Read CHAPTER II - THE AMERICAN STOCK of Our Foreigners, free online book, by Samuel P. Orth, on

In the history of a word we may frequently find a fragment, sometimes a large section, of universal history. This is exemplified in the term American, a name which, in the phrase of George Washington, “must always exalt the pride of patriotism” and which today is proudly borne by a hundred million people. There is no obscurity about the origin of the name America. It was suggested for the New World in 1507 by Martin Waldseemueller, a German geographer at the French college of Saint-Die. In that year this savant printed a tract, with a map of the world or mappemonde, recognizing the dubious claims of discovery set up by Amerigo Vespucci and naming the new continent after him. At first applied only to South America, the name was afterwards extended to mean the northern continent as well; and in time the whole New World, from the Frozen Ocean to the Land of Fire, came to be called America.

Inevitably the people who achieved a preponderating influence in the new continent came to be called Americans. Today the name American everywhere signifies belonging to the United States, and a citizen of that country is called an American. This unquestionably is geographically anomalous, for the neighbors of the United States, both north and south, may claim an equal share in the term. Ethnically, the only real Americans are the Indian descendants of the aboriginal races. But it is futile to combat universal usage: the World War has clinched the name upon the inhabitants of the United States. The American army, the American navy, American physicians and nurses, American food and clothing these are phrases with a definite geographical and ethnic meaning which neither academic ingenuity nor race rivalry can erase from the memory of mankind.

This chapter, however, is to discuss the American stock, and it is necessary to look farther back than mere citizenship; for there are millions of American citizens of foreign birth or parentage who, though they are Americans, are clearly not of any American stock.

At the time of the Revolution there was a definite American population, knit together by over two centuries of toil in the hard school of frontier life, inspired by common political purposes, speaking one language, worshiping one God in divers manners, acknowledging one sovereignty, and complying with the mandates of one common law. Through their common experience in subduing the wilderness and in wresting their independence from an obstinate and stupid monarch, the English colonies became a nation. Though they did not fulfill Raleigh’s hope and become an English nation, they were much more English than non-English, and these Revolutionary Americans may be called today, without abuse of the term, the original American stock. Though they were a blend of various races, a cosmopolitan admixture of ethnic strains, they were not more varied than the original admixture of blood now called English.

We may, then, properly begin our survey of the racial elements in the United States by a brief scrutiny of this American stock, the parent stem of the American people, the great trunk, whose roots have penetrated deep into the human experience of the past and whose branches have pushed upward and outward until they spread over a whole continent.

The first census of the United States was taken in 1790. More than a hundred years later, in 1909, the Census Bureau published A Century of Population Growth in which an attempt was made to ascertain the nationality of those who comprised the population at the taking of the first census. In that census no questions of nativity were asked. This omission is in itself significant of the homogeneity of the population at that time. The only available data, therefore, upon which such a calculation could be made were the surnames of the heads of families preserved in the schedules. A careful analysis of the list disclosed a surprisingly large number of names ostensibly English or British. Fashions in names have changed since then, and many that were so curious, simple, or fantastically compounded as to be later deemed undignified have undergone change or disappeared.

Upon this basis the nationality of the white population was distributed among the States in accordance with Table A printed on pages 26-27. Three of the original States are not represented in this table: New Jersey, Delaware, and Georgia. The schedules of the First Census for those States were not preserved. The two new States of Kentucky and Tennessee are also missing from the list. Estimates, however, have been made for these missing States.

For Delaware, the schedules of the Second Census, 1800, survived. As there was little growth and very little change in the composition of the population during this decade, the Census Bureau used the later figures as a basis for calculating the population in 1790. Of three of the missing Southern States the report says: “The composition of the white population of Georgia, Kentucky, and of the district subsequently erected into the State of Tennessee is also unknown; but in view of the fact that Georgia was a distinctly English colony, and that Tennessee and Kentucky were settled largely from Virginia and North Carolina, the application of the North Carolina proportions to the white population of these three results in what is doubtless an approximation of the actual distribution.”

