Immigration and Immigrants: Germans

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Immigration and Immigrants: Germans

At the start of the American Revolution people of German background represented roughly 10 percent of the 2.5 million inhabitants of the British colonies. Nearly half of them lived in Pennsylvania and most of the others in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Significant numbers of Germans lived also in the Carolinas and Georgia, and a smaller number in New England.

German migration to North America began early in the seventeenth century when Germans accompanied English, Dutch, and Swedish colonizers in ventures along the Atlantic coast, but the settlement of Germantown, near Philadelphia, in 1683 is commonly regarded as the beginning of major German migration to what became the United States. From that year to the start of the Revolution, perhaps more than 110,000 German speakers left their homes in Europe to settle in America.

Most of the immigrants entered America through the port of Philadelphia, although other ports, such as New York, Baltimore, Annapolis, and Charleston, provided points of entry as well. Some of the immigrants settled in or near the port cities where they landed; many others migrated inland to more distant locations. Thus major German settlements developed along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers in New York, along the Delaware River in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, along an arc stretching from southeastern Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah region of western Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, and in Savannah, Charleston, and the Carolina Piedmont.

For four decades starting in 1776, the stream of German immigration to the United States narrowed but never stopped. On average, less than one thousand German immigrants arrived in each of those forty years. The reduced immigration, however, combined with natural increase to maintain a significant percentage of people of German background within the American population. In 1790, the year of the first federal census, when the total population of the United States was approaching four million, estimates of the number of Germans and German descendants living in the country still represent roughly 10 percent of the total.

Areas of concentrated German settlement established in the colonial era continued as such in the early national period. Pennsylvania remained home to nearly half of all Germans living in the United States. In 1790 Germans represented 38 percent of Pennsylvania's white population. Some Pennsylvania counties had populations that were more than 50 percent German; in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County the figure was perhaps 70 percent.

Yet Germans also participated in the westward migration of American people that led to the development of new states and the geographic expansion of the nation. From established areas of earlier settlement in the original thirteen states, Germans pressed over mountains, along rivers, and through valleys to help settle new areas such as Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri.

culture and religion

The most reliable indicator of German background among inhabitants of the early Republic was the use of German language. German-speaking immigrants to America included people from Switzerland, Alsace, and the Netherlands, as well as territories inside Germany itself. The German language provided a mark of common identification for a diverse population of immigrants who otherwise differed from one another in many respects.

Germans who remained in the urban areas surrounding their port of initial entry, or migrated to other urban centers, tended to assimilate into the larger culture around them. Germans who settled in the countryside beyond the cities tended to form ethnic communities with other Germans. In both cases the German language served as social currency. In the cities a German-language print industry developed, providing German speakers a medium for the exchange of ideas and information in their native language. The urban centers of southeastern Pennsylvania radiating from Philadelphia hosted numerous print shops established by Germans, as did the Maryland cities of Baltimore, Frederick, and Hagers-town, and other locations such as New Market, Virginia, and Salisbury, North Carolina. Some of the production of German print shops served outlying rural areas, but in the countryside the German language also helped to maintain a degree of separation from the larger culture. A common motive for much of the German migration to and within America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was economic opportunity, and many Germans found such opportunity in the purchase and cultivation of farmland; the use of the German language helped to assure that the farming communities established by German settlers provided not only economic opportunity but also an integrated culture embracing all aspects of life and mitigating the pressures of assimilation.

Religion was a central aspect of an integrated culture for many Germans in America. Some German communities were founded on experimental religious blueprints. Examples include the Ebenezer settlement established by Salzburger refugees near Savannah, Georgia; the Moravian communities of Salem, North Carolina, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and the Ephrata cloister near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most religious Germans in the early Republic were Protestant, although there were also some Jews and enough Catholics to organize a German parish in Philadelphia in 1787. Among Protestants, the majority of Germans in early America were either Lutheran or Reformed. Missionary ministers of both denominations helped to organize local congregations among Germans in the cities and the countryside, although religious freedom in America meant that such efforts depended on the voluntary support—and often the initiative—of lay people. In many places Lutheran and Reformed congregations shared the same church building while maintaining separate denominational identities. Both denominations also worked to organize local congregations into larger cooperative networks known as synods, which later established colleges and seminaries. Renowned among the leaders of the German churches in the early Republic were the Lutheran missionary pastor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787) and the Reformed minister Michael Schlatter (1718–1790). Besides the Lutheran and Reformed majority, German Protestants in the early Republic also represented a number of traditions associated with the so-called Radical Reformation and Pietism. Groups of Mennonites, Moravians, Amish, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, and Waldensians had migrated to America before the War of Independence, seeking freedom from the persecution they often experienced as outlaw religions in Europe.

