"Babel" in Schools
After Prop. 227
The Muhlenberg Legend:
Official Languages in U.S. History
"German missed becoming the
official U.S. language by a single vote."
– Folk wisdom
By some apocryphal accounts, after the American Revolution there
was talk of deposing the language of the oppressor in favor of German, French,
Greek, or Hebrew. Little evidence exists that any of these alternatives was
seriously discussed. No doubt Roger Sherman, a delegate to the Continental
Congress, summed up the prevailing view when he quipped, "It would be more
convenient for us to keep the language as it was and make the English
A more persistent legend, popularized after the Civil War and revived by
the German-American Bund in the 1930s, is that German failed by a single vote
to become the official language of the United States. Apparently the tale
draws on two unrelated events involving Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg, a Pennsylvania
German who served as the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
One of these involved a petition by Virginia Germans seeking the publication
of important federal laws in their language. In 1795, the House defeated
this proposal on a 42-41 vote, in which Muhlenberg may have stepped down
from the Speaker's chair to break a tie. Existing records, however, make
it impossible to ascertain what role, if any, the Speaker played. It is
known that he was never fluent in German and was widely suspected of Anglophilia.
In a second, better documented episode, Muhlenberg broke a tie vote
in favor of executing the Jay Treaty, which authorized payment of a ransom
for American sailors held by the British. This act brought the Speaker both
political and personal grief. Pennsylvania voters, who regarded the treaty
as a humiliating sell-out, defeated Muhlenberg in the 1796 election; whereupon
his own outraged brother-in-law attacked him with a knife.
A combination of poor recordkeeping, Muhlenberg's reputation as
an ethnic traitor, and German cultural pride breathed life into this captivating
but absurd story. English has never been forced to weather a challenge, serious
or otherwise, in the U.S. Congress.
Before 1981, the only official language bill ever introduced was
a tongue-in-cheek proposal to recognize "American."
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