U.S. English Foundation Research
Was German the Official language of America?
THE GERMAN LANGUAGE IN AMERICA: FACT AND FICTION
Myth: German missed becoming the official language of the United States by a margin of one vote.
Reality: There was no vote on German as the official language of the United States. The Library of Congress has investigated and dismissed this story as has Prof. Henry A. Pochmann in German Culture in America, 1600-1900 (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1957).
The idea can easily be dismissed for its absurdity. Nearly all, if not completely all, of the members of Congress had English as their first language. While there may have been some sentiment to sever linguistic ties to the British, the idea of tying up Congressional business by using a tongue that few could understand would have been swiftly rejected, if considered at all. Nevertheless, the present rumor rose in the 1930s and is still frequently repeated in books and “did you know?” compilations.
The original basis for this myth appears to arise in 1847 from historian Franz Loher, who alleged that the following event took place in the Pennsylvania legislature:
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.
However, extensive research has revealed that no such event happened in the Pennsylvania legislature or in any other state. The closest event to what Loher describes occurred in Congress in the 1790s, and did not concern the declaration of an official language, but whether to print some documents in German.
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; his brother John was on the committee that had reported out the petition. Frederick had been Speaker of the Pennsylvania House earlier, 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 Congressional myth was created in the 1930s out of Loher’s fiction and actual fact, and was circulated as pro-German propaganda. This theory is bolstered by the fact that the rumor in its national form does not appear before that time.