Those Swarming Germans

Those Swarming Germans

Another passage from the letter I wrote to Peter Collinson on May 9, 1753. Not a passage I am now, decades later, very proud of. At the time, I sincerely feared that the great number of Germans pouring into Pennsylvania might very well betray the country to the French, and lead to the overthrow of British government there, not to mention English institutions.

Here I say hard things about the Germans that I later came to think unjust, calling them ignorant and stupid. In another place, I asked, “Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?” I went so far as to declare my preference for white people, which I did not regard the Germans to be. These sentiments being published, cost me my place in the general assembly of Pennsylvania after the next election.

Now, many years later, what do we find? We ourselves have taken Pennsylvania out of the British empire, and leagued ourselves with the French to do it! The children of those swarming German immigrants have learned English for the most part, and become good Americans. Many served after all in our War of Independence, or at least did our cause no harm.

In my own defense I will point to the last paragraph of the following passage, so that you might understand that I was never so hostile to the Germans as I sometimes appeared in those days.

I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great temper are necessary with the Germans, and am not without apprehensions, that through 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 shown 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 newspaper, and one half German. Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch [i.e. Deutsch, German] 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 and 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 outnumber 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 Illinois 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 showed 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 defenseless state of our country entered unanimously into an association within this government and the lower counties, 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 expense 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 [i.e. jails] 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.

Dr. Benjamin Franklin, LLD, FRS.