Theodore Roosevelt's Stance on Immigrants

To Be or Not to Be American? That is the Question

Theodore Roosevelt
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circulating online: A viral quote in which Teddy Roosevelt purportedly says that every immigrant must become "an American, and nothing but an American," forsaking their native language for English and all other flags for the American flag.

  • Description: Viral quote
  • Circulating since: October 2005
  • Status: Authentic, erroneously dated

Example

Email contributed by Alan H., Oct. 29, 2005:

Theodore Roosevelt on Immigrants and being an AMERICAN
Are we "SLOW LEARNERS" or what?
Theodore Roosevelt on Immigrants and being an AMERICAN
"In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."
—Theodore Roosevelt, 1907

Analysis

Theodore Roosevelt did write these words, but not in 1907 while he was President of the United States (his term ran from 1901 to 1909). The passages were culled from a letter Roosevelt wrote to the president of the American Defense Society on January 3, 1919, only three days prior to Roosevelt's death.

"Americanization" was a favorite theme of Roosevelt's during his later years. He railed repeatedly against "hyphenated Americans" and the prospect of a nation "brought to ruins" by a "tangle of squabbling nationalities."

Roosevelt advocated the compulsory learning of English by every naturalized citizen. "Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or to leave the country," he said in a statement to the Kansas City Star in 1918. "English should be the only language taught or used in the public schools."

He also insisted—on more than one occasion—that America has no room for what he called "fifty-fifty allegiance." In a 1917 speech, he said, "It is our boast that we admit the immigrant to full fellowship and equality with the native-born. In return, we demand that he shall share our undivided allegiance to the one flag which floats over all of us."

In his 1894 article "True Americanism," Roosevelt wrote:

"The immigrant cannot possibly remain what he was, or continue to be a member of the Old-World society. If he tries to retain his old language, in a few generations it becomes a barbarous jargon; if he tries to retain his old customs and ways of life, in a few generations he becomes an uncouth boor."

Sources and Further Reading

  • Theodore Roosevelt on Americanism, Theodore Roosevelt Cyclopedia (revised second edition), Hart and Ferleger, ed., Theodore Roosevelt Association: 1989
  • Theodore Roosevelt on Immigrants, Theodore Roosevelt Cyclopedia (revised second edition), Hart and Ferleger, ed., Theodore Roosevelt Association: 1989
  • Theodore Roosevelt, Passage quoted in the biography by Edmund Lester Pearson
  • "To Possess the National Consciousness of an American," Passage quoted by Dr. John Fonte, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, 2000
  • Timeline of Theodore Roosevelt's Life, Theodore Roosevelt Association