Kaufmann provides much evidence that the American elites, for most of America's history, had what he calls a "double-consciousness." On the one hand, they had an ethnic consciousness of themselves as Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand they were committed to a liberal view which led to universalist ideas and to open borders. The two commitments contradicted each other, but nonetheless were held in tandem.
The first chapter of the book deals with Anglo-Saxons as the dominant ethnic group in the U.S. Kaufmann notes that on the eve of the American Revolution the white population was over 60 per cent English and nearly 80 per cent British. There was a commonly held belief at the time that the liberal political principles held by the Americans had their genesis in the Anglo-Saxon past; the ethnic and the liberal political became bound together.
Thomas Jefferson, for instance, said after the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that Americans were,
the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; and on the other side, Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honour of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed
Jefferson helped to inaugurate the study of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Virginia in the early 1800s. He also said:
Has not every restitution of the antient Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century?
But Jefferson had a universalistic view of rights which led him to support open borders. He wanted America to be a "sanctuary" for those seeking "participation in the rights of self-government". He wanted open borders despite his belief that migration might lead America to become "a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted, mass".
Kaufmann writes of "how Anglo-American thinkers expressed the latent tensions between their dominant ethnicity and their commitment to liberal-egalitarian principles".
Kaufmann sees this Anglo-Saxonism as being "optimistic" up to the late 1800s. What he means is that those thinking of themselves as a dominant Anglo-Saxon ethny were optimistic that they were assimilating all others to themselves. For instance, in 1887 Samuel Harris, the Episcopal bishop of Michigan, said:
The consistency of divine purpose in establishing our evangelical civilization here is signally illustrated by the fact that it was primarily confided to the keeping of the Anglo-Saxon race...Refusing to depart from its own type, it has compelled other people to conform to that type and constrained them to accept its institutions, to speak its language, to obey its laws.
He is saying that it was given, as part of divine destiny, to the Anglo-Saxon race to establish an evangelical civilization in America and that this race had made others assimilate to it.
Kaufmann seeks to explain at the end of the third chapter how people could live with contradictory beliefs, i.e. how Anglo-Americans could see America as "an Anglo-Saxon country which ought to defend its ethnic boundaries" and at the same time hold to "the universalist idea of the United States as a refuge for the world's oppressed and a composite melting pot".
Kaufmann claims, first, that there was a "general absence of reflexivity" in much nineteenth century social thought. Second, he notes that laws of heredity were understood less scientifically in the 1800s, which meant that people believed that culture could change a person's race. It was thought possible that if people joined an Anglo-Saxon culture, then over time they would start to develop the physical, racial characteristics of Anglo-Saxons as well.
It seems to me that the Anglo-Americans had put themselves in a fix. They had made liberalism part of what defined their ethnicity. Therefore, they were in a losing position. Asserting their ethnicity meant advocating a set of political values which would, in the long run, fatally undermine their ethnicity.
The answer was to see the liberalism for the dissolving agent that it was. But it you have staked so much and built a sense of your destiny and identity on adherence to liberalism, that was no doubt a difficult thing to do. That's particularly the case when, early on, the non-Anglo-Saxon populations were closely related groups like the Germans and Swedes, who could be assimilated over time, and when America was rapidly growing and gaining in status, so that the idea of a manifest destiny seemed to be playing out.