Americanization and the Bennett Law

In the mid-nineteenth century, reformers began to view education as a means of social change. As the number of immigrants continued to grow and diversify the population, a series of efforts were launched by policy makers to assimilate these disparate groups into mainstream American culture. Learning the English language became a central focus of many Americanization efforts.

In the 19th century, Wisconsin's first white settlers were mainly Yankees from New York and New England, but in the 1840s large numbers of European immigrants, primarily Germans and Norwegians, began settling in Wisconsin. Waves of ethnic conflict periodically swept through Wisconsin, though to a lesser degree than in some other states. Many of these conflicts surrounded temperance laws - - many Yankees disapproved of drinking while most Germans considered it normal - - and the extent to which German language and culture could be taught in schools. At the same time that these tensions among European immigrant groups occurred, attempts to "Americanize" Wisconsin's Indian communities through special educational and cultural curriculums were promulgated by the U.S. government.

The areas of greatest debate between Yankees and immigrants were over state regulation of public and private schools, and the extent to which those schools should be used to assimilate immigrant children. These issues reached a climax in 1890 when the state legislature enacted the Bennett Law.

In the 1880s, many Yankees had begun to call for laws to hold parochial schools more accountable to the government and to require that their classes be conducted in English. Many immigrants, especially Germans, had established their own schools upon settling in Wisconsin as a way to preserve their own cultures. Yankees often saw the schools as a form of unpatriotic resistance to assimilation into American culture. When William Dempster Hoard of Fort Atkinson ran for governor in 1888, he made the call for the school reforms advocated by Yankees a central theme of his successful campaign.

The following legislative session, Assemblyman Michael Bennett of Dodgeville introduced such a bill and Hoard's program was put into effect. The bill required stricter enforcement of attendance in both public and private schools, and specified that children could only go to parochial schools located in their public school district. It also required that all schools, public and private, conduct classes in English.

German Americans denounced the Bennett Law as an assault on their culture by Yankees who sought to force their own values on everyone else. On the opposing side, some people viewed the law as a complete victory over foreign degradation of American culture. In the middle, a range of more moderate voices 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, however, and after only a single term the Republicans and Governor Hoard were voted out of office in 1890. Though the Bennett Law was repealed the following legislative session, the controversy prompted many German schools to begin implementing English instruction alongside German.

Indians faced government-sanctioned assimilation tactics of a completely different magnitude. From the late nineteenth century through the 1920s, Indian education programs energetically tried to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream culture by placing them in institutions, such as the Tomah Indian Industrial School, designed to replace traditional ways with those approved by the government. To white policy makers and teachers, this effort appeared to be a helpful act of kindness, while to Indians it often seemed an act of aggression; as one Stockbridge woman recalled, "They tried to erase us."

Federal Indian policy called for children to be removed from their families and, in many cases, enrolled in government-run boarding schools. By keeping them away from the corrupting influences of their traditionally-minded family, government officials believed that Indian children would absorb the values, knowledge, and practical skills of the dominant American culture. The federal government also established two other types of schools to educate increasing numbers of Indian children at a lower cost: the reservation boarding school and day schools. On many reservations, missionaries operated private schools that combined religion with academic training in pursuit of goals similar to those of the government Indian schools.

While the daily schedule at each type of Indian school varied, a typical day at a boarding school usually consisted of a series of tasks punctuated by the ringing of bells. Students marched from one activity to the next, with regular inspections and drills organized by age. Conformity to rules and regulations was strongly encouraged, and the curriculum strongly emphasized vocational training.

Like the Bennett Law for Germans, the foremost requirement for Indian assimilation into American society was mastery of the English language, though the punishment for noncompliance was far more severe for Indian children. Indian children were prohibited from speaking their native language at all and those caught were often physically punished.

After several decades, reports on Indian education revealed glaring deficiencies, including poor diet, disease, overcrowding, excessive labor, and substandard teaching. In the 1920s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs changed its mind about boarding schools and the following decade the policy of assimilation was officially abandoned.

