Why Is Dystopian Fiction Still Popular?

A reason for the popularity of dystopian works in English-speaking countries is culturally related and lies in their representation of unpleasant future worlds as a negative foil to Anglo-American values and ideas such as individual liberty.

Dystopian fiction sparks our interest. For quite some time, we have been fascinated, stirred and disturbed by the depiction of unpleasant imaginary future societies in novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [1984], Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and / or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. Film or TV series adaptations of these works and young adult (YA) dystopias like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy have also contributed to the genre’s popularity.

Broadly speaking, the term “dystopia” is the opposite of “utopia.” The latter comes from the early 16th century book Utopia, which was written in Latin by the famous English statesman, humanist writer and Roman Catholic saint Sir Thomas More.

Utopia vs Dystopia

As regards content, a traveller named Raphael Hythloday describes the island of Utopia, a city-state. Through his depiction the reader learns of its form of government, its people and its social, political and religious customs. What is remarkable is that, from our modern viewpoint, this fictional island city-state looks like a regimented, proto-communist society because there is, amongst other issues, no possession of private property.

Intriguingly, “utopia” is a pun on the Greek words for “good place” (i.e. “eutopia”) and for “no place” (i.e. “outopia”). Consequently, in connection to More’s book the term “utopia” implies a certain ambiguity.

On the one hand, the book, to a certain extent, portrays a “good place” or, to put it differently, an island society with lots of positive characteristics (, even though this city-state, apart from these features, has several negative aspects such as slavery and its practices of euthanasia and capital punishment). However, on the other hand, the island of Utopia does not exist in reality. It is just an imagined location.

Appropriately enough, the label or genre “utopian literature / fiction” is attributed to texts that are set in an imaginary ideal society, often in the future, whereas the genre “dystopian fiction / literature” includes works that present an unpleasant future world. Simply put, ‘dystopia’ (from Ancient Greek δυσ- or dus- and τόπος or tópos) means “bad place.”

Dystopias, by definition, depict, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, “a very bad or unfair society in which there is a lot of suffering, especially an imaginary society in the future, after something terrible has happened.” Moreover, in dystopian fiction present tendencies have deteriorated – from the recipient’s point of view – into terrible and oppressive conditions. Hence, the ills of the present reach their culmination.

Today, various people across the world – especially in the West – use dystopian texts, films and / or series as reference points to criticise alleged social problems and particular policies. Judging from public appearances and statements, we may think that, as far as political allegiance is concerned, both right- and left-leaning individuals refer to dystopian fiction.

Dystopian Works as Reference Points for (Almost) Everyone Regardless of Their Political Affiliation?

Female protesters in several countries, for example, have dressed as the brutally   subjugated handmaidens in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaiden’s Tale (1985) and its successful TV adaptation. By wearing scarlet cloaks with oversize white bonnets, they appear to raise awareness of the oppression of women in a subversive way.

With respect to their appearance on these occasions, the protesters support issues that are generally labelled as feminist and socially liberal or progressive. Needless to say, people in favour of progressive positions frequently identify as left-wingers. Yet, references to dystopian fiction are also made by right-wingers, conservatives and liberals or libertarians.

First of all, we should point out that the below-mentioned groups differ from one another. While conservatives as well as other right-leaning people usually aim to preserve the traditional social structures with its order, laws, principles and customs, classical liberals or libertarians are more interested in individual and economic liberty.

Despite the differences between them, individuals or parts of these political groups seemingly resort to references to dystopian worlds in novels and films. This prompts the question whether dystopian fiction provides reference points for (almost) everyone notwithstanding their political affiliation.

From a historical perspective, it is worth taking into consideration the criticism of utopian thinking since the end of the 19th century as Hans Ulrich Seeber in his article about the functions of dystopia in Anglo-American literature expounds. In political debates and discussions the term utopia has been employed pejoratively from a liberal and conservative standpoint.

Such critical attitude towards utopian thinking emerged against the backdrop of the growing socialist movement. Ever since, this criticism of utopian constructions has been intended to warn of the dangers of an authoritarian and collectivist state-socialist order that has threatened the freedom of the individual. During the 1920s the political debate intensified, when the opponents of (pluralistic) democracy came up with the concept of the totalitarian state. Thus, utopian visions have been suspected of promoting totalitarianism.

Roughly speaking, totalitarianism can be defined as a form of government which seeks to exert total power and control over its citizens. Undeniably, this notion contrasts with the constitutionally-based principles and rights in most of the Western world and particularly in English-speaking countries. Here we may ask the question whether the popularity of dystopian works in English-speaking countries lies in their representation of unpleasant future scenarios because these dystopian “visions” can function as a warning by challenging Anglo-American ideas.

The Dystopian World as a Negative Foil to Anglo-American Concepts and Individual Liberty

There is no denying the fact that dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [1984] (1949) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) are literary classics. Nowadays, young adult (YA) dystopian fiction has gained in popularity across the English-speaking world as the reception of novels  such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993) or Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series (2008-2010), their film adaptations and the aforementioned series The Handmaiden’s Tale (2017-present) show.

Several commentators have identified some reasons for why these works are so popular among young people. For instance, these novels or films mostly focus on adolescent characters and present breakout roles, which allow young readers or viewers in the uncertain times of today’s world to experience an alternate universe and to relate themselves to the protagonists.

Besides, these texts and films commonly end on a positive note. Accordingly, they point to signs of hope as opposed to the endings of dystopian classics like 1984. But why are these classics also still popular and why do people keep referring to these novels, when they comment on current problems?

Arguably, another reason for the general popularity of dystopian fiction – including the wildly discussed classics – in the West and, in particular, the English-speaking world is culturally related. In this context, it is useful to quote from the introduction of James C. Bennett’s “An Anglosphere Primer”:

“Over the past several years, a new term, Anglosphere, has crept into political and social discussion in the English-speaking world. This term, which can be defined briefly as the set of English-speaking, Common Law nations, implies far more than merely the sum of all persons who employ English as a first or second language. To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures. These include individualism, rule of law, honoring contracts and covenants, and the elevation of freedom to the first rank of political and cultural values.”

To this we should add the idea of democratic or representative government.

Although most of these “customs and values”, up to a certain degree, can be seen as “Western values”, distinctive features of the Anglosphere need to be emphasized at this point. One of them is the importance of individual liberty. Correspondingly, the continuous evocation of liberty seems to constitute a kind of founding myth of the U.S.A. Furthermore, the concept of liberty is a cornerstone of  American civil religion.

Nonetheless, dystopian fiction serves as a negative foil to Anglo-American ideas, values or concepts. More precisely, the recently published and released American dystopian stories as well as the above mentioned classics of English/American dystopian literature usually represent worlds in the future with powerful governments, technologically equipped police states and/or planned societies where personal liberty is confined. Instead, collectivism (or sameness) is promoted.

By contrast, an individual character, the protagonist and/or groups create, in the words of Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, “counter-narrative[s] of resistance” (5) by trying to rebel against their conditions or distancing themselves from the society and its order. Interestingly enough, Ewan Morrison states as follows in The Guardian:

“These books [i.e. The Giver, Divergent and The Hunger Games trilogy] propose a laissez-faire existence, with heroic individuals who are guided by the innate forces of human nature against evil social planners.”

All in all, the represented societies in the dystopian classics in addition to the modern versions of dystopian fiction challenge Anglo-American ideas and the concept of personal/individual freedom, which is embodied by the protagonists.

Sources (alongside the Linked Ones)

Baccolini, Raffaella, and Tom Moylan. “Introduction: Dystopia and Histories.” Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. Eds. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan. New York: Routledge, 2003. 1-12.

Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 8th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999.

Rüb, Matthias. “Freedom Isn’t Free: Amerikas quicklebendiger Gründungsmythos: Freiheit.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2007. 287-302.

