The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America (Review)

Review in Journal of American History (2005)

In his new book, The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America, Eric P. Kaufmann offers an original answer to an often asked question: Why did American Anglo-Protestants fall from their dominant perch during the period from the seventeenth century to today? Kaufmann finds unsatisfactory the argument that fertility differentials, the arrival of diverse immigrants, and minority movements of resistance overwhelmed Anglo-Protestants. As confidently he dismisses the assertion that Anglo-Protestants have actually maintained a superior position by incorporating other Euro-Americans and morphing into a white racial group. Taking a comparative, international perspective on the history of ethnicity and nationalism in the United States, Kaufmann contends that the decline of Anglo-Protestants was of their own making. Characteristic ideas of the ethnic group—expressive individualism and egalitarianism—were ultimately incompatible with a position of dominance. 1

In three chronologically arranged sections, Kaufmann reinterprets the fate of Anglo-Protestants. As the most numerous early settlers and the first to create written records and lasting political institutions, Anglo-Protestants became economically, politically, and culturally dominant over the course of the seventeeth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Their self-defining commitment to Enlightenment ideals meant they tried to assimilate newcomers from beyond the British Isles, but few embraced “the idea of the American nation as truly global melting pot, much less a pan-European one” (p. 37). After 1900, however, liberal progressives, ecumenical Protestants, and New York modernists from within the ethnic group brought a more inclusive idea of nationalism to the fore. Although a less educated, traditionalist population continued to rely upon the myth-symbols of an Anglo-Protestant ethnicity, the elite turned away from these representations in favor of universalism. After World War II, cosmopolitanism was institutionalized, ethnic boundaries relaxed, and “once marginalized ethnic groups gained rough institutional parity with Anglo-Protestants” (p. 243). Kaufmann tops off his historical account with a prescription for national identity and ethnicity in today’s multicultural world, proposing “a reformed multiculturalism” that “allows for the retention of both ethnicity and individuality, all within the context of equality” (pp. 283, 296). 2

In his rush to recover the reputation of Anglo-Protestants, Kaufmann undervalues dissent that originated among ethnic minorities. In his conviction that the ideas of the elite are the principal source of social power, he largely misses the role of non-elite Americans in the development of national identity. But these problems of emphasis may be the justifiable outcome of a work willing to spotlight a group that has fallen out of favor. Kaufmann’s uncertain treatment of racial difference, however, is more difficult to defend. While he acknowledges that “racial minorities were not as successful as white Americans” in the second half of the twentieth century, he pays too little attention to the sustained sociopolitical distinctions across groups (p. 5). Ethnic relations may be more equal than they once were, but the persistence of racial inequality raises doubts about the depth and breadth of American cosmopolitanism. Skeptical of American exceptionalism, thoroughly researched, and ambitious in its reach, Kaufmann’s work is an important contribution to the scholarship of American nationalism, immigration, and ethnicity. 3

Allison Varzally
California State University
Fullerton, California

Website by TrekVisual