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The Muhlenberg Legend:
Official Languages in U.S. History

"German missed becoming the official U.S. language by a single vote."
– Folk wisdom

By some apocryphal accounts, after the American Revolution there was talk of deposing the language of the oppressor in favor of German, French, Greek, or Hebrew. Little evidence exists that any of these alternatives was seriously discussed. No doubt Roger Sherman, a delegate to the Continental Congress, summed up the prevailing view when he quipped, "It would be more convenient for us to keep the language as it was and make the English speak Greek."

A more persistent legend, popularized after the Civil War and revived by the German-American Bund in the 1930s, is that German failed by a single vote to become the official language of the United States. Apparently the tale draws on two unrelated events involving Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg, a Pennsylvania German who served as the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. One of these involved a petition by Virginia Germans seeking the publication of important federal laws in their language. In 1795, the House defeated this proposal on a 42-41 vote, in which Muhlenberg may have stepped down from the Speaker's chair to break a tie. Existing records, however, make it impossible to ascertain what role, if any, the Speaker played. It is known that he was never fluent in German and was widely suspected of Anglophilia.

In a second, better documented episode, Muhlenberg broke a tie vote in favor of executing the Jay Treaty, which authorized payment of a ransom for American sailors held by the British. This act brought the Speaker both political and personal grief. Pennsylvania voters, who regarded the treaty as a humiliating sell-out, defeated Muhlenberg in the 1796 election; whereupon his own outraged brother-in-law attacked him with a knife.

A combination of poor recordkeeping, Muhlenberg's reputation as an ethnic traitor, and German cultural pride breathed life into this captivating but absurd story. English has never been forced to weather a challenge, serious or otherwise, in the U.S. Congress.

Before 1981, the only official language bill ever introduced was a tongue-in-cheek proposal to recognize "American."

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