Editor’s (admin’s) note: I found this draft of an op ed piece last night when I was clearing old files out of my hard drive. It was dated July 28, 2017, and I don’t remember where I submitted it for publication. Illinois Times? Wherever it was, it didn’t get in. (If it had, I’d have the published copy in another file.) President Trump is gone now, like Lord Voldemort, but I think my reflections on how immigrants absorb our common heritage — often in school — are still timely.
Of Henry Clay, Donald Trump and Shared Heritage
So it’s a Friday afternoon, and I’m seated at a table in a log cabin reading a 419-page spellbinder by the Rev. Eric Norelius, a founder of the old Swedish immigrant Augustana Lutheran Synod. I’m a retired teacher, and I’ve been studying Swedish-American immigration because I think our heritage as a nation of immigrants is in jeopardy today.
I’m also a history buff, a volunteer tour guide at Clayville, a historic site on the old stagecoach road between Springfield and Beardstown, Illinois. There’s not much weekday traffic, and it’s a perfect time to catch up on my reading between visitors.
About midafternoon, a couple of teenage girls stop by, showing the local sights to their cousin from Chicago. They’re Latinas, and they look like sisters. They’re from Beardstown, a town of 6,123 on the Illinois River. Beardstown has a major slaughterhouse, and a significant immigrant population – 17.9 percent in the last census was Hispanic. As the girls speak, I detect no trace of accent, and I have a trained ear from teaching developmental English to non-native speakers. They’re articulate, they’re friendly, they’re full of questions and they’re interested in everything.
And they have a good grasp of the historical background.
They’re surprised and delighted, with a strong whiff of teenage irony in their laughter, when I tell them Beardstown was better known than Springfield in 1840.
How can that be? they ask. It’s on the river, I say.
Long-distance travel went by river. If you were going to the Illinois frontier, took a paddleboat from St. Louis up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, and you got off the boat at Beardstown.
They nod their heads. If you’ve been a classroom teacher, you know when you’re connecting with the kids and when you aren’t. These girls know about the rivers and the steamboats. We’re connecting.
In the brick tavern, or stagecoach stop, across the road from the log cabin, I show them a picture of Henry Clay in the “gentlemen’s parlor.” Clayville got its name from a statewide political rally there in 1842, when the Illinois Whig Party endorsed Henry Clay for president, and he’s part of the Clayville story.
I ask the girls how much they remember Henry Clay and the Whigs.
Oh yes, we studied him in school.
So I’m off and running, pointing out a big American flag behind Henry Clay in the picture, a globe, an anvil, a team of oxen plowing in the distance. It’s a campaign poster — see all the symbols? Oh yes, we hear a lot about symbols in English class.
We share a laugh.
And I’m reminded, as we’re sharing our common heritage on a sunny Friday afternoon in the sixth month of President Trump’s assault on Muslims and immigrants, it was in school that I learned about Henry Clay. These kids from Beardstown are obviously paying attention in their classes, and they’re going through the same process of acculturation my Norwegian-American ancestors did – or the Swedish immigrants I’d just been reading about.
As a young Swedish theology student at a predominantly German-American seminary in Columbus, Ohio, Eric Norelius watched Henry Clay’s funeral ceremonies in 1852, as “a great crowd of people … gathered at the depot and followed in a procession behind the casket” to the Ohio State House. In later years Norelius was a staunch Republican, one of those Swedes who got his opinions, as the saying went, from the Chicago Tribune and a Swedish-language paper called Hemlandet (the Homeland), but his first love was the Lutheran church. He was a president of the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod, wrote its early history – largely from his journals – and served in parish ministry near Red Wing, Minnesota, for 60 years.
When he published his memoirs in 1916, Norelius said, “I am not afraid to hold the conviction that not all that is old-fashioned is to be rejected, nor should all that is new be praised. We must use a little common sense and moderation in all things.”
It struck me as a matter-of-fact, very Swedish attitude, almost an article of faith. But very American, very Midwestern, too.
By coincidence, on the same sunny Friday, Trump spoke on Long Island, promising to destroy a Latino street gang, joking about “rough” cops and “paddy wagons,” and “tak[ing] a broader swipe at current immigrants,” according to the local coverage in Newsday.
“You say,” Trump asked, “what happened to the old days where people came into this country, they worked and they worked and they worked, and they had families, and they paid taxes, and they did all sorts of things, and their families got stronger, and they were closely knit? We don’t see that.”
We don’t see that? I saw it at Clayville.
Immigrant families are all around us, and they’re part of our common heritage. Maybe Trump needs to exercise a little old-fashioned Swedish, or American, common sense and moderation.
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Peter Ellertsen taught at Benedictine University Springfield. He wrote another article, “‘How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901–1925” in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 2016.