Benjamin Franklin on German Immigrants

Colonial Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century witnessed a huge influx of German settlers, the Pennsylvania “Dutch”, mostly from the Palatinate.  Much strife occurred between English and German settlers.  On May 9, 1753 in a letter to Peter Collinson, Pennsylvania’s most famous resident, Benjamin Franklin, gave full vent to this frustration.  However, note how at the end Franklin states that he does not want to stop such immigration, but rather to aid in the assimilation of the German settlers through the founding of schools to help teach them and their children English.  Some issues in American history constantly recur, and the issue of immigration is one of them.  Here is the relevant passage from Franklin’s letter:

I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans: and am not without Apprehensions, that thro’ their indiscretion or Ours, or both, great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us; Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation, and as Ignorance is often attended with Credulity when Knavery would mislead it, and with Suspicion when Honesty would set it right; and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain. Their own Clergy have very little influence over the people; who seem to take an uncommon pleasure in abusing and discharging the Minister on every trivial occasion. Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it; and as Kolben says of the young Hottentots, that they are not esteemed men till they have shewn their manhood by beating their mothers, so these seem to think themselves not free, till they can feel their liberty in abusing and insulting their Teachers. Thus they are under no restraint of Ecclesiastical Government; They behave, however, submissively enough at present to the Civil Government which I wish they may continue to do: For I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties; Few of their children in the Country learn English; they import many Books from Germany; and of the six printing houses in the Province, two are entirely German, two half German half English, and but two entirely English; They have one German News-paper, and one half German. Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch and English; the Signs in our Streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German: They begin of late to make all their Bonds nad other legal Writings in their own Language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German Business so encreases that there is continual need of Interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say; In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious. The French who watch all advantages, are now themselves making a German settlement back of us in the Ilinoes Country, and by means of those Germans they may in time come to an understanding with ours, and indeed in the last war our Germans shewed a general disposition that seems to bode us no good; for when the English who were not Quakers, alarmed by the danger arising from the defenceless state of our Country entered unanimously into an Association within this Government and the lower Countries raised armed and Disciplined near 10,000 men, the Germans except a very few in proportion to their numbers refused to engage in it, giving out one among another, and even in print, that if they were quiet the French should they take the Country would not molest them; at the same time abusing the Philadelphians for fitting out Privateers against the Enemy; and representing the trouble hazard and Expence of defending the Province, as a greater inconvenience than any that might be expected from a change of Government. Yet I am not for refusing entirely to admit them into our Colonies: all that seems to be necessary is, to distribute them more equally, mix them with the English, establish English Schools where they are now too thick settled, and take some care to prevent the practice lately fallen into by some of the Ship Owners, of sweeping the German Goals to make up the number of their Passengers. I say I am not against the Admission of Germans in general, for they have their Virtues, their industry and frugality is exemplary; They are excellent husbandmen and contribute greatly to the improvement of a Country.

I rather wish our public discourse today had more of Franklin’s honesty, bluntness and wisdom.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. Don,

    You’ve done it again, a post just for me. Happy Easter Thursday from Lancaster County!

    Jon

    PS – Here’s something you might be interested in. Literally just a stone’s throw from my house. http://www.landisvalleymuseum.org/index.php

  2. Happy Easter Thursday Jon from Livingston County, Illinois!


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: