Map showing significant immigrant ancestry per state; green is German. Source: German Emigration Center, Bremerhaven, Germany.
As we celebrate our nation’s 234th birthday, I’m thinking about American identity—not that I could even begin to define that. All the same, I spent the spring researching the influence of German immigrants on its formation.
From 1820 to 1985, more immigrants came from German territory than from any other country (7,031,370). Even in the eighteenth century, there were enough of them to make Benjamin Franklin worry that German would overtake English as America’s tongue. Yet these people did not carry some monolithic characteristic to impart on the New World. They brought diversity. The modern nation of Germany is younger than the United States (1871), and the immigrants came from many regions: they saw themselves as Badeners, Hessians, Palatines, rather than Germans. What’s more, their influences here are determined by place of origin, religion, political views, time of migration, reasons for migration, region of settlement, and whether they were urban or rural, scattered among a larger population or dominant in the area. Consequently, there can be no simple “German” influence.
And yet, there may be one in this very diversity. Steven Nolt, in his book Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), shows that this population (Pennsylvania Germans, 1790–1848) maintained its Old World ways and spoke a German dialect, yet considered themselves definitive Americans for that very reason. America was the land of liberty, and they were practicing it. What kind of liberty would force them to abandon everything they knew, force them to conform to a particular religion or way of life, force them to be someone different?
German particularism—the idea that each regional and religious group should maintain its community and its traditions, even while adapting them to the New World—was widespread. German Americans participated in the country’s economic and political life, and some Germans quickly assimilated, but according to the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, “until about the middle of the twentieth century, German was the most widely taught modern foreign language in U.S. schools and colleges.” These are our forefathers.
They were not, of course, the only Americans who believed in particularism, or localism, or states’ rights. But by preserving their language and culture, they lived this choice, and they did not consider themselves any less American for doing so.
Today, Americans have the same belief in local control: we don’t want Washington telling us how to live in Mississippi, Arizona, Vermont, or New York. Why, then, is there a simultaneous view that immigrants should conform or get out?
“American,” after all, is not really an ethnicity, except for Native Americans. It is a nationality, and more than any other, perhaps, it is an identity that people may choose. Let’s hope they keep doing so. In the vast openness of our self-definition may lie our greatest freedom.