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Efforts to Promote American Identity in the Early 20th Century

The idea of the western frontier and of the type of person who could live there has long been a part of American identity. Benjamin Franklin, the frontier philosopher, fascinated French intellectuals in the late 18th century. In the following century, Americans migrated from the east coast into Kentucky and other lands to the west. The celebrated explorer Daniel Boone led many of these expeditions. In the late 1820s, Davy Crockett was elected to Congress from Tennessee. He moved on to Texas and died defending the Alamo.

The westward migration continued after the U.S. Civil War as Americans of European descent settled territories on the far side of the Mississippi river. The romance of the American west became a theme of popular entertainment. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered an address at a gathering of historians in Chicago titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The frontier, he said, was a primary determinant of the American character and experience. By this time, however, there was no more “frontier” remaining to be explored. Americans had settled all the lands extending to the Pacific.

As American intellectuals became self-conscious concerning their frontier heritage, a small group led by Theodore Roosevelt, the future President, established the Boone and Crockett Club. The club was founded in 1887 to promote the manly virtues of hunting. Both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were known as fearless hunters who were at home in the forest. Regular members of this club had to be recommended by a member and had to have killed at least one large animal with a rifle. Associate members could recommend themselves and need not have demonstrated their hunting skills.

Membership in this organization was quite small. There were 24 members when the club was established in 1887 and only 200 in 1910. Despite its western orientation, most members came from large eastern cities such as Boston and New York. The Boone and Crockett Club provided a network among the nation’s elite. Besides Theodore Roosevelt, its members included such persons as Gifford Pinchot, first head of the U.S. Forestry Service; William Tecumseh Sherman; Elihu Root, a politician and lawyer; Dean Sage, the lumber magnate; Aldo Leopold, the ecologist; Owen Wister, the novelist; J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr.; Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge; and others prominent in politics or corporate life.

From the network of persons involved in the Boone and Crockett Club came much of the leadership behind the early conservation movement. Pinchot and Roosevelt were obviously leaders, but so were many others. This organization takes credit for such environmental accomplishments as “the protection of Yellowstone, Glacier, and Denali National Parks; the foundation of the National Forest, National Park Service, and National Wildlife Refuge System; the passing of the Pittman-Robertson and Lacey Acts, and the establishment of the Federal Duck Stamp Act.”

But there was more to the Boone and Crockett Club than environmental protection. Its members were also concerned with American identity. In the late 19th Century, as the American frontier was vanishing, the social elite in the United States began to worry that this might pose a threat to the American character. Fewer among the young generation had any immediate experience of the wilderness. Cut off from this part of their national heritage, Americans were becoming soft. The way to revive the self-reliant American spirit was to promote hunting and conservation. The inspiration behind a sportsman club had as much to do with moral regeneration as with the thrill of shooting game animals.

Club leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt also promoted collegiate football. This was a vigorous and manly sport which would foster the rugged qualities of personality then being eroded. In particular, Casper Whitney made a contribution to this sport. The feeling was that the average American male was becoming “over civilized” and needed to become reacquainted with his rough and savage nature. City boys needed to learn about life in the country. They needed to take up a rifle and shoot game as their hardy forbearers had done or participate in a sport such as football that preserved an element of brutality.

Adding to this concern was the fact that immigrants were pouring into the United States, especially from southern Europe. These types of people seemed to threaten the American character. The response was both to try to limit legal immigration and to Americanize the immigrants. One of the Boone and Crockett members, Madison Grant, was a leader of anti-immigrant efforts. The American Eugenics Society also came out of this movement.

Club members thought of themselves as social and political reformers and “progressives” but today they are seen as part of a WASP elite. Disproportionately influential in politics, they believed in technocratic solutions to society’s problems. Like Plato, they thought that experts should run the country pursuing a good which they as an educated elite uniquely recognized and understood.

Today, the Boone and Crockett Club has abandoned that kind of agenda. Some might say that the elitist membership has lost its nerve. In fact, the Boone and Crockett Club is now an organization narrowly focused upon hunting, best known for its system of measuring game animals and awarding a “B&C score.” The club has also issued a “Fair Chase Statement” as an ethic for hunters and “worked for the elimination of industrial hunting, creation of wildlife reserves and conservation-minded regulation of hunting generally.”

The broader aims of the Boone and Crockett Club were revealed in a talk given by John Binkley, a government lawyer with ties to the University of Maryland, at the 2007 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) in Minneapolis. The talk which followed Binkley’s was given on behalf of a University of Missouri professor, Sandra Rubinstein Peterson. It concerned an annual essay contest sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women in the 1920s.

While the two groups (the B&C Club and the National Council) comprised a different type of membership, their objectives were surprisingly similar. The Jewish women, too, were concerned with promoting American identity. In this case, the impetus for their essay contest was the fact that large numbers of Jews were migrating to the United States from Russia, Poland, and other places in eastern Europe. Some of them had customs and modes of physical appearance that seemed strange to many Americans.

The women who sponsored the contest were mainly Jews of German origin who had been in the United States for some time. Their purpose was to promote the idea that one could be both a “good Jew” and a “good American”. This message was directed both at the American public and the newly arrived immigrants. The essay contest encouraged these immigrants to write on such subjects as “why I want to become an American citizen.” The winning answers suggested such motives as appreciating the superior opportunities for education in America, wanting to raise their children to fit into American society, and appreciating the U.S. government and its legacy of justice and freedom.

The presenter was honest enough to point out that some of the essays probably reflected a conscious attempt to please the contest judges. However, the themes were illustrative of real sentiments felt among these newcomers from eastern Europe. The value placed on education was real. So was the desire to assimilate successfully in American society. There was a desire that these immigrants might exhibit the best of both the old and new worlds - the European legacy of honoring their parents and retaining their ancestral religion, on one hand; and adopting American standards of personal cleanliness and taking advantage of expanded opportunities in America, on the other.

And so it would seem that a hundred years ago, Americans of various backgrounds took their identity seriously. They thought about it, created organizations, and undertook essay contests to promote what they saw would strengthen that common identity. The same concerns exist today, but in a different form and direction.


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