‘Quite Franklin’ – Stereotypical Views and Benjamin Franklin’s Vicious Comments about Germans

During the 18th century, one of the U.S.A.’s most famous Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, expressed his contempt for immigrants from German states to colonial America. In general, there have been stereotypical views about Germans in the U.S.A.  

Mass immigration has always represented a contested issue in North America as in almost every country of the Western world. On the one hand, a huge number of people nowadays demand stricter immigration laws. On the other hand, many people support a liberal immigration policy.

The U.S.A. is commonly referred to as ‘a nation of immigrants’, though colonial North America was predominantly settled by migrants from England or Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the U.S.A. was founded, the Congress of the new American republic passed several federal legislation including the Naturalization Acts in 1790, 1795, 1798 and 1802. These acts only addressed immigration indirectly. Instead, as the name makes clear, they focused on the process of naturalization.

During this period (i.e. between the 18th and 19th centuries) these naturalization laws were comparatively generous. Broadly speaking, they allowed foreign residents in America to gain relatively easy access to citizenship as long as these persons fulfilled specific criteria.

Besides an oath of loyalty and the completion of the period of legal residence, the criteria included the renouncement of former and / or other allegiances and of all foreign titles. Moreover, the candidates for naturalization had to convince a court to have a “good moral character” and to believe in “the principles of the Constitution of the United States.” However, only “free-born white persons” could be naturalized.

Correspondingly, notwithstanding that free blacks were given citizenship in some states of the U.S.A., these Naturalization Acts particularly excluded slaves, a lot of free blacks, American Indians and indentured servants until the naturalization laws were changed in the 19th century. Today, the exclusion of certain ethnic or foreign groups is usually conceived of as ‘racism’ or ‘xenophobia’.

But the white people of colonial British America and the early American republic also viewed other groups of British migrants (as well as their descendants) and non-British immigrants with suspicion or contempt. At this point, we can, for example, point to the aversion to 18th-century immigrants from German states. One of the people who expressed dislike for them was Benjamin Franklin.

This illustrious figure among the U.S.A.’s Founding Fathers worried about large German communities in Pennsylvania. Before turning to Franklin’s vicious comments about Germans, we should elaborate on how Americans in the past perceived people from Germany.

Beer, Sauerkraut and ‘the Adipose Society’ – American (Stereotypical) Views and Images of Germans

From the late 17th century to the mid-19th century, masses of people came to North America from the German states, which formed a German nation state in 1871. Germans were generally associated with beer and such an association is still common. Not by chance. Well-known American beer brands have a German origin. In this context, it is worth mentioning the founder of the Miller Brewing Company, Frederick Miller (1824-1888), and Adolphus Busch (1839-1913), the co-founder of the brewing company Anheuser-Busch.

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‘Germans and Their Beer’ – A 19th-century lithograph that is taken from page 49 of the anthology From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: E pluribus unum ? (Ed. Peter Freese, 2005).

Apart from this, Germans have been regarded as embodiments of gluttony, overindulgence or obesity. Appropriately enough, a 19th-century American lithograph depicts stereotypical Germans. We see, for example, an obese couple, transporting beer barrels. The girl sits on one barrel, while the boy appears to drink beer.

As far as the overindulgence or obesity issue is concerned, it is remarkable that in 1963 the American TIME Magazine published an article about (West) Germany with the title “West Germany: The Adipose Society.” A few passages of this article read as follows:

“Following the early ’50s, when the postwar boom set off what Germans call the Edelfresswelle, the gorgeous gobbling wave, buttocks and bosoms have expanded even more rapidly than the economy, and doctors have recognized two universal ailments: Doppelkinnepidemie, double-chin epidemic, and Hängebauch, or bellyhang.”

Parts of the article are certainly based on some stereotypical views.

Needless to say, more threatening images or views of Germans emerged in the U.S.A., when the two World Wars broke out. Then, the German word Sauerkraut was also replaced by the English term ‘liberty cabbage’. Long before the 20th century, Germans had made themselves unpopular among Americans with a British background by, for instance, going to the park on Sundays to play loud brass music and do exercise, which the Germans called ‘Turnen’.

During the colonial period many of the people from German states moved to Pennsylvania. Eventually, in the mid-18th century the colony of Pennsylvania was one-third German. Because of this fact, Benjamin Franklin reacted sharply.

‘These Palatine Boors’ – Franklin’s Malicious Comments about Germans in Pennsylvania

Franklin expressed his contempt for the immigrants from German states. He stated the following in one letter to Peter Collinson (1694-1768), a Fellow of the Royal Society in Britain, on 9 May 1753:

“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;…”

His writings contain more malicious comments about Germans, as a part of his essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” (1751) demonstrates:

“And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language 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.”

He clearly feared the dominance of the German language in Pennsylvania.

His main concern was that the Germans would not adopt the English language and English customs. On 12 August 1753, Collinson suggested some remedies in a letter to him:

“Hints Humbly proposed to Incorporate the Germans more with the English and Check the Increase of their Power

1st To Establish More English Schools amongst the Germans.

2dly To Encourge them to Learn English Lett an Act of Parliament pass in Great Britain to disquallifie every German from accepting any Place of Trust or Profit Civil or Military Unless both He and His Children can speake English inteligibly.

3d To prohibit any Deeds, Bonds, or writeings &c. to be Made in the German Language.

4 To Suppress all German Printing Houses that print only German. Half German half English in a Page of Books or publick News papers To be Tolerated.

5th To prohibit all Importation of German books.

6 To Encourage the Marriages of Germans with English and Contra by some Priviledge or Donation from the Publick.

7ly To Discourage the sending More Germans to the Province of Pensilvania When Inhabitans are so much Wanted in Georgia, North Carolina and Nova Scotia &c.”

Franklin later responded in another letter in 1753, giving answers regarding the proposals.

At the beginning of the letter, he advised careful measures: “With regard to the Germans, I think Methods of great tenderness should be used, and nothing that looks like a hardship be imposed.” What is especially noteworthy is his answer to the sixth proposal:

“The sixth Proposal of Encouraging Intermarriages between the English and Germans, by Donations, &c. I think would either cost too much, or have no Effect. The German Women are generally so disagreable to an English Eye, that it wou’d require great Portions to induce Englishmen to marry them. Nor would the German Ideas of Beauty generally agree with our Women; dick und starcke, that is, thick and strong, always enters into their Description of a pretty Girl: for the value of a Wife with them consists much in the Work she is able to do. So that it would require a round Sum with an English Wife to make up to a Dutch Man the difference in Labour and Frugality. This Matter therefore I think had better be left to itself.”

To put it mildly, from today’s point of view, his statements were extremely politically incorrect.

Sources:

Freese, Peter (Ed.). From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: E pluribus unum ?. Berlin et al.: Langenscheidt, 2005.

Gerber, David A. American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.