Germans Face Discrimination
Immigration was very high at the mid-point of the nineteenth century, averaging over 40,000 people a year. Germans accounted for less
than 20% of the arrivals in 1851, but comprised 53% in 1854. Not surprisingly, a strain of nativism entered American politics at the time, first with the creation of the secret Know-Nothing societies and soon thereafter
with formation of the nativist American Party. Natives saw immigrants as altering the Anglo Saxon Protestant character of the country and as potentially upsetting the precarious political balance of the nation, already
endangered by the slavery issue. Nativist politicians called for restricting the rights of aliens and foreign-born citizens, especially with respect to voting and holding political office.
The main thrust
of Know-Nothingism was directed against Catholics, especially the Irish variety. But the influx of Germans and their obvious foreignness made them targets as well. Many native Americans, including some of German
descent, looked askance at the social activities of the new Germans. In their efforts to cure the American people of some of the savagery of pioneer days, proponents of temperance and of an inviolate Christian sabbath
felt threatened by the proliferation of lager beer saloons and shockingly wet Sunday outings. In the cities, many native-born citizens also began to feel the keen edge of competition by enterprising merchants and well
qualified craftsmen among the immigrants.
Some native Americans were offended, too, by those Forty-Eighters who plunged into politics without having a feeling for American political traditions. To the
embarrassment of earlier German liberals, or "Grays," radical newcomers among the "Greens" introduced a wild array of proposals to the American scene. It did not take long for eager Know Nothing
politicians to secure translations of speeches and manifestos that caused shock waves in the nativist press and on the floor of Congress. Thus resolutions of the minute Social Democratic Association of Richmond,
Virginia, drawn up in 1850 by Carl Steinmetz, a Forty-Eighter from Baden, caused a furor when nativists circulated them in 1854. Steinmetz' demands included: universal suffrage, abolition of neutrality, intervention in
favor of every people struggling for liberty, the eight-hour workday, incorporation of labor unions, nationalization of railroads, free public schools, emancipation of slaves and abolition of capital punishment.
Nativist agitators could hardly have wished for better campaign material in the South and elsewhere. The legislator who presented this "document" doubted that even "the second generation of such insane
fanatics should be capable of voting with discretion."
Every where Germans felt the sting of nativism. The term Dutchman, once merely derived from an anglicized form of Deutsch, assumed a slanderous
connotation and the Know-Nothing press began referring to "emigrants from the land of the Kraut." Irish immigrants presented a united front against nativism. Virtually all spoke English and they had a
determined clergy which led and backed them. The Irish met violence with greater violence and, at the same time, began to capture the political machines in the cities. Many Germans, including German Catholics, found it
impossible to join a common front with Celtic papists, even though they were facing a common political enemy. Unity, even among the Germans themselves, came about only with the peak of nativism.
Spectacular successes of the American Party in 1854 and 1855
were accompanied by numerous bloody clashes between nativists and German Turners in Columbus, Boston, Newark, Louisville and elsewhere. In Baltimore, disgraceful riots disrupted the hitherto peaceful life of the
Vereine. A German political response, despite wild rhetoric by radical leaders, was slow in coming. The older immigrant generation, especially rural Germans all over the Midwest, continued to support the
Democratic Party which had served them well since Andrew Jackson's days. But in the cities, goaded by a press that was radicalized as much by nativist agitation as by those
Forty-Eighters who relished a political fight at any cost, Germans finally took to the streets. In city after city they showed their numerical strength in mass demonstrations and anti-nativist
parades. Just as Know-Nothings had enlisted George Washington as an exemplar of Americanism, Germans now invoked the memory of General von Steuben, who hence forth
became a sort of patron saint. All factions of heterogeneous, urban German-America participated in the Steuben rallies of 1857. Nativist pressure had finally welded them together. It also brought
many of the emigres of 1848 into American life by way of politics, their familiar element. They remained in it after the Know-Nothing movement itself vanished from the scene. And they soon
found a more formidable object for their agitation: the abolition of slavery.
SPAN200 by Klaus Wurst and Norbert Muehlen. Published in behalf of Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart