What’s in a Label?

America is a nation with a border, and a culture, strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions. From a draft of the proposed America First Caucus Policy Platform.

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Organizers are apparently scrapping plans to launch an America First caucus in the House of Representatives. Blowback from all sides of the political spectrum apparently frustrated even such a dedicated xenophobe as Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. A spokesperson said Greene has “no plans to launch anything,” though her office had said last Friday that she would launch the caucus “very soon.”

According to Greene, the manifesto announcing the caucus — the one cited above with its nod to “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions” — was “a staff level draft proposal” she had not read. Greene, who does not have a history of bowing to public pressure, used a lengthy Twitter thread to attack the media for releasing the “draft” proposal, but she did not disavow the thrust of its contents. “I believe in America First with all my heart…. I will never back down and I will never stop fighting for America First,” she tweeted, adding, “I have plans to drive President Trump’s America First agenda with my Congressional colleagues but we won’t let the media or anyone else push the narrative.”

I will let others sort out where exactly the draft of the proposed platform fits in the plans to establish an America First caucus. But, that such a loaded racist term as “Anglo-Saxon political traditions” should make it into even a draft in the 21st century is revelatory. “Anglo-Saxon” was a term of art — along with “Nordic” and “Teutonic” — used by xenophobes in the late 19th and early part of the 20th centuries to push immigration restriction laws that favored immigrants from northern and western Europe over those from southern and eastern Europe (and elsewhere in the world). Madison Grant, one of the leading apostles of immigration restriction who was much admired by Adolf Hitler, wrote in “The Passing of the Great Race,” “The settlers in the thirteen Colonies were not only purely Nordic, but also purely Teutonic, a very large majority being Anglo-Saxon in the most limited meaning of that term. The New England settlers in particular came from those counties of England where the blood was almost purely Saxon, Anglian, and Dane.”

Because “Anglo-Saxon” is such a limiting term, xenophobes who pushed immigration restriction usually referred to people of “Nordic” or “Teutonic” origin in an effort to limit new immigrants to those from England, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. Still, “Anglo-Saxon” remains a loaded term, conveying by its use a sense of place, time, and culture. Anglo-Saxon historically refers fo Germanic peoples who, from the 5th century CE to the time of the Norman Conquest, invaded, inhabited, and ruled territories that today are parts of England and Wales. According to St. Bede the Venerable, a 7th-century theologian and chronologist, the Anglo-Saxons descended from three different Germanic peoples — Angles (who gave their name to England), Saxons, and, Jutes, all of whom migrated to the British Isles to assist the native Britons defend their kingdom from marauding Picts and Scotti from what is now Scotland.

Historians ascribe the use of the label “Anglo-Saxons” as the origin of all things English to the Reformation in the 16th century. Following the break with Rome and the Catholic Church, English Protestants sought a term on which they could hang the origin of what is now known as the Church of England. The answer was found in the church that existed in the British Isles before the Norman Conquest of 1066, a church, the English argued, that was older and purer than the Catholic Church of the early modern era.

In its origins, “Anglo-Saxon” lacked racial overtones. But, over the course of the following centuries, its use and meaning changed. As the English conquered a world-wide empire, “Anglo-Saxon” became a term of reference to the “superior” English stock ruling over “inferior” native peoples. By the middle of the 19th century, “Anglo-Saxon” had been transformed into a racist justification for English imperialism.

In America, the alleged superiority of Anglo-Saxons became the justification for Manifest Destiny, the mid-19th century notion that White Americans — mostly still descended from the original settlers of the British colonies — were destined by Providence to rule an empire from sea to sea. The United States — so it was claimed — had an historic destiny to spread democracy and alleged Anglo-Saxon virtues across the continent while subjugating and removing Native Americans who stood in their path. 

“Anglo-Saxon” has stayed in the mainstream ever since, popularized in the two middle letters of the WASP acronym. The term was used by such terrorist organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, which defined its mission as the protection of Anglo-Saxon White supremacy. It was part of the creed of an “Anglo-Saxon Club” in Virginia in 1925: “I believe in the supremacy of the white race in the United States.” Fifty years earlier, the Louisville Courier-Journal referred to Reconstruction as a “scheme of upturning society and placing the bottom on top: an effort to legislate the African into an Anglo-Saxon.”

Most ethnic and national identifiers are just that — identifiers of members of a particular group. “Anglo-Saxon” in its origins refers to the early settlers of England, and in that sense has no pejorative meaning. Yet, over time, a term of identification morphed into a synonym and dog-whistle for White supremacy and the supposed superiority of a particular subgroup of Whites. Its use in the 21st century by Representative Greene and her fellow xenophobes in Congress is truly appalling and shocking. She may have backpedalled under withering criticism from even fellow Republicans, but once again we have some Republicans on the far right who are willing to say the quiet parts out loud.

Posted April 20, 2021

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