The book The Disuniting of America, by Arthur Schlesinger, is now more than twenty-five years old. While in some respects the book shows its age, it’s message is even more relevant today than when the book was written.
In the book, the late historian Arthur Schlesinger asks what is it that holds a diverse nation together, and why doing so is important. His answer is acculturation and integration–and he advocates for the continuation of one of America’s founding principles, “E Pluribus Unum.”
I. E Pluribus Unum as a Foundational American Principle
Trying to advocate for “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of Many, One”) is no easy task in America today.  By the time you read this, many people–from ages twenty to seventy; of half a dozen different religions; of wide political affiliations, races, and socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds; and from places in America as different as New York and Alabama–will have been kind enough to have read and commented on this piece. I know the subject matter is dynamite. Therefore, I have asked these people to read and comment before posting this entry to help minimize offense and maximize constructive discussion. I hope if you are reading this now that you will do so in the spirit in which it is written–to make E Pluribus Unum more real for more people in America than ever before–not to subsume anyone’s identities in anyone else’s, but to create an inclusive nation of opportunity for all, that is accepting and respectful of our differences.
At the moment, however, America is moving in the opposite direction, with more people on both sides of the political aisle questioning the worth of loyalty to common values and ideals, and questioning whether America possesses a culture of inclusion and belonging. Yet, the majority of us still recognize that we are all in this together.
“E Pluribus Unum” is Latin for “Out of Many, One”. It is one of the nation’s founding mottos. It appears on the Great Seal of the United States, adopted by Congress in 1782. While originally referring to the formation of one nation out of thirteen colonies, it has long been identified with the creation of one common people who share certain fundamental values out of peoples who have arrived here from every corner of the planet.
At the outset, we need to clarify certain notions about E Pluribus Unum so as to make it easier to find common ground for discussion.
• The concept of E Pluribus Unum was a foundational principle of the United States, unique in the world as a political philosophy at the time of America’s founding and still quite distinctive.
• From the beginning, it represented an ideal that America “talked more than it walked” as to a large portion of America’s population.
• From colonial times to recent times, some of America’s greatest minds have doubted that certain groups could ever be part of the “one.” But from colonial times until today, people adhering to such pessimistic beliefs have generally been proven wrong.
• As flawed as the concept has been in execution, America has continuously and–though sometimes taking two steps forward and one step back–successfully widened the groups of Americans to whom this foundational principle applies.
Schlesinger begins his book by acknowledging the global forces driving people apart. “The world market, electronic technologies, instantaneous communications, e-mail, CNN–all undermine the nation-state…The more people feel themselves adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea, the more desperately they swim toward any familiar, intelligible, protective life-raft; the more they crave a politics of identity. Integration and disintegration thus are opposites that feed on one another. The more the world integrates, the more people cling to their own in groups increasingly defined in these post-ideological days by ethnic and religious loyalties.”
He then asks “What happens when people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographical locality and live under the same political sovereignty? Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal antagonisms will drive them apart. In the century darkly ahead, civilization faces a critical question: What is it that holds a nation together?”
Schlesinger states that at least until recently, the United States has been the place that has most succeeded in making a federal, multi-ethnic state work. (Interestingly, when Schlesinger wrote this book, Canada–today a model of making it work–was struggling with its English-French divide to the point where Quebec, the largest province in Canada, was voting from time to time on whether to secede from Canada altogether.)
Schlesinger states “E pluribus unum: one out of many. The United States had a brilliant solution for the inherent fragility, the inherent combustibility, of a multiethnic society: the creation of a brand-new national identity…that absorbs and transcends the diverse ethnicities that come to our shore, ethnicities that enrich and reshape the common culture in the very act of entering into it.”
Schlesinger continues “Our democratic principles contemplate an open society founded on tolerance of differences and on mutual respect. In practice, America has been more open to some than to others. But it is more open to all today than it was yesterday and is likely to be even more open tomorrow than today. The persistent movement of American life has been from exclusion to inclusion.”
II. Talking More Than Walking E Pluribus Unum
Schlesinger also states “For a long time the Anglo-Americans dominated American culture and politics and excluded those who arrived after them.  Anglo-America did not easily assimilate immigrants from Ireland, from Germany, from southern and eastern Europe.” In this regard note that Founding Father Benjamin Franklin doubted that “swarthy Germans”  could become Americans–though they were Northern European Protestants–and that neither Anglo-Americans like Franklin nor those Germans he thought unassimilable regarded Irish as “white”.  The advocates of identity politics today would of course lump Irish and Germans in with other people of European heritage.  Interestingly, Schlesinger points out that W.E.B. Du Bois testified that when he grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the 1870’s, “the racial angle was more clearly defined against the Irish than against me.”
Schlesinger goes on to state “As for the nonwhite peoples–those long in America whom the European newcomers overran and massacred, or those others hauled in against their will from Africa and Asia–deeply bred racism put them all…well outside the pale. We must face the shameful fact: historically America has been a racist nation. White Americans began as a people so arrogant in convictions of racial superiority that they felt licensed to kill…to enslave… [and] to import… for peon labor. We white Americans have been racist in our laws, in our institutions, in our customs, in our conditioned reflexes, in our souls. The curse of racism has been the great failure of the American experiment, the glaring contradiction of American ideals and the still crippling disease of American life–‘the world’s fairest hope,’ wrote Herman Melville, ‘linked with man’s foulest crime.”’
Yet Schlesinger points out, and celebrates, that these marginalized Americans likewise contributed to the formation of the national identity, giving the common culture new form and an altered composition.
When Schlesinger wrote The Disuniting of America a quarter century ago, he lamented the cult of ethnicity that had arisen among non-Anglo ethnic whites (less prevalent today, like Canada’s ethnic divisions, but powerful and growing at the time), and among non-white minorities. These groups denounced the goal of assimilation, challenged the concept of “one people” and sought to protect, promote and perpetuate separate ethnic and racial communities.
III. Widening the Population to Whom the Principle of E Pluribus Unum Applies
“The eruption of ethnicity had many good consequences,” writes Schlesinger. “The American culture began at last to give shamefully overdue recognition to the achievements of minorities subordinated and spurned during the high noon of Anglo dominance. American education began at last to acknowledge the existence and significance of the great swirling world beyond Europe… Of course history should be taught from a variety of perspectives.  Let our children try to image the arrival of Columbus from the viewpoint of those who met him as well as from those who sent him. Living on a shrinking planet, aspiring to global leadership, Americans must learn much more about other races, other cultures, other continents. As they do, they acquire a more complex and invigorating sense of the world–and of themselves.”
But, says Schlesinger, “pressed too far, the cult of ethnicity has had bad consequences too. The new ethnic gospel rejects the unifying vision of individuals from all nations melted into a new race [nationality]. Its underlying philosophy is that America is not a nation of individuals at all but a nation of groups, that ethnicity is the defining experience for Americans, that ethnic ties are permanent and indelible, and that division into ethnic communities establishes the basic structure of American society and the basic meaning of American history…revers[ing] the historic theory of America as one people–the theory that has thus far managed to keep American society whole.”
Schlesinger shows that the belief and aspiration of America as one people has had proud adherents throughout American history. He quotes George Washington, “The bosom of America is open…to the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions…Let them come not in clannish groups but as individuals…assimilated to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people.”
Schlesinger also quotes Alexander Hamilton, who said that the success of the American republic depended upon “the preservation of a national spirit and a national character.”
Schlesinger quotes Abraham Lincoln, who observed “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control [the Know-Nothings were an anti-immigrant party that called for a lengthened naturalization process and the curtailment of the political rights of the foreign-born] it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.
In his November 13, 2017 op-ed piece, “The Siege Mentality Problem,” New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks states, “ln the 1960’s the civil rights leaders suffered injustice and oppression. But they had a basic faith in the foundations of society. They wanted a place at the table.” As my friend Jon Marino points out, “Arguably our greatest leaps have come from oppressed subgroups calling for civic equality, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez and Susan B. Anthony…not calling for multicultural separation.”
Schlesinger also illustrates how E Pluribus Unum has been an example to political leaders and thinkers around the world.
