October 13, 2015

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.”

It’s difficult to pigeonhole Teddy Roosevelt.

He was a Republican for most of his political career, including his two terms as President of the United States from 1901 to 1909.

Then, in 1912, he decided the Republican Party had become too cozy with big corporate interests.

So he left the GOP and founded the Progressive Party (nicknamed “the Bull Moose Party” after Roosevelt told reporters he was fit to run for president again and feeling as “strong as a bull moose”).

Some of statements Teddy uttered during his long political career make sound him like a right-wing conservative. Some make him sound like a left-wing liberal.

On October 12, 1915, he gave a controversial speech to the Knights of Columbus in New York City that managed to combine Tea Party-style anti-immigrant rhetoric with comments that FOX News commentators would likely attack as liberal, anti-business and soft on the issue of illegal aliens.

This was the speech that launched the famous and still controversial term “hyphenated American.”

“There is no room in this country,” Roosevelt bellowed, “for hyphenated Americanism…German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans. There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

Those words sound like something Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump might say.

And, many conservatives would certainly applaud the part of the speech in which Roosevelt said immigrants to the United States should be required to learn English.

They might find it harder to embrace other parts of Roosevelt’s “hyphenated Americans” speech.

Like the part when he said:

“Any discrimination against aliens is a wrong, for it tends to put the immigrant at a disadvantage and to cause him to feel bitterness and resentment during the very years when he should be preparing himself for American citizenship. If an immigrant is not fit to become a citizen, he should not be allowed to come here. If he is fit, he should be given all the rights to earn his own livelihood, and to better himself, that any man can have.”

This speech and others that Roosevelt gave on immigration and immigrants continue to generate controversy.

People on both sides of the current debate over “illegal aliens” have used excerpts from his speeches to support their views.

Ironically, there’s an element of truth to both uses of his quotes — because it’s just as difficult to pigeonhole Teddy Roosevelt today as it was when he was alive.

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NOTE TO HISTORY BUFFS: You can read the story the New York Times published on October 13, 1915 about Roosevelt’s “hyphenated Americans” speech by clicking this link.

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