The Bennett Law was a highly controversial state law passed in Wisconsin in 1889, that required the use of only English to teach major subjects in all public and private elementary and high schools in Wisconsin. Schools that failed to comply would not be recognized by the state and the students who attended would be treated as truants. The law affected the state's many German-language parochial schools (and also the handful of Norwegian Lutheran parochial schools), and was bitterly resented by the state's large German-American population. The German Catholics and German Lutherans each operated large networks of parochial schools in the state; the language used in the classroom was German and the teachers would have to be replaced with bilingual teachers.
Wisconsin was a Republican state but the Democratic Party took up the German cause and defeated for reelection its main sponsor, Governor William D. Hoard. The smashing defeat of the Bennett law by the voters helped establish the principle that parents, not the state government, had the primary responsibility for the education and language skills of their children. It caused Republicans leaders, especially William McKinley, to shy away from attacking ethnic or religious groups; instead they promoted pluralism.
The law seemed to be non-controversial law to require school attendance when it passed and few paid much attention to the language provision at first. In practice the law was never enforced.
GOP attack on Germans
Republican politicians had long avoided antagonizing the Germans. However in 1888 the professionals were pushed aside and the party nominated William D. Hoard, a dairy farmer with no political experience as governor. He found the opposition of the Germans to the Bennett Law an insult to the English language, and he tried to mobilize the Yankee population of the state behind his reelection in 1890 by hammering at the necessity to have all children speak English. (Most German children were bilingual in the cities and towns, but not in rural Wisconsin.) When opposition swelled, Hoard changed the theme to a defense of the public school system (which was not under attack), said he was the better guardian of the German children than their parents or pastors, and whipped up a nativist distrust of Germania as anti-American. "The little schoolhouse--stand by it!" he cried out.
In Milwaukee, a predominantly German city, Hoard attacked Germania and religion:
- "We must fight alienism and selfish ecclesiasticism.... The parents, the pastors and the church have entered into a conspiracy to darken the understanding of the children, who are denied by cupidity and bigotry the privilege of even the free schools of the state."
The Germans were incensed not only at the blatant attack on their language and culture, but also on their religion, for the parochial schools were set up and funded by the parents in order to inculcate the community's religious values. Most important the idea that the state could intervene in family life and tell children how to speak was intolerable, not just to the Germans but to many English-speakers as well.
By June 1890 the state's Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod (the main German Lutheran groups) had denounced the law. The German Catholic leadership of the state swung into line. Democrats, led by Yankee William F. Vilas took up the German cause and secured the election of George W. Peck, a Yankee, as mayor of Milwaukee. They then nominated him for governor. Irish Catholics, who had been feuding with the Germans, generally supported the law, but the Germans organized thoroughly and supported Peck.
Vilas criss-crossed the state defending Germania and German culture, and calling for tolerance and an end to nativism.
Combined with popular reaction against the new Republican tariff, the result was a major victory for the Democrats, their first in decades in Wisconsin. The Edwards law was a similar law in Illinois, where the same forces were at work to produce a Democratic win.
The law was repealed in 1891, but Democrats used the memories to carry Wisconsin and Illinois in the 1892 presidential election. Vilas was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became a leader of the conservative Bourbon Democrats. The Republicans, however, won back the German voters by dropping Hoard and his nativism, and by attacking the 1896 Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, for promoting inflation and free silver, which was anathema to Germans.
The Bennett Law was the last major attack on German language schools until 1914. In 1925 in Pierce v. Society of Sisters the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that attacks on parochial schools violated the liberty of parents guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
- Quoted in Whyte, p 388
- Jensen, Richard J. The Winning of the Midwest, 1888-1896 (1971).
- Merrill, Horace Samuel. William Freeman Vilas Doctrinaire Democrat (1954)
- Whyte, William Foote. "The Bennett law campaign in Wisconsin" Wisconsin Magazine Of History. Volume: 10 /Issue: 4 (1926-1927) pp 363-90 online edition