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Two Concepts of Un-Americanism



Using the Congressional record, press articles and the extensive literature on the theme of Americanism published in the early decades of the twentieth century, this article seeks to offer a new approach to the history of the idea of “un-Americanism” in the early years of the twentieth century, particularly in the period between the First World War and the Great Depression. It argues that a key distinction may be drawn between a procedural or “negative” concept of un-Americanism, in which the enemy is defined as the person who refuses to accept the liberal political order and therefore exempts themselves from the privileges of citizenship, and a “positive” definition of un-Americanism based on identity and status politics, in which the un-American is seen as the person who fails to meet the criteria for membership in the mythic community from which the modern nation is assumed to have been founded – usually defined in racial, ethnic and gendered terms; through religious affiliation; or by assertions of culture and character. The history of un-Americanism should therefore be understood principally in terms of the contestations that developed between these two concepts rather than as the evolution of a singular concept and shared understanding of its meaning.



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1 Nathan, George Jean and Mencken, H. L., The American Credo: A Contribution toward the Interpretation of the National Mind (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), 1415.

2 Ibid., 29, 37.

3 Ibid., 16–17.

4 Pells, Richard, Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 25.

5 Hofstadter, Richard, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1965).

6 Murray, Robert K., The Great Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955); Bell, Daniel, The Radical Right (Garden City: Doubleday, 1963); Lipset, Seymour Martin and Raab, Earl, The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790–1970 (New York: Harper and Row, 1970); Levin, Murray B., Political Hysteria in America: The Democratic Capacity for Repression (New York: Basic Books, 1971); Rogin, Michael Paul, Ronald Reagan, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Kovel, Joel, Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of America (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

7 Coben, Stanley, “A Study in Nativism: The American Red Scare of 1919–1920,” Political Science Quarterly, 79, 1 (March 1964), 5275, 59.

8 Levin, 6.

9 Brinkley, Alan, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” American Historical Review, 99, 2 (April 1994), 409–29, 415.

10 Gerstle, Gary, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Divided Character of American Nationalism,” Journal of American History, 86, 3 (Dec. 1999), 12801307.

11 See, for example, Pike, Frederick B., The United States and Latin America: Myths and Stereotypes of Civilization and Nature (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), chapter 5; Kramer, Paul A., “Empires, Exceptions, and Anglo-Saxons: Race and Rule Between the British and United States Empires, 1880–1910,” Journal of American History, 88, 4 (March 2002), 1315–53; Blum, Edward J., Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion and American Nationalism, 1865–1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005); Harris, Susan K., God's Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898–1902 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Ninkovich, Frank, The United States and Imperialism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).

12 Jacobsen, Matthew Frye, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 57. Cf. Preston, William Jr., Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903–1933 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963).

13 O'Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth, To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 221.

14 Hall, Arnold Bennett, Dynamic Americanism (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1920), 14.

15 Stuart, Leonard, The Age of Understanding; or, Americanism, the Standard of World Nationalism (Boston: Gorham Press, 1922).

16 Roosevelt, Theodore Jr., Average Americans (New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1920), 251.

17 Cited in Hendrickson, David C., Union, Nation or Empire? The American Debate over International Relations, 1789–1941 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 263–64.

18 Barstow, George Eames, The Effect of Psychology on Americanism (New York: Literary Digest, 1920), 4, original emphasis.

19 Wise Wood, Henry A., “Preface,” in Hobbs, William Herbert, Leonard Wood: Administrator, Soldier, and Citizen (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920), 813.

20 Barstow, 13, 16–17, 20.

21 National Americanism Commission, Ism's: A Review of Revolutionary Communism and Its Active Sympathizers in the United States (Indianapolis: American Legion, 1936).

22 Hill, David Jayne, Americanism: What Is It? (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1916), 9.

23 Ibid., 91.

24 “Senators Riddle Espionage Bill,” New York Times, 19 Apr. 1917.

25 Cf. Ricento, Thomas, “The Discursive Construction of Americanism,” Discourse and Society, 14, 5 (2003), 611–37.

26 Steele, Brian, “Thomas Jefferson's Gender Frontier,” Journal of American History, 95, 1 (June 2008), 1742; Furstenberg, François, “Beyond Freedom and Slavery: Autonomy, Virtue, and Resistance in Early American Political Discourse,” Journal of American History, 89, 4 (March 2003), 12951330.

27 Smith, Rogers M., Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U. S. History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 2.

28 Wiebe, Robert H., The Search for Order: 1877–1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 77.

29 Marsden, George M., Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982); Szasz, Ferenc Morton, The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880–1930 (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1982); Carpenter, Joel A., Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

30 Ward, Robert D., “The Origin and Activities of the National Security League, 1914–1919,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 47, 1 (June 1960), 5165; Pearlman, Michael, To Make Democracy Safe for America: Patricians and Preparedness in the Progressive Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984); Shesol, Jeff, Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court (New York: Norton, 2010), 108–9.

31 Stephanson, Anders, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), 99.

32 Woodrow Wilson, State of the Union Address, 7 Dec. 1915.

33 Spargo, John, Americanism and Social Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1918), 10, 29.

34 Hanson, Ole, Americanism versus Bolshevism (New York: Doubleday, 1920), viii.

35 Speech by Ellison DuRant Smith, 9 April 1924, Congressional Record, 68th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1924), Vol. 65, 5962. Accessed via

36 Wood, in Hobbs, Leonard Wood, 8.

37 “Where the Shoe Pinches,” Chicago Defender, 5 Sept. 1914.

38 “A Dangerous Habit,” Chicago Defender, 22 June 1918.

39 See, for instance, testimony of Louis Marshall before House Immigration Committee as reported in “Opposed Immigration Cut,” New York Times, 4 Jan. 1924.

40 Post, Louis F., The Ethics of Democracy (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1916; 1st edn 1903), 323, 325.

41 “Charges of Illegal Practices of the Department of Justice,” Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, January–March 1921 (Washington: USGPO, 1921), 6.

42 Ibid., 195.

43 Nathan and Mencken, American Credo, 78.

Two Concepts of Un-Americanism



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