The German-American Revolution

by Johannes Ehrmann

In July, 1776, America’s rebels formulated their universal ideals of freedom and humanity. German immigrants were crucial in disseminating them.

Buchcover: ggf. hinzufügen: “1. Auflage 2023, 320 Seiten, ISBN: 978-3-608-98718-8”
1. Auflage 2023, 320 Seiten, ISBN: 978-3-608-98718-8

In the early days of July, 1776, Philadelphia’s printing quarter was bustling with activity. Several printers along Second Street received express orders from the Continental Congress. The makeshift parliament of the 13 American colonies convened only a brief ten-minute-walk away in the Pennsylvania State House on Chestnut Street. On July 4, the delegates had voted on the finalized text of their Declaration of Independence.

Among the printers who worked overnight shifts were German-born Melchior Steiner and Charles Cist. Their task was the first and by far most important translation of the document. It was targeted at the vast number of German immigrants in the colonies. They were estimated to be 250,000 people or roughly ten percent of the population. In Pennsylvania, it was more than a third of people who spoke German as a first language.

The Germans were the largest non-English-speaking group of the colonies. It was crucial to win them over for the revolution if it was to have any success. Steiner and Cist were certainly aware of this. They had both been born in Europe. Cist came from a German family in St. Petersburg and had later studied medicine at Martin Luther University in Halle. Steiner was the son of a pastor from the German-speaking parts of Switzerland.

For his printing business, he sometimes used an Anglicized version of his surname: Styner. This helped gain him trust among the English, who still held some resentments against the Germans, these “Palatine boors,” as Philadelphia’s most prominent citizen, Benjamin Franklin, had once labeled them. Steiner’s partner had even made up an entirely new English-sounding surname from his initials: Carl Jacob Sigismund Thiel turned into CIST.

The two German printers worked on what was truly a revolutionary document. The concept that every human possessed certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continues to shape our world to this day. The Declaration of Independence also marked the dawn of a new form of government and society. What Steiner and Cist meticulously typeset letter by letter in their printery on Philadelphia’s Second Street was nothing less than the foundation of modern democracy.

On July 5, the German-language newspaper Der Pennsylvanische Staatsbote was the first to report the news out of Philadelphia. It did not print the full text yet, which appeared in English a day later in the Pennsylvania Evening Post. Soon after, Steiner and Cist printed the first copy of their German translation. They had deliberately set it in Gothic type (Fraktur), the style of lettering that German readers of the time were used to.

Job well done: The rebels’ claims of liberty and self-government were now being distributed amongst the Germans also. But would they really give up English protection and risk the tentative wealth they had acquired just for some fiery ideals and the vague promise of a new form of government?

The most prominent German-American of his time was not so sure. Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, the head of the Lutheran churches in the colonies, was a man of the old order. He had sworn allegiance to the king more than once, upon his arrival in Philadelphia and later, when he was naturalized as a British subject. And hadn’t this very king always ensured that preachers like Mühlenberg could freely practice their religion and build their churches? Just like the Apostle Paul had written to the Romans: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God.”

Simply put, Pastor Heinrich Mühlenberg had no idea what side of this bloody conflict God had chosen. So he could and would not decide himself either. But Mühlenberg was faced with a serious personal crisis: His own children started to defect from him to join the rebel cause.

Two of his sons would leave the Lutheran ministry and fight for the goals of the revolution. Friedrich or Frederick, his second-oldest son, would later become the first Speaker of the newly formed U.S. House of Representatives. And Peter, Mühlenberg’s eldest, was involved in the war from early 1776 when he formed a German regiment from his congregations in rural Virginia. Peter fought in Brandywine, in Germantown, and in Yorktown, where the war was decided in favor of the United States in 1783. He then became a Congressman as well.

The Mühlenberg sons were not an exception amongst German-Americans who fought against the British in great number. But their father continued to struggle with the path they had chosen. Their worldly careers seemed sacrilegious to him. The patriarch died in October 1787, just days after the U.S. Constitution was passed and sent to the 13 states for ratification. In Pennsylvania, where it was ratified quickly thanks to Frederick Mühlenberg, the text was then sent for printing: 3,000 English copies, 2,000 in German.

When father is arrayed against son … It was during my Fulbright year as a History student in Philadelphia that I first discovered this fascinating German-American family story. I was struck by the Mühlenberg’s deep generational conflict, by the schism between the old and the new world. My professor encouraged me to tell the story as my Master’s thesis. Almost 15 years later, I felt finally ready to turn it into a whole narrative non-fiction book. “Söhne der Freiheit” was published this fall by Klett-Cotta in Germany.

Why is this story of almost 250 years still relevant today? In fact, the ideals of July 4 – freedom, equality, self-government – have not aged a day. They continue to be fought for, in Europe, America, and elsewhere. No doubt, the spirit of 1776 is very well and alive. It is guiding us into a better future.

Johannes Ehrmann
Headshot by Manfred Esser

Johannes Ehrmann, born 1983, is a contributing editor with ZEIT ONLINE and the author of several non-fiction books. After studying North American Studies at FU Berlin’s John F. Kennedy Institute, he graduated with an M.A. degree in History from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 2007 where he studied as a Fulbright grantee. “Söhne der Freiheit” is his fifth book (ISBN: 978-3-608-98718-8).

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