An 1816 church election threw fuel on a fiery national debate about immigrants, patriotism and the English language.

In March 1816, Pennsylvania’s attorney general charged 59 German-American men with conspiring to harass and assault a group of fellow congregants who wished to introduce English services into their shared church. The accused belonged to the largest German congregation in the United States at that time, the Lutheran St. Michael’s and Zion Church in Philadelphia. According to the indictment, the men disrupted meetings of the so-called English group by occupying their seats, singing and praying loudly in adjacent rooms and intimidating them with threats of violence. The German group pledged to “defend with their bodies and lives, the German divine worship, and to oppose by every means, lawful and unlawful, the introduction of any other language, into the churches.”

The confrontations climaxed in January 1816 when annual church elections, in which more than 770 men participated, were marked by rampant illegal voting, drinking, bribery, verbal insults and physical attacks. Anticipating trouble, the German group had formed a vigilante committee that included members of the congregation to help keep order. But the committee, the church’s two pastors and city constables were unable to control the men who soon took the struggle to the streets. William Wagner later testified that some were “intoxicated either with rage or liquor.” On seeing two constables trying to arrest a “noisy person,” Conrad Ripperger recalled that another congregant “stood on the same bench and said, this is a German brother…let us assist him, he shall not go to jail….They rescued the man—I saw him torn from the officers.” By evening, one witness claimed, 200 to 300 men were involved in a riot at the corners of Fourth and Arch streets. It was soon after the elections that several proponents of English brought formal charges against their antagonists.

On the morning of July 9, 1816, the 59 accused filed into the old assembly hall in Independence Hall. They were tried in a nisi prius court, a jury court that was presided over by one of the three Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices.The justice on duty that summer was Jasper Yeates, a resident of Lancaster and member of the court since 1791. The two parties were represented by members of America’s legal elite including Moses and Sampson Levy and William Rawle for the defense, and Horace Binney, Joseph Ingersoll (son of Attorney General Jared Ingersoll) and Samuel Keemle for the prosecution. The trial presented an excellent opportunity for the lawyers to show off their impressive legal and oratory skills. James Carson, a lawyer who was not formally involved with the case, recorded the entire proceedings in shorthand and published a detailed trial report the following year.

The legal issue before the court was fairly simple: The prosecution sought to prove that the men were guilty of assault and conspiracy. Questions dealing with language choice were irrelevant to the case. However, the attorneys for both sides knew that language choice could work in their favor if they were able to link it successfully to American rights and patriotism. They could not resist the opportunity to offer their opinions on the status of English and other languages in the new republic. Indeed, after reminding the jury that they were not in court to decide whether Americans should speak English, every one of them proceeded to offer detailed and lengthy ruminations on precisely this topic. The witness testimonies, attorneys’ closing statements and justice’s instructions to the jury suggest that the trial was not primarily about assault and conspiracy, but instead focused on a question that had been occupying many Americans since preRevolutionary days: whether an immigrant’s embrace of English was a prerequisite for membership in the American community.

During the colonial period, there had already been some concern about the unwillingness of certain immigrants to speak English. British North America was populated by a diverse group of people, including especially British, Scots-Irish, German, Dutch and Scandinavian immigrants. To some, this diversity appeared dangerous to the safety of the British colonies since one could never be sure whether a non-English immigrant would be loyal to the British in times of war. This fear was particularly pronounced in Pennsylvania where Germans comprised a significant part of the population, about one third by the end of the 18th century. In 1755, when war with France was looming on the horizon, Benjamin Franklin voiced these concerns when he asked:

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 us anglifying them?

Pennsylvania was an English colony, Franklin argued, not just in a political sense but also in its customs and manners. Immigrants who refused to speak English were not fully joining their new community and therefore could not be trusted. Franklin did not just write about his fears; he also took action. He was part of a group of British and American men who founded the charity school movement, which established free schools in German settlements with the secret intention of teaching English to them. While free schooling was a real temptation, the Germans refused to enroll their children as soon as they discovered the true objectives of the program. The Germans insisted that they became subjects of the British king by pledging their allegiance to him. The prominent German-American newspaper editor Christopher Saur argued that the immigrant’s transformation into a British subject was completed with the performance of a political act, not through the adaptation to the English culture and language.

The belief that language was not a crucial precondition for membership in the American community seems to have been shared by the Founding Fathers. During the Confederation period (1781-89), various federal documents were issued in German, French, Dutch and Swedish, thus recognizing that many Americans could not understand English but were nevertheless full members of the new nation.

