Author: Berthold Seewald
Translator: Douglas McKnight
The mass immigration of Germans to the USA in the 18th century provoked a fear of being overrun by foreigners. America’s government was in danger. An American with German roots points the way towards successful integration.
On June 11th, 1776, five men from of the Continental Congress of the 13 British Colonies in North America received the instructions to draft the declaration of independence. 17 days later, the Commission of Delegates submitted their draft. On July 2nd, it was accepted with 12 votes—only New York refrained—“that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Benjamin Franklin, a polymath, who had made a name as an author, inventor, naturalist, and politician, and as a diplomat had a critical part in the victory of the revolution against the British colonial power, was a part of this group of five men. Franklin significantly influenced the phrasing of human and civil rights in the modern era.
“The pursuit of happiness” plays a central role in the current debate about the right to asylum and migration. Even more interesting is the limitation that Franklin made a few years earlier in a letter. In it, he had clear words for a special group of immigrants—the Germans. He accused them of nothing less than refusing to integrate, and his arguments bring to mind the accusations that are invoked against Muslim migrants today.
“Few of their children…learn English,” complained Franklin. “They import many books from Germany…two (from six publishing houses) are entirely German…The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German… they will soon out number us, that all the advantages we have…will not…be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”
Franklin, who had been born a son of an English colonial in Boston, had spent most of his life in Pennsylvania, which had been founded by William Penn for Quakers. This was the goal of most Germans, who looked to make their luck in the New World as religious refugees. In 1727, 20,000 Germans lived in Penn’s colony. By the end of the century, according to Alexander Emmerich in his History of the Germans in America (Edition Fackelträger), that number was as many as 200,000.
They were perceived as skillful farmers and craftsmen, but also as outsiders, who would rather keep to themselves and maintain their conventions and customs than interact with their English neighbors. Emmerich cites a puritan priest: “(By the Germans) rule…lower values. One has often seen fathers and sons at a gambling table…during this they cursed at each other and called each other liars…accused one another and then at a later hour were very drunk.’’
Even those who appeared to be willing to integrate refused the language of their new homeland. Instead, their own dialect came about—Pennsylvania-Dutch or Pennsylvania-German, which blended together English words and German phrases (originally from the Palatinate). Even in the 20th century they called the television the “Guggbox.” [From the German gucken, to watch, and box. Thus, the ‘watch box.’].
When Franklin was in Pennsylvania’s capital, Philadelphia, working on the wording of the Declaration of Independence, around a third of the colony were Germans or direct descendants of them. Around the end of the century, German migration reached other states in the USA. The permanent wars in Europe and the example of the French Revolution drove numerous Germans to the New World, including migrants from the Netherlands, the Habsburg Empire, the Russian Empire, the Alps, and also the Balkans.
For example, they moved to Virginia where immigrants drafted a petition in 1794 that became legend. They asked the House of Representatives to publish the texts of laws in German so that it would be easier for them to find their way in America.
The proposal was transferred to the main committee and there it finally came to a vote. 41 members voted ‘Yes,’ while 42 voted ‘No.’ Frederick Muhlenberg, whose father had been born in Einbeck, in today’s Lower Saxony [a state in Germany], had succeeded in becoming the first Speaker of the House of Representatives. He abstained. Not because he, as a person with German roots, wanted to abandon suspicion that he was biased, but rather because he deemed the whole matter simply wrong.
“The sooner the Germans become Americans, the better,” explained Muhlenberg. And the best medium for that was the mastering of the English language.
The future proved him right. In the 2000 census, more than 49.2 million Americans, from 282 million, reported to descend from Germans, easily the largest immigrant group in the country. Although only 26.9 million US citizens can trace genuine roots to Britain, few elements of the German language survived. A better argument for the quick and comprehensive language acquisition in the current debate about integration can`t be found.
Nevertheless, this success story also brought about its own conspiracy theory. Afterwards, it was seen not as a regional petition, but rather as a fundamental vote on which official language should serve the future USA. If that had been German, the history of the world power would have looked much different, according to the supporters of the “Muhlenberg-Legend.” But that’s always the case with legends: they don’t have much in common with reality.