Schlesinger quotes Mahatma Gandhi, “We must cease to be exclusive Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs, Parsis, Christians or Jews. Whilst we may staunchly adhere to our respective faiths, we must be Indians first and Indians last.”
And Schlesinger also quotes Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, “This is the Nigerians’ greatest weakness–their inability to face grave threats as one people instead of as competing religious and ethnic interests.”
Schlesinger argues that public education should aim to strengthen bonds of national cohesion, not to weaken them, and worries that if separatist tendencies go unchecked, the result can only be the fragmentation, resegregation and tribalization of American life. This is not to discount the importance of protecting, strengthening and celebrating ethnic origins and identities.  But it is important to be aware that separatism “nourishes prejudices, magnifies differences and stirs antagonisms.”
Schlesinger states “In a world savagely rent by ethnic and racial antagonisms, it is all the more essential that the United States continue as an example of how a highly differentiated society holds itself together.” Schlesinger lamented the political left having recently embraced an illiberal multiculturalism, in (over)reaction to the often bigoted monoculturalism of the political right. ”The [political] left [of which Schlesinger was a member, often regarded as the leading liberal historian of his era] has no monopoly on political correctness…The right has its own version of political correctness; and, if political correctness becomes the rule, the right can turn out far larger crowds for monoculturalism than the left can for multiculturalism.”
The age of Trump has demonstrated this with a vengeance...
APPENDIX–SHARING STORIES THAT REBUT THE ARGUMENT THAT IDENTITIES ARE IMMUTABLE, OR EVEN WELL UNDERSTOOD
Some personal stories, which I imagine most of us have, help illustrate why identity politics and collective rights are unlikely to successfully serve as an organizing principle for American political life. In contrast to America’s founding creed of respecting each of us as individuals, categories of identity are too fluid–in part because E Pluribus Unum does continually wrap more Americans in its embrace–and also because there is little consensus on what those categories should be.
I share the personal stories below in the hopes that people reading them will post their own [here]. The stories I am looking for–and they are stories I certainly don’t see very often in the media–are stories of both the fluidness of identity and how often even well-meaning people mischaracterize others or conflate identities that are clearly regarded as separate by people who have such identities.
1. Jews. “I’m a Stern.” These were pretty much the first words my Dad’s Mom said to my Mom. Not “hello”, or words introducing herself. My Dad’s family were Jews from Germany. My Mom’s family were Jews from Eastern Europe. While most non-Jews would draw no distinctions based on this difference, Jews of my grandparents’ generation certainly did. Big time. German Jews by and large arrived in America earlier, and they came from German lands where, since the Napoleonic Wars, they had been citizens of the countries where they lived. (In lands Napoleon conquered, he didn’t care what a person’s religion was as long as he or she was loyal to the state.) Many German Jews were successful businesspersons or professionals. Many came to America with some education and money in their pockets.
In contrast, East European Jews were not citizens of the places where they lived, but strangers living there at the whim of the governing authorities (usually a czar or prince). They were by and large peasants (and later factory workers), with little education or money in their pockets when they came to America.
In Chicago during my youth there were city clubs that were exclusively for German Jews, and country clubs in the fancier suburbs too. Today this distinction is mostly lost on young Jews, and on non-Jews of all ages. But ask older American Jews if they remember, and they almost all will. (They will also remember when Jews were subject to quotas at universities and barred from being hired as doctors at leading hospitals, as lawyers at leading law firms, as accountants at leading accounting firms, and at big U.S. corporations in general.)
2. Catholics. When I first started working at the large law firm where I began my career, twenty-four of the twenty-seven young people who started together were either Catholic or Jewish. Those of us who were Jewish tended to view Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, as one group. The young Catholic lawyers, however, did not. And they were right. They pointed out to us that the firm was run by a management committee of five persons, two of whom were Jewish, and none of whom were Catholic. And that the oldest partner practicing in my practice group, a Protestant, had married a Catholic woman about thirty years before, after World War II, and offered to resign from the partnership for having done so. And this was at a firm that was progressive for the time–there was more than one female partner at the firm and an African-American partner too, both of which were unfortunately unusual. 
