As a promising American actor, Timothée Chalamet’s breakthrough performances on the big screen are a testament to forging good connections, having sought-after talent, and solid skills to work with demanding producers and directors in Hollywood.
Indeed, a recent article gushed over the former child actor’s rise to fame and his net worth of millions of dollars. And then, for some unbeknownst reason, the article continued by inserting the epithet, “French-American.”
Many will say it’s a reference to the actor’s heritage, and that is precisely the point: it’s irrelevant in a media piece about a goofy, charismatic and gifted individual from New York who created opportunities and achieved praiseworthy success at the ripe old age of 26 years.
Of course, referring to someone by an ethnicity or nationality followed by a hyphen and the word ‘American’ is not foreign at all—otherwise known as a “hyphenated-American.”
However, the above language would annoy those who believe in rigorously promoting a strong and united country amidst increasing polarization and weakening patriotism among young people. Given that many under 30 years of age are not feeling very proud to be an American, the addition and acceptance of the hyphen creates an uncomfortable degree of separation when the nation is experiencing social and political infighting on an unprecedented scale.
Indeed, past leading figures were outspoken about assimilation in helping to conserve the American Republic and, in this vein, drop the ‘hyphen’ when someone’s name or ethnicity did not originate from Protestant British founding stock.
John Quincy Adams, one of the Founding Fathers and a former president, was even wary of immigrants from Continental Europe, stating, “They must cast off the European skin, never resume it. They must look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors.”
President Woodrow Wilson was doubtful about accepting the idea of “hyphenated Americans”. In a speech delivered in Pueblo, Colorado, he said flatly:
“And I want to say—I cannot say it too often—any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”
And President Theodore Roosevelt, speaking to a crowd in New York City on Columbus Day, emphasized that:
“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were… Americans born abroad… The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities… each preserving its separate nationality… than with the other citizens of the American Republic.”
Origins of the “hyphenated-American” as an epithet
The epithet comprising of a nationality (other than American), followed by a hyphen and the word ‘American’ was the direct consequence of large-scale immigration during the 19th century from mainland Europe, including but not limited to Irish Catholics and German Lutherans. Many native-born Americans raised as Protestants expressed fears that the country was being swamped by Catholic immigrants, believing they were loyal to and directed by the Pope in Rome, Italy. In addition, there were suspicions that these newcomers lacked the social and professional skills needed to successfully assimilate into American culture or, on the contrary, would deplete their economic opportunities and compete with them for political power.
Many who identified as simply ‘American’ viewed hyphenated fellow citizens from an uncomfortable distance. Politically, the “hyphenated American” suggested a lack of loyalty and devotion to American principles. From a different perspective, the hyphen alluded to contaminating British bloodlines by perceived inferior foreign stock, a belief Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge expressed, “[to] guard our civilization against an infusion which seems to threaten deterioration.”
Such sentiments eventually manifested into political action; the cartoon from the first humor magazine in the United States, Puck, shows Uncle Sam with his back to “hyphenated Americans” and asks, “Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?”
Challenging the idea of the “hyphenated-American”
In the late 18th century, the well-known “melting pot” metaphor arose when French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote that in America, “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
As an objective observation, a proportion of native-born and foreign-born but naturalized Americans didn’t buy the idea of blending with fellow citizens who didn’t share their ethnicity, race or religious customs—not then and not thereafter.
In the 1960s, the metaphor of a “salad bowl” emerged as a collection of cultures simply co-existing and having tribal loyalties to their forefathers’ ancestral lands, which is dangerous towards preserving the American Republic and restoring national unity. For those who embrace this vision of America, the idea of a “hyphenated American” might imply a citizen of the United States deservedly reaping all the benefits of their hard work. Nonetheless, their relationship with the Republic might be interpreted as dispassionately transactional coupled with suspicions of having emotional affinities to different countries while feeling lukewarm about America’s future, especially when the going gets tough and circumstances demand solid national unity.
Of course, many immigrants will form communities upon arrival in their adopted country. Still, the idea is that they and their children will eventually assimilate into the American melting pot and make their first loyalty to America and her ideals. For example, many cities celebrate distinctly Southern Italian, Greek or Chinese cultural themes founded by new arrivals in the 19th and 20th-century. Some of their political attitudes might have even slipped into subsequent generations of their American-born descendants, reflecting a dynamic evolution of the United States. While someone’s ancestral heritage can influence temperament, food intolerance, and perhaps even, to a degree, social and political disposition, it cannot be politicized and accepted into mainstream language as “hyphenated Americans”. Representing individuals in this manner strips them of their full Americanness, a choice of wording that is avoidable.
Simply put, as President Theodore Roosevelt said:
“But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts ‘native’ before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen.”
To state the obvious, many Americans respect, love and are proud of their “old country” roots. They may even share stories and create movies about their upbringing that differed from children at their local school. Still, the idea is that they are speaking as Americans of, say, Polish, Japanese, Kenyan or Indian heritage.
Therefore, is talented Timothée Chalamet a French-American?
Language is an integral part of our lives, and the right kind of language is essential for promoting national unity and protecting the Republic. So, it’s time to say goodbye to the “hyphenated American”. For many, it’s time to be American first, last, and always.
By: Cameron Keegan
Cameron Keegan is an independent researcher and writer on American politics, faith, and culture affecting young people through a conservative disposition. To learn more about Cameron’s work, visit https://ckeeganan.substack.com, and for comments or questions, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.