Americanization and the Bennett Law | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Americanization and the Bennett Law


Americanization and the Bennett Law | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeA head and shoulders portrait of William Dempster Hoard (1836-1918).

William Dempster Hoard

A head and shoulders portrait of William Dempster Hoard (1836-1918). View the original source document: WHI 26649

Many immigrants, especially Germans, established their own schools as a way to preserve their cultures when they arrived in Wisconsin. In the 1880s, many Yankees had begun to call for laws to hold parochial schools more accountable to the government and to require that classes be conducted in English. Many Yankees felt that the schools were an unpatriotic resistance to American culture. When William Dempster Hoard of Fort Atkinson ran for governor in 1888, he made Yankee school reforms a central theme of his campaign.


The following legislative session, Assemblyman Michael Bennett of Dodgeville introduced a bill called the Bennet Law and Hoard's program was put into effect. The bill required stricter enforcement of attendance in public and private schools. It also specified that children could only attend parochial schools in their public school district. Finally, it stipulated 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 values on them. Others viewed the law as a victory over foreign degradation of American culture. More moderate voices argued for the inevitability of assimilation, and contended that learning English would not destroy German culture. But opposition to the Bennett Law was loud, persistent and widespread.


In 1890, Governor Hoard and the Republicans were voted out of office after only one term. Though the Bennett Law was repealed the following legislative session, the controversy prompted many German schools to begin offering English classes.


[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; Ranney, Joseph A. "Of Bibles and Bennetts: Battles over language and religion in the 1890's" History of the Courts]