My mother and her parents emigrated from Scotland to Detroit in 1923. I first lived with my parents and two older siblings in an upstairs bedroom of my grandparents' house. A 1940 census of our neighborhood records that most of our neighbors were immigrants from places like Czechoslovakia, French Canada, Greece, Italy, Poland, Russia, or Scotland.
What brought them all to Detroit from so many countries? Many took plentiful and well-paying jobs in the factories of automakers like Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, the Dodge Brothers, William Durant, founder of General Motors, feeding off the new demand for automobiles.
But Detroit was mass-producing not only automobiles; it was making Americans. In 1908, the same year of the Model T, Israel Zangwell, British author and son of Jewish immigrants, wrote a play called "The Melting Pot." Performed in the United States for audiences that included President Theodore Roosevelt, it proclaimed:
"America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming… Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American."
The American was allegedly a new kind of man. Henry Ford imagined that he, too, was helping God "make Americans." To integrate the growing numbers of foreign workers, in 1914 he established the Ford English School. On Independence Day, 1916:
Graduates of Ford's English School wearing their "native dress" descended into a large pot labeled "The American Melting Pot." After going through a virtual smelting process, the immigrant's identity was boiled away, leaving a new citizen to emerge from the pot wearing American clothes and waving American flags….
But Ford's Melting Pot lacked a key element; his was an industrialized version of one that initially appeared in an agrarian context:
The first use in American literature of the concept of immigrants "melting" into the receiving culture are found in the writings of J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. In his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) Crevecoeur writes, "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men…"
What was the catalyst for the blending of cultures? Marriage. While not emphasized, it is hiding right here in plain sight:
"…whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes… What, then, is the American, this new man? He is either an European or the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American…." (emphasis added)
Exactly. On January 31, 1942, Slavic and Scottish immigrants celebrated together in my grandparents' living room at the wedding of my parents. Their shared happiness was deeper than the laughter of neighbors watching a comedy at a movie house. They were celebrating the creation of a family.
This was the endowment shared by all our ethnic neighbors: Family.This family force is imprinted in us; it predates society and the state.
Societies, like chemical compounds, may come in many varieties. You can have a tribal society, for example, or a communist, capitalist, socialist, fascist, totalitarian, imperial, colonial, feudal, theocratic, egalitarian, or democratic society. You would have to explain to any outsider how each society works. Its nature cannot be assumed.
But the family is universal. Individuals meeting from different cultures do not have to explain to each other what a family is. The family lies at the quantum level of human society.
Family life is deeply rooted in an area of mystery we do not fully understand. Like a tree, it is living, rooted and nourished by the soil of the past and reaching up into the future. It is not manufactured. Although socially reinforced, it is not "socially constructed." It is a precious Gift.