Arthur Schlesinger’s The Disuniting of America
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...