Was the US Official Language Almost German? The Muhlenberg Legend
One of my FAVORITE urban legends is one I actually believed for a long time… that the official Language of the United States was almost German. It gets better! The legend says that in a Congressional vote, German lost by only one vote, and that’s why we speak English in America.
I hate to bust this very exciting bubble, but it’s not true. (Not even a little bit… the United States does not even have an official language).
Still, the story is so widespread in America AND Germany that it even has its own name! It’s called the Muhlenberg Legend.
So how did such a legend get started? And who the heck is Muhlenberg? (Was he always a troublemaker?) And how did Ann Landers get involved?
The US Official Language German?
The legend goes something like this: In 1776, Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg cast the deciding vote in Congress to make English the official language of the United States over German.
There are a few things wrong with this. Most importantly, Frederick Muhlenberg, the first US Speaker of the House, wasn’t even elected until 1789! Muhlenberg was the son of a German Lutheran Pastor who became a Lutheran Pastor himself. His family was highly assimilated into America, and his English was better than his German (despite being surrounded by Germans in Pennsylvania, and growing up in a German home.) He entered politics. First in Pennsylvania, and and later he was elected to the United States Congress. Muhlenburg was famous for being a “jolly fellow” who threw excellent oyster suppers. He was also the first Congressional Speaker of the House, and the first person to sign the Bill of Rights… but he’s more remembered for his myth.
It’s likely that the connection came when a group of Germans in Virginia ask that government documents and federal laws be published in German as well as English. (Seems like a fair thing to ask). Except that Congress couldn’t decide. They argued back and forth about translating documents. Finally, on January 13, 1795, Congress voted to adjourn, 42-41. The plan was to revisit the question later when there was a stronger consensus. There is speculation (but no concrete evidence) that Muhlenberg, the Speaker of the House, cast the deciding vote to adjourn. (Some say he abstained… it’s even rumored he was visiting the WC when the vote took place).
A month later Congress revisited the question, and the decision was made to print laws in English only. There is no record of how the vote went, and it’s not known whether Muhlenberg voted for or against it. By March, 1795, President Washington signed the bill.
Still, whether Muhlenberg did or didn’t cast a vote, he is quoted in saying “The faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be.”
So how did the Muhlenberg Legend Spread?
Historians trace the legend back to an 1847 book by travel writer Franz Löher called Geschichte und Züstände der Deutschen in Amerika (“History and Achievements of the Germans in America“). Franz Löher got the story a bit sideways. According to his book, Muhlenberg voted against making German the official language of Pennsylvania not the US. BUT, things got fuzzy because not only had Muhlenberg been the Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives BEFORE moving on to the US House… Philadelphia was still the home of the US government and Congress in 1795 (it moved to Washington DC in 1801).
Löher had an ax to grind with Muhlenberg, who he thought was a traitor to the German Language. His book sold well in Germany… and the myth that Muhlenberg was responsible for making German a minority language spread.
What Kept the Muhlenberg Legend Alive?
You would think that a German travel book published in the mid-1800s would slowly pass into obscurity. Or that a simple chapter of the book would not have that much staying power. How did it take hold?
Simply put, Germans are proud people.
While the rest of the book may be forgotten, this idea, that German was important enough to be considered the National Language of the United States stuck. And it got repeated in the most interesting places.
Then in 1987, a Missouri Election Judge wanted to get the word out about the importance of voting, so in the election pamphlet he spread the Muhlenberg myth to remind people that one vote could make a difference. Where did he get his information? From Ann Landers the nationally syndicated advice columnist (Dear Abby’s sister). She had put it on a list of how little things could make a difference.
How did it stay alive in the first place? Historians believe that the myth was kept alive during the 1930s by Nazi Propagandists. But it also turned up in the Ripley’s Believe it or Not book, published in 1982 under “The Most Important Vote Ever Cast”: “In 1774 … it was proposed in the American Continental Congress that the official language be changed from English to German.” (notice the date?)
Was there EVER a Chance that German would be the US National Language?
On the surface, the concept of German as the American language sort of makes sense. There were a LOT of German immigrants in America, and the colonies had just fought the Revolutionary War to break with England. Wouldn’t the natural progression be to reject English as the National Language?
The thing is, in 1795, only 9% of the people in America were German… many MANY more would arrive after the German Revolution of 1848. After that, 1 in 5 people in the US could trace back to Germany. But that’s still not enough to tip the scales nationwide. Mostly German immigrants clustered together, so while there may have been a LOT of Germans in Pennsylvania, they weren’t spread across the colonies.
The colonists wanted to break with England, they didn’t want to break with all things English. They mostly didn’t want to be ruled without representation. (As a side note- King George III, who was King of England during the American Revolutionary War, was also King of Hanover, and spoke German… but unlike the previous two Georges, English was his primary language).
To this day, there is NO official language for the United States of America.