Examine the evolution of the German American identity in nineteenth century America.
The German American identity of the 19th century is one that evolved as the century progressed. The German American population was seen as being beneficial to the American economy as this ethnic group was considered to be skillful and hard working. In the early 19th century, both the social and political stance of Germans was vastly different in comparison to their position at the turn of the century. Initially, “Germans in America were desperate not to be Americanized and so in order to protect their German identity they isolated themselves within entire German communities . . . avoiding American political and social affairs.” However “The Germans found it hard after 1848 to remain unassimilated” The revolution of 1848 sought to create a more democratic Germany with the establishment of human rights. After it’s failures, the United States saw an influx of a well-educated, respected German population who would later seek to influence the American political and social stance. It is after this key date that the German identity would be transformed to one that would actively seek to put forth their perspectives.
What did remain constant throughout the 19th century was the invaluable contribution put forth by German Americans in industrializing the United States. For this reason, Germans were identified as a positive immigrant group in regards to the ever-expanding American economy. “American cities were just beginning to industrialize and modernize and could use the crafts and skills that Germans brought. They fit well into the new urban industrializing economy.” For economic growth to occur, an economy must have access to all of the factors of production, these being land, labour, capital and enterprise. The American economy had access to plentiful amounts of land as well as capital and enterprise. Nevertheless, a skilled workforce was in short supply as many European immigrants in the 19th century were from the lower classes. They emigrated to escape poverty while hoping to achieve the American Dream. A key example of this is the Irish immigrants who largely emigrated due to starvation as a result of the potato famine of 1845. Germans emigrants’ post 1848 however consisted largely of intellectuals, which was beneficial to the economy. Melvin highlights this “No European immigrant group of the late 19th century produced as many skilled workers. Germans were the 19th century success story.” (Henceforth Holli PP. 3-4) He furthermore states, “American cities were just beginning to industrialize and modernize and could use the crafts and skills that Germans brought. They fit well into the new urban industrializing economy.” (Henceforth Holli P.2) Despite this largely positive connotation of the economic impact of German Americans, the identity of Germans was not without prejudice. “The Ohio republican, a nativist paper, complained that workers of German Lineage were driving “white people” out of the labor market.” Due to the skilled nature of the German Americans, ‘white’ Americans were aggravated that they faced strong competition for jobs that perhaps the Germans could perform better in. On the other hand, if German Americans were better suited for specific jobs, it was more beneficial to the economy that these laborers deservedly held these positions. Thus, overall German Americans can be identified as having had a significantly positive impact upon the economy.
The social identity of German Americans is one that caused tension amongst the earlier settlers who considered themselves to be true Americans. America up until the 19th century was considered to be a predominantly Protestant country; considering of course only the white settlers and not accounting for the religious beliefs of the indigenous population. The resulting tension was not related to the skilled labour factor, but instead due to the different and conflicting...
Bibliography: Holli, Melvin G., German-American Ethnic Identity from 1890 Onward: The Chicago Case (Henceforth Holli) The Great Lakes Review, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1985),
Honeck, Mischa. We Are the Revolutionists. German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists After 1848 (Henceforth, Honeck), University of Georgia Press, 2011
[ 2 ]. Hawgood, John A., The Tragedy of German-America: The Germans in the United States of America During the Nineteenth Century and After (Henceforth Hawgood), Arno Press, 1970
[ 3 ]
[ 4 ]. Honeck, Mischa. We Are the Revolutionists. German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists After 1848 (Henceforth, Honeck), University of Georgia Press, 2011, P.18
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