3. Americans of African Ancestry. When I was growing up in Chicago, no matter how “color blind” a person purported to be (the term itself is problematic today), everyone I knew treated people of African ancestry differently than others. Sometimes it was out of unfamiliarity, sometimes out of fear of saying the wrong thing, but generally it was for less benign reasons. And no distinction was generally drawn between the heritage of different people of African ancestry, as African-Americans, or African immigrants, or immigrants from the Caribbean. People of European heritage were not so treated–their heritage was recognized in a more nuanced way.
Fast forward to my kids’ generation, at least in a town like where they grew up, and things have changed a lot. Not that there isn’t still prejudice–there is, and unfortunately I think there is more now than there was ten years ago, as a certain civility that followed the Civil Rights Movement successes has receded in American life. But for my kids’ generation, at least in certain American communities, the friendships growing up, the civility shown each other, and the recognition of the diversity of people of African heritage, is stunningly different than when I was in school. This is not to suggest that there isn’t a lot of prejudice based simply on skin color–because there is–but that group identities change over time.
Like German Jews and East European Jews in another era being lumped together by non-Jews, or all Catholics by non-Catholics, or Hispanic people as varied as Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Argentines, attempts to lump together people of African ancestry is bound to draw lines in offensive and ineffective ways (as it will with other categories of identity). When President Barack Obama first ran for the Presidency, and shortly after he was elected, there was lots of press about whether he was a true “black” candidate, since he is biracial and has no slave heritage in his ancestry. (His father’s family was from Kenya, not from the American South, and his mother was of European heritage, though interestingly it turned out that President Obama’s mother was likely related to one of the first African slaves in America, a Virginian named John Punch, and President Obama is also a distant cousin of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Harry Truman.) 
As another example of the dangers (and ridiculousness) of conflating all Americans of African (or any other) ancestry, did you know that a higher percentage of American immigrants from Nigeria have advanced university degrees than American immigrants from Asia (who hold advanced degrees in much higher percentages than native-born Americans)?
4. Asians. One last story, though of course this leaves a lot of groups unaccounted for. [Hopefully readers will add their stories to this website here]. For a very long time one of my clients was a large American stock brokerage firm. Among other roles, we supported a lot of their private client professionals with respect to international matters. Twice successful teams, one a New York team of Irish Catholic ancestry, another a Beverly Hills team of predominantly Jewish professionals, asked about our helping them to identify an Indian private client professional to join their teams. When I pointed this out to Americans of South Asian ancestry who I knew, they commented that for these purposes being Indian would be less meaningful than being Bengali, or Gujerati, or Sindi, or of another particular South Asian heritage, and that a team whose clients were mostly in the tech business, or in finance, were most likely dealing with South Asian clients or prospects prodominantly of a particular South Asian heritage. These Americans of South Asian ancestry and other South Asians told me that for such teams to simply hire “an Indian” would more evidence the team’s ignorance than result in a successful attempt to reach the groups they hoped to reach.
America’s success in achieving E Pluribus Unum to date is clearly incomplete. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of Americans don’t aspire to it as an ideal for our country, and are proud of what has been accomplished in that regard to date. If the majority of Americans cease to aspire to it as an ideal for our country, how does America keep from coming apart? 
1 For example, the University of California at Santa Cruz Office of Academic Affairs has published a chart, “Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send.” It is useful and worth reading. However, the inclusion on the chart of the microaggression, “America is a Melting Pot” runs counter to the arguments Schlesinger is making. One of the purposes of this post is to argue that America is and should be a “melting pot”, and that doesn’t mean (and never has in fact) that everyone assimilates to a dominant “Anglo” culture. In fact, the way modern theorists often describe the process of Americans “coming together” is as a mosaic of different acculturating cultures, each with qualities that influence each other. “American identity has always been large–think New England colonists and Southern ones.” See Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to be American, Tamar Jacobs, 2004. This book is a testament to the ability to balance ethnicity and American identity.
