Urban Legend: German almost became the official language of the US

Antiques Store, Micanopy

Long before I ever came to the US, I heard the story of how, a long long time ago, the US voted on an official language. In events packed with drama, opinions were split between English and German. It all came down to the final vote: English won - by a single vote, because one German-favoring guy was sitting on the toilet.

Gripping as this story may be, it is not exactly true. As the essay below explains, there was no such vote and therefore no fateful diarrhea.

The following essay was written by Dennis Barron and posted by Geoffrey Mess in soc.culture.german in March 1996. I formatted the text for HTML.

The Legendary English-Only Vote of 1795

by Dennis Barron

In April, 1987, an election judge from Missouri wrote to Ann Landers citing the following excerpt from the local Election Manual to support the argument that everyone's vote counts: "In 1776, one vote gave America the English language instead of German." The statement is not strictly true, as many of Landers' more alert readers quickly pointed out. The vote in question did not take place. However, language became a political and an emotional issue as early as the 1750s, when British settlers in Pennsylvania began to fear and resent the fact that a third of their fellow Pennsylvanians were German speakers.

Since that time, American nativists have sought to eradicate minority languages and discourage bilingualism wherever it could be found: in Maine and Louisiana, California and New Mexico, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, as well as in Pennsylvania. Complaints about Germans as well as other non-English-speakers became all too common in the last quarter of the 19th century, and again during and after World War I, when the fear of immigrants and their languages prompted protective English-only legislation. Many Americans considered nonanglophones to be less than human: in 1904 a railroad president told a congressional hearing on the mistreatment of immigrant workers, "These workers don't suffer--they don't even speak English."(Shanahan, 1989.) Today as well there is opposition to nonanglophones and bilinguals--this time not Germans but Hispanic and Asian Americans. The result is the proposed English Language Amendment (ELA), a Constitutional amendment making English the official language of the United States.

Despite the latest rehearsal in Ann Landers' advice column of the myth that German had once come close to replacing English in the United States, Americans have never had a legally-established official language. The so-called German vote did not take place in 1776, and it had nothing to do with privileging German over English. The legend that it did, which has gone around since at least the 1850s, was spread initially by propagandists celebrating German contributions to American culture. It has since been taken over by those who claim that the English language in the United States is an endangered species. The story of the German Vote is occasionally trotted out by ELA supporters to demonstrate the power of ethnic groups to subvert national unity and to warn Americans that although the German threat to English has been defused, the Spanish one has not.

The events whose misinterpretation gave rise to the legend of the German vote occurred in 1795, though the date is frequently changed to the more patriotically crucial year of 1776. As is characteristic of such stories, what actually occurred is not entirely clear. What is clear is that Congress never considered replacing English with any other language or giving any other tongue equal status with English. In the 18th century there were rumors that a few Brit-bashing superpatriots campaigned to have the new nation drop English in favor of Hebrew, French, or Greek, considered in the late 18th century to be the languages of God, rationality, and democracy, respectively. But the desire to found a New Eden rather than a New Babel assured that the United States would be united both legally and socially under a single language, and that language would be English. Noah Webster championed a dialect-free Federal English based on his spelling book. John Adams rightly predicted that English would become the next world language. And Roger Sherman of Connecticut is reported to have urged Americans to retain English and make the British speak Greek. (See Baron, 1982.) Despite the solid position of English both initially and throughout American history, the legend of the German vote persists.

The German Vote

On January 13, 1795, Congress considered a proposal, not to give German any official status, but merely to print the federal laws in German as well as English. During the debate, a motion to adjourn failed by one vote. The final vote rejecting the translation of federal laws, which took place one month later, is not recorded.

The translation proposal itself originated as a petition to Congress on March 20, 1794, from a group of Germans living in Augusta, Virginia. A House committee responding to that petition recommended publishing sets of the federal statutes in English and distributing them to the states, together with the publication of three thousand sets of laws in German, "for the accommodation of such German citizens of the United States, as do not understand the English language." (American State Papers ser. 10, v. 1:114). According to the succinct report in the Aurora Gazette, "A great variety of plans were proposed, but none that seemed to meet the general sense of the House." (22 January, 1795, p. 3).

