How German Is American? Growing into the Nation

How German Is American?



Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most German-speaking immigrants to the U.S. settled outside of large cities; hence some of the most direct expressions of older German-American identity can be found in small-town settings. Many or most Americans of German descent, it is said, were not interested in politics on the national level. It has been pointed out that although more Americans claim German ancestry than any other, only two presidents, Hoover and Eisenhower, were of German heritage.

Nevertheless, the relative lack of direct German-American involvement in national politics does not reflect apoliticism. Instead, there is a unique political culture of many Americans of German background, especially those whose ancestors came during the colonial era, like the Pennsylvania Dutch, which has been described by the historian Steven Nolt as “peasant republicanism.” This culture, whose origins trace back to the social conditions of Central Europe, is a curious mix of conservative and progressive elements. On the one hand, rural Germans respected the authority of inherited traditions and institutions. On the other, they valued individual liberty. In the U.S. context, rural German Americans often voted for the national party that favored stronger local control. Shortly after the Revolution, that was the anti-Federalist Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson. Later, the populist Democrat Andrew Jackson enjoyed widespread support among rural Americans, especially the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society Library

The early German-American peasant republican spirit is exemplified by the newspaper Der Deutsche Porcupein, published in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, whose 1798 masthead is shown here. The newspaper’s name was inspired by an English journalist and political commentator, William Cobbett (1763–1835), who wrote under the pseudonym “Peter Porcupine.” The image was considered an apt one for journalists of the time: the porcupine is by nature a passive creature that defends itself only when attacked, and then with its sharp quills. Note that the angel flying over the porcupine is trumpeting “Preßfreyheit!” (freedom of the press).

Often sharper than the journalist’s quill is the cartoonist’s pen. At the end of the nineteenth century, as today, no major political conflict went unaddressed by cartoons on the editorial pages of American newspapers. The medium of the political cartoon was indelibly shaped by the German-born artist and caricaturist Thomas Nast (1840–1902). An ardent Radical Republican supporter of Abraham Lincoln, Nast first achieved prominence for his depictions of the horrors of slavery and the Civil War. His fame grew when his caricatures played a major role in the downfall of the notorious leader of the Tammany Hall political machine in New York, William M. “Boss” Tweed. He is credited with creating a number of classic American cultural icons, including Santa Claus, the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, the Tammany tiger, Columbia, and John Chinaman, a stereotypic but sympathetic rendering of Chinese immigrants, whose concerns, along with those of the Native American, Nast championed.

An illustration of Uncle Sam by Thomas Nast
Hand-colored wood engraving from the November 16, 1879 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

The image presented here includes two more of Nast’s creations, the stout personification of Great Britain, John Bull, and none other than Uncle Sam. Here Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany stands between America and Britain, helping to resolve a long-standing dispute over claims to the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest. At the time this cartoon was published, on November 16, 1872, the Kaiser’s decision in favor of the U.S. had just been announced. Reference is made in this cartoon to another disagreement between the U.S. and Britain that had recently been settled, namely the so-called Alabama claims. Specifically, the U.S. had argued that Britain had violated its official neutrality during the Civil War when British shipbuilders built and refitted Confederate ships. The Washington Treaty of 1871 had stipulated that the Alabama claims would be arbitrated by a five-member Geneva Tribunal, which included the German Kaiser; and on September 14, 1872, the Tribunal had announced that Britain should pay the U.S. a settlement in the amount $15.5 million. The money bag in the picture reminds us of this, and the caption “It Never Rains But It Pours” underscores the fact that two major decisions in favor of the U.S. had just been made within two months, with the German Kaiser party to both of them.

Despite, or perhaps because of, many German Americans’ interest in protecting their local situation, they followed such national and international affairs closely, often with concern. After the Civil War, when the U.S. continued to grow geographically and demographically, Americans felt tension both at home and abroad. Conflicts over territories escalated between the U.S. and other nations, as the image depicts here. Within the U.S., the various waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and southern and eastern Europe left many old-stock Americans—including many now well established German Americans—feeling threatened, especially during times of economic crisis; and this led to the formation of nativist, anti-immigrant political parties such as the Know-Nothings. Overall during these decades, American patriotism swelled and often crossed the line into nationalism.