The episodes of religious revival that occurred in America in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries appealed to many Germans. The dramatic expansion of Baptist and Methodist churches during the early national period occurred in part because of Germans who exchanged their previous religious affiliation, or indifference, for the pioneer spirituality of the fast-growing evangelical denominations. Germans who wanted an evangelical alternative to their traditional Lutheran and Reformed churches also formed new denominations such as the United Brethren (founded by Philip William Otterbein), the Evangelical Association (founded by Jacob Albright) and the Church of God (founded by John Winebrenner). In spite of such developments, however, traditional German churches continued to thrive as the German population increased and expanded. Wherever they went, German settlers usually established churches, which served as the predominant institutions of German culture.

In association with churches Germans also established schools for the religious instruction and elementary education of young people. The prevalence of schools in German communities contributed to a high degree of literacy among the German population and further promoted the integrity of German culture.

politics and leadership

Despite their cultural distinctions in the early American Republic, Germans embraced the ideals and opportunities of the new nation and contributed to its vitality. On 5 July 1776 the Philadelphia printer Henrich Miller published a notice concerning the Declaration of Independence in his semiweekly newspaper, the Pennsylvanische Staatsbote. The next issue of the paper included a German version of the entire Declaration. Miller's eagerness to publicize in German the actions of the Continental Congress indicates the degree of interest Germans felt in the affairs of the Revolution and the new nation being established.

Though some Germans in America remained loyal to the British crown, the majority—including many religious pacifists who would not bear arms—supported the Revolution. Thousands served as ordinary soldiers; a few became distinguished officers. Notable among the latter was John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg (1746–1807), the eldest son of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. At the start of the Revolution, Peter Muhlenberg, then serving as a minister in Virginia, was named to a local committee helping to organize that state's involvement in the war. He rose quickly through the ranks of command, becoming a brigadier general in 1777 and a major general in 1783.

The war itself brought many Germans to America. The British crown purchased the military service of nearly thirty thousand German troops from the princes of several German states; because the majority of the troops came from Hesse-Cassel, they have usually been referred to simply as "Hessians." The crown's money was ill spent: more than one-third of the contracted troops abandoned the British army either by simple desertion or enlistment with the American forces, later settling within German communities in Pennsylvania and other states. Congress actively enticed such desertions with offers of American citizenship and free land. Some Germans came to America enticed by the Revolution itself and eager to aid the patriots in their struggle. Perhaps the most famous was Friedrich von Steuben (1730–1794), a Prussian aristocrat in search of adventure who met Benjamin Franklin in Paris in 1777 and offered his services. Baron von Steuben aided Washington in the training and organization of the American forces. After the war he received American citizenship and retired to New York. Another notable German who fought for the Americans was Johann Kalb (1721–1780), a native Bavarian known as Baron de Kalb (although he was not in fact a baron). Kalb came to America in 1777 with Lafayette and was wounded and captured by the British in South Carolina, where he died.

Some Germans served the new nation in high political office. Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg (1750–1801), younger brother to Peter Muhlenberg, was elected in 1779 to serve as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress. He later supported Federalist efforts to ratify the Constitution and was named Speaker of the House during the First (1789–1791) and Third (1793–1795) Congress, during which terms his brother Peter also served as a member of the House. David Rittenhouse (1732–1796), a native of Germantown, became the first director of the United States Mint in 1792. In 1808 Simon Snyder (1759–1819) became the first German American to serve as governor of Pennsylvania, serving three terms in that office.

Outside Pennsylvania, where they represented a large percentage of the state's population, Germans were not often elected to high office at the state or federal level in the early national period. More frequently, they held positions of local leadership within ethnic communities at the county or township level. The German conception of American law and liberty emphasized individual rights and local autonomy over against centralized authority. For this reason, although Germans never constituted a homogenous political bloc, most of them preferred the Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson to the Federalist Party of John Adams. In the 1790s Frederick Muhlenberg shifted his own affiliation from the Federalists to the Republicans, and German support for Jefferson in 1800 helped to decide the election.

Preference for local autonomy shaped the attitudes and responses of Germans to a variety of issues in the early Republic. For example, Germans largely opposed various plans to establish public schools in Pennsylvania, preferring their own traditional parochial schools. When John Fries, a German in eastern Pennsylvania, led an armed opposition to federal tax assessors who were commissioned by the Adams administration in the late 1790s, many Germans sympathized with the rebellion as a necessary resistance to centralized encroachment over local autonomy. On the other hand, during the 1820s, when some evangelicals agitated to prohibit the government from delivering mail on Sunday, many Germans objected that the reformers were trying to establish unwarranted hegemony over the affairs of the nation, thereby usurping the authority of Congress. Ironically, one of the most enduring legacies of German emphasis on local preference is the national observance of a Christmas holiday in the contemporary United States, which is due in part to German resistance to government workdays scheduled on 25 December and 26 December.

See alsoEducation: Public Education; German-Language Publishing; Hessians; Moravians; Printers .


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Paul A. Baglyos

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Immigration and Immigrants: Germans

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Immigration and Immigrants: Germans