Anglo-Saxon’ Is What You Say When ‘Whites Only’ Is Too InclusiveHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Nativism, Anglo-Saxonism
Last week, far-right Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar distanced themselves from a proposal to create an America First Caucus, after a document bearing the group’s name made reference to “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
Both Greene and Gosar told the press that they hadn’t seen the document and did not endorse its sentiments, after House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned the effort, saying that America “isn’t built on identity, race, or religion,” and rejecting “nativist dog whistles.”
If seeing the party of Donald Trump distance itself from nativism is strange, it helps to understand that “Anglo-Saxon” is what you say when “whites only” is simply too inclusive.
The Anglo-Saxonism to which I refer has little to do with the Germanic peoples who settled in medieval England. Rather, it’s an archaic, pseudoscientific intellectual trend that gained popularity during the height of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe to the United States, at the turn of the 20th century. Nativists needed a way to explain why these immigrants—Polish, Russian, Greek, Italian, and Jewish—were distinct from earlier generations, and why their presence posed a danger.
They settled on the idea that the original “native” American settlers were descended from “the tribes that met under the oak-trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains,” as Francis Walker put it in The Atlantic in 1893, and that the new immigrants lacked the biological aptitude for democracy. Anglo-Saxon was a way to distinguish genteel old-money types, such as nativist Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, from members of inferior races who had names such as, well, McCarthy. The influential eugenicist Madison Grant insisted that the Irish possessed an “unstable temperament” and a “lack of coordinating and reasoning power.”
“By making the simple (and in fact traditional) assumption that northern European nationalities shared much of the Anglo-Saxon’s inherited traits, a racial nativist could now understand why immigration had just now become a problem,” the historian John Higham wrote in Strangers in the Land. “Also, the cultural remoteness of southern and eastern European ‘races’ suggested to him that the foreign danger involved much more than an inherited incapacity for self-government: the new immigration was racially impervious to the whole of American civilization!”
This belief that America’s “original” population was Anglo-Saxon, and that the American way of life was threatened by the presence not just of nonwhite people but of inferior, non-Anglo-Saxon (or “Nordic”) white people, shaped the racist immigration-restriction laws of the early 20th century. As historians have documented, it also influenced the ideology of Nazi Germany. Translated into law, it produced such horrifying artifacts as Virginia’s 1924 anti-miscegenation act, passed with the aid of the eugenicist Anglo-Saxon Clubs. The law required all babies to be classified as “white” or “colored” and made it a felony to “misrepresent” your racial background. The Nazi jurists studying American race laws in the 1930s thought such “one drop” rules were a bit too strict.
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