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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Building a New Nation

Front page of the Philadelphische Zeitung. The Germans in America, 1732

By the middle of the 18th century, German immigrants occupied a central place in American life. Germans accounted for one-third of the population of the American colonies, and were second in number only to the English. The German language was widely spoken in nearly every colonial city and was circulated in locally published periodicals and books. When the members of the Continental Congress first met in Philadelphia, they walked down streets lined with German businesses sporting German signs, and their deliberations were reported in German broadsides and debated in German coffeehouses. When the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, a German newspaper was the first to break the news, and German copies of the Declaration were on the streets the next day.

The strength and vitality of German publishing was one of the cornerstones of German culture in America, and one of the reasons for its tremendous success. Since Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type in 1440, Germans had been at the forefront of the printing industry in Europe, and they carried this tradition with them to the American colonies. The first Bible in America was published in German by Christopher Saur, a German printer in Philadelphia. By the time of the American Revolution, most of the cities and large towns in the colonies supported at least one German newspaper, and some had two. German newspapers, broadsides, almanacs, and books became the glue that held the German American community together, and helped maintain a sense of social cohesion among immigrants that were scattered widely up and down the eastern seaboard, in bustling cities and in remote farm settlements. This cultural glue held its force for hundreds of years, and reinforced German Americans' identity well into the 20th century.

Statue of Baron Von Steuben

The military traditions of German-speaking immigrants also made a significant contribution to revolutionary America. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Germans from all over the American colonies formed volunteer militia companies. General Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben, who had served as a general staff officer with the Prussian army, volunteered to serve General George Washington without pay and was put to work organizing and drilling the sometimes ragged volunteers of the Continental Army. Von Steuben's Prussian discipline and tactics were to a large degree responsible for the Revolutionists' later military victories, and his manual of regulations formed the basis of the manual of drill and organization used by the United States Army today.