Seeber, Hans Ulrich. “Präventives statt konstruktives Handeln: Zu den Funktionen der Dystopie in der anglo-amerikanischen Literatur.” Möglichkeitsdenken: Utopie und Dystopie in der Gegenwart. Eds. Wilhelm Voßkamp, Günter Blamberger, and Martin Roussel. München: Fink, 2013. 185-205.


German as the Official Language of the U.S.A.? – A Brief Look at a Historical Myth

Nowadays, some people claim that the U.S. Congress had the intention of making German the official language of the newly founded U.S.A. at the end of the 18th century. According to these claims, the alleged proposal was eventually rejected by just one single vote. However, this is actually a historical myth. Those days an overwhelming majority (app. 90%) of the inhabitants of the U.S.A. spoke English.

The House of Representatives once suggested that all laws should be published in both English and German because there was a significant number of German citizens in some American states (esp. Pennsylvania). But this proposal was not popular at all and was rejected immediately.


Marriott, Emma. Bad History: How We Got the Past Wrong. London: Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 2011. 

The American as the Englishman Left to Himself – Famous Quotes

Since this blog often deals with issues concerning the Anglosphere, it is worth quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. In the 19th century he famously stated:

It is true that each people has a special character independent of its political interest. One might say that America gives the most perfect picture, for good or ill, of the special character of the English race. The American is the Englishman left to himself.

This quote is taken from Daniel Hannan’s book How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters (London: Head of Zeus, 2013).

Albion’s Seed of Liberty in America – The Basic Personal Rights of Englishmen and Freedom from Arbitrary Power

English concepts of natural rights popularised the idea of personal liberty and freedom from governmental power in U.S. America.

Individual liberty represents one of the defining precepts of Western civilisation. We primarily associate this principle with a concept the Russian-British philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin (1909-1997) calls negative liberty or freedom from coercion. Accordingly, the individual human being should be as free as possible from constraint, outside interferences or coercive state interventions. Berlin’s notion of positive liberty, on the contrary, amounts to freedom to self-realisation / self-determination (i.e. to be in control of oneself or to rule oneself).   

The idea of personal liberty, however, is not equally valued everywhere across the globe today. Various countries or their authorities highly restrict individual freedom in addition to violating basic individual human rights. By contrast, Western countries grant these human rights, even though several governmental agencies and / or organisations there also regulate, for example, economic activities and freedom of speech.

For many people, such regulations pose serious threats to liberty in general. Especially a lot of U.S. Americans regard the concept of (individual) liberty as sacred. This attitude has historical reasons which can be traced back to the colonial societies in British America during the 17th and 18th centuries and the U.S.A.’s founding in the latter part of the 18th-century.

In this context, we need to focus on the English / British impact on its (former) North American colonies or, with reference to the title of a book by the historian David Hackett Fisher, on Albion’s seed of liberty in America. We will start with Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) because it gives an overview of the basic personal rights in English law.   

The Englishman’s (Natural) Rights to Life, Liberty and Property

Blackstone (1723-1780) was a seventeenth-century English legal scholar and a practicing lawyer. His Commentaries was among the most well-known works in 18th-century British North America, as one of America’s founding fathers, James Madison (1751-1836), indicated by remarking that the Commentaries was “in every man’s hand.” The first chapter of this work Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals contains notable aspects concerning the rights of Englishmen.   

Alongside other features, Blackstone presented basic individual liberties or the rights of the people of England in three major categories. These are the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty as well as the right of private property. While the right of personal security guarantees protection for a person’s life, physical integrity, health and reputation, the right of personal liberty ensures a person’s freedom of movement and an individual’s freedom from unlawful imprisonment. Furthermore, the right of private property, in principle, allows for the free use and disposition of one’s own property.

Blackstone basically defined what summarizing analyses of his Commentaries called – with the help of his own words – “[t]he absolute rights or civil liberties of Englishmen.” Nevertheless, he did not mention anything unfamiliar to British Americans. As early as the 17thcentury, the liberties of Englishmen had been guaranteed in several charters across the American colonies.   