New Jersey presented a more complex problem. Here were Welsh and Swedes, Finns and Danes, as well as French, Dutch, Scotch, Irish, and English. A careful analysis was made of lists of freeholders, and other available sources, in the various counties. The results of these computations in the States from which no schedules of the First Census survive are given in Table B printed on page 28.

To this method of estimating nationality, it will at once be objected that undue prominence is given to the derivation of the surname, an objection fully understood by those who made the estimate and one which deprives their conclusions of strict scientific verity. In a new country, where the population is in a constant flux and where members of community composed of one race easily migrate to another part of the country and fall in with people of another race, it is very easy to modify the name to suit new circumstances. We know, for instance that Isaac Isaacks of Pennsylvania was not a Jew, that the Van Buskirks of New Jersey were German, not Dutch, that D’Aubigne was early shortened into Dabny and Aulnay into Olney. So also many a Brown had been Braun, and several Blacks had once been only Schwartz. Even the universal Smith had absorbed more than one original Schmidt. These rather exceptional cases, however, probably, do not vitiate the general conclusion here made as to the British and non-British element in the population of America, for the Dutch, the German, the French, and the Swedish cognomens are characteristically different from the British. But the differentiation between Irish, Welsh, Scotch, Scotch-Irish, and English names is infinitely more difficult. The Scotch-Irish particularly have challenged the conclusions reached by the Census Bureau. They claim a much larger proportion of the original bulk of our population than the seven per cent included under the heading Scotch. Henry Jones Ford considers the conclusions as far as they pertain to the Scotch-Irish as “fallacious and untrustworthy.” “Many Ulster names,” he says, “are also common English names.... Names classed as Scotch or Irish were probably mostly those of Scotch-Irish families.... The probability is that the English proportion should be much smaller and that the Scotch-Irish, who are not included in the Census Bureau’s classification, should be much larger than the combined proportions allotted to the Scotch and the Irish.”

Whatever may be the actual proportions of these British elements, as revealed by a study of the patronymics of the population at the time of American independence, the fact that the ethnic stock was overwhelmingly British stands out most prominently. We shall never know the exact ratios between the Scotch and the English, the Welsh and the Irish blended in this hardy, self-assertive, and fecund strain. But we do know that the language, the political institutions, and the common law as practiced and established in London had a predominating influence on the destinies of the United States. While the colonists drifted far from the religious establishments of the mother country and found her commercial policies unendurable and her political hauteur galling, they nevertheless retained those legal and institutional forms which remain the foundation of Anglo-Saxon life.

For nearly half a century the American stock remained almost entirely free from foreign admixture. It is estimated that between 1790 and 1820 only 250,000 immigrants came to America, and of these the great majority came after the War of 1812. The white population of the United States in 1820 was 7,862,166. Ten years later it had risen to 10,537,378. This astounding increase was almost wholly due to the fecundity of the native stock. The equitable balance between the sexes, the ease of acquiring a home, the vigorous pioneer environment, and the informal frontier social conditions all encouraged large families. Early marriages were encouraged. Bachelors and unmarried women were rare. Girls were matrons at twenty-five and grand-mothers at forty. Three generations frequently dwelt in one homestead. Families of five persons were the rule; families of eight or ten were common, while families of fourteen or fifteen did not elicit surprise. It was the father’s ambition to leave a farm to every son and, if the neighborhood was too densely settled easily to permit this, there was the West always the West.

This was a race of nation builders. No sooner had he made the Declaration of Independence a reality than the eager pathfinder turned his face towards the setting sun and, prompted by the instincts of conquest, he plunged into the wilderness. Within a few years western New York and Pennsylvania were settled; Kentucky achieved statehood in 1792 and Tennessee four years later, soon to be followed by Mississippi in 1817 and Alabama in 1819. The great Northwest Territory yielded Ohio in 1802, Indiana in 1816, Illinois in 1818, and Michigan in 1837. Beyond the Mississippi the empire of Louisiana doubled the original area of the Republic; Louisiana came into statehood in 1812 and Missouri in 1821. Texas, Oregon, and the fruits of the Mexican War extended its confines to the Western Sea. Incredibly swift as was this march of the Stars, the American pioneer was always in advance.

