Blowing out the fire under the melting pot

In these two chapters from the concluding section of his book Amerikas Schicksalsstunde Ross pronounces the melting pot a failure. Its original aim to assimilate peoples from dissimilar backgrounds, whether involuntary or voluntary immigrants, in the image of the Nordic majority has been counteracted by an emphasis, in education, leisure, and commerce, on national origins.1

Ross’s verdict of the melting pot is rooted in racialist considerations. Featured prominently are the abolition of slavery in 1865, which changed African Americans from commodities into citizens, and mass immigration from Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and other southern and eastern European countries and regions of the late 19th and early 20th-centuries (which Ross, incidentally, only saw as an emigration ‘pull’, viz. the need for cheap labor in the northern industries to replace the void created by the Civil War, while ignoring ‘push’ factors in Europe such as poverty and persecution). It is these events, he claims, that broke up the cohesion of America’s founding stock of British, Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants and threatened their numerical majority. Moreover, what he calls the sentimental humanitarian tendencies that came in the wake of the abolitionist movement suppressed “natural” feelings of race—which Ross here largely sees in terms of nationality.

Such reasoning is vintage Ross. Besides the appeal to feelings, in order to smooth his argument he belittles the antagonism of Irish vis-a-vis British; he juggles with numbers by stating, for instance, the increase in immigration in absolute numbers without mentioning to what extent its proportion of the entire American population increase equalled or exceeded that of the Nordic population2; nor does he mention—or is aware of—circular (or seasonal) Mexican migration or of those immigrants, notably Italians, who voluntarily returned for good.3 And, as usual—and unsurprisingly in popular nonfiction—Ross doesn’t mention his sources, if any. Had he consulted statistics based on the then last decennial US Census of 1930, he would have had to report that immigration from some of the abovementioned non-Nordic and other countries had dropped markedly.4 This was the result of legislation introduced in the 1920s: the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and  the even stricter 1924 Immigration (or National Origins) Act.5-6 And although at one point Ross does mention these restrictive measures, he presents them as consequences of the Great Depression rather than of the nativist perception of a threatened white America. His claim, moreover, that the anti-immigration Know Nothing Party stipulatated that only those were considered American who had two sets of American-born grandparents rather resembled Aryan laws in Nazi Germany; in reality such stipulations differed from state to state.7 Finally, it points up Ross’s strategy as an audience pleaser: while German-speaking immigrants are presented as part of the “founding stock”, in his next book, Unser Amerika (1936), they are pitted against Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent as secondary citizens, victims of a mythical and political struggle of dominance.

A similar sort of reasoning characterizes the second referenced chapter. There, Ross is surprised to find that immigrant children are being taught about their country of origin and its language. At the same time all sorts of ethnic businesses and religious and cultural associations seem to have sprung up, blowing out the fire under the melting pot. Before wondering why Ross, as a self-proclaimed astute student of America, failed to notice this, one would do well to realize that his surprise is actually suspect, as such initiatives have always been part and parcel of immigration. They provided a cushion for new arrivals and preserved, albeit often temporarily, “localized attachments”. In fact, a year later in Unser Amerika, he uses this ethnic argument as a building block for his future vision of German Americans. Moreover, Ross surely was well-acquainted with the rich culture of associations, clubs, newspapers, etc. that German Americans in particular boasted—a culture only suppressed with America’s entry into World War I, in April 1917. It was a persecution that remained stuck in the same categorical thinking as Ross’s, making no distinction between citizens and non-citizens and considering German Americans as one, coherent section of the population.8

Nico de Klerk

Colin Ross. Der versagende Schmelztiegel. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 280-285.

Colin, Ross. Die Wiedergeburt des Nationalgefühls. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 285-288.

Topic: Race
Case: American journeys


1 “Nordic” is here meant in its contemporary sense of a European race living in the countries around the Baltic and North Seas. This conception became popular in the 1910s with eugenicist Madison Grant’s 1916 book The passing of the great race; or, The racial basis of European history.

2 Although the steep rise in immigration since 1832 kept the same pace as the (white) population’s increase, maintaining a stable share of one-sixth for at least a decade, the absolute increase of immigration, including a larger number of impoverished people, was met with concern. The numbers obtained from the US Census, which, significantly, introduced the distinction between native and foreign-born in 1850, contributed to nativist fears: in 1850, foreign-borns accounted for 11.5% of the population, 15% in 1860, with strong local and regional differences (e.g. 51% in New York City, a seven-fold increase since the early 1830s; 63% in California). However, immigration was crucial for America’s economic development, particularly its industrial transformation (as Ross did acknowledge elsewhere), as there simply were not enough surplus rural, low-wage workers to supply the labor force for factories and the construction of railroads, ships, canals, etc. In fact, such companies did much of their recruitment in Europe. No wonder that industry resisted the nativist movement—which added to the latter's ammunition the undermining effect on native skilled workers of an emergent, foreign-born proletariat. As immigrants were increasingly different from America’s “founding stock”, these objections were coupled with racial and ideological considerations and prejudices—e.g. against the Irish, against Catholics, against the destitute—, which effectively transformed nativism into an institutionalized issue along societal, ideological, and political lines. As well in the 1850s the policy of selling land or homesteads cheaply to immigrants came under nativist attack. See Aristide Zolberg. A nation by design: immigration policy in the fashioning of America. New York – Cambridge, MA - London: Russell Sage Foundation – Harvard University Press; 2006; 128-153.

3 Roger Daniels. Not like us: immigrants and minorities in America, 1890-1924. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee; 1997; 119, 68, respectively. Daniels writes, for instance, that between 1871 and 1971 an estimated 26 million Italians emigrated to the US while 13 million returned.

4 Statistical abstract of the United States 1932. Fifty-fourth number. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce – Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce; 1932; table 19, p. 21, The Statistical abstract of 1931 did not yet include the data of the 1930 Census.

5 An Act to limit the immigration of aliens into the United States, May 19, 1921. In: The statutes at large of the United States of America from April, 1921, to March, 1923. Washington, D.C.: Congress under the direction of the Secretary of State; 1923; 5-7,

6 An act to limit the immigration of aliens into the United States and for other  purposes, May 26, 1924. In: The statutes at large of the United States States of America from December, 1923, to March, 1925. Washington, D.C.: Congress under the direction of the Secretary of State; 1925; 153-169,

7 Tyler Anbinder. Nativism and slavery: the northern Know Nothings and the politics of the 1850s. New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1992; 8.

8 Colin Ross. Das deutsch-amerikanische Versailles. In: Unser Amerika. Der deutsche Anteil an den Vereinigten Staaten. 1. Aufl.  Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1936; 257-263. See Library.

Scroll to page top