A vote to adjourn and sit again on the recommendation failed, 42 to 41, but there is no reason to believe from this close vote that more than token support existed for publishing the laws in German. The vote to adjourn seems to have been interpreted by the House as a vote of no confidence both in the committee's recommendation to translate the laws and in its recommendation on the distribution of the sets of laws once they were published in English. While there is no record of debate on the translation provision that day, if sentiment on the issue in Congress was anything like sentiment in Pennsylvania, translation was probably opposed by a substantial majority of the representatives.

On the other hand, the committee's plan for distributing the sets of laws did provoke some strong disagreement in the House. After objections to the latter were aired, a new committee was formed and asked to report again, and the House agreed to adjourn. It is from the close interim vote, not on an actual bill but on adjournment, that the so-called "German vote" legend has been built.

One month later, on February 16, 1795, the House once again considered the question of promulgating the laws, and among the issues, once again, was translating the federal statutes into German. This time some of the actual debate has been preserved. Rep. Thomas Hartley of Pennsylvania argued that "it was perhaps desirable that the Germans should learn English; but if it is our object to give present information, we should do it in the language understood. The Germans who are advanced in years cannot learn our language in a day. It would be generous in the Government to inform those persons. Many honest men, in the late disturbances [the Whiskey Rebellion], were led away by misrepresentation; ignorance of the laws laid them open to deception."

Rep. William V. Murray of Maryland, who opposed translating the laws into German, countered "that it had never been the custom in England to translate the laws into Welsh or Gaelic, and yet the great bulk of the Welsh, and some hundred thousands of people in Scotland, did not understand a word of English." (Annals of Congress 4:1228-29) The House finally approved publication of current and future federal statutes in English only. The bill was agreed to by the Senate and signed by President Washington the following month.

The January vote on adjournment is sometimes known as "the Muhlenberg Vote," after the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Pennsylvania's Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, a Federalist who spoke German with difficulty, so it is claimed, and who was at any rate a member of a prominent family of assimilated Germans who favored English as the language of education and religion (Dorpalen 1942, 178). Although the roll call vote does not survive, tradition has it that Muhlenberg stepped down to cast the deciding negative, thereby dooming German in America to minority-language status. Tradition notwithstanding, too much weight should not be given to the fact that the Speaker was not in the chair on this occasion. It was common for the Speaker to step down, and Muhlenburg did so on many other occasions during the Third Congress. Even a positive vote on the adjournment issue could not have led to approval of German translations of the laws, a concession which the Congress has repeatedly refused to make ever since.

Nonetheless, Muhlenberg was blamed for selling out German language interests by Franz L‘her, whose 1847 "History and Achievements of the Germans in America" presents a garbled though frequently cited account of what is supposed to have happened. L‘her places the crucial language vote not in the U.S. Congress, but in the Pennsylvania legislature, over which Muhlenberg had earlier presided. There is no evidence as to Muhlenberg's actual views on German publishing; no evidence that he cast a tie-breaking vote on the matter; and no contemporary indication that the German community was displeased with his stewardship over the Third Congress. However, Muhlenberg later did manage to irritate his German constituents by casting the deciding vote in favor of the Jay Treaty during the Fourth Congress, a move which drove his brother-in-law to stab him and which cost him the next election in 1796. This significant tie-breaker soon became confused with the earlier adjournment cliff-hanger, conveniently fleshing out the myth of the German vote (Feer 1952, 401).

Official English Then and Now

Opponents of moves to make English the official language of the United States frequently suspect that English-only advocates are motivated by more than political idealism. This suspicion is certainly justified by the historical record. For the past two centuries, proponents of official-English have sounded two separate themes, one rational and patriotic, the other emotional and racist. The Enlightenment belief that language and nation are inextricably intertwined, coupled with the chauvinist notion that English is a language particularly suited to democratically constituted societies, are convincing to many Americans who find discrimination on non-linguistic grounds thoroughly reprehensible (see Baron, 1990). More prominent though, throughout American history, havebeen the nativist attacks on minority languages and theirspeakers: Native Americans, Asians, the French, Germans, Jews and Hispanics, to name only the most frequently-targeted groups.

The English-only nativists who attacked the Germans used arguments similar to those heard nowadays against newer immigrants. Benjamin Franklin considered the Pennsylvania Germans to be a "swarthy" racial group distinct from the English majority in the colony. In 1751 he complained, "Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?" (The papers of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959. vol 4:234).

