MYTH: German missed becoming the official language of the United States by a margin of one vote.
Opponents of Official English have claimed, in an effort to discredit the Official English movement, that German nearly became the official language of the United States in the late 1700s. Is this claim historically accurate?
Many sources have proven these claims to be false. There was no vote on German as the official language of the United States. The Library of Congress has investigated and dismissed this patently absurd story as has Prof. Henry A. Pochmann in German Culture in America, 1600-1900 (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1957).
Furthermore, even in Pennsylvania (where Germans made up 33.3 percent of the population in 1790), no such or similar vote occurred, despite persistent rumors otherwise. (See Albert Bernhardt Faust, The German Element in the United States, New York, Steuben Society of America, 1927, vol. 2, pp. 652-653.
The Pennsylvania rumor dates from 1847, when historian Franz Loher alleged:
In the State Assembly, not long after the conclusion of peace, a motion was made to establish the German language as the official and legal language of Pennsylvania... When the vote was taken on this question -- whether the prevailing language in the Assembly, in the courts and in the official records of Pennsylvania should be German -- there was a tie. Half voted for the introduction of the German language... Thereupon the Speaker of the Assembly, a certain Muhlenberg, cast the deciding vote in favor of the English language.
In 1931, the scholar Otto Lohr revealed the truth. On January 9, 1794, a petition from the Germans in Virginia (not Pennsylvania) requested that Congress provide for the publication of German translations of some of its laws. It was reported favorably out of committee on December 23. It was rejected by the House committee of the whole on January 13, 1795, by a vote of 42 to 41 (no roll-call was taken). Frederick Muhlenberg was the Speaker of the House at the time (1789-91 and 1793-95); his brother John was on the committee that had reported out the petition. Frederick has previously been Speaker of the Pennsylvania House twice, which may explain the transference of the rumor to Pennsylvania.
It is the theory of the Historical Materials Division of the Library of Congress that the German-American Bund of the '30s created the national myth out of Loher's fiction and Lohr's fact, and circulated it as Nazi propaganda. This theory is bolstered by the fact that the rumor (in its national form) does not appear before that time.
According to an Early American History Specialist at the United States Library of Congress:
For more information about the issue of the German language in America, please see The Founding Fathers and Official English and Myths and Reality. More information proving the falsity of the German Language myth can be found on the following sources, available online:
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