Speak English

“These foreign people have thrown a circle around themselves… they have studiously striven to exclude everything American and to cherish everything foreign… There must be an interpretation anew of the oath of allegiance… It means that you will speak the American language, sing American songs; that you will begin earnestly to study American history; that you will begin to open your lives through every avenue to the influence of American life; it means that you will begin first of all to learn English, the language of your country.”

Such a contemporary sentiment in the United States. Could be talking about Muslims, and whatever languages they speak, right? Well, no. All those Americans speaking Spanish? No, again.

The quote is actually taken from a lecture delivered by Judge Charles Amidon at the sentencing of the Rev. John Fontana, the Lutheran pastor of Peace Evangelical Church, New Salem, North Dakota, when he was convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The judge went on:

“You have cherished everything German, and stifled everything American. You have preached German, prayed German, read German, sung German.”

German, in fact, was the second most commonly spoken language in 1918, and it wasn’t a crime to use it in conversation, but that didn’t matter when the United States entered the war with Germany. The Rev. Fontana was charged with being the “who” in these “whoevers”:

“Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports, or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies.

“And whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause, insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States.

“Or, whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.”

A reasonable observer might ask how a German-American pastor in the middle of North Dakota could manage to interfere with the U.S. military, even if he tried, but the men on the jury had suspended the use of reason for the duration. They were convinced that from the middle of North Dakota, the Rev. Fontana had reached out to interfere with the operations of the U.S. military, and, by failing to fly an American flag at his church, buy Liberty Bonds or join the Red Cross, by never asking the choir to sing patriotic songs, he had fomented disloyalty. (Thirty-three young men from his congregation had joined the U.S. Army, but, you know.)

Born in Germany, of an Italian father and a German mother, Fontana had come to the U.S. at the age of 16 and was naturalized as an American citizen. He studied here, was ordained here, and then served a series of Lutheran churches, all of which conducted their services in German. In New Salem, 80% of his congregation spoke German, and his church council required him to preach in German.

With a salary of $1,000 a year, and $2,000 in debt, the Rev. Fontana declined to buy Liberty Bonds when asked by a local banker, John Henry Kling, who then offered to loan the pastor the money to buy a Liberty Bond, although the interest on the loan would have been higher than the interest earned by the bond. Kling was the prosecution’s chief witness. He claimed he saw a picture of the Kaiser on Fontana’s living room wall.

It was true that before the U.S. entered the war, the Rev. Fontana sided with the land of his birth in the European conflict. But all he prayed for was peace. Fontana spoke excellent English. He testified in English. His wife was an American. His children were American. But he was not American enough.

The prosecuting attorney, Melvin Hildreth, did not hold back.

“Search in vain for one who would do greater harm to the cause of the United States in this war, and you will find no one who will equal the minister of the gospel. He preached in a German settlement. His language was German and the song upon the lips of himself and his wife was German. His prayer to the God of battles was in German. His whole conduct has been in harmony with the land of his birth. Secretly he has carried on his work in the night time, and on Sunday mornings prayed for the success of German arms.”

Secretly he has carried on his work in the night time. Wow.

Nor did Hildreth hesitate to invoke images of the Lusitania, whose sinking by a German U-boat took the lives of 124 Americans among the 1,197 civilians who died.

“What minister of the gospel who loves God and his country can justify the sinking of the Lusitania, as the gurgling seas shrouded and snuffed out the lives of thousands of women and children and the hissing submarine went upon its deadly path.”

Again, it was only John Henry Kling who testified that the Rev. Fontana had repeated the German claim that the Lusitania was carrying munitions, and was thus fair game. (The claim was, unfortunately for everyone, correct. Although denied by the British and Americans in 1915 and for decades after, the Lusitania was being used as a high-speed munitions carrier with its passengers as human shields. The cargo on its last voyage, as revealed by shipping manifests and subsequent salvage efforts, included four million rounds of U.S.-manufactured Remington .303 bullets, 5,000 shrapnel shells from Bethlehem Steel, as well as aluminum powder and nitrocellulose used in the manufacture of munitions.)

Hildreth continued:

“In times of war the unbridled tongue is more dangerous than the arms of the enemy, more stealthy than the submarine or the aeroplane… Scattered everywhere throughout the land are the churches of Germans. Not that all are disloyal, but many were made disloyal. Not that the sons of many did not go to war, but that the sons of many might be made lukewarm, weak and vacillating in the support of the government by the acts of such men as this man.”

The jury was out for five hours, and returned with a verdict of guilty on all three counts. Judge Amidon, in a speech reprinted in newspapers across the country, lectured Fontana at length, and concluded:

“And the object of the sentence which I pronounce upon you today is not alone to punish you for the disloyalty of which you have been guilty but to serve notice upon you; and the like of you, and all the group of people in this district who have been cherishing foreignness, that the end of that regime has come.

“The court finds and adjudges that you are guilty under each count of the indictment, and as a punishment therefor it is further adjudged that you be imprisoned in the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth for the term of three years.”

The Rev. Fontana’s congregation raised bail money and he was freed while his appeal was pending. His first act, upon returning to church, was to conduct the funeral service of a young man killed in the war.

On Dec. 8, 1919, the 8th Circuit Court reversed the judgment. They ruled the indictment was not precise enough to allow the defense to prepare and there was insufficient evidence to prove Fontana had committed a crime. The Rev. Fontana served at Peace Evangelical Church until 1925 and then moved to Minnesota, where he led three congregations before moving to Chelsea, Michigan, in the early 1940s. The Rev. Fontana continued as pastor of that congregation until his death in 1953.

* * *

It was worse in Iowa. In May of 1918, the governor, William L. Harding, decreed that only English was legal in public or private schools, in public conversations, on trains, over the telephone, at all meetings, and in all religious services. He added to that in a speech: “Let those who cannot speak or understand the English language conduct their religious worship in their home.” Although he told one reporter, “There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue.”

Governor Harding’s proclamation was not a law, but was enforced by coercion, arrests by county sheriffs, neighbors spying upon neighbors and reporting what they heard (especially over party lines), and extra-legal court proceedings that assumed the authority to fine and jail suspects who did not buy Liberty Bonds or who were reported to be disloyal Americans, i.e., they were caught speaking German. Or Norwegian; in Iowa, that was illegal, too.

We could attribute all this to “war hysteria,” but many Americans still distrust people who speak a language other than English.

The United States, in fact, has no official language, and the language spoken by the majority of Americans came here from a foreign country, i.e., England. Nor have Americans been shy of acquiring words from other languages, such as possum, raccoon, squash and moose from Algonquin, cookie, cruller, stoop and pit (of a fruit) from Dutch; kindergarten from German, and barbecue, stevedore, and rodeo from Spanish.

A 2009 survey found 337 different languages being spoken in the U.S.A. Spanish comes in second with 35 million speakers, and Chinese is third with 2.6 million. German has slid to eighth place, with just a little over one million speakers. The 1880 census tells me that my maternal grandfather’s parents, who came from Germany to Buffalo, N.Y., spoke German at home. I don’t fault them.


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