There are Irish-Americans, Scots-Americans, and Scotch-Irish-Americans. There are Polish-Americans, German-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and a host of other hyphenated citizens. Why are there no English-Americans?
England was the cultural mother of the United States, and Englishness is its default culture. Colonists do not come to assimilate into an existing culture but to transplant their own. The English who came to America in the 17th century were intent on creating a world in their own cultural image, though with certain variations, such as different religious regimens.
The English were also the numerically dominant pioneers from the Jamestown settlement of 1607 until the Revolution. At the time of the first US census in 1790, English-descended settlers accounted for 60 per cent of the white population, and the majority of the other whites were from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. The total population was 3,929,214, of which 3,172,006 were white and 757,208, or 19 percent, were black.
It is possible that English ancestry was downplayed in the 1790 census and for much of the 19th century because of the anti-British feeling caused by the American Revolution and various disputes afterwards such as the War of 1812. If so, the under-recording of English ancestry would have continued though succeeding generations. Whatever figures are correct, it is certain that by 1790 English was the dominant language and the template for American society had been cut.
Most of the colonists considered themselves English. Even the rebels justified rebellion on the ground that they were defending true English liberty that had been usurped by the king. The Declaration of Independence is a catalogue of breaches of what the colonials considered to be their rights as Englishmen.
Those in Britain who were sympathetic to the Americans’ cause had no doubt that the 13 colonies were English creations in spirit as well as blood. In 1775 in the House of Commons, Edmund Burke urged the British government to accept the colonists’ demands because they were based on Englishness:
. . . the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen . . . . They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. The people are Protestants . . . a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it . . . . My hold of the colonies is in the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges, and equal protection. These are ties which, though light as air, are as strong as links of iron. . . . As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you.
American history is soaked in Englishness. The prime political texts of the Revolution were written by the Englishmen John Locke and Tom Paine. The Revolution was fought by men whose thinking was rooted in the English political tradition. American law is founded on English common law.
The American Constitution was designed to correct faults in the British system, not to overthrow it. The Bill of Rights draws inspiration from the English Bill of Rights granted by William of Orange. The American government is a republican copy of the 18th century British system: The President is the equivalent of the King, while the Senate and House of Representatives are equivalents of the Houses of Lords and Commons. It is ironic that the American system has retained something of monarchical and aristocratic principles while that of Britain has remorselessly removed power from King and aristocracy and put it in the hands of the House of Commons, whose members have no formal mandate beyond the representation of their constituents.
English influence is written deeply onto the American landscape. Take a map of the States and see how many place-names are English, even outside the original 13 colonies. The states are divided into counties except for Louisiana, which is made up of parishes, and Alaska, which has boroughs. All of these are English political units. The most iconic American law officer is the sheriff—an English office that derives from “shire reeve.”
American history up until the late 19th century is largely the history of men with English names. Judging only from the names of its most prominent combatants, the American Civil War could have been fought in England. For all these reasons, when the English have emigrated to America over the centuries they have not come to a land they felt was alien or brought with them a sense of victimhood.
To some, the early English predominance may not seem important because of heavy non-Anglo-Saxon immigration from the 18th century onwards. Would not the later immigration swamp the earlier simply because of its scale? The answer is no, because the numbers of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants were always small compared to the existing population, and the general culture strongly reflected that of the original English.
Immigrants generally adopt at least some of the social and cultural coloring of the native population. Where there is no racial barrier to assimilation and no strong ethnic/religious identity like that of the Jews, assimilation is often complete within two or three generations.
It is worth noting that the English are not the only missing hyphenated Americans. There are no Canadian-, Australian-, or New Zealand-Americans. This is probably because they are from societies that derive from England, too; there is very little besides accent to distinguish them from the mainstream, and even that is gone in a generation. (In Maine, there are French Canadians with a distinct identity that has been held together by language.)
This raises the question of why the non-English Britons—most notably the Scots and the Irish—have self-consciously maintained their hyphenated status. It is probably because they felt themselves to be peoples who were subject to England and who bore a grudge against England. It is worth adding that Americans who call themselves Scots-American or Irish-American today are indistinguishable from American-Americans in everything except for a sentimental attachment to their Celtic ancestry and a residual polishing of an historical victimhood.
The English are a significant demographic group to this day. The 1980 census showed that 26.34 percent of the white American population reported English ancestry (49,598,035). German heritage was just behind at 26.14 percent, followed by Irish (21.33 percent), French (6.85 percent), Italian (6.47 percent), and Scottish (4.34 percent). How many readers would have known that French heritage was more common than Italian or Scottish?
The census no longer collects official information on the European ancestry of whites. It is too busy classifying Hispanics as Nicaraguans, Dominicans, Colombians, etc. However, the Census Bureau does conduct something called a Community Survey, that is supposed to gather this information, and for 2008 we find something very surprising: The number of Americans claiming English heritage (9.0 percent of the total population) has fallen well behind those claiming to be German (16.5 percent) and Irish (11.9 percent).
