A few news cycles ago, the “great replacement theory” was much bandied about. At bottom, proponents of the theory urge that there’s a conspiracy among left-leaning progressives to “replace” the descendants of European-Americans with non-European immigrants who will supposedly become reliable Democratic voters. Opponents of this position argue that it is nonsense—the true driver of immigration has always been the capitalist appetite for cheap, non-unionized labor. I don’t propose to wade into this causal swamp; rather, I want us to think about the historical fact of conquest and immigration and what this has meant for social constructs and institutions, especially the law. Language and literature will be our guides.
Our species, homo sapiens, is itself a “great replacer,” having pushed aside other early humans (like Neanderthals) a few tens of thousands of years ago. That process has continued unabated ever since, even though the evidence of subsequent displacements is often reduced to mere traces. Take, for example, the notion that the American legal system was founded on English common law, which is certainly true enough, given the reference in the Seventh Amendment. But is “English” a static and monolithic concept?
The word itself derives from one of the tribes, the Angles, that we view as foundational of Anglo-American institutions. (The other associated tribes are the Saxons and the Jutes.) These Germanic tribes, were not, however, the first inhabitants of Great Britain. That honor goes to the Britons—a Celtic civilization that, in England (not so, for example, in Scotland), came under Roman rule from the first to the fifth century. When the Roman legions departed in the fifth century in the vain attempt to protect Rome from other Germanic tribes, the seaborn Angles, Saxons, and Jutes moved in. Nonetheless, they did not wholly displace the Britons, whose influence and language persists to this day in Wales.
I think we often tend to rewind our cultural history only to the Anglo-Saxon period as a function of British literature courses commencing with the study of Old English poetry, the existence of which is itself a function of illiteracy in prior periods. The Anglo-Saxons had only a vague understanding of their predecessors: The poet of “The Wanderer,” for example, interprets Roman ruins and roads (which warriors road their horse alongside rather than on) as “the old works of giants.” The Anglo-Saxons, too, had invaders of their own to deal with. The British literature courses I just alluded to inevitably include reading at least part of Beowulf, the first lines of which invoke a foreign invader: “The Spear-Danes in days gone by / And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.” These Spear-Danes, whom we nowadays call Vikings, gave us our word for “law.”
In 1066, the English repelled the last Viking invasion, but—somewhat ironically—they quickly succumbed to a Norman invasion, the irony arising from the fact that the Normans (a contraction of “Norsemen”) themselves descended from Vikings that had earlier seized lands along the northern French coast. The Normans replaced the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and clergy with their own members, who spoke a dialect of Old French. As a linguistic consequence, in modern English we often have two words for the same thing, one derived from Old French, one derived from Old English. The upper classes ate beef, mutton, and pork; the displaced Anglo-Saxons tended cattle, sheep, and pigs. And by the time we get to Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, the Middle English in which he wrote looks “Frenchified” in, for example, its heavy use of accents.
These changes in the language as a result of Norman influence accompanied changes in law. But as R.B. Seaberg has argued, historical commentary suggests that these changes “concerned the introduction of new terms, forms of pleas, offices and courts” … things like “innovations of exchequer and chancery, the translation of laws into the Norman language, quarterly terms at Westminster (which replaced gemotes, or monthly conventions in the hundred) and the appointment of central judges to replace men of the neighbourhoods.” On this view, the major disruptions to the common law came in the form of procedures and administration, not necessarily to the law itself. To me, this chimes quite well with philosopher Jacques Derrida’s notion of the “supplement,” which (very roughly) can be conceived as an “addition to” and a “replacement,” which opens a line of inquiry that doesn’t unfailingly lead to cultural obliteration.
It is a commonplace that America is a land of immigrants. America’s Indigenous people arrived via a land bridge from Siberia 20,000 years ago or so, followed by European conquest and immigration a few hundred years ago, and continuing today with immigration from around the globe. Willa Cather’s My Antonia is perhaps the quintessential immigration story. Its protagonist, Antonia Shimerda, an immigrant from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), comes to the plains of Nebraska in the late nineteenth century. Her story is told by the aptly named Jim Burden (whose burden is that of his received culture). Jim is superficially an outsider, too, having just moved from Virginia to live with his grandparents after his own parents have died. But as Antonia presciently observes, “Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”
When Jim, by now a prosperous railroad lawyer, returns to Black Hawk (something of a stand-in for Cather’s own Red Cloud, Nebraska) after many years, he finds Antonia and the other “country girls” successful—more successful, in fact, than the town women they had served. These country girls—Slavs, Russians, Norwegians, Swedes, and more—represent ethnic groups that had “spread across our bronze prairies like the daubs of color on a painter’s palette.” Cather’s painterly metaphor squares with my own experience growing up in western Kansas, where small ethnic communities had sprung up in the pioneering days: Prairie View (Dutch), Jennings (Czech), Leoville (German), and so on. But by the time I was growing up, these communities had lost most of their ethnic flavor save for things like family names (Van Something-or-Other in Prairie View), festivals (the Kolache Festival in Jennings), or religious artifacts (the massive German Catholic Church in Leoville). The descendants of these early settlers bore no clear markers of otherness—they wore Levis and college T-shirts, drove Pontiacs and Plymouths, and spoke flat-land English at home.
Cather’s immigration narrative—and my own experience—underwrites a just-so story of immigrant assimilation and adaptation, one that fits nicely with the American public narrative of patriotism and progress. I’m not a social psychologist, but I know that my world view is infected with interpretive errors like confirmation bias. So maybe Cather’s theory and my experience don’t hold across the board. Maybe what Cather and I observed holds because the groups we observed were Europeans who could “assimilate and adapt” through relatively simple acts like shedding funny hats and unusual-smelling foods. But I hope that Cather’s Jim Burden was right that the relationship between native and immigrant is reciprocal and that the changes that immigration bring will be helpful “supplements” to our institutions (like law):
I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
Randy D. Gordon is the office managing partner of the Dallas office of Duane Morris. He is executive professor of law and history at Texas A&M University.
Reprinted with permission from © ALM Media Properties LLC. All rights reserved.