The question of language was not debated at all during the Constitutional Convention, and the new Constitution made no mention of the issue. Many Americans still believe that a proposal to make German the national language of the United States failed by only one vote. However, there was no vote regarding a national language. This story may instead refer to a congressional debate sparked by a request from Germans in Virginia to have federal documents printed in German as well as English. The House of Representatives, presided over by Speaker Frederick Muhlenberg, a German American from Pennsylvania, rejected the idea in 1795 on the grounds that it would be too costly. But Congress undoubtedly hoped to gain the support of non-English speaking groups by acknowledging, at least implicitly, their right to speak their language.

Nevertheless, the official silence on the question of language choice did not mean that the issue was insignificant. American leaders were deeply ambivalent about the presence of large non English-speaking populations. On one hand, these immigrant groups could make beneficial contributions to society, especially when they brought with them valuable characteristics, such as frugality, simplicity, piety and a commitment to hard work. On the other hand, their presence could contribute to social divisions and, ultimately, to a fragmentation of society.

The Founding Fathers knew that legislating language use would create significant dissent; it was safer in 1788 to let the matter run its course without interference. Their passivity on the issue was based on the assumption that minority languages would disappear. The dominance of English was so overwhelming that they felt such languages as German and French could not possibly survive the onslaught. Minister, geographer and historian Jedediah Morse wrote in his 1789 study of the United States that “the English language is the one which is universally spoken in the United States, in which business is transacted, and the records are kept.” Morse believed that it was simply inevitable that foreigners would embrace English. The diverse people, he predicted, would “become so assimilated, as that all nominal distinctions shall be lost in the general and honourable name of AMERICANS.”

John Jay expressed this confidence in Federalist No. 2 when he wrote, “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” Jay recognized the importance of language in the process of creating an American national identity. Most Americans agreed that language was not only a signifier of a nation but also could actually help construct it, uniting a people and shaping their attitudes toward government. John Adams, in his proposal for an American language academy, argued in 1780 that “language…influences not only the form of government, but the temper, the sentiments, and manners of the people.” Adams urged Congress, to no avail, to establish and fund an educational institution in which English would be “refined, corrected, improved, and ascertained.” Similarly, to reduce the danger of disorder and to foster cohesion among diverse people, the Pennsylvanian Benjamin Rush called for a “uniform system of education, [that] will render the mass of the people more homogeneous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” Instruction in English was considered a crucial component of such an educational program.

The American most closely associated with the attempt to assist the construction of the American nation through language was Noah Webster. “English,” Webster insisted, “is the common root or stock from which our national language will be derived. All others will gradually waste away—and within a century and a half, North America will be peopled with a hundred millions of men, all speaking the same language.” Webster labored for years to create American dictionaries and spelling books that promoted an American, or as he referred to it, a federal, language. Political independence from Britain, he argued, should be accompanied by linguistic independence. More important, a shared language would be the glue that held the diverse people of the United States together. As Webster asked in 1786, “A national language is a national tie, and what country wants it more than America?”

But non-English Americans did not accept the loss of their ancestral languages without a struggle. In fact, many of the Germans who resided in Pennsylvania during the early national period insisted on the continued use of German for exactly the same reasons that men such as Webster advocated a national language. The preservation of their language, they agreed, ensured the survival of their cultural and social community. Conversely, the loss of the German language meant the destruction of the German nation, and its worthy cultural traits, in America. Yet Germans faced a dilemma: How could they reconcile the desire to preserve their cultural identity with the commitment to become members of the American republic? Could immigrants reject English and still consider themselves, and be perceived as, patriotic Americans? These were the questions that ultimately took center stage in the Philadelphia courtroom in July 1816.

The participants in the Philadelphia conflict generally agreed that some knowledge of English was an advantage since it allowed the newcomer to participate fully in his new home’s political and economic life. The debate instead focused on whether, for the sake of societal cohesion, immigrants should be coerced to use English, and whether immigrants who chose not to embrace English could nevertheless be considered patriotic Americans.

From the prosecution’s perspective, the rejection of English was unreasonable, unnatural and unjust. In his impassioned closing statements, prosecution attorney Horace Binney asked, “Those who know the nature of man, is it possible in the centre of an American community to rear children to the use and perfect understanding of the German language?” If the German Lutheran church indeed continued to prohibit English in its services, Binney continued, it must rely “upon emigration. The emigrant must supplant the native; and when he has been long enough in this country to rear an American family, that family must be rejected by the church to make room for a fresh importation of strangers and aliens.” The loss of a native language in a foreign environment was inevitable, Binney argued, and those “Germans, who are at the beginning of every fifteen or twenty years the enemy of English will be at the end its friends.” The defendants’ demands, in short, contradicted the course of nature, which inevitably led to a rise of English in an immigrant community. This, the prosecution claimed, explained why the adamant enemies of English could never succeed in their quest to keep English out of their community without resorting to violence, incidents of which had been amply documented in the witness testimonies.

