Redefining the "melting pot": American presidents and the immigrant, 1897--1933

Date of Completion

January 2001


History, United States|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




Between 1897–1933, the presidents helped to redefine the concept of the United States as a “melting pot.” This historic concept envisioned the creation of a new American “race” out of European immigrants who shared liberal political and economic ideals and swore allegiance to the host country. While nativists regarded “new” immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as incapable of assimilating with “Anglo-Saxon” Americans, progressive social reformers revised the “melting pot” concept and celebrated immigrant contributions to America. Reformers also emphasized the need to improve immigrant life through education, resettlement and economic uplift. This dissertation uses the papers of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover to examine their redefinition of the “melting pot.” ^ McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson upheld the progressive model, although supporting the exclusion of radical aliens and those with mental or physical defects. But they rejected nativist racism and repeatedly praised the “new” immigrants for contributing cultural “gifts” to a new, unified American nationality. Roosevelt called for restriction based on class rather than race, arguing that each man had to be judged by his moral character. Taft and Wilson vetoed the Immigration Commission's literacy test because it judged opportunity rather than character. All three supported redistributing and educating immigrants, as well as setting industrial standards. ^ World War I raised fears of disloyal aliens that Roosevelt and Wilson heightened by denouncing “hyphenated Americans.” The alleged disloyalty of German and Irish Americans and the Red Scare of 1919–1920 created demands for “One Hundred Percent Americanism.” The presidents continued to use “melting pot” rhetoric, however, rather than endorsing such coercive assimilation. ^ Harding, Coolidge and Hoover endorsed the racist “national origins” quotas of the 1920s. Nevertheless, they upheld the “melting pot” concept, while arguing that restriction improved immigrant living standards. During the Great Depression, Hoover declared the end of asylum and excluded most immigrants as “likely to become a public charge.” The progressive “melting pot” legacy was passed on to Franklin Roosevelt, however, who used it to create the New Deal ethnic coalition and fight World War II. ^