Category Archives: Failed immigration blockade

The Melting Pot: a Failed Metaphor

“. . .The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent—that of total separation of Church and State. No religious Establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mahommedan, if he will come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the Constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so please him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institution. The fruits are visible in the universal contentment which everywhere prevails. Christians are broken up into various sects, but we have no persecution, no stake or rack—no compulsion or force, not furious or bigoted zeal; but each and all move on in their select sphere, and worship the Great Creator according to their own forms and ceremonies. The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid . . . and the Aegis of the Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free government would be imperfect without it . . . .”

President John Tyler
July 10, 1843 (1)

American cultural anthropology and sociology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries present some interesting challenges to the matter of religious, ethnic, racial, and cultural immigration into the landscape of the American experiment in liberty. The competing theories of Henry Platt Fairchild (2) (popularly described as Melting Pot borrowed from Fredrick Turner who applied his idea uniquely to the American west in the late 19th century) and Horace M. Kallen (3) (popularly described as ‘Cultural Symphony’) did battle in the early 20th century. Fairchild, primarily in his book Immigration, argued for the complete assimilation of the newcomer into the ‘native American’ ideal (by which he meant the idealized American/European). Whatever differences (i.e. cultural, morphological, religious, etc) the immigrant brought to America must be assimilated into the homogeneous cultural identity of what Fairchild thought to be a ‘national type’ as quickly as possible. Fairchild’s work was popularized in a 1908 play ‘The Melting Pot’ by Israel Zangwill. The theme of the play can be captured in a single line from the play “Understand that America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, your fifty languages, and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.” (4 & 5). Fairchild’s melting pot was reoriented by Edward Ross (‘The Old World in the New,’ 1914), a ‘progressive’ university sociologist of his day. Ross challenged and rejected the notion of non-European immigration. According to him, non-Europeans were “sub-common people of obviously low mentality who really belonged in animal skins, beside wattled huts . . . Ross was appalled by their ‘sugar-loaf heads, moon-faces, slit mouths, lantern jaws, and goose-bill noses.’ Jews he singled out as puny and sissified, the saddest possible contrast to the type of the American pioneer.” (6)

Rejecting Ross’s extension of Fairchild’s work, Horace M. Kallen, a former colleague of Ross’s at the University of Wisconsin and later on faculty at Harvard University, published an essay in the Nation (February 1915) titled ‘Democracy versus the Melting Pot.’(7)  Kallen gave his thesis the name ‘Cultural Pluralism.’ His basic theory is composed of three essential parts: 1) he denied there was any unique, archetypal American; there was no collective identity into which immigrants must seek transformation. America, in his theory, was a political state containing a great diversity of distinct nationalities, religious, cultural traditions, ethnicities, etc, 2) these distinct aspects of the human community should be allowed to perpetuate themselves indefinitely, 3) because of 1 & 2, governmental policy should be guided by two distinct concepts: unison and harmony. Unison would be limited to basic patterns of social/governmental/economic functions—e.g. language, government structure, monetary policy, etc as examples of unison policy. Of much greater interest to Kallen was harmony (which gave Kallen’s theory the popular name ‘Cultural Symphony Theory’). For him, this was the brilliance of the American experiment. In matters of opinion “Its form would be that of the federal republic; its substance a democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously through common institutions in the enterprise of self-realization through the perfections of men according to their kind . . . each nationality (religion, culture, etc) would have for its emotional and involuntary life its . . . own individual and inevitable esthetic forms . . . Thus, American civilization may come to mean the perfection of the cooperative harmonies . . . a multiplicity in a unity, an orchestration of mankind” (8). Kallen offers a brilliant understanding of the Founders’ imagination in using e pluribus unum as a national motto; holding of equal value both the many and the one.

As often happens in history, unforeseen circumstances influence outcomes. While we might imagine Kallen’s theory of a grand cultural symphony creating a rich and vibrant American culture capturing the imagination of the American people, circumstances in Europe and the world leading to World War I created an environment of social and political fear fostering an atmosphere of anxiety and xenophobia. (9) Fairchild’s Melting Pot augmented by Ross’s xenophobia became the prevailing metaphor and, sadly, the political context for immigration policy and American self-awareness in the ensuing decades.  Kallen’s Cultural Symphony almost completely disappeared by 1924. To this day, the Melting Pot is the collective mental paradigm for immigration and cultural assimilation into the America landscape. The inherent fear of and limitations to diversity contained in the Melting Pot theory, whether consciously or unconsciously engaged, continue to inhibit broad intercultural comfort, trust, or cooperation.

Sadly, resistance to the Melting Pot encourages suspicion and flames up xenophobic fears. The President’s poorly planned and executed executive order on refugees and immigrants, born of fear and xenophobia, affirms the operative persistence and power of this inadequate Melting Pot metaphor. In contrast, the immediate and powerful response of the citizenry suggests Kallen’s work, a Cultural Symphony, describing a fearless cultural symphony may be gaining traction in these United States even if the original theory for this paradigm shift is yet unrecognized.  Kallen’s Cultural Symphony encouraging and celebrating diversity, multiculturalism, and pluralism provides a context for serious reconsideration of immigration and refugees policies. But the hard work is not done. Progress will require an informed and well differentiated citizenry to constructively embrace, engage, and advocate for the opportunity to discover new harmonies possible in intercultural, interethnic, interracial, interfaith, etc., relations, collaboration, cooperation, and dialogue. The reward of this hard work will be, to borrow again from Tyler’s letter, a continuation of our great and noble experiment, the fruit of which will be an even more perfect union, an even grander Cultural Symphony.


1 John Tyler. A letter from President John Tyler to Joseph Simpson of Baltimore. The American Jewish Historical Society, New York City, New York.
2 Philip Gleason, Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth Century America [Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992], 50-51.
3 Ibid.
4 Gary Gerstle. American Crucible; Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century [Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press, 2001], 51.
5 C. Hirschman. America’s Melting Pot Policy Reconsidered, Annual Review of Sociology, 9 (1983), 397-423.
6 Philip Gleason, Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth Century America, [Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992], 50-51.
7 Ibid., 50-52.
8 Ibid., 52.
9 Ibid., 53.

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