The motto of the United States, E pluribus unum, means "out of many, one." From the beginning, many different peoples have come to the United States, and most of them quickly acculturated into American society. As early as 1790 the first census of the new nation revealed that in Virginia, the most "English" of states, three out of ten people were of German origin. On the American landscape numerous ethnic groups could be counted, and a name such as O'Brien was as common in Boston as in Dublin. Words, foods and customs from other countries all found their way into the American culture, enriching it over the centuries. Oscar Handlin, the noted historian, began his classic study of immigration, The Uprooted (1951), with the following observation: "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history."

Not all immigrants came willingly, and descendants of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World in chains have just recently begun to demand full acceptance into society. Moreover, the old notion that immigrants and their children had to shed their "alien" customs to become "real" Americans has recently given way to ethnic pride and the idea that both the society and the ethnic group are enriched through pride in origin and some retention of the "old ways."

But the process of inclusion has not always been smooth. Throughout American history there were periods of intense nativism, in which those whose families had been in the United States three or four generations attempted to keep out newcomers, or the majority Protestants discriminated against Catholics and Jews, or Anglo-Saxons kept Orientals in an inferior position. The gates of America, which had been wide open in the nineteenth century, began to close early in the twentieth, although in the last few decades a more liberal policy of accepting those fleeing persecution or seeking new opportunity has been established.

Inclusion, however, applies not only to immigrants. As American society has become more open and democratic, groups that traditionally had been assigned an inferior place in society began demanding equal rights and full acceptance. Women, gays and lesbians, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans and others called for an expansion of the democratic ideal to include them as well. "Multiculturalism" has become an important and hotly debated concept in modern America, with its advocates demanding that all sources of culture be given credit for their contributions, not just those that derived from western Europe.

At times these debates have been shrill, even ugly, but they have contributed to the democratic nature of American society. They are also uniquely American, because no other nation on Earth has prided itself as the United States has on its ethnic and cultural diversity.

  1. Bradwell v. Illinois (1873)
  2. Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus" (1883)
  3. Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886)
  4. Korematsu v. United States (1944)
  5. John F. Kennedy, Address to Southern Baptist Leaders (1960)
  6. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
  7. Reynolds v. Sims (1964)
  8. NOW Statement of Purpose (1966)
  9. Clyde Warrior, "We Are Not Free" (1967)
  10. Maya Angelou, "On the Pulse of Morning" (1993)

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