Similar ideas had also been stated by the famous English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in his Two Treatises of Government (1689):

“Man being born…with a title to perfect freedom…hath by nature a power…to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men…”

We usually sum up Locke’s natural rights in the often-quoted slogan life, liberty and property.

Appropriately enough, Locke’s Two Treatises provided philosophical inspirations for the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). Although the famous document’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), altered the phrase “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the changed phrase did not exclude the idea of the security of private property since property was synonymous with liberty for many 18th-century Britons and Americans. 

A Source of Liberty – The Vital Importance of the Security of Property  

Liberty required the security of property to exist, while, at the same time, liberty was a necessity for personal property to be secure. Consequently, the survival and enjoyment of liberty depended on the security of property.

Besides the mutual interdependence of liberty and the security of property, what is noteworthy is that in 18th-century English political thought liberty was interconnected with security in general. Of course, the protection of property was vitally important.

But the concept of security also included the protection of the person. Locke, for instance, in his Two Treatises saw the state’s primary purpose as protecting persons, their property and property rights. Interestingly enough, his use of the term property not only encompasses material possessions, estate and land but also an individual person and his/her labour.      

As is the case today, private property and / or material goods in the 18th-century constituted a means of survival as well as a standard of well-being. However, it was more viewed as a source of liberty, rather than a kind of capital resource for economic development. We can infer from this that the concept of property then carried a certain immaterial value or ideal and was, thus, not only restricted to the physical or material.

For numerous 18th-century Britons and Americans, property as a source of liberty opened the door to independence from arbitrary power. Such a power was not necessarily abuse of authority. Instead, it epitomized power without restraint and could appear in any form of government – whether democratic, parliamentarian, republican, monarchical or oligarchical.   

Freedom from Arbitrary Government

With respect to the prevailing idea of liberty in 18th-century Anglo-American thought, liberty epitomized a defense against arbitrary governmental power, which was conceived of as liberty’s antithesis. Because the 18th-century notion of liberty entailed freedom from arbitrary government, from today’s perspective, it tends to correspond to Berlin’s concept of negative liberty. Likewise, from today’s viewpoint, Locke’s rights are, first and foremost, negative.


Ackermann, Ulrike: “Freiheitsliebe – Einleitung.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ibid. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 7-25.

Audi,  Robert. Ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (CUP), 1999.

Berlin, Isaiah: “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Four Essays On Liberty. Ed. Ibid.  Oxford: Oxford University Press (OUP), 1969.

Blackburn, Simon. Ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nded. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. (1765-1769; see link).

Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: OUP, 2009.

Dahrendorf, Ralf: “Freiheit – eine Definition.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 26-39.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: OUP, 1989.

Hannan, Daniel. How We Invented Freedom& Why It Matters. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.  

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. (Written during the 1670s; see link).

Loughlin, Martin. The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2013.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

McDonald, Forrest: “The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers.” Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes. Eds. Ibid., and Ellen S. McDonald. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. 1-22. 

Reid, John Phillip. The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Rüb, Matthias: “Freedom Isn’t Free. Amerikas quicklebendiger Gründungsmythos: Freiheit.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2007. 287-302.

Vincent, Nicholas. Magna Carta. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2012. 





Das Gründerväter-Erbe: Die U.S.A. sind eine Republik, keine reine Demokratie

Die berühmten ‚founding fathers’ der U.S.A. schufen eine Republik. Dabei wollten sie eine direkte Demokratie in Amerika vermeiden.

Häufig werden die Gründerväter der U.S.A. als Befürworter demokratischer Grundsätze gesehen. Diese Behauptung ist dann oft mit der Annahme verbunden, dass die Gründerväter an die Gleichheit aller Menschen glaubten. Sicherlich findet man in der Unabhängigkeitserklärung und den Artikeln der amerikanischen Verfassung zur Schaffung einer Republik (oder, genau genommen, einer konstitutionellen bzw. an eine Verfassung gebundene Bundesrepublik) ein Bekenntnis zu demokratischen Prinzipien.

