Growing up, I often had the term “ethnic” applied to me, which essentially meant I was not of Anglo-Saxon heritage. Fair enough — I’m not. But it is a bit disconcerting to have a generic, bland term like “ethnic” applied to you, as if you have an ethnicity when others don’t. The obvious cultural reading into this is that Anglo-Saxon, or at least Protestant British heritage is the norm, and everything else isn’t.
Except it isn’t. Yes, the core of American history is wrapped around British colonies, but from the get-go the British relied heavily on non-British peoples to get things done. A year after its founding, Jamestown, Virginia imported Poles and Germans to establish a glass and potash industry — and we know they survived because they were granted full voting rights in 1619. Maryland utilized large numbers of Czechs as farmers and land surveyors. Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Maryland were so full of German immigrants by the time of the Revolution that Hessian mercenary Johann Döhla reported being able to rely exclusively on his native German language as he march through the Middle Colonies. (General Washington also reported having the opposite problem, finding German translators for regiments from these colonies.)
And of course, large swaths of North America were settled by the French, Dutch and Spanish colonial empires. (My native New York State retained Dutch as a second official language well into the 20th century, forcing all state documents to be translated into both English and Dutch. New York’s famous Broadway was originally named Brede weg — “the Broad Way” — when the city was known as Nieuw Amsterdam.) And then, of course, there’s the wee matter of the fact that over the 18th century, by far the largest single ethnic group to migrate to North America were West Africans; twice as many Africans were brought to the American colonies (and after 1776, United States) as Europeans migrated from 1700-1800. And let’s not forget the Native Americans…
That’s what makes Walt Whitman’s letter so interesting. In 1883, the city of Santa Fe asked Walt to write a poem to commemorate their 333rd anniversary (!), but he responded with a letter instead. In this letter, he invokes the “Spanish element in our nationality”:
To Messrs. Griffin, Martinez, Prince, and other Gentlemen at Santa Fé:
DEAR SIRS:—Your kind invitation to visit you and deliver a poem for the 333d Anniversary of founding Santa Fé has reach’d me so late that I have to decline, with sincere regret. But I will say a few words off hand.
We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake. Many leading traits for our future national personality, and some of the best ones, will certainly prove to have originated from other than British stock. As it is, the British and German, valuable as they are in the concrete, already threaten excess. Or rather, I should say, they have certainly reach’d that excess. To-day, something outside of them, and to counterbalance them, is seriously needed.
The seething materialistic and business vortices of the United States, in their present devouring relations, controlling and belittling everything else, are, in my opinion, but a vast and indispensable stage in the new world’s development, and are certainly to be follow’d by something entirely different—at least by immense modifications. Character, literature, a society worthy the name, are yet to be establish’d, through a nationality of noblest spiritual, heroic and democratic attributes—not one of which at present definitely exists—entirely different from the past, though unerringly founded on it, and to justify it.
To that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts. No stock shows a grander historic retrospect—grander in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity and honor. (It is time to dismiss utterly the illusion-compound, half raw-head-and-bloody-bones and half Mysteries-of-Udolpho, inherited from the English writers of the past 200 years. It is time to realize—for it is certainly true—that there will not be found any more cruelty, tyranny, superstition, &c., in the résumé of past Spanish history than in the corresponding résumé of Anglo-Norman history. Nay, I think there will not be found so much.)
Then another point, relating to American ethnology, past and to come, I will here touch upon at a venture. As to our aboriginal or Indian population—the Aztec in the South, and many a tribe in the North and West—I know it seems to be agreed that they must gradually dwindle as time rolls on, and in a few generations more leave only a reminiscence, a blank. But I am not at all clear about that. As America, from its many far-back sources and current supplies, develops, adapts, entwines, faithfully identifies its own—are we to see it cheerfully accepting and using all the contributions of foreign lands from the whole outside globe—and then rejecting the only ones distinctively its own—the autochthonic ones?
As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action? 7
If I might assume to do so, I would like to send you the most cordial, heartfelt congratulations of your American fellow-countrymen here. You have more friends in the Northern and Atlantic regions than you suppose, and they are deeply interested in the development of the great Southwestern interior, and in what your festival would arouse to public attention.
Very respectfully, &c.,
(Walt Whitman (2015). “V. November Boughs, The Spanish Element in Our Nationality” (Letter of July 20, 1883, as published in the Philadelphia Press on August 5, 1883). Bartleby.com.
In the context of our current national politics, I find this interesting.