of these actions, and others, ingrained in modern American life, are certainly highly suspect for anyone claiming to be a Roosevelt-approved American loyalist.

Of course, we must ask ourselves, how many of these (apparently loyalty-subverting) activities were even possibilities over 100 years ago when Roosevelt spoke these words? The answer, certainly, is “very few of them”. The world has changed and America has changed with it. Looking to hundred-year-old quotes for normative advice can only go so far.

If you found these words to be compelling instructions, I am afraid it was only because you did not realize that they do more work against all supposed “actual Americans” than they do in support of tougher immigration laws. If you, in fact, did realize that broader implication, then I am sure you see we have much bigger issues in modern America than how to think about immigration.

I, personally, think that the quote is only worth interpreting within its own time – which leaves it normatively neutered and of simply historical value.

Andrew D. Anderson