The Germans were accused by other eighteenth-century Anglos of laziness, illiteracy, clannishness, a reluctance to assimilate, excessive fertility, and Catholicism. They were even blamed for the severe Pennsylvania winters. (Feer 1952, 403; Mittelberger 1898, 104). Most irritating to Pennsylvania's English-firsters in the latter 1700s was German language loyalty, although it was clear that, despite community efforts to preserve their language, Germans were adopting English and abandoning German at a rate that should have impressed the rest of the English-speaking population.

Anti-German sentiment spread along with German immigration, and the nation as a whole resisted both the German bilingual schools that were established in parts of the Midwest in the 19th century and the common practise of publishing legal notices in German American newspapers. On a number of occasions the U.S. Congress again rejected motions to print laws or other documents in German as well as English. The motions were often treated jocularly and were shouted down amidst racist cries of, "What! In the Cherokee? [and in] the Old Congo language!" (Congressional Globe 1844, 7)

Antagonism toward Germans and their language resurfaced in the Midwest in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and again across the country during and after World War I. Between 1917 and 1922 most of the states dropped German from their school curricula. Nebraska's open meeting law of 1919 forbade the use of foreign languages in public, and in 1918 Governor Harding of Iowa proclaimed that "English should and must be the only medium of instruction in public, private, denominational and other similar schools. Conversation in public places, on trains, and over the telephone should be in the English language. Let those who cannot speak or understand the English language conduct their religious worship in their home." (New York Times, 18 June 1918, p. 12). Such attitudes had a chilling effect on language use. As many as eighteen thousand people were charged in the Midwest during and immediately following World War I with violating the English-only statutes. (Crawford 1989, 23.)

The anti-German school laws were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1923. In Meyer v. Nebraska, the court ruled that "the protection of the Constitution extends to all,--to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue." (262 U.S. 390). Similar anti-Japanese laws were invalidated by the court in Farrington v. Tokushige in 1927 (273 U.S. 284). And the high court reaffirmed the states' responsibility to educate non-English speakers effectively in Lau v. Nichols (1974)(414 U.S. Reports 563), though the court did not specify how this was to be accomplished.

Nonetheless, Americans remain troubled by foreign languages and their speakers. Despite the fact that the 1980 U.S. Census showed that more than 97 percent of the people in the nation speak English, (Waggoner 1988, 69) nativist fears for the safety of English seem stronger than ever. The English Language Amendment (ELA) has been before the Congress since 1981. California passed an official-English law in 1986, a year in which a total of thirty-seven states considered official language measures. In 1989 Arizona, Colorado and Florida passed English-only laws, and votes on the issue are likely in Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania in the near future. Today's attempts to suppress the use of Asian languages and Spanish in the United States are manifest in state official-language referenda; in local ordinances mandating the use of the roman alphabet on signboards or forbidding the purchase of non-English books by public libraries; and in regulations which require employees to use English on the job and during breaks, or which force school children to use English in schoolbuses as well as classrooms.

Official-English is an emotional issue for many people, involving questions of patriotism as well as racism, language loyalty as well as assimilation. Supporters and opponents of the ELA almost came to blows during a discussion of the subject on the "Donahue" show in Miami a few years ago. Adding to the complexity of the issue is the problem that language legislation, at least in the United States, is difficult if not impossible to enforce. In 1906, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt ordered the federal government to adopt simplified spelling in its official publications. This move generated so much resistance that Roosevelt softly withdrew his order. (see Baron, 1982) The New Mexico constitution, establishing English as the new state's official language, was ratified by means of bilingual ballots. A 1923 Illinois law making American, rather than English, the official language of that state was quietly amended in 1969 because Illinois residents continued to speak and teach English in defiance or ignorance of the statute. The English Language Amendment, if it is passed, may also prove to be more of a symbol than an enforceable statute, though many people fear that it could become a dangerous tool for linguistic and cultural repression. In any case, though, the ELA seems one final, and to some observers, paranoid, attempt to make up for the perceived humiliation of 1795, when English reportedly came within a hair's-breadth of losing out as the official language of the United States in a vote which never really took place.


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