The history of German immigration has been dealt with by numerous authors at length. Most approach the topic from the broadest possible outlook, covering the entire history of German immigration in a single volume. Others choose to focus in on specific events or groups that were prominent in the history of German immigration. For this paper, I have considered the authors who focus on the period of German immigration between about 1815 and 1860. Always an important feature of the broad studies of immigration history, several other authors have confined themselves to a more narrow examination of the subject. Central to all authors who examine this period, however, are several key themes. First, the reasons for leaving, important to every period of immigration, are examined for the Germans of this period. Second, the role of the Forty-eighters receives an inordinate amount of consideration. Third, the reactions of Germans to political and social issues, particularly as the United States began sectional conflict which culminated in the Civil War, are a necessary part of any examination of this time frame. Finally, the preservation of German cultural characteristics in the face of nativist attacks and resistance to assimilation gained in importance during this period, and thus receive attention from authors of the period.
When dealing with German immigration, some authors are content to assert only one or two key reasons for leaving, while other authors cover nearly every possibility. Economic and political reasons are the most frequently cited causal factors of emigration. Mack Walker notes the hopelessness that drove many Germans to emigrate, often brought on by rising prices and other economic insecurities. (Walker, pp. 6, 42, 80) Carl Wittke agrees that economic conditions were a prominent factor, coupled with the unstable political climate of mid-nineteenth century Europe. (Wittke, p. 2) Gunter Moltmann agrees that the political situation warranted mass emigration, but couples this cause with social problems that also encouraged emigration. (Moltmann, p. 14) Similarly, Edward Ross acknowledges political and religious causes. (Ross, p. 46)
Other authors find primarily political factors as the main impetus for emigration. Walker notes the significance of the European Revolutions of 1848, and asserts that many people, even those uninvolved with the revolutions, were willing to leave in the wake of such political instability. (Walker, 42) Wolfgang Köllmann and Peter Marschalck suggest that the relaxation of laws prohibiting emigration had a great impact on the number of Germans who chose to leave their native land. (Köllmann and Marschalck, p. 517) Kathleen Neils Conzen agrees with Köllmann and Marschalck, as she credits the lack of political barriers preventing emigration with helping to encourage emigration. (Conzen, p. 19)
Numerous authors agree that the increased availability of information on the United States was a major encouraging factor for German emigration. Whether in the form of ‘America letters’ or the many guides to emigration published in Germany around the middle of the nineteenth century, any sort of information was as popular with the people of Germany as it was with people living in other countries at the same time. Much of the information sent back by people who had been to America discussed the opportunities available in the United States, (Moltmann, p. 22) as well as the possibility of making a new start in a new location. (Coppa and Curran, p. 50) In this aspect, most particularly, the patterns of German emigration can be seen as very similar to patterns of emigration world-wide. Nearly all people considering emigration were moved most by the testimony of those who had gone before them.
The German Forty-eighters, leaders and participants in the Revolutions of 1848, are often given full credit (or blame) for stirring up the masses of German-Americans and leading them in their fight against slavery and nativism. While this statement expresses partial truth, it seems that the role of the Forty-eighters is often exaggerated. The basic numbers of people who comprise this group varies from author to author, but most agree that they were not numerically significant. Wittke notes that “[t]he evidence from American and German sources proves conclusively that the bulk of the immigrants who came from Germany after 1848 belonged to the farming class.” (Wittke, p. 44) Political refugees, supposedly the bulk of those who immigrated after 1848, were hardly represented in this phase of the immigration.
Questions have frequently arisen as to the representativeness of the Forty-eighters. As the journalists and politicians of the German-Americans, the Forty-eighters views were the most vocalized and obvious. Some authors have made the mistake of seeing the viewpoints espoused by liberal German newspapers and political figures as the viewpoints of the whole German population. Yet other authors are more aware of the fact that the views advocated by Forty-eighters were not shared with the bulk of the German-American population. The Forty-eighters were, in general, anticlerical freethinkers. They openly criticized religion, placing them at odds with the many church-going German-Americans. This alone gained the Forty-eighters the animosity of many of their countrymen, particularly that of the priests and ministers. Since the church-going German population already held the religious figures in high esteem, it was really not much of a contest when the Forty-eighters tried to espouse their personal rationalist beliefs. Most German-Americans remained loyal to their clergymen, and disregarded the cries of the Forty-eighters.
