Q. In a recent conversation, someone mentioned that German came very close to being declared the official language of the United States. I questioned that. Please settle this.
— William P. Clark, of Belleville
A. As tennis great John McEnroe would have cried, “Sie können nicht ernst sein!”
At least, that’s how he would have said “You cannot be serious!” during his legendary 1981 rant against a chair umpire had German been declared the official language of the United States. It wasn’t, of course. In fact, it never was considered. Yet now, based on one teeny-tiny grain of truth, it has turned into one of the top 10 urban myths that refuse to die.
It’s often called the Muhlenberg Legend after Frederick Muhlenberg, the first speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the man often credited as casting the deciding vote on Congress’ choice of English over German. In 1987, for example, a Missouri election judge continued to spread the myth in an Ann Landers column when he cited Muhlenberg’s vote in 1776 to remind people that one vote could decide a crucial issue or race.
Well, such a vote didn’t come in 1776, 1795 or any other year, although it wouldn’t have been surprising had the German language been up for consideration, some historians say. After all, Hessian soldiers and Major Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben came to the aid of our fledgling army during the Revolutionary War. And don’t forget the valiant story of Molly Pitcher (probably Molly Ludwig Hays), daughter of a German immigrant who took over firing one of those war cannon after her husband was wounded.
And since there was so much antipathy toward the British, the colonists could have wanted to dump the English language simply out of spite. Just like today, there reportedly were a few superpatriots who argued for adopting Hebrew, French or Greek because they were the languages of God, rationality and democracy, respectively.
So, in a 1982 edition of “Ripley’s Book of Chance,” you’ll find this under “The Most Important Vote Ever Cast”: “In 1774 ... it was proposed in the American Continental Congress that the official language be changed from English to German.”
This time, the book said, the vote was 27-27 before, believe it or not, Muhlenberg cast the tie-breaker for English. Don’t you believe it. Muhlenberg’s political career didn’t even start until 1779, so trust your Answer Man — this is what really happened:
On March 20, 1794. a group of Germans living in Augusta, Va., asked not that German be declared the official language but simply that Congress print all federal laws in German as well as English. Considering how many documents and automated answering systems are done in Spanish today, this probably didn’t seem unreasonable for immigrants who wanted to make sure they were obeying their new country’s legal code.
But Congress refused. Although a House committee recommended publishing 3,000 sets of statutes in German, the entire House essentially voted 42-41 on Jan. 13, 1795, that laws be published in English only.
So, there never was the slightest effort to make German the official language. Quite the opposite. Noah Webster fought for a dialect-free English language based on his spelling book. John Adams foresaw English becoming a world language. And Connecticut’s Roger Sherman supposedly once urged Americans to speak English while making the British speak Greek.
Still, thanks to Franz von Löher’s 1847 book, “History and Achievements of the Germans in America,” the myth that German barely lost out to English persists. Löher was a German author who apparently still was rankled that Muhlenberg had sold out his German heritage to cast what Löher claimed was the deciding vote that would make German forever a minority language. After all, Muhlenberg represented Pennsylvania, home to a sizable German population. Well into the 19th century, people in Lancaster County spoke only German.
But Muhlenberg, a Lutheran pastor, reportedly was not terribly fluent in German himself. And whether he really cast the deciding vote in 1795 is open to question. Some say he did. Some say he abstained. Still others contend he was in the restroom when the vote occurred. However, what does seem certain is that after the vote, Muhlenberg declared, “The faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be.”
One month later, Congress drove in the final stake. When it revisited the issue, representatives from Muhlenberg’s own state made an impassioned plea for bilingual publication.
“It is perhaps desirable that the Germans should learn English,” Thomas Hartley argued. “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 Whiskey Rebellion), were led away by misrepresentation; ignorance of the laws laid them open to deception.”
But William Murray, of Maryland, replied, “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.”
Congress finally approved the publication of all laws in English only, and President George Washington signed the bill in March. More than two centuries later, there still is no official language at the federal level, but rest assured German never came close.
Who may have been the first man to be called father of his country?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: In 1992, Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly bought the first civilian Hummer, a 7-foot-wide, 6,300-pound behemoth. It likely was his reward for suggesting that AM General Corp. start making civilian models after he saw an Army convoy while filming a movie.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.