Arizona’s recent and harsh anti-immigrant bill reminded me of another law passed a while ago. Commonly called the Bennett Law, it aimed to make teaching English mandatory at all public and private schools in Wisconsin. Like Arizona’s law, it constituted a political response to a large wave of immigration that was ignited by nativist sentiment.
The Bennett Law reacted on the basis of anti-immigration feelings similar to those present in Arizona today. Many people saw these immigrants as unwanted foreigners taking away American jobs. They did not speak English and were accused of refusing to learn how to do so. They had a different culture and did not assimilate well into American society. They seemed less loyal to the United States and more loyal to their homeland. At the core, they seemed “un-American.”
I am speaking, of course, about German immigrants in Wisconsin.
The year was 1890, and America was faced with a massive, unprecedented influx of immigrants. They were coming from all over western and northern Europe – Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden. Many were Catholic and weren’t considered truly Christian by America’s mainly Protestant population. Many drank alcohol, a common practice in their home countries but aberrant behavior according to American norms.
Bennett’s Law came about because of these cultural clashes. Originally an ordinary school reform, the law became engulfed in controversy when assemblyman Michael Bennett of Dodgeville added the critical amendment that required all schools to teach English. During this time, many German-Americans (especially those living in rural Wisconsin) attended private, parochial schools set up by the local immigrant community. Because many of these German schools did not teach English, the Bennett Law posed an existential threat to them. The Democratic Party, which had substantial support amongst immigrants, came out strongly against the law; the Republican Party, dominant in Wisconsin at the time, strongly favored it.
Republican supporters, including Governor William Hoard, argued that learning English was vital to success in America. Mr. Hoard stated: “I want the little German boy and girl, the little Norwegian, the little Bohemian, and the little Pole, the children of all foreign born parents, to have the same chance in life as my children. Without a knowledge of the English language they cannot have this chance.”
Proponents of the Bennett Law also appealed to good old American patriotism and the much-admired American tradition of the “little red schoolhouse.” One newspaper wrote:
“The little district schoolhouse is very dear to the American heart, and whoever lays the hand of violence upon it will evoke a storm of wrath which no power on earth can withstand. It is impossible to tell what motive may lurk behind this opposition to the Bennett Law, but if its opponents are preparing for an attack upon our public schools, let them beware.”
Opponents of the Bennett Law, on the other hand, called it an unconstitutional intrusion of the government into private affairs. They argued, moreover, that the Bennett Law was pointless; German-Americans were quickly learning English anyway.
Their main contention was that the Bennett Law constituted an attack on the German-American immigrant community. One German-American newspaper heatedly claimed that,
“…they want us to become de-Germanized. And they think that can be accomplished first by destroying German schools. Their calculation is certainly a correct one. Aside from immigration, which it is sought to restrict in every possible manner, the German element in America has its greatest strength in the German schools. In destroying these, as the Bennett Law seeks to do, the German element would lose one of the main conditions of its existence…”
Matters came to a head in the 1890 gubernatorial election when Republican Governor William Hoard, an outspoken advocate of the Bennett Law, faced reelection. Mr. Hoard lost by an overwhelming margin to Democratic candidate George W. Peck, who was backed by the angered German-American community.
In the following years, the Republican Party’s dominance in Wisconsin politics was severely disrupted. Their 7-2 House congressional majority was upended, transforming into a 8-1 Democratic majority, and Democrats gained a two-to-one majority in the state legislature. And while the Bennett Law was passed in 1890, its subsequent repeal in 1891 and the lingering controversy during the 1892 election helped propel Wisconsin to cast its first Democratic vote for president in 40 years. Though other factors such as an unpopular tariff were likely also responsible for the political shift, the Bennett Law played no small role.
Fortunately for the Republican Party, German-American loyalty to the Democrats did not last. Their self-consciousness as an immigrant community gradually faded as they were absorbed into the American melting pot. Today, individuals with German heritage—the descendants of the German-American immigrants who were targeted by the Bennett Law—tend to vote Republican. Indeed, the counties with the highest percentages of German-born residents in 1890 tended to be some of the strongest supporters of President George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Some of these Republican-voting German-Americans undoubtedly are influenced by nativist sentiment against those supposedly non-English speaking, assimilation-resistant Latino immigrants flooding into the United States.
But if the history of the Bennett Law tells us anything, the Latino immigrant of today is the German immigrant of yesterday. And in half acentury, alienating Latinos with harsh anti-immigration bills and labeling them “foreigners” may sound just as strange as targeting members of a German-American immigrant community.