Although present in small numbers and hampered in their effect on the German-American masses by their anticlericalism, the Forty-eighters were still able to extend some leadership to their countrymen in the United States. Wittke calls the Forty-eighters “the cultural leaven and the spiritual yeast for the whole German element.” (Wittke, p. v) Their key role was in attempting to lead the German element intellectually, culturally, and politically. Wittke admits that “[p]erhaps the Germans in America would have experienced a significant cultural renaissance without the help of the Forty-eighters, for by the middle of the last century they had gained a firm footing in their new home, and were rapidly emerging from the pioneer stage into comfortable, middle-class respectability with some time for leisure,” (Wittke, p. 58) stating further that “intellectual and cultural activity among the Germans in America did not originate with the Forty-eighters.” (Wittke, p. 14) However, he also notes that “[t]he Forty-eighters arrived at a time when the German group was on the defensive [from nativist attacks] and needed leadership.” (Wittke, p. 59) While Wittke’s statements on the Forty-eighters are, in places, a bit contradictory, it seems clear that while the Forty-eighters were not crucial to German-America, they were rather helpful. Perhaps if they had been more mild in their rationalism and condemnation of religion, their leadership would have been even more effective.
The role played by German-Americans in politics and society has been discussed widely by authors. Wittke asserts that the political contributions of one group of Germans, the Turners, “are among the most important results of the German immigration of the nineteenth century.” (Wittke, p. 147) On the other hand, German Catholics and, later, fundamental German Protestants “retreated from public affairs as they grew more suspicious of the Forty-eighters.” (Rippley, The German-Americans, pp. 53-54) Although some groups of German-Americans were clearly more prominent in politics than were others, the effects of Germans in the political system of the United States can be seen most notably on the issues of slavery and states’ rights, but also in the emergence of the Republican party and its rise to power prior to the Civil War.
As early as 1688, it was clear that most German immigrants were opposed to slavery. The German Quakers in Pennsylvania appealed to the colonial government, requesting the repeal of slavery within that colony. (O’Connor, pp. 18-19) In 1854, radical Germans presented the so-called “Louisville Platform,” which “denounced all racial and class privileges and specifically attacked slavery, all schemes for its extension, and the fugitive slave law of 1850.” (Wittke, pp. 163-64) While this inflexible position was not likely held by all German-Americans, it did echo the sentiments of a good number of them. LaVern J. Rippley suggests that “[t]he Germans favored liberty and equality and therefore they did not identify with a system that depended on slavery for its livelihood.” (Rippley, The German-Americans, p. 59) Others had less noble reasons for opposing slavery and its extension. Robert Billigmeier notes that some Germans were “concerned about competition from cheap labor if 3,500,000 slaves were suddenly freed and moved northward.” (Billigmeier, p. 87) Still other Germans looked forward to the promise of “full rights of American citizenship without the usual papers and delays” if only they were willing to oppose slavery and fight for the Union during the Civil War. (Rippley, Of German Ways, p. 45)
There were, of course, exceptions to this rule of German opposition to slavery. Germans who had settled in the South during the colonial period or early in the nineteenth century regularly supported the Confederacy and its position on slavery. (Faust, p. 565) Similarly, some German Lutherans, such as the leaders of the Missouri Synod, found biblical justification for keeping slaves. Others have suggested that the German Catholics were not opposed to slavery either.
Some authors suggest that German-Americans were not particularly concerned with the issue of states’ rights. (Wittke, p. 191) However, Rippley presents an interesting evaluation of the German position on the issue of states’ rights: “Idealistically, the Germans were opposed to secession and ‘states’ rights’ because they had known all too well the disadvantages of many small, petty states pursuing their own objectives to the detriment of the nation as a whole.” (Rippley, The German-Americans, p. 58) It is difficult to determine whether or not the average German farmer would have been particularly concerned over this issue, but it seems certain that some Germans were particularly concerned over the possibility of secession, precisely for the reason cited by Rippley. Some Germans might have feared the United States disintegrating into a bunch of sovereign states, which would no longer be bound to provide their citizens with the democracy that the central government of the United States guaranteed.
