The mantra “We are a nation of immigrants” is repeated endlessly, but this incantation is essentially misleading. The addition of one adjective, “assimilated,” as in, “We are a nation of assimilated immigrants,” would greatly clarify our understanding of American identity. The question then becomes, Assimilated to what? Samuel Huntington argued (correctly) that immigrants have, for the most part, assimilated into the culture, language, and institutions formed by the original settlers who emigrated from the British Isles. Thus, we are a nation of settlers and assimilated immigrants. Two new optimistic books from Encounter grapple with this issue of American identity.
In a long bibliographical essay, the authors of America 3.0 explain that their book is the product of ten years of research into the cultural foundation of America. Building upon co-author James Bennett’s previous work on the Anglosphere, this new book is buttressed by scholarship in archaeology, anthropology, and historical analysis, particularly the work of French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd, English anthropologist-historian Alan Macfarlane, and English historian James Campbell, the foremost modern expert on the Saxons.
“Our American culture today,” Bennett and his co-author, Michael J. Lotus, tell us, “is part of a living and evolving organism, spanning centuries.” At the center of that culture is the American nuclear family. In the American nuclear family (as opposed to the traditional extended family), individuals are free to select their own spouses; grown children leave their parents’ homes and form new households; women enjoy a high degree of freedom compared with those in other cultures; children have no legal right to demand any inheritance from their parents; parents have no legal right to demand support from their adult children; and people have no right to expect help from their relatives.
The consequences of the American type of nuclear family, according to Bennett and Lotus, are that Americans are more individualistic, entrepreneurial, and mobile than other peoples. Suburbia is a major consequence, as American nuclear families prefer dispersed single-family homes over dense urban arrangements. Despite what they admit are “chaotic” changes in American family life, Bennett and Lotus do not “anticipate a basic change in cultural attitudes” that are “shaped by upbringing, language, institutions, and unconscious patterns of behavior that take centuries to form.”
Applying their anthropological-historical analysis, the authors note that the nuclear family emerged among the English. Bennett and Lotus state explicitly that the English family type became the American-style nuclear family, and this “underlying Anglo-American family type was the foundation for all the institutions, laws, and cultural practices that gave rise to our freedom and prosperity over the centuries.”
America 3.0 contains two well-researched chapters on the history of family structures and related cultural institutions among the English and among the earlier Germanic tribes (the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) that formed the cultural basis of the English nation. Thomas Jefferson, among others, heralded the Saxon roots of American liberties. But examinations of the Anglo-Saxon inheritance in American institutions became absorbed in 19th- and 20th-century racialist theories, which were totally (and rightly) discredited. Bennett and Lotus and the modern scholars they cite make it clear that when discussing “Saxon roots,” they are talking about culture, thoroughly distinct from race or ethnicity.
The bulk of America 3.0 is focused on the future. America 1.0 started during the colonial period, took off during the Founding era, and began to fade away in the middle of the 19th century. It was a period of individual- and family-scale farms and businesses. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were products of this era, which has “never lost its grip on the American imagination.”
The years between 1860 and 1920 proved to be a transition period between America 1.0 and America 2.0. Americans developed a new system of “big units,” large corporations, big cities, and eventually bigger government and labor unions. By the New Deal, America 2.0 was firmly in place. Its heyday came in World War II and the two decades following the war. Bennett and Lotus tell us that America 2.0 was “great in its day. But it is over.” The government sector of America 2.0 — the “Blue Model” or “Welfare State” — is failing. We do not know when America 2.0 will end (parts of it will survive, just as parts of America 1.0 have survived), but we are now in a period of transition between America 2.0 and America 3.0.