in Wisconsin History
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)]