Two of the core tenets of liberalism are a respect for people’s individual rights and tolerance. One of the characteristics that most characterizes illiberal government, such as fascism and communism, is their equating social progress with the “progress of the nation, race or class, from the benefits of which those in the wrong nation, race or class are excluded.” See the review of Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea in the bibliography with commentary section of this website. [link] Identity politics, if widely embraced by Americans, runs the serious risk of rewiring the nation’s laws and politics in ways the Steve Bannons of the world would enthusiastically support.
2 But as an example of the fluidity of identity, Schlesinger states, “[F]rom the Adamses in the eighteenth century to the Lodges in the twentieth, [leading American WASP’s–White Anglo-Saxon Protestants] were always among the leading Anglophobes [people who are prejudiced against the English]. After the First World War, patriotic organizations, persuaded that Britain had tricked the United States into the struggle, hunted down [what they viewed as] pro-British propaganda in American textbooks–as 30 years later a new generation of superpatriots hunted down pro-Soviet propaganda.”
3 Benjamin Franklin stated “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
4 See, How The Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev.
5 And not without reason. See, “What Whiteness Means in the Trump Era, Nell Irvin Painter, New York Times, November 13, 2016, “Up to now…a fundamental dimension of white American identity has been individuality…it means being and living and experiencing the world as an individual and not having to think about your race.” Certainly this applies to Americans of German and Irish ancestry today. Just as certainly it does not apply to people of African ancestry in America today.
6 At our local high school, freshman English/history was Western Civilization. Sophomore English/history was (as an elective) Non-Western Civilization. The students read Things Fall Apart, The Joy Luck Club, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Kaffir Boy, Siddhartha and the Ramayana and watched many wonderful movies. At high schools and colleges across America, Western Civilization courses are disappearing (“Hey hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go.”) That is ridiculous, and has led to illiberalism in American government. [link here to Boss and Liberalism] But Non-Western Civilization was one of the two best courses my kids took in high school. Why we abolish Western Civ rather than require Western Civ AND Non-Western civ, or weave it all into a couple of years of world history and literature, is beyond me. See “Do We Still Want the West”, Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2017.
7 Schlesinger states that “more than Irish or Italians or Jews, black Americans, after generations of psychological and cultural evisceration, have every right to seek an affirmative definition of their past. Far more than white ethnics, they perceive themselves to be in a trap of cultural ‘hegemony’ in which they are flooded by white values and demeaning self-images…For blacks the American dream has been pretty much of a nightmare, and, far more than white ethnics, they are driven by a desperate need to vindicate their own identity.”
8 Schlesinger states “Let me make one exception to the general proposition–the case of the American Indians. For they are the inheritors and guardians of unique cultures of which they are sole possessors. If Italian-Americans, for example, lose connection with their ancestral culture, that does not mean the extinction of Italian culture. After all, Italy will still be there. But if Indians lose connection with their cultures, those cultures disappear forever, and humankind is thereby diminished.”
9 On a different note, being from Chicago, I was aware from a young age of how segregated racially Chicago is. But as a teenager on my first trip to Boston I was shocked to learn that the two ethnic groups with perhaps the greatest emnity for each other were both white and Catholic–Italians and Irish.
10 In 2008 there were many articles and opinion pieces written about then Presidential candidate Obama’s identity. Among other things, they evidence the increasing fluidity of how Americans categorize race. See also The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.
11 Appreciating the benefits of assimilation is not limited to Americans on the political right and deceased progressive historians like Schlesinger. The progressive commentator Peter Beinart wrote in “How the Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration“, The Atlantic, July 2017 “Liberals Must [Take] Seriously Americans’ yearning for social cohesion. They must…convince more native-born white Americans that immigrants will not weaken the bonds of national identity. This means dusting off a concept many on the left currently hate: assimilation…it means celebrating America’s diversity less, and it’s unity more…We can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, and talking about, and applauding our sameness.” Schlesinger states “Todd Gitlin [the Progressive American sociologist]…deplores what he calls ‘the twilight of common dreams.'” See also Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown: Houston, TV Episode 2016, and David Brooks’ op-ed piece “America: The Redeemer Nation,” New York Times, November 23, 2017, citing the spectacular Second Inaugural Address of the original Liberal Republican, President Abraham Lincoln. If every house of worship in America read this two-page speech together, it would be an excellent start to binding America back together.