Not surprisingly, the defense rejected Binney’s argument. Attorney William Rawle urged the jury to consider “that they who are best acquainted with the German language, are most attached to it; they discovered something in that language which caused their attachment to it, you must see in their expression, which we coolly and not so enthusiastically may admire; it is the language of sincerity, it comes from the heart, and cannot give offence. Imagine,” Rawle continued, “a group of people would meet in the Presbyterian church with the inclination to introduce Catholic worship or vice versa, would you not be acting in a most regular manner to interrupt it?” Rawle clearly identified the defendants’ greatest fear: The loss of German ultimately meant the loss of their religion. The introduction of English, then, was equivalent to the destruction of their ancestral faith.

The argument that the loss of one’s native language inevitably leads to the loss of other cultural elements, including religion, has always been at the heart of the language conflict. Many Philadelphia Germans opposed English primarily because they believed that the German Lutheran faith could not be practiced and transmitted in what they considered a foreign language. This, of course, was not at all reasonable to English-speaking Americans. In an effort to show that the use of English was perfectly “orthodox according to the tenets of Martin Luther,” Justice Jasper Yeates noted, “To Omniscience all languages are known as well as the inward recesses of the human heart.” Therefore, there was no reason for immigrants of any faith not to leave their native languages behind and embrace English.

Moreover, as in the colonial period, many Americans continued to view the rejection of English as a sign of disloyalty to the immigrant’s new home. On the last day of the trial, Attorney General Jared Ingersoll expressed what many onlookers had undoubtedly been thinking all along. “Why this hostility to the English language?” he asked in exasperation. “When the United States, emerged from colonial state, they had a right to select the French tongue as well as that of Great Britain—convenience led them to adopt that, to which the majority was accustomed. There is no reason to be prejudiced against this language on account of its name; and to the patriotic German it is pleasing, that it is patriotic language in which the declaration of independence is announced, and in which the charter of our liberties is written, and preserved.”

As did his colleague Binney, Ingersoll acknowledged English-speaking Germans for being patriotic Americans whose language choice demonstrated their affection for their chosen home. Immigrants who rejected English, in contrast, supposedly lacked an understanding and appreciation of the ideals on which the nation had been founded. (Presumably, they could not even understand the nation’s founding documents.) They were, as Binney had established earlier, strangers and aliens who threatened to displace Americans even in their most cherished spaces, their churches. English was the language that every patriotic American embraced and that those of questionable allegiance rejected.

The German language faction recognized the importance of disproving this image, and they did so by appropriating the symbol of America, the eagle. Several trial witnesses testified that German ballots used in the church elections of January 1816 were emblazoned with a picture of an eagle and that a number of sympathizers with the German cause had images of the eagle positioned conspicuously in their hat bands. To the English faction, the use of the eagle was a serious matter because it clearly violated church election rules prohibiting the use of images on ballots. More important, the pro-English group understood that the use of the eagle equated a commitment to German with a commitment to America. The iconographic symbol used by the German supporters also included the words E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” The pro-German group, the ballot signaled, defended their rights as Americans to practice their (German) religion freely. The demands of their opponents encroached on their religious freedom, which was their constitutional right and central to their German identity. One of the main strategies utilized by the German faction in the fight against English was the depiction of pro-English Germans as aggressive attackers on their liberties and, therefore, as un-American. The display of the eagle and the E Pluribus Unum motto worked perfectly to link symbolically the German language supporters’ devotion to their German heritage with their loyalty to the American nation.

In the end, the jury found the defendants guilty of the conspiracy and assault charges, and they were ordered to pay fines ranging from $5 to $50. The judgment was upheld on appeal, but Pennsylvania’s German-American Governor Simon Snyder remitted the fines and court costs in January 1817. In a related trial held later in 1816, the election of supporters of the German-only position was deemed invalid, and special elections were ordered to replace them.

Of course, the courtroom victory for the proponents of English did not settle the language conflict in the German community. In 1818, after numerous additional attempts to negotiate the introduction of English had failed, a group of pro-English members split from St. Michael’s and Zion and began holding English services in the University of Pennsylvania’s Academy Hall on Fourth Street. In 1828 they moved into their own church, St. Matthew’s. The mother congregation maintained German-only services into the 20th century.

In the early United States, language choice would not be decided by the courts, nor would the state and federal governments make laws that regulated the use of a certain language. While most Americans agreed that a command of English held benefits for the individual and the community, the Founding Fathers as well as the participants in the 1816 Philadelphia trial ultimately agreed that language choice was a voluntary matter. Nearly 200 years later, the debate goes on.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here