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English Only

The Legendary English-Only
Vote of 1795

This isn’t the first time that Americans have argued about whether English-only should be the law of the land. Dennis Baron delves into the origins of the myth of an early move to outlaw German and relates more recent measures to discourage bilingualism, including by the U.S. Constitution.

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 non-Anglophones 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 non-Anglophones 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.

In the 18th Century, there were rumors English would be dropped as the official language

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).

Congress considered translating federal laws into German a number of times

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.”

It had never been the custom in England to translate the laws into Welsh or Gaelic…

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 Löher, whose 1847 History and Achievements of the Germans in America presents a garbled though frequently cited account of what is supposed to have happened. Löher 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, have been the nativist attacks on minority languages and their speakers: 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

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

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 school buses as well as classrooms.

Official-English is an emotional issue for many people

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.

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Send comments to debaron@uiuc.edu.

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References

American State Papers. Washington, D.C. ser. 10, v. 1 (1834):114.

Ann Landers. Your one vote can be important. Los Angeles Times 7 Apr. 1987.

Annals of Congress  Washington, D.C. 4 (1849):1228Ä29.

Aurora Gazette  22 Jan. 1795:  3.

Baron, Dennis. The English-Only question: An official language for Americans? New

Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990.

_______________. Grammar and good taste: Reforming the American language. New Haven:Yale Univ. Press, 1982.

Congressional Globe 1844: 7.

Crawford, James. Bilingual education: History, politics, theory, and practice. Trenton, N.J.: Crane Publishing, 1989.

Dorpalen, Andreas. The German Element in Early Pennsylvania Politics, 1789-1800: A Study in Americanization. Pennsylvania History  9 (1942): 178.

Feer, Robert A.  Official use of the German language in Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 76 1952: 394-405.

Franklin, Benjamin. The papers of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 4, 1952: 234.

Löher, Franz. Geschichte und Zustände der Deutschen in Amerika. Cincinnati, 1847.

Mittelberger, Gottlieb. Journey to Pennsylvania in the year 1750 and return to Germany in the year 1754. Philadelphia: Trans. Carl T. Eben, 1898.

Shanahan, Daniel.  We need a nationwide effort to encourage, enhance, and expand our students' proficiency in languages. Chronicle of Higher Education 21 May 1989: A40.

Waggoner, Dorothy.  Language minorities in the United States in the 1980s: The evidence from the 1980 census. In Language diversity: Problem or resource?, ed. Sandra Lee McKay and Sau-ling Cynthia Wong. New York.: Newbury House, 1988. 69-108.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of several books on the English language, including The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? (Yale Univ. Press, 1990); Grammar and Gender (Yale, 1986); Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language (Yale, 1982); Declining Grammar (National Council of Teachers of English, 1989); and Guide to Home Language Repair (NCTE: 1994). He writes for academic journals but his essays have also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and other newspapers, and he speaks about language issues both on his local public radio station, WILL-AM, and on radio and TV programs in other cities around the country. He is currently writing a book on the impact of technology on our reading and writing practices.

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