Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Patriotic Society of the City and County of Philadelphia

Never heard of this? Neither had I, but it played a noteworthy role in our state's and even our nation's history. Anyone with German ancestry in Pennsylvania might find this interesting.

In colonial times, the German population was strong, particular in Pennsylvania where by 1790, they made up about a third of the total population. It is not surprising therefore that the English were wary of their influence in the colonies, which was particularly strong in elections such as for the Colonial Assembly (the colonial governing body), because the Germans tended to all vote for the same candidate. The Germans themselves were largely influenced by their German newspapers in the colonies, particularly Christoph Sauer's newspaper in Philadelphia, which was known for having anti-English sentiments. In fact, it seemed to have made use of a little bit of propaganda by impressing upon the Germans that the English intended to enslave them and enforce compulsory military service among their young men, much like the circumstances from which they had fled their homeland. As a result, the Germans frequently refused to serve in the army for Britain's fight against the French over Canadian territory. In turn, the English feared that the Germans were strong enough in numbers to rise up and turn Pennsylvania into a German nation, thus there was a lot of prejudice among the English against the Germans. Proposals were put forward to bar the German's from having a vote in the Assembly, during which time they would also be forced to learn English. It never happened though, and as a result, the German language prevailed in America all the way up to World War I.

Benjamin Franklin, unfairly critical of Germans
in Pennsylvania
But in colonial times, the prejudice against the Germans was so strong that even our beloved Founding Father Benjamin Franklin shared harsh, negative views of them. In a letter from him to Peter Collinson in 1753, he wrote the following:
"I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great temper are necessary touching the Germans, and am not without apprehensions that, through their indiscretion, or ours, or both, great disorders may one day arise among us. Those who come hither are generally the most stupid of their own nation, and as ignorance is often attended with great credulity, when knavery would mislead it, and with suspicion when honesty would set it right; and few of the English understand the German language, so that they cannot address them either from the press or pulpit, it is almost impossible to remove any prejudice they may entertain. The clergy have very little influence on the people, who seem to take pleasure in abusing and discharging the minister on every trivial occasion. Not being used to liberty, they know not how to make modest use of it. They are under no restraint from 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 with 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 know 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 are entirely English. They have one German newspaper, and one half German. Advertisements intended to be general, are now printed in Dutch, (German) and English. The signs in our streets, (Phila.,) have inscriptions in both languages, and some places only in German. They begin of late, to make all their bonds and other legal instruments in their own language, (though I think it ought not to be), are allowed good in courts, where the German business so increases, that there is continued need of interpreters, and I suppose in a few years, they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one-half of our legislators, what the other half says. In short, unless the stream of importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will, in my opinion, be not able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."
It is therefore rather ironic that not long later, many of the "English" of the colonies, who previously feared the loss of British rule to the German settlers, were now unified with them against the British in the American Revolution. With the exception of many of the pacifist Mennonites who held an indifferent stance in the conflict, the Germans were firmly on the side of the Patriots. In 1772, the German residents of Philadelphia held a significant amount of influence in business and civic matters and created an organization called The Patriotic Society of the City and County of Philadelphia. Its intent was to prepare and support what they correctly viewed to be the inevitable struggle for the colony against the British. Though it gets little mention these days and does not even have a Wikipedia page about it, its existence shows the support of the German faction of Pennsylvania in the Revolution, despite the harsh prejudice previously against them. Understanding their vast numbers in the colony proves just how important their support was for the success of the Revolution and the creation of our nation.


1 comment:

  1. Amazing, it is the same today and only the language changed.