The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917

By Jon Gjerde | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE

Iowa Governor William Harding showed a lack of political vision when he visited the Danish settlements of Audubon County on Independence Day in 1918. In a speech to the largely Danish American audience, he voiced regret that the children who grew up in the vicinity were not really American. Amid the white-hot patriotism of the World War I era, he argued that youths in the locality, even after their schooling, "are full grown 100 per cent Dane." If this were not impolitic enough, Harding proceeded to observe that what the Danes had done to develop the farms and fields of Audubon County did not compare with what had been bestowed upon them in the United States. "Now, think of a man who was brought from the filth of Denmark," he remarked, "and placed on a farm, for which he paid perhaps $3 an acre. Ye gods and fishes, what Iowa has done for him he never can repay!"1

Harding's speech summoned a storm of protest. Danish Americans, who must have stood incredulous as they listened to his tirade, quickly took up their pens to admonish him. 2 Karl Rasmussen admitted in a letter to the Des Moines Register that Danish Americans "have in some measure taken advantage of the great opportunities offered us in this great state and nation." But these very opportunities, he continued, in yet another expression of a complementary identity, encouraged them to be "Americans in spirit, heart, and actions." Yet now they were being condemned by Harding's "misinformed" statements, he concluded, simply "because we are also able to use our mother tongue," a condemnation to which they, "as American citizens," objected. 3 A Des Moines Register editorial added another layer of rhetoric to the controversy. It suggested that Independence Day--a holiday to celebrate "the birth of a nation set apart by its founders for the oppressed of all lands under the blessings of a free flag on a free soil"--perhaps was not the time for Harding to voice these opinions. It concluded, moreover, that the Danes were "Americans not so much because they have bought cheap land in this new world, as because they have found freedom." 4 Once again, tropes of "freedom" and "Americanization," of immigrants and "free" land, were central images

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