The fuel for the current immigration fire, however, was not lit first at our southern border (or in El Paso), but in the pages of political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 2005 book Who Are We? The Challenges of National Identity. Huntington argued that a tide of Hispanic immigrants threatened to “divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures and two languages.” The tide was an assault, as Huntington termed it, on “Anglo-Protestant culture and the creed that it produced.” The difficulty rests with his claim that there actually is an “Anglo-Protestant culture” to be assaulted. Huntington was an original thinker, but he had a shaky grasp of history. That America is now (or ever was) a nation of Anglo-Protestant values is arguable, but that it is nation of enclaves is not: Baltimore’s Little Italy, Arlington, Virginia’s Little Saigon, San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Orthodox Jews of Crown Heights mirror Huntington’s warning about Hispanics—they have all formed their own “political and linguistic enclaves.”
Is America a nation of Anglo-Protestant values? It might have seemed so for Huntington who, eyeing the Harvard Yard (where he earned his doctorate) in the early 1950s, would have seen few Roman Catholics or Hispanics. That wasn’t true for Sam Houston who, surveying the list of casualties in the war to wrest Texas from the clutches of Santa-Anna, noted the prominence of those who were neither “Anglo” or “Protestant.” The cry of “send them back” if it had been issued at the time, would have meant sending “them” back to Tennessee, or Kentucky, or New York. Houston’s conclusion was that Americans should be defined by their political beliefs and their support for democracy, and not the color of their skin or ethnic background. That belief, as it turns out, is precisely the ground on which the current battle over what America is, and what it should be, is being waged.
Cutting through the complex history of Texas is an enormous undertaking (“I’ve spent my life thinking about this,” historian James Crisp says), but at least there’s been a start. The Texas State Board of Education has had a lively (and contentious) debate on whether the defenders of the Alamo should be described in high school textbooks as “heroes,” Juan Seguin has been rehabilitated as a Texas patriot (a statue honoring him is the centerpiece of Seguin, Texas), many in the state eschew their decision to sign up with the Confederacy (claiming, oddly, their state is more western than southern) and in 2004 Hollywood reissued “The Alamo” as a movie in which Billy Bob Thornton played a more believable Davy Crockett. Scholars give the movie high marks for being historically accurate (or, at least, more accurate than its predecessor), but that accuracy failed to translate into real profits. It was a box office flop. The lesson thus learned might well be axiomatic: Americans can view their history accurately, or they can view it heroically. But it’s rarely both.
Mark Perry is an author of ten books on American history and a foreign-policy analyst. @markperrydc