Dennoch benötigt man zum genauen Verständnis, was die Gründergeneration wirklich von einer reinen Demokratie hielt, Hintergrundwissen über die Repräsentanten der Gründergeneration allgemein sowie deren Ansichten. Am Anfang ist es hilfreich, auf einige der prägenden Traditionen dieser Leute einzugehen.

Der Besitz zählt: Das Konzept der ‚freien Männer’

Die meisten der Gründerväter waren zwar Einheimische der dritten oder vierten Generation, waren aber immer noch durch bestimmte kulturelle Eigenheiten ihrer Vorfahren geprägt. Wie viele ihrer Landsleute hatten sie eine britische oder englische Herkunft und besaßen daher eine Vorstellung über die traditionellen englischen Konzepte des ‚freien Mannes’ (eng. freeman) und des Grundbesitzers (eng. freeholder).

Zu diesen Personengruppen gehörten im damaligen, sehr vom Standes- oder Klassenbewusstsein durchdrungenen England nicht nur Besitzer von Boden und Land, sondern auch Leute, die im Jahr einen Besitz im Wert von mindestens 40 Shilling aufweisen konnten. Nur solchen ‚Männern’ war es dann gestattet, als unabhängige Wähler ihre Stimme in Grafschaftswahlen abzugeben, um Personen im unteren Adelsstand (eng. Knights of the Shire) ins Unterhaus des Parlaments zu senden.

Die freemen oder freeholders besaßen also ein Wahlrecht aufgrund ihres finanziellen Vermögens. Folglich steht das Konzept des freeman / freeholder mehr mit Aristokratie als mit Demokratie in Verbindung. Die Gründerväter der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika hingen diesem Konzept jedoch an und glaubten an eine natürliche Aristokratie. Hierbei ist ein Blick in bestimmte wichtige Dokumente der Gründergeneration lohnenswert.

Die ursprünglich begrenzte Zahl der Wahlberechtigten in Amerika

Zwar lehnte die Gründergeneration eine erbliche Monarchie ab. Allerdings erhob sie deutliche Einwände gegen eine pure oder direkte Demokratie.

Zunächst ist, unter Berücksichtigung des Wissens über die freeholders, die Betrachtung einer berühmten Passage aus der vom Gründervater Thomas Jefferson verfassten Unabhängigkeitserklärung angebracht:

„Wir halten diese Wahrheiten für ausgemacht, daß alle Menschen gleich erschaffen worden, daß sie von ihrem Schöpfer mit gewissen unveräusserlichen Rechten begabt worden, worunter sind Leben, Freiheit und das Bestreben nach Glückseligkeit. Daß zur Versicherung dieser Rechte Regierungen unter den Menschen eingeführt worden sind, welche ihre gerechte Gewalt von der Einwilligung der Regierten herleiten…”

Jefferson erklärt im ersten Teil des Satzes die Gleichheit aller Menschen vor Gott und die Rechte, welchen allen Menschen zustehen, wohingegen er sich bei den ‚Regierten’ im letzten Teil in erster Linie auf die freemen bezieht.

Die Klasse der freemen setzte sich im damaligen Amerika hauptsächlich aus Großgrundbesitzern zusammen. Somit war vor allem eine Gruppe von wohlhabenden Menschen rechtmäßig befähigt, Repräsentanten auszuwählen und der Regierung Macht zu gewähren.

Interessanterweise besaß jeder Bundesstaat Kriterien zur Ermittlung der Wahlberechtigten, die ähnlich wie im früheren England einen bestimmten Wert an Eigentum nachweisen mussten. Demnach konnte nur eine begrenzte Anzahl von Bürgern das Recht zu wählen wahrnehmen, während dagegen viele andere Menschen (u. a. Sklaven, Schwarze und Frauen) ausgeschlossen wurden.