Since the election of Lincoln in 1860, numerous authors have given the German element much of the credit for his election. Particularly Midwestern German voters are said to have turned the tide in his favor. (Stewart, p. 173) However, these authors have too often seen only those Germans who supported the Republican party: the highly visible and audible Forty-eighters. Most authors have now realized that the bulk of the German population did not actually go over to the side of the Republicans in the 1850s. A major reason for this was “[t]he close connection between the Knownothing, temperance, and free-soil groups in the new party.” (Wittke, p. 205) While nativism “goaded many thousands of ordinary German immigrants to act politically on the local level,” the end result of their political action was typically support for the Democratic party, which was free of the taint of nativism. (Luebke, p. 64) Additionally, the support granted to the Republican party by the Forty-eighters turned church-going German-Americans from the new party, which they came to see as the party of the non-religious, free-thinking element of German-American society. (Doerries, p. 87) Try as they might “to woo the German vote,” (Wittke, p. 207) the Republican party was not entirely successful with their desired constituency. They did have, however, the support of the Forty-eighters, which was why many authors believed that widespread German support for the Republican party existed in this era.
American nativism was of great concern to German immigrants. The German-Americans found themselves under attack by the inhabitants of their adopted country, many of whom were descended from families who had immigrated not too long before the nineteenth century immigrants themselves. A “mixture of religious, social, political, economic, cultural, and nationalist motivation,” (Wittke, p. 184) nativism was of serious concern to nearly all German-Americans. While it is true that some of the Forty-eighters “discovered some merit in the Knownothing Order,” one of the key proponents of nativism, these men only were supportive of the nativists when their attacks were directed towards the Irish Roman Catholics. (Wittke, p. 182) In general, nativism and assimilation were aspects of immigration to America against which the typically divided Germans could unite.
As a response to nativism and attempts to Americanize the German immigrants, some Germans supported the idea of forming a German state somewhere in the Midwest. This state would be a stronghold of German language and customs, where people from Germany could live without fear of nativism or assimilation by outside forces. They would be left alone, to live among their countrymen. However, as Marguerite Stewart notes, this plan “met with failure each time, for of course, such an idea was contrary to the spirit of our country.” (Stewart, p. 173) Other immigrants preferred the maintenance of their native language through ethnic churches and schools, both of which were slightly more acceptable to the American people. Regardless of their varied attempts, however, preservation of German language and culture ultimately was not successful, excepting small enclaves which hardly, if at all, assimilated.
Nearly all of the authors who examine assimilation of the Germans find it to have been a very complete process. Frank J. Coppa and Thomas J. Curran remark that “[m]any immigration historians believe that the German immigrants have been, next to the English, the most easily assimilable.” (Coppa and Curran, p. 59) Of those persons who emigrated, it was the lower classes, those with negligible education, who were the quickest to assimilate. (O’Connor, p. 71) The better educated Germans were much more critical of American ways, and thus were slower to change their ways and adopt the American lifestyle. (Shippen, p. 95) Other authors marvel at the fact that Germans who have emigrated to other locales have, as a rule, resisted assimilation. Ross credits this “to the solvent power of American civilization.” (Ross, p. 51) Whether willing or unwilling, however, assimilation was inevitable, particularly as the stream of immigrants lessened and the United States entered conflicts, such as World War I, which demanded the support of her 100 percent American citizens, regardless of their earlier affiliations.
While many aspects of the German immigration experience are similar to those in the experiences of other immigrants, there are also very distinctive events and problems relating to German immigration alone. Examining these problems allows greater insight into the distinctiveness of German immigration. It is important for historians to be aware of both these similarities and differences, because they can aid in the understanding of the lives of German-Americans.
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