In addition to schools, Americanization efforts came through the settlement house movement. Working with recent immigrants, settlement house workers tried to ease the adjustment to a new country by consciously teaching white middle-class values in urban ethnic neighborhoods. At "The Settlement" in Milwaukee, for example, Jewish women and girls were introduced to American consumer culture through cooking classes. Though they often betrayed a paternalistic attitude toward the poor, settlement houses also acted as advocates for immigrants, organized protective associations, sponsored festivals, and tried to preserve some of each group's cultural heritage.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols. 3 and 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001); Fritz, Angela "Lizzie Black Kander and Culinary Reform in Milwaukee, 1880-1920" Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 2004 (online at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/wmh/pdf/spring04_fritz.pdf); Ranney, Joseph A. "Of Bibles and Bennetts: Battles over language and religion in the 1890's" History of the Courts (Wisconsin Court System, online at http://www.wicourts.gov/about/organization/history/article24.htm)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A Republican Senator defends the Bennett Law and Governor Hoard, 1890A Republican Senator defends the Bennett Law and Governor Hoard, 1890
Link to article: Ho-Chunk women form a homemaking club, 1933Ho-Chunk women form a homemaking club, 1933
Link to article: Milwaukee's Jewish community honors the work of Lizzie Kander in 1932Milwaukee's Jewish community honors the work of Lizzie Kander in 1932
Link to article: An 1886 visit to the Menominee community of KeshenaAn 1886 visit to the Menominee community of Keshena
Link to article: A white man praises the transformation of Indian children into "Americans,"  1894A white man praises the transformation of Indian children into "Americans," 1894
Link to article: Wisconsin newspapers take a stand on the Bennett Law, 1889.Wisconsin newspapers take a stand on the Bennett Law, 1889.
Link to artifacts: A miniature kit teaches mothers about safe homebirths, 1938A miniature kit teaches mothers about safe homebirths, 1938
Link to artifacts: A hand-made prom dressA hand-made prom dress
Link to book: Reports on the progress of reform in mission kindergartens throughout Milwaukee, 1892Reports on the progress of reform in mission kindergartens throughout Milwaukee, 1892
Link to book: What the government thought Indian girls needed to know (1911)What the government thought Indian girls needed to know (1911)
Link to book: An 1898 manual for running Indian schools.An 1898 manual for running Indian schools.
Link to book: An 1892 rulebook for Indian schoolsAn 1892 rulebook for Indian schools
Link to book: A German American editor provides reasons to oppose the Bennett LawA German American editor provides reasons to oppose the Bennett Law
Link to book: A group of Democrats break from party opposition to the Bennett LawA group of Democrats break from party opposition to the Bennett Law
Link to book: Excerpts from The Settlement CookbookExcerpts from The Settlement Cookbook
Link to book: The "Best" Books for Children, 1890The "Best" Books for Children, 1890
Link to book: Statistics on government schools for Indians, 1899Statistics on government schools for Indians, 1899
Link to book: Conditions on Wisconsin Indian reservations, 1909-1910Conditions on Wisconsin Indian reservations, 1909-1910
Link to book: Theodora Youmans emphasizes the need to educate women votersTheodora Youmans emphasizes the need to educate women voters
Link to book: A Republican Party pamphlet in support of the Bennett LawA Republican Party pamphlet in support of the Bennett Law
Link to images: Pictures of the Potawatomi from the 1820's to the 1920'sPictures of the Potawatomi from the 1820's to the 1920's
Link to images: Ojibwe girls learn to use sewing machines, 1895Ojibwe girls learn to use sewing machines, 1895
Link to images: Oneida Indians at church and school in Hobart, Wis., ca. 1910Oneida Indians at church and school in Hobart, Wis., ca. 1910
Link to manuscript: Alfred Bridgman's English-Menominee word list from the 1870sAlfred Bridgman's English-Menominee word list from the 1870s
Link to manuscript: Frank Bridgman's Menominee vocabulary, 1878Frank Bridgman's Menominee vocabulary, 1878
Link to manuscript: William Dempster Hoard defends the Bennett LawWilliam Dempster Hoard defends the Bennett Law
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