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The Americanization of the Finns

John Wargelin, A.M.,

President of Suomi College and Theological Seminary

Chapter I.  Introduction. Meaning of Americanization Discussed.
Chapter II.  Historical Background of the Finnish Race.
Chapter III.  Causes of Immigration from Finland.
Chapter IV.  Finnish Immigration to America.
Chapter V.  Distribution and Occupations of the Finns.
Chapter VI.  Cultural Life of the Finns. a) School.
Chapter VII.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). b) Press.
Chapter VIII.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). c) Church.
Chapter IX.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). d) Societies.
Chapter X.  Naturalization and Political Life.

Chapter I.
Introduction. - Meaning of Americanization Discussed.

In undertaking a study of the Americanization of a race we are naturally confronted with the question What is Americanization? How can it be accomplished, and what are its standards of judgment?

The question of Americanization is a live question. Over a million immigrants came to make their home among us each year before the World War. The percentage of foreign born has been steadily gaining in our midst. It has been estimated that about 30,000,000 immigrants have landed on our shores since 1820. We can not imagine the size of this vast army, but in the way of comparison we may say that never in the history of the world has such a number of people moved out of any country, or to any country during the same length of time. And not only is this true, but a further fact in connection with this problem is, that the immigrant classes increase much more rapidly than the native stock. A question.naturally arises: how are we going to deal with this large class of polyglot and heterogeneous material so that we can retain our national characteristics and democratic ideals? In other words, how can we make them an organic part of our life so that a spirit of unity and good-will will reign among us? These questions are of vital interest to all Americans and on their happy solution depends, to a great extent, the future of America and its democratic institutions. It is our purpose to study this problem and thus aid in the proper understanding of it as far as it concerns the Finns. In order to do this it will be necessary to study Finnish immigration and the life of the Finns in America at some length. This is also desirable for the reason that the Finnish immigration question has received very little notice in a more definite way from American authors.

The problem of immigration has been discussed by a host of writers within the last few years. Americanism has been defined and new programs for carrying on this work have been suggested. From the American point of view we must agree that we have not been able to get such results in our work of educating the foreign born among us as would be desirable. The foreigners seem to cling to their traditions, language, and loyalty to their native countries with a determined obstinacy. Many have the notion that they should always love and respect their native country first of all. This of course, is wrong. If they are going to live in America, America must come first; otherwise they might as well move out of America as soon as possible. But from the side of the immigrants, it must be said that they have been generally misunderstood and misrepresented. It is so easy to exaggerate the meaning of the police reports and other spectacular things published about immigrants. Very few take it upon themselves to try to study the life of the immigrant more thoroughly so that such sensational things could be understood in their real light.

We are to state at the start that the Finns have often been represented in a very one-sided and biased way. When, for example, the Copper Country Strike took place a few years ago, in which Finns played a prominent part because of the large number employed in the mines there, a certain writer published an article in The Outlook in which he interpreted Finnish Americans and their activities in a false light. He stated that the labor temple, said to be found in every Finnish community, served the purpose of a club, church, and general social institution. But he said nothing of their churches, schools and other institutions which have no connection with the labor temple. He had not troubled himself with getting real facts concerning their educational, religious and political life. This is only one illustration, but it is an exmaple of many other similar cases.

In undertaking to speak about Americanization, the question suggests itself to us as not being concerned with the naturalization and Americanization of the foreigner only, but just as much with the Americanization of the native born among us. Are we always treating the immigrant justly? Are we trying to gain his goodwill? Are we setting a worthy example of Americanism through obedience to law, fair play and social righteousness? If not, we are then breeding sham, conceit, and superficiality in the minds of our newcomers. We can not expect ideal Americanism in the lives of the immigrants if we ourselves have set them a poor example.

But what does Americanism mean? The best definition of Americanism, in our judgment, was given by Abraham Lincoln in that short classic, known as the Gettysburg Address. It is there defined as meaning: "A government of the people, by the people, and for the people". These words of our martyred president should be applied not only to the state, but to the institutions of our country as well. Applied to the home, it would mean equality of husband and wife, and the right of every American child to receive education and training for his future life as a citizen of the state. It would mean in the church the voice of the laity in matters of church polity and discipline together with that of the clergy. In industry it would mean cooperation of the employer with the employee for the benefit of both. And that would further mean that even the immigrant among us would have the right to self-expression, appreciation of his personality by others, and a sense of security against poverty, sickness and old age.

Theodore Roosevelt, that typical American whom we all respected, whether we liked him or not, defines Americanism in his characteristic, popular way. "We are a new and distinct nationality. Our nation was founded to perpetuate democratic principles. These are: that each man be treated on his worth as a man without regard to the land from which his forefathers came, and without regard to the creed which he professes". He goes on to say further that it is of the utmost importance to secure for every man the right to hold and to express the religious views that best meet his own soul's needs. And any political move directed against a body of our fellow-citizens because of their religious creed, is a grave offence against American principles and American institutions. Americanism, according to his interpretation, is more a thing of the spirit and the soul, than of external modes and habits of life. And in order to show that this was not forgetting America, he adds, "But their allegiance must be purely in the United States; there is no room for hyphenated Americanism".1

In a loose sense Americanism is taken by some to mean the process of changing the immigrant into an American. Generally it is taken for granted that the immigrant stands on a lower plane mentally, morally and spiritually than the native American, this assumption being based on his inability to speak our language and to follow our customs. The danger in such a narrow view of Americanism can be readily seen. If we interpret Americanism to the newcomer in such a shallow way, it is no wonder that the immigrant gains an impression that we are superficial and that our chief interest is in the material values in life. A better impression could be made on him by showing that we love civil and social and industrial righteousness. This phase of the question of Americanism must be given careful consideration in working out programs on Americanization work.

