German as America’s official language in 1795--April Fools
ByNCC Staff|National Constitution Center – Mon, Apr 1, 2013
For centuries, stories have persisted about Congress almost approving German as our official language, except for one vote by its German-speaking leader. So how close is that story to the truth?
On April 1, 1789, Frederick Muhlenberg was chosen as the first speaker of the House of Representatives. Muhlenberg’s father, Henry, was born in Germany, and he was considered the founder of the Lutheran Church in the Colonies.
Young Frederick was born outside of Philadelphia; he studied theology in Germany. He began his life of public service as a member of the Continental Congress. He also served as the speaker of Pennsylvania’s House and led the Pennsylvania delegation that ratified the Constitution.
Muhlenberg then emerged as the preferred candidate for the speaker’s role as the House neared a quorum for its first meeting in 1789.
During two terms as speaker, Muhlenberg was the first person to sign the Bill of Rights, but his tie-breaking vote on the controversial Jay Treaty proved to be his undoing. Muhlenberg lost a re-election bid after that, and his national political career was over.
But his “legendary” role in preventing the adoption of German as the United States’ official language gained steam over the years.
I find it fascinating to learn about what Muehlenberg accomplished. Yes, I had heard about the importance of German language in the early history of our nation, and almost believed the rumor when it originally appeared in the Ann Landers column. Actually though, a proposal to translate into German any legal decisions was defeated by a single vote -- after a recess was needed.
This all took place well before the largest influx of German immigrants arrived here.