The recent signing of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant bill reminded me of another law passed a while ago. Commonly called the Bennett law, it aimed to make the teaching of English mandatory in all public and private schools. Like Arizona’s law, it constituted a response to large immigration, ignited by nativist sentiment.
The Bennett law reacted to similar anti-immigration feelings as those present in Arizona today. To many Americans, immigrants were unwanted foreigners taking away American jobs. They spoke a foreign language and came from a foreign land. They did not speak English and were accused of refusing to do so. They had a different culture and stayed together amongst themselves; assimilation did not seem to work with them. They seemed less loyal to the United States and more loyal to their homeland. At core, they seemed “un-American.”
I am speaking, of course, about German immigrants in Wisconsin.
The year was 1890, and America was faced with a massive, unprecedented inflow of immigrants. They were coming from all over western Europe – Germany, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. Many were Catholics – a religion some did not consider Christian in those times. Others considered drinking alcohol as quite normal, in contrast to American norms.
Bennett’s law came about because of these cultural clashes. Originally an ordinary school reform, it became engulfed in controversy when Assemblyman Michael Bennett of Dodgeville added an amendment requiring all schools to teach English.
During this time, many German-Americans went to private, parochial schools set up by the immigrant community; these were especially prevalent in rural Wisconsin. Because many did not teach English, the Bennett law posed an existential threat to these German schools. The Democratic Party, which had a substantial base amongst immigrants, came out strongly against the law; the Republican Party, dominant in Wisconsin at the time, strongly favored it.
Republican supporters, including Governor William Hoard, argued that learning English was vital to succeeding in America. Mr. Hoard stated:
I have, I believe, as friendly a feeling towards our German-American population as any man in this country; and if I did not believe that the Bennett Law would assist in the advancement of their youth I would certainly oppose its continuance upon our statute books. I want the little German boy and girl, the little Norwegian, the little Bohemian and the little Pole, the children of all foreign born parents, to have the same chance in life as my children. Without a knowledge of the English language they can not have this chance.
They also appealed to good-old American patriotism and the much-admired American tradition of the “little red schoolhouse.” One newspaper wrote:
The little district school-house is very dear to the American heart, and whoever lays the hand of violence upon it will evoke a storm of wrath which no power on earth can withstand. It is impossible to tell what motive may lurk behind this opposition to the Bennett law, but if its opponents are preparing for an attack upon our public schools, let them beware.
Opponents, on the other hand, called it an unconstitutional intrusion of the government into private affairs. They argued, moreover, that the Bennett law was pointless; German-Americans were quickly learning English anyways.
The main contention, however, was that the Bennett law constituted an attack on the German-American immigrant community. One German newspaper heatedly claimed that:
To such people who will recognize as “Americans” only those whose ancestors lived here during the war of the revolution, the German who clings to his home customs and to his glorious native tongue is an annoyance. It is not sufficient for them that we should become Americanized – we want to do that in the proper manner, of course – but they want us to become de-Germanized. And they think that can be accomplished first by destroying German schools. Their calculation is certainly a correct one. Aside from immigration, which it is sought to restrict in every possible manner, the German element in America has its greatest strength in the German schools. In destroying these, as the Bennett law seeks to do, the German element would lose one of the main conditions of its existence.
Matters came to a head in the 1890 gubernatorial election, when Republican Governor William Hoard, a powerful advocate of the Bennett law, faced re-election. Mr. Hoard lost by an overwhelming margin to Democratic candidate George W. Peck, backed by the angered German-American community.
In the following years the Republican Party’s dominance upon Wisconsin politics was severely disrupted. Their 7-2 House congressional majority was upended, turning into a 8-1 Democratic majority. Democrats gained a two-to-one majority in the state legislature, and Wisconsin voted Democratic in the 1892 presidential election (for the first time since 1852). Although other factors, such as an unpopular tariff, were also responsible for this, the Bennett Law certainly played no small role. It was promptly repealed in 1891.
Fortunately for the Republican Party, German-American loyalty to the Democratic Party did not last. Their self-consciousness as an immigrant community gradually faded away as they were absorbed into the American melting pot. Today individuals with German heritage tend to vote Republican. Some undoubtedly are influenced by nativist sentiment against those supposedly foreign, non-English speaking, assimilation-resistant Latino immigrants flooding into the United States.
But if the history the Bennett Law tells one anything, the Latino immigrant of today is the German immigrant of yesterday. In half a century labeling Latinos as “foreigners” may sound as strange as talking about a German-American immigrant community.