At the same time, as this period in American history coincided with the rise of the newly unified German Empire, some German Americans, especially those living in urban areas, felt a certain amount of pride that their once fragmented ancestral homeland was coming into its own on the international scene. But only two generations later, the events of World War I compelled many to remove the hyphen” and assimilate. World War I, with the anti-German sentiments it engendered, has often been assigned sole blame for the“submergence” of German-American identity. Yet many of the internal and external pressures to assimilate, which were felt by Americans of German descent, did not arise primarily as a result of the war.

Thomas Nast’s Uncle Sam has most definitely endured in America as a personified symbol of the nation. Events in Europe over the past century, though, have meant that there is no equivalent figure, male or female, in today’s Germany. Flag-waving patriotism in the U.S., even when it borders on nationalism, is very much a part of American national culture, but in today’s Germany the black-red-gold colors are rarely displayed except at international sports events. Nevertheless, public expressions of patriotism and nationalism were not uncommon in Germany in the past; especially after German unification in 1871, national self-esteem was running high among Germans in Europe. In this country, German Americans sought to emphasize the positive aspects of both sides of the hyphen referred to above by underscoring the contributions of traditionally German virtues to the American national experience, thus forging a German-American national identity. One important tool in the construction of this identity was the press.

Cover of book titled Unser Adoptiv-Vaterland
Published by the Milwaukee Herold, 1889. Cover image from the Max Kade Institute Library

Wisconsin’s German-language publications appeared as early as 1844, and Milwaukee was a leading national center for German- American print culture. In the early years, large numbers of travel reports and guides for newcomers were printed, including books with advice on farming, cooking, health, legal advice, learning English, etc. The dual identity of many early German Americans is reflected in the publication shown here, Unser Adoptiv-Vaterland. Published in Milwaukee in 1889, this book is a history of the U.S., which presents the major moments in American history in the immigrants’ mother tongue. As is reflected by the subtitle (“with special consideration of the German-American element”), it includes a short section detailing the part played by Americans of German descent in the development of the U.S.

The following quote from Unser Adoptiv-Vaterland is representative of the sentiments of many German Americans who hoped that German virtues would influence the American national character in positive ways: “Mögen deutsche Gründlichkeit, Beständigkeit und Treue auch fernerhin die Kennzeichen des deutschen Elementes in den Vereinigten Staaten bleiben und sich dem americanischen Nationalcharacter immer schärfer und bestimmter aufprägen!” (May German diligence, steadfastness, and loyalty continue to be the hallmarks of the German element in the United States and imprint themselves ever more indelibly upon the American national character!)

In addition to print media, education was an important vehicle for promoting a national identity that was fundamentally American, but strongly influenced by the German heritage. For decades, hundreds of thousands of American children, and not only those of German background, received instruction in German in private, parochial, and public schools. In many schools all subjects were taught in German, while others offered bilingual instruction.

Das A.B.C. in Bildern (ABC in Pictures) published in 1905 by McLoughlin Bros., Inc., New York, is an example of a publication for German-speaking children in America. At the turn of the twentieth century many Americans (over 30% in some Midwestern states) spoke German in their homes, often in the second or third generation. In schools, children learned to read and write in German, but in an American context. In the image shown here a child is introduced to the letter “F” and the word “Fahne” (flag), written in German Fraktur. The accompanying picture of the “Fahne,” however, is the American flag, an example of the patriotic expressions in this country’s public life discussed above, as well as the patriotism felt by immigrants from Germany toward their new homeland.

Page from German-language primer showing a snowman holding an American flag
Image from the Max Kade Institute Library

Das A.B.C. in Bildern evokes America’s rich history of teaching children in languages other than English, but it also recalls the significant influence of German practices and theories on American primary and secondary education in general. Many U.S. schools adopted German concepts of early-childhood education, higher education for girls, vocational education, and structured teacher training and certification. The first successful American kindergarten was founded in 1856 by German immigrant Margarethe Mayer Schurz, wife of Carl Schurz, in Watertown, Wisconsin. Many of these educational ideas were adapted to conditions in America, while other aspects of the German system, such as its three-tiered secondary education structure, were never introduced. Interestingly, German ideas for educational reform often found more acceptance in America than in Central Europe itself, especially Prussia, where the inertia of tradition remained strong. Image from the Max Kade Institute Library.

At the post-secondary level, the concept of a research university in which students pursued a major course of study and learned in seminars, rather than just large lectures, was derived directly from nineteenth-century German ideals. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are signs of U.S. influence on German education: Germany is moving toward adopting certain American educational practices, especially at the university level, by creating B. A. programs, seeking private sources of funding (and student fees), and increasing access to a wider range of students.


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