The pathfinders were virtually all of American stock. The States admitted to the Union prior to 1840 were not only founded by them; they were almost wholly settled by them. When the influx of foreigners began in the thirties, they found all the trails already blazed, the trading posts established, and the first terrors of the wilderness dispelled. They found territories already metamorphosed into States, counties organized, cities established. Schools, churches, and colleges preceded the immigrants who were settlers and not strictly pioneers. The entire territory ceded by the Treaty of 1783 was appropriated in large measure by the American before the advent of the European immigrant.

Washington, with a ring of pride, said in 1796 that the native population of America was “filling the western part of the State of New York and the country on the Ohio with their own surplusage.” And James Madison in 1821 wrote that New England, “which has sent out such a continued swarm to other parts of the Union for a number of years, has continued at the same time, as the census shows, to increase in population although it is well known that it has received but comparatively few emigrants from any quarter.” Beyond the Mississippi, Louisiana, with its Creole population, was feeling the effect of American migration.

A strange restlessness, of the race rather than of the individual, possessed the American frontiers-man. He moved from one locality to another, but always westward, like some new migratory species that had willingly discarded the instinct for returning. He never took the back trail. A traveler, writing in 1791 from the Ohio Valley, rather superficially observed that “the Americans are lazy and bored, often moving from place to place for the sake of change; in the thirty years that the [western] Pennsylvania neighborhood has been settled, it has changed owners two or three times. The sight of money will tempt any American to sell and off he goes to a new country.” Foreign observers of that time constantly allude to this universal and inexplicable restiveness. It was obviously not laziness, for pioneering was a man’s task; nor boredom, for the frontier was lonely and neighbors were far apart It was an ever-present dissatisfaction that drove this perpetual conqueror onward a mysterious impulse, the urge of vague and unfulfilled desires. He went forward with a conquering ambition in his heart; he believed he was the forerunner of a great National Destiny. Crude rhymes of the day voice this feeling:

So shall the nation’s pioneer go joyful on his way,
To wed Penobscot water to San Francisco Bay.
The mighty West shall bless the East, and sea shall answer sea,
And mountain unto mountain call, praise God, for we are free!

Again a popular chorus of the pathfinder rang:

Then o’er the hills in legions, boys;
Fair freedom’s star
Points to the sunset regions, boys,
Ha, Ha, Ha-ha!

Many a New Englander cleared a farm in western New York, Ohio, or Indiana, before settling finally in Wisconsin, Iowa, or Minnesota, whence he sent his sons on to Dakota, Montana, Oregon, and California. From Tennessee and Kentucky large numbers moved into southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and across the river into Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Abraham Lincoln’s father was one of these pioneers and tried his luck in various localities in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.

Nor had the movement ceased after a century of continental exploitation. Hamlin Garland in his notable autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border, brings down to our own day the evidence of this native American restiveness. His parents came of New England extraction, but settled in Wisconsin. His father, after his return from the Civil War, moved to Iowa, where he was scarcely ensconced before an opportunity came to sell his place. The family then pushed out farther upon the Iowa prairie, where they “broke” a farm from the primeval turf. Again, in his ripe age, the father found the urge revive and under this impulse he moved again, this time to Dakota, where he remained long enough to transform a section of prairie into wheat land before he took the final stage of his western journeyings to southern California. Here he was surrounded by neighbors whose migration had been not unlike his own, and to the same sunny region another relative found his way “by way of a long trail through Iowa, Dakota, Montana, Oregon, and North California.”

