trigger warning: semantics
The term “Anglo-American” has been in use since at least the time of Tocqueville, who used it in his landmark work, Democracy in America, to refer to the majority of the American population, their society and culture. That was almost two hundred years ago, however, and terms of identity in the United States always seem to be in flux. We are indeed a nation of immigrants, but they were predominately of Northern European origin from the earliest days of North American settlement through the nineteenth century, before declining relative to Southern and Eastern European, Jewish and other national origins in the early 20th century, and then after 1965 immigration was legally opened to the majority non-white world. As a result, the majority of today’s immigrants reflect the global population insofar as less than 10% are coming from Europe. The United States is projected to lose its white majority in a few decades. Emmanuel Celler, a Jewish legislator from New York, was the architect of that 1965 immigration law, but I digress.
What’s important is that America’s English-speaking or Anglophone white majority was formed by immigration, and that they have a European origin rather than simply an English one. The founding peoples of the United States were white/European and mostly Protestants of British origins (English, Scottish, Scots-Irish, etc.), but even then there were other Europeans in the colonies, especially of German, Irish, Dutch, or French stock. Over time, an essentially new people were created in the United States, racially white like Europeans, but an ethnic mixture of those Europeans. A great example of that are the Roosevelts, who rose to prominence in national politics centuries after the first Dutch patroons settled in New York and by that time were Dutch in surname only. They became Anglo-Americans.
There was a time when indeed Anglo-American could be taken to just mean America’s British derived population, who were a majority at the time of independence. But immigration changed all that and today the plurality white ancestry is German. In the nineteenth century, spurred by famine and economic malaise, millions of Catholic Irish arrived in the United States, as well as millions of Germans and smaller numbers of Scandinavians for other reasons. Later they were joined by Italians, Poles and others. All in time would speak English and intermarry.
So how do we define Anglo-Americans in 2015? I define it as a people of white European descent who are from the United States (or Canada) and speak English both fluently and natively. Bonus points will be awarded for English or Scottish ancestry. Ultimately, one’s assorted European heritages are not critical in defining a white American identity. What is useful is to have a term that is our own and reflects who we are, indigenized white Europeans who speak English.
Anglo-American reflects this identity in that it encompasses the origin of our language, our culture, our institutions, our legal system and many other things which we received from Britain/England and modified to suit our needs. Anglo-American is not a race but a white cultural group in the New World. Some would argue we’ve even exported it into Europe and the rest of the Anglosphere (especially Canada, Britain and Ireland).
As a category, Anglo-American is a subset of white/European American, and thus a more accurate description than that or the peculiar “non-Hispanic white” when referring to the traditional people of the United States. The majority of white Americans aren’t of English descent—remember, a plurality have German ancestry—but the absolute and overwhelming majority are Anglophones and follow a British/English derived culture in North America, hence Anglo-Americans. And why should we refer to ourselves as “non-Hispanic?” That’s bizarre. Do the Japanese call themselves non-Chinese Orientals?
A nice semantic example as to why this is the best term, in my opinion, would be the case of non-Anglophone European immigrants to the United States and their immediate children. Yes, they are white and European Americans. But they are from a foreign country and culture and most likely not as intraracially mixed as Anglo-Americans. They are obviously European American but not Anglo-American, whereas a white native speaker of English is both Anglo-American and European American. I’m sure the average Polish immigrant isn’t 1/8th Welsh, 1/4 Irish, 1/4 Italian and 1/2 German or something that doesn’t quite add up perfectly; they are likely to be mostly Polish with possible admixture from neighboring nations and not a native English speaker. Within a couple of generations they will be indistinguishable, however, from other Anglo-Americans.
Anyway I hate semantics so I’m ending this now. Anglo-Americans are:
[x] native English speakers, i.e. they learned it from their parents
[x] born in the United States or Canada