What is going on? Millions of English-descended people cannot have suddenly vanished. Nor have there been millions of German and Irish immigrants in the last 30 years. There are several possible explanations. First, because they are of the founding culture, those with English ancestry simply think of themselves as Americans. And, indeed, according to the 2008 Community Survey, we find that 5.9 percent of the population simply considered itself “American,” a category that was not tabulated in the 1980 census. Many of those “Americans” are probably of English heritage.
Second, since the English are the oldest group, their European ancestry is more distant than that of other ethnic groups. Children whose parents came from England 10 generations ago are not going to grow up hearing much about the Old Country. At the same time, any sense of English ancestry probably diminishes when an American of English descent marries someone from a more recently arrived ethnic group. A child who has one parent who is a 10th-generation English-American and another who is a second-generation Italian-American is likely to hear more about Italy than England in the home.
There is also the temptation in an age of ethnic politics for people to claim an ancestry that they think most advantageous. The English in America do not make a fuss about being English, while other groups do, and people are drawn to groups that seek attention. An interesting example of this is the number of American presidents who claim Irish ancestry, not matter how tenuous.
There is also the pressure of political correctness that casts WASPs (into which category almost all English-Americans would fall) as an abusive, exploitative group. That may discourage some from identifying as English.
American surnames continue to show a strong American connection to England. In 2000, the US Census Bureau reported that the top ten most common names were, in order,
Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriguez, and Wilson. Eight of these are British.
Above all other cultural influences stands the English language. Bismarck thought that the fact that America spoke English was the most significant political fact of his time. At a more fundamental level, the fact that most Americans speak English as their first language—at least for now—means that their thought processes will be broadly similar to that of the English. Language is the ultimate colonization of a people.
Moreover, the English spoken by the majority of Americans is still very much the English of their forebears. It is, for example, far less mutated than the English spoken in India or Nigeria. Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that “America and England are two countries divided by a common language” was witty but at variance with reality.
There is a special relationship between England and America but it is not the one politicians prate about. It is a relationship rooted in history and culture. American culture is an evolved Englishness. Much has been added superficially, but it is still remarkably and recognizably English. The expression “English-American” would therefore be tautological.
Let us imagine a United States in which every citizen was hyphenated, one in which no group was without of a sense of victimhood. All that would be left was racial and ethnic competition. There would be no stability or sense of social cohesion. The English-descended and English-assimilated part of the population that sees itself as simply American is the ballast that holds their society upright. It is the group with no grievances, with no ethnic axe to grind, and that endlessly submits to discrimination and dispossession. That will eventually change, as whites see their most basic interests threatened, but it is the forbearance of American-Americans that allows the United States to continue to function.
What would happen if English culture is ever eclipsed or overwhelmed? First, the most characteristic American values, such as the rule of law and personal liberty, would be unlikely to survive. The lands from which most immigrants are coming do not distinguish themselves in that respect. Second, given the immense diversity of immigration, no new race or culture would be likely to dominate. American society could fracture for the reasons John Stuart Mill identified long ago in On Liberty:
Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist. The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country. An altogether different set of leaders have the confidence of one part of the country and of another. The same books, newspapers, pamphlets, speeches, do not reach them. One section does not know what opinions, or what instigations, are circulating in another. The same incidents, the same acts, the same system of government, affect them in different ways; and each fears more injury to itself from the other nationalities than from the common arbiter, the state.
Their mutual antipathies are generally much stronger than jealousy of the government. That any one of them feels aggrieved by the policy of the common ruler is sufficient to determine another to support that policy. Even if all are aggrieved, none feel that they can rely on the others for fidelity in a joint resistance; the strength of none is sufficient to resist alone, and each may reasonably think that it consults its own advantage most by bidding for the favour of the government against the rest. [John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, 1861, “Considerations on Representative Government,” Chapter 16: Of Nationality, As Connected with Representative Government.]
The eventual political shape of any multi-racial state is likely to be some form of authoritarianism, even if the forms of representative democracy are retained—just as the form but not the substance of the Senate was retained under the Roman Empire. Such a state will always be unstable, for while nations last indefinitely, empires always fall.
Unhyphenated Americans, whether of English descent or not, must defend the way of life that starts with English roots. They should reflect on how American society was created and by whom, and consider what it would mean if the customs and institutions of its founding culture are thrown over.
Hegel noted that changes in quantity can lead to changes in quality, and this principle can be readily applied to human societies. If immigrants radically different in race or culture come into a homogeneous society they will have little effect at first because their numbers are small. But as their numbers increase there will come a point where there are enough immigrants and their descendants to overthrow the native culture. Quantity will have forced a qualitative change. That is the very real danger the United States faces.