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Oh Mein! What If German Was An Official U.S. Language?

In 1794, German immigrants brought a petition to the U.S. House asking for all legislation to be published in German and English. It narrowly failed, leading to the Muhlenberg urban legend.

Das original Hipster
Das original Hipster
Florian Stark

BERLIN — At the start of the new millennium, the U.S. Census Bureau presented an updated census showing that people of German descent represented the country's largest group of immigrants, accounting for 49.2 million of the 282 million Americans.

Only 26.9 million U.S. citizens were of genuine English extraction, which meant they came in fifth after African-Americans (41.3 million), the Irish (35.5 million) and Mexicans (31.79 million).

In the framework of the U.S. Civil War's 150th anniversary, regarded as sort of a second birth of the U.S., it's worth wondering what would have happened if there had been no German immigrants. After all, they helped the Union cause. Four in five Americans of German descent, both first-generation immigrants and those born in the United States, were on the side of the north during the Civil War. No other ethnic group espoused the Union cause in such great numbers.

From there, it's not a great leap to the Muhlenberg legend, according to which the single vote of Frederick Muhlenberg, an American of German descent who was the first-ever speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, prevented German from becoming an official language of the United States.

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Portrait of Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg by Joseph Wright — Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

This story has been circulated in gazettes and books in various versions since the early 19th century. Of course, they're all wrong. Such a vote never took place.

What really happened is that 220 years ago, in January 1794, a group of German immigrants from Virginia petitioned the House of Representatives to publish legislation in both German and English. Their reasoning was that doing so would make it easier for new citizens to acclimate to the country.

The proposal was put before the main body for a vote. Forty-one members voted "yes," 42 "no." Frederick Muhlenberg, whose father was born in Einbeck in what is today the state of Lower Saxony, abstained from voting. In debate before the vote, he had expressed the view that the faster Germans learned English, the faster they would assimilate into American life.

18th century immigration angst

In Pennsylvania, the decision inspired two very different reactions. Quaker leader William Penn had received the colony in 1681 from the English crown. From the beginning, there was freedom of belief there, which drew numerous Free Church supporters and underprivileged religious communities. At the end of the 18th century, a third of Pennsylvania citizens had German roots.

But Pennsylvania was also the heartland of the American Revolution. The Continental Congress had met in the capital of Philadelphia, which is where the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Until 1800, Philadelphia was the second capital of the United States.

For people of German descent, their petition's rejection was viewed as a repudiation. The Muhlenberg legend gave these feelings of resentment a catchy anecdotal framework that made the rounds even back in Germany.

Non-Germans in America happily used the story to point to the dangers of too many immigrants. The Germans nearly managed, according to this version of events, to substitute German for English! But in fact there was never a formal decision about the official American language, English or otherwise.

Although later waves of immigrants turned the triangle between Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis into the "German Belt," the new settlers from Germany came to terms faster than the Italians or the Poles with the English language. The linguistic and often religious similarities they shared with the English were very helpful to them. Quickly integrated, they went on to lead successful working lives.

In the 18th century, the German publisher in Germantown (today part of the city of Philadelphia) reminded newly arrived immigrants of their good fortune: "Think, that mostly in Europe we didn't have a house, a farm, or goods, and some lived in great lack and poverty. Then think what a mild government we found here and still have."

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