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The Trial of Frederick Eberle

The Trial of Frederick Eberle: Language, Patriotism and Citizenship in Philadelphia's German Community, 1790 to 1830

Friederike Baer
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Trial of Frederick Eberle
    Book Description:

    Winner of the 2011 St. Paul, Biglerville Prize from the Lutheran Historical Society of the Mid-Atlantic In the summer of 1816, the state of Pennsylvania tried fifty-nine German-Americans on charges of conspiracy and rioting. The accused had, according to the indictment, conspired to prevent with physical force the introduction of the English language into the largest German church in North America, Philadelphia's Lutheran congregation of St. Michael's and Zion. The trial marked the climax of an increasingly violent conflict over language choice in Philadelphia's German community, with members bitterly divided into those who favored the exclusive use of German in their church, and those who preferred occasional services in English. At trial, witnesses, lawyers, defendants, and the judge explicitly linked language to class, citizenship, patriotism, religion, and violence. Mining many previously unexamined sources, including German-language writings, witness testimonies, and the opinions of prominent legal professionals, Friederike Baer uses legal conflict as a prism through which to explore the significance of language in the early American republic. The Trial of Frederick Eberle reminds us that debates over language have always been about far more than just language. Baer demonstrates that the 1816 trial was not a battle between Americans and immigrants, or German-speakers and English-speakers. Instead, the individuals involved in the case seized and exploited English and German as powerful symbols of competing cultural, economic, and social interests.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8994-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Language and Nation
    (pp. 1-21)

    In 1814, New York’s governor DeWitt Clinton stated with confidence that “the triumph and adoption of the English language have been the principal means of melting us down into one people, and of extinguishing those stubborn prejudices and violent animosities which formed a wall of partition between the inhabitants of the same land.”¹ The United States was barely three decades old when he made this statement of a nation united through one language. Clinton acknowledged the significant power of language in the process of building a nation; and he was, of course, right when he referred to the adoption of...

  5. 1 Dragged into Courts of Justice Unnecessarily: The Trial
    (pp. 22-42)

    In March of 1816, several Germans belonging to Philadelphia’s Lutheran congregation of St. Michael’s and Zion formally accused seventy-three of their fellow congregants of conspiracy and assault. After more than six months of unrelenting intimidation and harassment in response to their request for occasional English services in their shared church, the men finally turned to the law for relief and support. Their formal complaint before the Mayor’s Court led to the inquiry of a grand jury to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant an indictment on the charges.¹

    Not surprisingly, the grand jury investigation only served to intensify...

  6. 2 A Controversy Has Arisen: The History
    (pp. 43-68)

    How, German Lutherans asked themselves throughout 1815, 1816, and, indeed, for decades to come, could it have come to this? How could a dispute over language within one congregation have led to the trial of almost five dozen men who, by all accounts, had never exhibited even a potential for violence? If the involved parties agreed on anything, it was the fact that the Eberle trial constituted the culmination of a language conflict that had been festering in the congregation of St. Michael’s and Zion for years.

    Churches in general were one of the few areas in which people of...

  7. 3 Germans and Anglicized Eyrisch-Germans: The Parties
    (pp. 69-94)

    Given the divisive history of St. Michael’s and Zion, the pro-English men who took up the cause once again in 1815 knew that they were facing a difficult battle. After all, a decade earlier, a group that included some of the most prominent members of Philadelphia’s German community, including Peter Mühlenberg and Lawrence Seckel, had failed in their quest to allow English services. Ultimately, after years of writing petitions, drafting appeals, and mobilizing voters for elections, this earlier group had surrendered to what they surely considered a “tyranny of the majority.” Still, in 1815, the men who tried once again...

  8. 4 They Want to Steal Our Property, to Rob Our Churches: Class
    (pp. 95-117)

    The English party wanted to have occasional English services in their church, but this did not mean that they did not treasure their German heritage. Their continued attachment to the German community was demonstrated, in part, by the fact that many of its members belonged to the German Society of Pennsylvania, a voluntary organization that was founded in 1764 by leading German-Americans in order to assist needy Germans and help preserve German customs and manners. For forty-three years, until 1807, when it moved into its own building on Seventh and High (Market) Streets, the German Society’s home was the Lutheran...

  9. 5 All the Stimulants of a Political Election: Disorder
    (pp. 118-142)

    The reason the case ever landed in the courtroom was, of course, the accusation that the German party had resorted to violence in the effort to keep the English language out of their church. More precisely, the state’s indictment against the defendants included the charge that they had “raised a great noise, tumult, riot, and disturbance.” The early nineteenth-century legal definition of a riot was a “turbulent act of an unlawful nature, committed by three or more persons.”¹ The defendants were blamed for causing a violent disturbance of the public peace on a number of occasions, but especially at the...

  10. 6 One of Those Cases, in Which Strong Feelings Are Unavoidably Excited: The Summations
    (pp. 143-165)

    The desire of certain German-Americans to learn and use English raised important questions about the ownership of St. Michael’s and Zion. Both parties had strong proprietary feelings, in a legal and in a spiritual sense. The basic question was who owned the church: Germans whose ability to speak English signaled a significant degree of acculturation into Anglo-American society, or Germans who were unable or unwilling to speak English by choice or by circumstance. The references to the stealing of property confirm that the participants in the conflict and trial saw a link among economic success, the ability to speak English,...

  11. 7 Endeavor to Inform Our Judgments and Act Impartially: The Outcome
    (pp. 166-190)

    The Eberle case was a major topic of conversation among Philadelphia’s Germans throughout the spring and summer of 1816, as the victualler Henry C. Hyle testified. “Every day since the election,” he stated, “[the bloody German petition] has been the conversation in market.”¹ Hyle was referring to the public High Street Market, which extended in the center of High Street from Front to Fourth Street. Vendors rented spaces beneath the arches that ran along the length of the covered structure. Visitors to Philadelphia frequently commented on its beauty, cleanliness, and popularity.² Hyle’s table and chair were probably between Third and...

  12. Appendix 1: The Defendants
    (pp. 191-193)
  13. Appendix 2: Members of the Grand Jury (Mayor’s Court, March 1816 Session)
    (pp. 194-195)
  14. Appendix 3: Nisi Prius Jury
    (pp. 196-196)
  15. Appendix 4: The Prosecution Witnesses
    (pp. 197-197)
  16. Appendix 5: The Defense Witnesses
    (pp. 198-198)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 199-244)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-264)
  19. Index
    (pp. 265-271)
  20. About the Author
    (pp. 272-272)