When the last frontier had vanished, it was seen that men of this American stock had penetrated into every valley, traversed every plain, and explored every mountain pass from Atlantic to Pacific. They organized every territory and prepared each for statehood. It was the enterprise of these sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of the Revolutionary Americans, obeying the restless impulse of a pioneer race, who spread a network of settlements and outposts over the entire land and prepared it for the immigrant invasion from Europe. Owing to this influx of foreigners, the American stock has become mingled with other strains, especially those from Great Britain.

The Census Bureau estimated that in 1900 there were living in the United States approximately thirty-five million white people who were descended from persons enumerated in 1790.

In 1900 there were also thirty-two million descendants of white persons who had come to the United States after the First Census, yet of these over twenty million were either foreign born or the children of persons born abroad. If this ratio of increase remained the same, the American stock would apparently maintain its own, even in the midst of twentieth century immigration. But the birth rate of the foreign stock, especially among the recent comers, is much higher than of the native American stock. Conditions have so changed that, according to the Census, the American people “have concluded that they are only about one-half as well able to rear children at any rate, without personal sacrifice under the conditions prevailing in 1900 as their predecessors proved themselves to be under the conditions which prevailed in 1790.”

The difficulty of ascertaining ethnic influences increases immeasurably when we pass from the physical to the mental realm. There are subtle interplays of delicate forces and reactions from environment which no one can measure. Leadership nevertheless is the gift of but few races; and in the United States eminence in business, in statecraft, in letters and learning can with singular directness be traced in a preponderating proportion to this American stock.

Whatever may be said in objection to this index of ability (and Senator Lodge effectively answered his critics in a note appended to this study in his volume of Historical and Political Essays), it is apparent that a large preponderance of leadership in American politics, business, art, literature, and learning has been derived from the American stock. This is a perfectly natural result. The founders of the Republic themselves were in large degree the children of the pick of Europe. The Puritan, Cavalier, Quaker, Scotch-Irish, Huguenot, and Dutch pioneers were not ordinary folk in any sense of the term. They were, in a measure, a race of heroes. Their sons and grandsons inherited their vigor and their striving. It is not at all singular that every President of the United States and every Chief Justice of the Federal Supreme Court has come from this stock, nor that the vast majority of Cabinet members, of distinguished Senators, of Speakers of the House, and of men of note in the House of Representatives trace back to it their lineage in whole or in part. After the middle of the nineteenth century the immigrant vote began to make itself felt, and politicians contended for the “Irish vote” and the “German vote” and later for the “Italian vote” the “Jewish vote,” and the “Norwegian vote.” Members of the immigrant races began to appear in Washington, and the new infusion of blood made itself felt in the political life of the country.

But, if material were available for a comprehensive analysis of American leadership in life and thought today, a larger number of names of non-native origin would no doubt appear than was disclosed in 1891 by Senator Lodge’s analysis. All the learned professions, for instance, and many lines of business are finding their numbers swelled by persons of foreign parentage. This change is to be expected. The influence of environment, especially of free education and unfettered opportunity, is calling forth the talents of the children of the immigrants. The number of descendants from the American stock yearly becomes relatively less; intermarriage with the children of the foreign born is increasingly frequent. Profound changes have taken place since the American pioneers pushed their way across the Alleghanies; changes infinitely more profound have taken place even since the dawn of the twentieth century and have put to the test of Destiny the institutions which are called “American.”

Nevertheless in a large sense every great tradition of the original American stock lives today: the tradition of free movement, of initiative and enterprise; the tradition of individual responsibility; the primary traditions of democracy and liberty. These give a virile present meaning to the name American. A noted French journalist received this impression of a group of soldiers who in 1918 were bivouacked in his country: “I saw yesterday an American unit in which men of very varied origin abounded French, Polish, Czech, German, English, Canadian such their names and other facts revealed them. Nevertheless, all were of the same or similar type, a fact due apparently to the combined influences of sun, air, primary education, and environment. And one was not long in discovering that the intelligence of each and all had manifestly a wider outlook than that of the man of single racial lineage and of one country.” And these men were Americans.