Others, again, think that Americanization is primarily concerned with the assimilation by the foreign born among us of our customs of dress, speech, and habits of life. This we take to be the most popular view of Americanization. It is true, for good or for ill, that we have no racial unity. We are the most heterogeneous nation in the world. On the surface it would appear as if this were a source of great weakness. We may assert at once that we believe in the natural assimilation of the immigrants in our midst with the Americans. But history has proved that an assimilation between two races has generally been one of mutual exchange of characteristics and ideals, and the process is rather slow.

By assimilation we mean both a process of individual training, and blending of civilizations. If the latter, it is a question whether an assimilation in an absolute sense would always be justifiable. The process is psychic or spiritual, and depends largely on personal training as well as on social conditions. In the case of the Finn there do not exist very radical differences between the social environment and the cultural status of the old country and those of America. For this reason his assimilation takes place within a reasonable length of time; but he would resent the imposing of any customs or habits the meaning of which had not been explained to him. In our opinion, wise persuasion and education hasten the assimilation of the immigrant into American life, but compulsion and legislation in this respect create a feeling for violating the democratic principles of our country.

The term amalgamation is often used synonymously with assimilation. Amalgamation, however, is a process of blending of races. It means that mixture of blood which unites races in a common stock. It is therefore biological in distinction from assimilation, which is psychical. Amalgamation is a work of centuries. The American race has not been born yet. No one can say positively what it will look like, or what characteristics will belong to it. But it is our duty as Americans of the present generation to help it to a noble and ideal birth.

There are great differences between the moral customs of the races coming to us and our own, and it is not proper to expect that we should assimilate all these new ideals into our life. The guiding principle here should be to adopt those traits from our immigrants that have moral, or spiritual, or educational, or political value. It can be said without equivocation that American life has been enriched by the ideals and contributions of foreign life. Our poetry has been influenced by European works. In this connection we might point out that Longfellow received the inspiration for his "Hiawatha" from the Finnish national epic, "Kalevala". He not only adopted the simple meter which he found in the "Kalevala" but there are other marked resemblances in his work. In stating this, we do no injustice to the memory of Longfellow, for he himself acknowledged his indebtedness to the "Kalevala". We may further suggest that our art, education, inventions, and science owe a great deal of their accomplishments to foreign contributions in our midst. We wonder whether this aspect of our immigration problem presents itself to our consciousness with sufficient force. In a book, entitled, "Old World Traits Transplanted", by Park-Miller, this phase of the immigration question is presented in a very interesting way.

In this connection it may be proper to point out that the arrival of an immigrant to our shores need not be looked upon as a liability but rather as an asset to American life as a whole. The potential value of an immigrant has been estimated to be at least one thousand dollars per person.2 The immigrant has dug our canals, built our railroads through uninhabited regions, he has mined our ores and coal, dug our sewers, and built our tunnels and subways at the risk of his life for a comparatively small remuneration. And in doing this he has often met with untimely death. Who is able to estimate the number of lives that have been sacrificed to make possible the many conveniences of our modern life? The immigrant has certainly paid dearly for his right to live in America. We are tempted to say that it has been a struggle for existence, and that only the fittest have survived.

In delivering the memorial address in memory of Abraham Lincoln in the Congress of the United States, George Bancroft expressed our indebtedness to other nations in a very fitting way. He said that in forming our democratic system of government we searched through the storehouse of political wisdom; we washed the grains of gold from the sands of empires that had once been; we dug treasures of political lore from the rocks of past dynasties. We took from them what had proved to be lasting, and discarded that which had proved to be a weakness. Thus we built an ideal form of government. We have benefited in the past from foreign nations, and I do not think, if we steer our Ship of State wisely, that America is going to fall into an arrogance of self-sufficiency even in the future. American life is a part of the civilization of the world. We need to learn from other nations; and perhaps they need to learn still more from us.

As we said of the American race, so we must also say of Americanism, that it is in the process of becoming, and through a wise policy towards the immigrants among us we can still prove to the world this to be true. We cannot point to our present life as a model of perfection and attainment of American ideals. We must, however, be able to see these very principles and ideals, which we have tried to point out in the foregoing paragraphs, present and underlying in our national life and existence. "As Americans if we could but grasp the elementary fact that Americanism is always partial and incomplete, an ideal to be sought but never fully to be attained, because always in its perfection just beyond our reach, how much better Americans might we ourselves become, and how far more potent missionaries of the gospel of Americanism would we be. If our newcomers, too, could but realize that Americanism ever is to be, and that they are helping in its making, their enthusiasm would be strengthened, not shattered, and their power to contribute extended."[3]

We shall now turn more directly to the study of the problem before us. Let us, therefore, consider this question under the following divisions: Historical Background of the Finnish Race; Causes of Immigration from Finland; Finnish Immigration to America; Distribution and Occupations of the Finns; Cultural Life of the Finns: a) School, b) Press, c) Church, and d) Societies; and Naturalization and Political Life.

1 Immigration and Americanism, Davis, p. 645.

2 O. H. Kilpi, The Immigration and Economy of. Finland in the 19th Century, Finnish; and other authorities.

3 V. Talbot, Americanization, p. 2.

Publication: John Wargelin, The Americanization of the Finns. The Finnish Lutheran Book Concern. Hancock, Michigan 1924, 185 pages.

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