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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Official English Again

Last Thursday, while debating its immigration reform bill, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to it that would declare English the "national language" of the United States (it was watered down a little while later to "common and unifying language"). The House is considering a similar proposal advocating an amendment to the Constitution that would establish English as the "official language of the United States."

These provisions recall Wisconsin's bitter fight more than a century ago when similar propositions passed here -- and cost Republicans the governorship and control of the legislature.

In the 1880s, some English-speaking residents began to insist that schools attended by immigrants conduct their classes in English. Many immigrants, especially Germans, had established private schools as a way to preserve their unique cultures. Many English-speakers considered this a kind of unpatriotic resistance to American culture. When William Dempster Hoard of Fort Atkinson ran for governor in 1888, he made English-only and assimilation of immigrants central themes of his successful campaign.

The following legislative session, Hoard’s program was put into effect. Assemblyman Michael Bennett of Dodgeville introduced a bill that required all schools, public and private, to conduct classes in English. It also imposed other requirements on parochial schools.

Many German Americans denounced the Bennett Law as an assault on their culture by Yankees who wanted to force their own values on everyone else. Most Yankees, of course, saw it as a victory over foreign degradation of American culture. In the middle, a range of more moderate voices, in both English and German, argued for the inevitability of assimilation, contending that learning English would not destroy German culture.

Opposition to the Bennett Law was loud, persistent, and widespread. It led immigrants to organize and turn out the vote in droves, and in 1890, after only a single term, the Republicans and Governor Hoard were voted out of office.

It was a Pyrrhic victory. Though the Bennett Law was repealed the following legislative session, the moderates persuaded many German schools to begin implementing English instruction alongside German, and the rising generation of German children born in Wisconsin grew up bilingual or speaking mostly English.

The nail in the coffin of German education was driven home a generation later, when America's entrance into World War One unleashed a wave of anti-German sentiment leading to suppression of German culture.

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 20, 2006

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