Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas on Immigrants and being an AMERICAN in 1907
ORIGINS: Theodore Roosevelt was about to finish his first two-year term as governor of the state of New York when the Republican Party chose him as its candidate for vice president in the 1900 national election. The Republicans were victorious at the ballot box that year, but Roosevelt held the vice-presidency for less than a year before he was elevated to the White House upon the assassination of President William McKinley on 14 September 1901, thereby becoming the youngest person ever to hold the office of President of the United States. Roosevelt was elected to a full term as president in 1904, and among his many notable achievements was his selection as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for his part in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
Although Roosevelt did not hold public office again after leaving the presidency in 1909 (his efforts to regain the White House as a third party candidate in 1912 proving unsuccessful), he remained active in the public political sphere. In the waning years of his life, as World War I raged in Europe and America entered the conflict on the side of the Allies, he frequently spoke of his belief that immigrants taking up residence in the U.S. should assimilate into American society as quickly as possible, learn the English language, eschew hyphenated national identities (e.g., “Italian-American”) and declare their primary national allegiance to the United States of America.
On 1 February 1916, for example, Roosevelt advocated measures for strengthening and ensuring the “loyalty” of American immigrants:
Theodore Roosevelt, speaking at a luncheon given yesterday by Mrs. Vincent Astor for the National Americanization Committee in the Astor Court Building, declared that one of the reasons why many German-Americans have shown greater love for their native land that for their adopted country is that the German system demands greater loyalty than is demanded in this country, and a greater contribution to the common welfare. “And all of you know I am free from a taint of neutrality,” he added, “so I can say this without suspicion.”
“I feel that by insistence upon proper housing conditions we shall indirectly approach this. I want to see the immigrant know that he has got to spend a certain amount of his money in decent housing; that he will not be allowed to live on $2.50 per month board basis.
“Let us say to the immigrant not that we hope he will learn English, but that he has got to learn it. Let the immigrant who does not learn it go back. He has got to consider the interest of the United States or he should not stay here. He must be made to see that his opportunities in this country depend upon his knowing English and observing American standards. The employer cannot be permitted to regard him only as an industrial asset.
“We must in every way possible encourage the immigrant to rise, help him up, give him a chance to help himself. If we try to carry him he may well prove not well worth carrying. We must in turn insist upon his showing the same standard of fealty to this country and to join with us in raising the level of our common American citizenship.
“If I could I would have the kind of restriction which would not allow any immigrant to come here unless I was content that his grandchildren would be fellow-citizens of my grandchildren. They will not be so if he lives in a boarding house at $2.50 per month with ten other boarders and contracts tuberculosis and contributes to the next generation a body of citizens inferior not only morally and spiritually but also physically.”1
A few months later, Roosevelt expanded on this theme in a series of Memorial Day speeches he delivered in St. Louis:
Moral treason to the United States was charged by Mr. Roosevelt, in an address delivered before the City Club, against German-Americans who seek to make their governmental representatives act in the interests of Germany rather than this country. He characterized the German-American Alliance as “an anti-American alliance,” but added that he believed that its members “not only do not represent but scandalously misrepresent” the great majority of real Americans of German origin.
“I appeal to all our citizens,” the colonel said, “no matter from what land their forefathers came, to keep this ever in mind, and to shun with scorn and contempt the sinister intriguers and mischiefmakers who would seek to divide them along lines of creed, or birthplace or of national origin.”
Col. Roosevelt said he came to St. Louis to speak on Americanism — to speak of and condemn the use of the hyphen “whenever it represents an effort to form political parties along racial lines or to bring pressure to bear on parties and politicians, not for American purposes, but in the interest of some group of voters of a certain national origin or of the country from which they or their fathers came.”
He was equally against the native American of the wrong kind and for the immigrant of the right kind, the former President declared, but the immigrant who did not become in good faith an American “is out of place” in the United States. He said each nation should be judged by its conduct and that the United States should oppose encroachment on its own rights, whether Germany, England, France or Russia be guilty of misconduct.
“The effort to keep our citizenship divided against itself,” the colonel continued, “by the use of the hyphen and along the lines of national origin is certain to a breed of spirit of bitterness and prejudice and dislike between great bodies of our citizens. If some citizens band together as German-Americans or Irish-Americans, then after a while others are certain to band together as English-Americans or Scandinavian-Americans, and every such banding together, every attempt to make for political purposes a German-American alliance or a Scandinavian-American alliance, means down at the bottom an effort against the interest of straight-out American citizenship, an effort to bring into our nation the bitter Old World rivalries amd jealousies and hatreds.”2
In a Fourth of July speech in 1917, Roosevelt urged the adoption of linguistic uniformity, including a requirement that all foreign-language newspapers published in the U.S. should also include English translations:
Touching on the matter of language, Col. Roosevelt declared that “We must have in this country but one flag, and for the speech of the people but one language, the English language. During the present war all newspapers published in German, or in the speech of any of our foes, should be required to publish, side by side with the foreign text, columns in English containing the exact translation of everything said in the foreign language. Ultimately this should be done with all newspapers published in foreign languages in this country.”3
Likewise, on 27 May 1918, Roosevelt urged in a speech at Des Moines, Iowa, that English be the sole language of instruction used in American schools:
In voicing his approval of the recent proclamation by Gov. Harding, ordering that English be the only medium of instruction in public or private schools in Iowa, Col. Roosevelt said:
“This is a nation — not a polyglot boarding house. There is not room in the country for any 50-50 American, nor can there be but one loyalty — to the Stars and Stripes.”4
The comments quoted at this head of the page are more in the same vein; excerpts not from (as claimed in the accompanying text) a statement made by Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 (while he was still President), but from a letter written shortly before his death in January 1919, just a few months after the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I:
NEW YORK, Jan. 6. — What was the last public statement by Col. Roosevelt was read last night at an “All-American concert” here under the auspices of the American Defense society, of which he was honorary president.
“In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with every one 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 man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American.
“If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn’t doing his part as an American.
“We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile. We have room for but one language here and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house; and we have room for but one soul [sic] loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.”5
A copy of this letter, obtained from the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, can be viewed here.
LAST UPDATED: 23 September 2015
- 1. The New York Times. “A Roosevelt Idea Made in Germany.” 2 February 1916 (p. 5).
- 2. The Washington Post. “T.R. Assails Wilson.” 1 June 1916 (p. 1).
- 3. Boston Daily Globe. “‘Moral Treason’ to Attack Allies.” 5 July 1917 (p. 10).
- 4. The Washington Post. “Use Only English, Roosevelt Urges.” 28 May 1918 (p. 2).
- 5. The Chicago Daily Tribune. “Abolish Hyphen Roosevelt’s Last Words to Public.”
- 7 January 1919 (p. 4).