The Shameful History Behind Iowa ’s English Only Policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Sep 24 14:08:34 UTC 2008

The Shameful History Behind Iowa's English Only Policy

by Nancy Thieman, LMSW, Sioux City, Iowa

An original Blog for Iowa exclusive in four parts

When the southern states succeeded from the Union at the start of the
Civil War in 1860, there was one little-acknowledged consequence that
had far-reaching effects on the growth and expansion of the nation.
Because the U.S. Congress no longer had to face the opposition from
the south, they were able to pass through a bill called the Homestead
Act of 1862.

The Homestead Act allowed for immigrants to come to America to receive
the allocation of 40 to 160 acres of undeveloped public land.  After
five years residence on the land, the "homesteader" would pay a
nominal fee and receive ownership of the land.  The homesteader was
also required to have built a house on the land and developed at least
10 acres for farming or timber.  The Homestead Act mainly covered the
plains states in the great Midwest.  Iowa was included in the area
proscribed by Congress.

The Homesteaders

In Germany, at that time, farmland was passed from father to son.  A
second son would, therefore, be without land or income of his own.
The appeal of owning one's own farmland was great amongst these German
farmers who were without land and who were in danger of being
conscripted by a militaristic government, and the Homestead Act set
off several waves of emigration out of Germany.  Many of the
homesteaders from Germany took up land in Iowa.

In fact, according to U.S. Census data, just over 7,000 German-born
people lived in Iowa in 1850.  But by 1890, just forty years later,
the German-born population of Iowa had reached its peak at over
127,000.  What's more, this figure does not include the families of
these immigrants, i.e., their children and grandchildren who were
American-born and yet German-speaking.  So the German-speaking
population of Iowa, by the turn of the 20th century, was substantial.

The Life of the Community

During the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the heart and soul of every
German-immigrant community in Iowa was the German-language church.
This produced, for the German-born minister and his flock, a kind of
isolation and independence whose power came from their own sense of
self-worth and their dedication to the will of the Lord.  These
congregations/communities were rooted strongly in religious, cultural
and linguistic tradition, and had developed such a sense of self over
the decades that they were almost impervious to outside pressures from
the non-German-speaking community.

The Babel Proclamation

Once the Great War in Europe started in 1914, anti-German sentiment
became rampant in Iowa.  Hatred against Germans was visible
everywhere, as English-speaking ministers preached against them and
newspapers vilified them.  Soon, in Iowa, public schools were
forbidden to offer German language classes, and German language
teachers were fired en masse.  German books were burned, parochial
schools forced to close, and German church services outlawed by town
councils.  Most German-language newspapers in Iowa had been pressured
or forced to shut down their businesses, and the average man or woman
on the street would be scolded or physically attacked when heard to be
speaking German in public.  Iowa's German immigrant community and
their offspring had become scapegoats for the war acts of the Kaiser.

This growing hatred and bigotry was given Iowa's official stamp of
approval a year after the U.S. entered the war.  In May of 1918, in
what came to be known as the infamous "Babel Proclamation," then Iowa
Gov. William Harding issued an edict proclaiming that "English only"
would be allowed in Iowa—the first and only state in the Union to have
an official policy aimed at persecuting German speakers.  The idea was
to "homogenize" or "standardize" the population; to make everybody a
"real American," one who looked, acted and spoke "American."  Throwing
off one's "foreignness," then, was seen as an act of patriotism.

Tomorrow on Blog for Iowa
A System of Coercion, Part 2 of The Shameful History Behind Iowa's
English Only Policy

Derr, N., (1979, July/August). The Babel Proclamation. The Palimpsest,
60(4), 98-115.

Hansen, Z. K. and Libecap, G. D., (2004). The allocation of property
rights to land: US land policy and farm failure in the northern great
plains. Explorations in Economic History, 41(2). 103-129.

Who came to Iowa?, (1981, November). The Goldfinch 3(2), 14.

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