Gottfried Duden on education and language for immigrants

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

Gottfried Duden was a Prussian lawyer who visited St. Louis, Missouri, in 1824 in search of land tracts for German settlements. Both Duden and his traveling companion, Ludwig Eversmann, purchased farms about fifty miles west of St. Louis. Duden spent nearly three years in the United States, reading, exploring the country, and writing letters while the Americans that he hired cleared his land and ran his farm. Duden returned to Germany in 1827.

The result of this experiment was Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America [Bericht über eine Reise nach den westlichen Staaten Nordamerika's], which was published in Germany to convince Germans to immigrate to Missouri. Duden described the advantages of moving to the state and provided advice on how to successfully create a new life in the United States. Duden's book was one of a large number of German books about America, but his was one of the most widely read. Germans faced many problems at home, including corrupt rulers, high taxes, and a lack of available land, and Duden made the spacious expanse of Missouri plains sound very inviting to his fellow countrymen.


Burnett, Robyn and Ken Luebbering. German Settlement in Missouri: New Land, Old Ways. University of Missouri Press (1996), 6-7.

Parrish, William Earl et. al. A History of Missouri: 1820-1860. University of Missouri Press (2000), 38-39.

Transcription of Primary Source

Among all those who have ever immigrated from Germany to North America very few were capable of instructing their children themselves, and rarely did enough well-to-do families settle together to establish a regular school. Faced with the alternative of letting the young people grow up without proper instruction or of sending them to English teachers, sensible fathers chose the latter. The children's own judgment told them that there was no evidence that the German language had been of any special value to their parents. The speech of German peasants and mechanics, which had never been refined by education and instruction, especially that of the immigrants from the Palatinate, Swabia, and Switzerland who had brought with them their dialects in all their harshness, was not suited to recommend German culture. As with regard to language, these immigrants were also the only representatives of the German people in everything else, in their customs, and their habits. Beginning with the first attempts at colonization, the English and the French never lacked men who belonged to the most highly cultured families of their mother countries. It is easy to understand how, far from the influence of European views which earlier were never so favorable to us as to cope with disagreeable circumstances without our assistance, the opinion could develop that Germany was culturally far behind England and France. This is the opinion of the masses in all of North America. Only a few highly educated natives judge differently. Therefore, it must not seem strange if some descendants of Germans treat the later immigrants from the land of their own ancestors with some disdain. Whoever wanted to improve this attitude would have to begin by making them understand what a miserable education their own fathers had. Fluency in the English language is a sure protection against the annoying arrogance of such Americans. One then immediately notices that their conceit loses all its support, and only the immigrant's ignorance of the language of the country will confirm in them their delusion of imagined superiority. Moreover, it is not advisable to speak German with this class of Republicans in case they do understand it. Aside from the embarrassing sensation of seeing the mother tongue subjected to ridicule because of poor articulation, it also seemed to me that the same people [Germans] assumed better manners when they spoke English than when the conversation was carried on in German. This may seem paradoxical, but one should consider that only the English language could separate them from their inherited crude customs, and that their German language was an integral part of these customs. The use of du and ihr instead of sie, which is almost universal in the interior of America, probably biased my judgement somewhat, but there is certainly some truth in it. Almost all who were born in the United States understand English, and those who also understand German speak it very poorly. They have learned it without instruction, mainly from the immigrants mentioned above and intersperse it with innumerable corrupted English words. There are only a few descendants of Germans for whom English has remained an entirely foreign language. In Pennsylvania there are such individual families. Usually religious differences keep those who settled near each other isolated [from others]. They are considered still more awkward than the semi-anglicized ones; however both groups are praised everywhere as models of sobriety and domestic industry. In general the cultured inhabitants of present-day Germany will prefer to associate with the British and, as a rule, with Americans who understand only the English language and not the adulterated kind of German mentioned above. Among the latter one also finds a more favorable view of German culture, which they partly derive from Great Britain and partly from a comparison of the various German immigrants themselves...