Erst mit der Ausdehnung des Wahlrechts im Laufe des 19. bzw. am Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts wurde allen weißen Männern, Schwarzen (mit z. T. erheblichen Einschränkungen in manchen Staaten) und Frauen die Berechtigung dazu zuteil. Die Vereinigten Staaten kamen damit insgesamt in ihren ersten Jahren oder Jahrzehnten der Definition von einer Republik im engeren Sinne nahe, nämlich ein Zusammenschluss aus einer Reihe von Bundesstaaten mit gemeinschaftlich gewähltem / bestimmtem Oberhaupt und Delegierten ohne direktes Wahlrecht.

Das wird dadurch bestätigt, wie die Wahl in Bezug auf die drei Gewalten Legislative, Exekutive sowie Judikative ursprünglich angelegt war. Zum Beispiel wählten bis zur Ratifizierung des 17. Zusatzes zur Verfassung (1913) nur die entsprechenden Gesetzgeber der einzelnen Staaten die Senatoren. Darüber hinaus sind die U.S. Präsidenten schon immer indirekt von so genannten Wahlmännern / Wahlfrauen aus den einzelnen Bundesstaaten ins Amt gewählt worden.

Eigentlich etablierten die Gründerväter das Wahlmännersystem (Electoral College), um u. a. eine direkte Demokratie zu verhindern und die einzelnen Bundesstaaten zu stärken. Anfangs bevorzugten die meisten Vertreter der Gründergeneration sogar die alleinige Ernennung des Präsidenten durch den Kongress.

Die Tyrannei der ‚Faktionen’

Seit jeher werden die Richter des hohen Bundesgerichtes (Supreme Court) vom amtierenden Präsidenten mit Zustimmung des Senates ernannt. Man kann an diesem Punkt bereits erkennen, dass die Gründerväter ein System der indirekten Ernennung intendierten. Ausschließlich die Mitglieder des Repräsentantenhauses wählte das Volk von Beginn an direkt.

Die anderen beschriebenen Regierungsebenen waren allerdings Kontrollinstanzen für das Repräsentantenhaus zur Verhinderung der Tyrannei der Mehrheit. Davor warnte ein weiterer berühmter Gründervater, James Madison, in der bekannten Abhandlung The Federalist No. 10.

Dieses Dokument rät von einer reinen Demokratie ab, da eine solche Form gefährliche ‚Faktionen’ bzw. Gruppen schaffen würde, welche, Madisons Meinung nach, durch bestimmte Allianzen sowie Unehrlichkeit die Gelegenheit hätten, andere gesellschaftliche Gruppen oder Minderheiten zu missbrauchen. Als Vorbeugemaßnahme gegen die Tyrannei der Faktionen plädierte Madison für die von den founding fathers intendierte repräsentative Republik sowie eine Stärkung der einzelnen Bundesstaaten.

Unterschiedliche Talente und Fähigkeiten

Im Großen und Ganzen glaubte die Mehrheit der Gründervätergeneration überhaupt nicht an eine direkte oder reine Demokratie. Selbstverständlich waren alle Bürger der Vereinigten Staaten zu einem Leben in Freiheit und dem Streben nach Glück berechtigt. Nichtsdestotrotz sollten in der neuen Republik die Regierungsverantwortlichen ursprünglich größtenteils von Gesetzgebern der einzelnen Bundesstaaten sowie dafür vorgesehenen Personen ernannt werden.

Dabei orientierten die Gründerväter sich an dem ihnen vertrauten traditionellen (englischen) Konzept des freeholder. Ihnen zufolge hatte jeder Mensch bestimmte Rechte vor Gott, aber auch unterschiedliche Talente und Fähigkeiten. Aus diesem Grund war es aus ihrer Sicht zum großen Teil nur dazu befähigten Leuten gestattet, die Regierungsmitglieder zu ernennen.


Addison, Joseph: The Freeholder. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1979.

Bosso, Christopher J., John H. Portz u. Michael C. Tolley: American Government. Conflict, Compromise, and Citizenship. Boulder: Westview Press 2000.      

Cannon, John (Hg.): Dictionary of British History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Überarb.  Aufl. 2009. 

McClanahan, Brion: The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Founding Fathers. Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc. 2009.

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.

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.


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.