Culture in the colonial classroom: A failed attempt at assimilation

As our Philanthropy Initiative continues to explore the history of giving, we're eager to share stories of success and failure. This story of a failure comes from one of our nation’s most famous philanthropists: Benjamin Franklin.

Immigrants were pouring into the country. They spoke a different language. They worshiped in a different way. Leaders were worried about the new residents' loyalty. Would they defend their new home in a possible military conflict, or undermine their neighbors? These were the questions early American leaders faced in the 1700s when thousands of new immigrants—Germans—began arriving in Britain's North American colonies.

A hand drawn baptismal certificate decorated with birds and flowers.
German Americans resolutely maintained their religious traditions. This printed and hand-drawn birth and baptismal certificate for a girl named Catharina Waechter, born January 14, 1774, was created by Heinrich Otto in Pennsylvania around 1774. German settlers brought their tradition of decorating documents with German calligraphy to America and continued it as part of maintaining their culture.

Germans arrived in what were then still Britain's North American colonies in force in the 1700s. With a reputation as the "best poor man's country," Pennsylvania attracted many of these immigrants. Large numbers settled in the colony in the 1740s and 1750s. To British Americans, these newcomers were a people apart. Their religion differed. British Americans typically were Reformed Protestants. The Germans, by contrast, were Lutheran, and some German speakers were Moravian, a group deemed unusual by many British North Americans. Moreover, German settlers continued to speak their own language and they maintained their own cultural traditions.

A grey square of cast iron with raised designs.
Many German American settlers continued to speak German. This stove plate, or fireback, created in Pennsylvania in 1748, is cast with verse "Gotes brynlein hat waser die fyle" (God's well has water in plenty).

To make tensions worse, not only were German settlers unlike their neighbors of British descent, some leaders were concerned that these newcomers might have an affinity for German-speaking Catholic colonists in neighboring French North American regions. In the 1700s the Protestant British and Catholic French empires were frequently at war, as the two contended for territory and for commercial power. British leaders were often anxious about the loyalty of various groups in the diverse empire. They worried their French neighbors might recruit German settlers from the British colonies to their ranks. Moreover, some German colonists belonged to pacifist churches and wouldn't bear arms.

Animated by these concerns, some leaders of the North American British colonies created charity schools to acculturate the newcomers. Their approach was typical of various missionary and educational ventures aimed at assimilating outsiders to British American culture.

Benjamin Franklin was one philanthropist involved in such efforts. In 1753 he and associates established the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge and English Language among the German Immigrants in Pennsylvania. The society, led by men in Pennsylvania and Britain, sought to teach German children English plus "the plain and uncontested principles of Christianity," and "no farther degrees of knowledge, than are suited to their circumstances and occupations," in the language of a leader of the effort. Learning both the English language and British Protestantism would, the society's proponents hoped, keep the Germans from joining the French enemy.

A brown suit composed of breeches, a vest, and a jacket.
Benjamin Franklin wore this suit in Paris in 1778 when he was in France representing the United States diplomatically. Like his political and scientific careers, Franklin’s philanthropic activities were transatlantic.

The effort seemed to have a promising start. Even before the group was formally organized, proponents had been fundraising successfully in Holland, German states, and Britain. Some German families were supportive of the effort, and within a few years, the society had set up 11 schools, educating over 750 children, though some of them were from British backgrounds.

The initial success, however, was not to last. Christopher Sauer, an influential German-language printer, recognized that the effort aimed to assimilate Germans into British American culture. Tapping into German Americans’ anger over doubts about their loyalty, Sauer used his newspaper, the Pensylvanische Berichte, as a platform, to fuel opposition among German Pennsylvanians to the charitable venture. Families withdrew their children, and by 1764 the schools had closed. The endeavor failed.

A black and white photograph of a chest with two flowered designs on the front.
Although some British American leaders sought to assimilate them, German American colonists maintained their customs and aesthetic traditions. This solid panel chest was made by Christian Selzer in Pennsylvania in 1777.

Regardless of the venture’s failure, German Americans had already begun integrating into the broader society and that trend continued. The largest foreign language immigrant group in the 1800s, German Americans have influenced American religion, culture, philanthropy, business, and more.

Classrooms continue to be a place of negotiation in American history, as we explore in our Many Voices, One Nation exhibition. Meanwhile, our Giving in America exhibition examines other times when geopolitics has shaped philanthropy in America.

 

Amanda B. Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy in the Division of Home and Community Life.

The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein, with additional support by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees’ Initiative, a grantmaking program of Fidelity Charitable.

Major support for Many Voices, One Nation was provided by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation│Sue Van, Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Zegar Family Foundation.