Not only the economic, but also the political system of the United States proved to be so open and so capable of absorbing immigrants that ethnic parties never stood a chance in the democratic process. As a result, even the Germans, long the largest non-English-speaking group, never made a serious effort at founding a national German party. Rather, they took advantage of the fiveyear waiting period to acquire citizenship (available for women as well after 1920) and voted for the Republican, the Democratic or the Socialist Party. At times, they also supported reform-minded splinter parties that took on the corrupt big city bosses who were enriching themselves at the taxpayers' expense, or they supported "progressive" reforms, such as the movement for a more professional civil service.
Since the 1760s, German-Americans were aware that their political influence would be much greater if, like the Irish, they were to vote in elections as a bloc. But that was seldom the case. Their social, economic and cultural orientations were too fragmented to form a unified interest group. As a matter of fact, their proverbial political splintering in America was but a natural reflection of the particularism in social, regional and cultural matters that prevailed back in Germany. Even in Milwaukee, according to Anglo-American city historian William George Bruce in 1922, there never was just one, but rather many German elements. In his opinion, the German parishes and the political assemblages were so dissimilar that they would never have been able to reach political consensus. He also noted that the German educated and uneducated classes in the city never had much contact with each other.
From New York to San Francisco, only three issues were able to arouse the majority of German-Americans to the cause of self-interested political action: the leisure-time consumption of alcohol, allowing beer gardens to remain open on Sunday, and German instruction in the schools. On the occasion of an 1883 bill in the Illinois state legislature, the Chicago Arbeitetzeitung expressed its disappointment: "Unfortunately the entire election debate again hinges on the tiresome old beer and schnapps cause. For this shabby issue, the Germans once more enter the fray united. When more important, higher-minded, more idealistic issues are at stake, they cower down in their familiar squabbling."
Quite different and yet more typical for the majority of middle class GermanAmericans was the reaction of a Thuringia-born Republican Congressman from St. Louis, Richard Bartholdt, when, in an address to the German-American Teachers Association in 1909, he bitterly attacked the Yankee "prohibition mania." He avowed that the highest ideal of an American was his personal freedom, especially "in all matters of conscience, in all matters of personal preference, and in matters of personal life styles," all of which were constitutionally protected from majority decisions. Bartholdt solemnly argued, "Out of due respect for the dignity of the individual, even -- or especially -- in a democratic society, the majority must refrain from imposing its almighty will on the minority, and it must never attempt by majority vote to regulate or legislate on questions what we eat and drink, how we dress, what books we read, how we spend our leisure time, and in what kind of schools we send our children" [Bartholdt, in Monatshefte für deutsche Sprache und Pädagogik, Vol. 10 (1909), 227-228].
The violent reaction of many GermanAmericans to the Temperance Movement becomes comprehensible and more justifiable if we acknowledge that it was in reality a defense mechanism in which the validity of equal rights and self-respect were reasserted. German-Americans considered legal limitations on the sale and consumption of alcohol, as well as mandatory rest on the puritanical Sunday, as nothing less than discriminatory over-regulation of their personal affairs and their leisure activities.
The stark differences between the political culture of the Old German Homeland and the situation in the United States frequently was worthy of comment in immigrant letters. In 1838 a Missouri settler wrote back to Germany:
If I had said what I just said aloud in Germany, they would have shut me up in no time -- I know that; for over there, alas, common sense and free speech lie in shackles. But enough of this, it is not exactly your favorite sub- ject. Instead I invite you to come over here, should you want to obtain a clear notion of genuine public life, freedom for the people and a sense of being a nation, you'll agree I am right. I have never regretted that I came here, and never! never! again shall I bow my head under the yoke of despotism and folly [Kamphoefner, News, 103].
During the 1830s and 40s, the first successful national German-American politician, Gustav Körner, spoke in favor of total political assimilation. At a conference of German-American delegates in 1837 in Pittsburgh, he formulated the following demands on behalf of the Germans in his Belleville, Illinois community:
We are of the opinion that no array of immigrants from abroad has the right to continue to exist separately as an isolated breed if they arrive among a previously-settled people who are not inferior in their cultural development. We are especially convinced that such an effort on the part of the Germans, particularly because their number is so large, would be very harmful to the well-being and the continuity of this land, which, alone among all countries on the globe, offers to all reasonable people a vision of hope for the future.
As a matter of fact, the Germans of Belleville as well as attorney Körner declined to press for admitting German as an official language in court cases because this would have had a limiting effect on full participation by all other Americans in the outcome; and "we prefer our broadly based freedom over the meager continuation of an old way of life on foreign soil" [Körner, quoted by Kloss (1937), 200].
Körner's appraisal was to prove realistic over the long term, but he was criticized and called a traitor to German culture by his more short-sighted contemporaries.
For the realists among the Forty-eighters, above all Carl Schurz, the founding of the Republican Party in 1854 as well as the succeeding decade of bitter North-South conflict provided a real opportunity to document, through political participation and military service, that the immigrants had "arrived" and belonged. It has always been a beloved German-American legend that their votes put Lincoln into the White House, and that their bayonets won the Civil War. Historically unquestionable is the fact that the political and military involvement of many German-Americans during this decade laid the ground work for their socio-political integration. The rivalry between the Republican and the Democratic parties in the decades between the War of Secession and the First World War also served to divide German-Americans, especially on religious grounds. If the Republican Party in its reform phase was attractive to the Forty-eighters and other liberal reform-minded Germans, the same was true for the Democratic Party among the many religiously conservative Lutherans and Catholics for whom the Republicans too often represented unacceptable "puritanical" fundamentalist positions. On the other hand, local studies in lowa, for example, have shown that the differences between urban and rural constituencies were more indicative of voter behavior than were religious or ethnic components. The rule of thumb is: The more geographically isolated an election district, the more votes cast for the Democrats.
The Democratic Party opposed the Prohibition Movement that had been gaining strength since the 1880s, and it stuck to this position right up to 1933 when Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a repeal of the anti-alcohol amendment. With this recurring campaign promise, the Democratic Party could always win over German-American voters, especially in the large cities. Pretty much limited to Milwaukee was the victory won with the support of German-Americans for the local Social-Democratic Party which elected Emil Seidel the first Socialist mayor in 1910. Socialist Party mayors continued to govern Milwaukee until the 1950s.
The First World War permanently destroyed the notion of an ethnically definable "German" voting bloc to which a presidential candidate should pay attention. In the wartime elections of 1916, Wilson's unsuccessful Republican opponent, Charles Hughes, got the uninvited but noisy support of those German- Americans whom the German-American National Alliance was able to mobilize against Wilson's "fake" neutrality policy. Judging by the glut of bitterly anti-German-American political cartoons, this last great organized German-American political stand did more good for Wilson than for his challenger. To be sure, those voters who rejected Wilson in 1920 included many German-Americans who felt betrayed by provisions of the Versailles Treaty (as well as many Irish who did not succeed in getting an independent Irish state). But ever since that time, German votes have been courted by candidates on only a regional, local and often only folksy basis [see Rippley, "Ameliorated Americanization: The Effect of World War I on German-Americans in the 1920s, " in Trommler (1985), 217 ff.].