FORTY-EIGHTERS were a group of four thousand to ten thousand Germans who immigrated to the United States as political refugees following the failed revolutions and social reform movements of 1848. Although their numbers were not large, their impact on the organizational, cultural, and political lives of German Americans and Americans in general was tremendous. They tended to be liberal if not radical, agnostic, and intellectual. They were instrumental in the proliferation of German-American organizations, such as the Turnvereine, or the Turners as they became known. The Turners were gymnastic clubs and remained so into the twenty-first century. They were initially established in Germany in 1811 to promote well-being through exercise and to advocate a kind of nationalism thought necessary to defend the fatherland against Napoleon. In the United States they served largely as social and recreational organizations that brought together the heterogeneous German-speaking population. The Forty-Eighters also played leadership roles in other national organizations, such as the Nord-Amerikanischer Saengerbund, established in 1849.
The Forty-Eighters contributed to the development of German-American cultural life in the German-language press, theater, and music. This was especially evident in cities where German numbers were greatest, like Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee. In Milwaukee the circulation of the German-language press was twice that of the English-language press by the late nineteenth century. In the area of education, they strongly supported German bilingual instruction as well as physical education. They advocated for public, secular educational systems and played a role in establishing the first kindergartens in the United States. Margarethe Meyer Shurz opened the first kindergarten in the United States in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1856.
In politics the Forty-Eighters were instrumental in solidifying a "German vote" that could not be overlooked in the national political arena. Numerous leaders emerged from their ranks, but Carl Shurz, husband of Magarethe Meyer Shurz, stands out. Shurz has been described by some historians as the most influential U.S. citizen of German birth. Shurz fled to Watertown, Wisconsin, via Switzerland following the failed revolution. He was instrumental in helping Abraham Lincoln gain the presidency and also in helping abolish slavery. He served as a Union brigadier general during the Civil War and as the first U.S. senator of German birth. In the latter role he fought U.S. expansion in the Caribbean, corruption in government, and unfair treatment of Native Americans.
He continued to champion those causes as secretary of the interior in President Rutherford B. Hayes's cabinet. Overall the Forty-Eighters played a pivotal role in creating a German identity among German immigrants in the United States and contributed to the cultural and political lives of the nation during some of its most formative years.
Brancaforte, Charlotte L., ed. The German Forty-Eighters in the United States. New York: Lang, 1989.
Tolzmann, Don Heinrich, ed. The German-American Forty-Eighters: 1848–1998. Indianapolis: Max Kade German–American Center, Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis: Indiana German Heritage Society, 1998.
See alsoGerman Americans .