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?
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:
- In 1794 and 1795, Congress discussed the possibility of printing some laws in German, in response to a petition from a community of German immigrants in Virginia. A Congressional committee approved the idea, but it evidently did not come to fruition. This did not involve making German an official language of the United States. (See: The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. Max Farrand – 1911. Available online at the Library of Congress: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/
- The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 did not discuss making German the official language of the United States, nor did the State of Pennsylvania vote to make German an official language. (See: Robert A. Feer, “Official Use of the German Language in Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 76 [October, 1952], 394-405.)
For more information about the issue of the German language in America, please see Myths and Reality. More information proving the falsity of the German Language myth can be found on the following sources, available online:
This urban legend history site clarifies that no bill that would have made German the official language of the United States was ever voted upon in the United States Congress.
- The United States Library of Congress
The Journal of the House of Representatives on Friday, November 28, 1794 shows the transcribed brief discussion of a petition that would have required the printing of government laws in German. This petition was read before Congress, and no further action was taken.
- The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography: “Official Use of the German Language in Pennsylvania,” by Robert A. Feer
This article from the October 1952 Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography states that of the German language myth, “[there is] no mention of it in the contemporary sources which would certainly have noted it—legislative journals and other official matter, English and German-language newspapers, diaries, travel accounts and correspondence.” It goes on to explain, in great detail, possible origins of the myth and why they are false.