I'm amazed that more people in 1892 did not heed the observation of steel mill owner John Metzlaff. He summed up the entire summer of acrimony and fear mongering over whether English should be the only language used in Wisconsin schools, in a single world - “ridicules”. As impossible as it might have been to believe at the time, this ultra-conservative capitalist asserted that in “10 or 20 years, almost nobody in Milwaukee would even be speaking German”. Republican Secretary of State Jerry Rusk agreed, calling the campaign year a “blundering business”. But the idea that the crises then gripping the state was not really a crises, does not seem to have occurred to many others in authority, which is fairly depressing, if you stop to think about it.
William Dempster Hoard saw the world as his Methodist minister father had seen it, as the minister “Demp” might have become, had he not argued with his instructors over church doctrine. Even as a young man Dempster already “knew what he knew, and was not to be deflected,.” as Robert Nesbit has put it. Instead, Hoard built a small newspaper empire in rural Wisconsin, promoting his ideas about politics and agriculture with that religious fervor he might have directed toward religion. In the pages of “Heord's Dairyman” he invented the modern dairy farm, from the alfalfa forage to silos for storage to breeding that produced bountiful milk and sweet cheese. He counseled his farmer congregation to “Speak to a cow as you would to a lady.” Then, at 56, in his 1888 campaign for governor. the Republican “Cow Candidate” preached to the voters his second great secular passion – education. “The child ...has a right to demand of the State”, he said, to be “provided with the ability to read and write the language of this country....I would recommend to require that reading and writing in English be daily taught” Such political theology led to Hoard's victory in 1888, winning with a 21,000 vote majority.
But Wisconsin was no longer the homogenized Anglo-America it had been in Hoard's youth, which contained, he a admitted, “no foreign element but the Irish”. By 1890 over 70% of the million and a-half residents of Wisconsin were either foreign born or first generation Americans. Four out of ten Wisconsinites spoke German in their homes and in their Lutheran and Catholic churches and parochial schools. And they were already having an impact on state politics. Since 1874 it had been legal for Milwaukee factory workers to enjoy a beer with their Sunday meal. But that change tasted sour to the temperance leaning Methodists and Episcopalians across the rolling farm districts that were Governor Hoard's base. It wasn't that the Anglo-Americans descendants were any more bigoted than the the newly arrived German-Americans. But it is human nature to mistrust strangers.
Early in 1890, as Governor Hoard's re-election campaign was just gearing up, he was visited by five Lutheran ministers. The men of the cloth warned Demp not to enforce the objectionable portions of Bennett's Law, or he would be a one term governor. According to his own account, Governor Hoard chose to lecture the petitioners. “If you plant your church across the pathway to human enlightenment,” he warned, “you will lose the respect of the young men in your church.” The offended Lutherans, who believed they WERE on the path to enlightenment, stormed out the Governor's office, determined to do battle. This is what happens when ministers think they are politicians.
It was named Bennetts law, after Assemblyman Michael Bennett from the farming village of Dodgeville. But Governor Hoard had written it, and inspired it, and forced it through the legislature with a minimum of debate on April 18, 1889. The bill required daily school attendance for all children between seven and fourteen, and it required that all instruction be in English. To meet the first requirement, the law mandated all schools, public and parochial, report attendance records in the public press. And to insure this, the law levied fines for school officials and parents who failed to ensure their children met both requirements.
Lutherian clergy saw Bennett's Law as over reaching by the government, and an usurpation of parental rights. And, they pointed out, of the 346 Lutheran and Catholic schools in Wisconsin , just 139 did not teach in English. And in those school that taught in German, most of the students also attended public schools. The alliance of Democrats and Church groups was strengthened when the Republican claim of 40,000 to 50,000 children in the state not attending any school at all was shown to be mere hyperbole. However, the proof did not prevent the bogus number from being repeated.
In his stump speech that year, William Hoard proclaimed, “The parents, the pastor, 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.” He also claimed he possessed “as friendly a feeling towards our German-American population as any man in this country;...I want the little German boy and girl...to have the same chance in life as my children. Without a knowledge of the English language they can not have this chance.”
A German language newspaper responded, “It is not sufficient for them that we should become Americanized...but they want us to become de-Germanized. And they think that can be accomplished first by destroying German schools.” U. S. Senator, Democrat William Vilas, pandered by asking, ““What is the difference if you say 'two and two make four' or 'zwie und zwei machen vier?” And then on April 1st, 1890, the Republican incumbent mayor of Milwaukee was handily defeated by a Democratic newcomer, newspaper man and humorist George Peck. A month later 100 Republican bigwigs met in Madison to endorse Bennett's Law, and the best Hoard's people could get from them was a no comment.
At their state convention in August, the Democrats sounded like winners. They nominated Peck to run for Governor, declaring Bennett's law “unwise, unconstitutional, UN-American, and undemocratic.” The Republicans met the same month (and in the same city) and renominated Hoard, while promising to modify the law. They also raised a red flag over their Milwaukee headquarters bearing the image of a one room schoolhouse. The words on the flag read, “Stand by it”.
Hyperbole became the favored language of public discourse. The Chicago Journal call Hoard a “giant armed for the war against bigotry, ignorance and ...pestilent foreign-ism.” Hoard warned that those who stood in his way were “like cows in front of a locomotive”. The Republican Stevens Point Journal suggested that Governor Hoard would rather die than abandon Bennetts Law. Democrats called Episcopalian clergymen liars. A Catholic Bishop claimed from the pulpit that Bennetts law had been secretly written by the anti-religious Freemasons. And a Freemason newspaper seemed to confirm this when it trumpeted, “give us ten years under the Bennett Law and we will in each town where English is now spoken, have a lodge...The Bennett Law will be the keystone of a higher civilization.”
It was, in fact, not. On Tuesday, November 4, 1890 Hoard's cows came home. His 21,000 vote majority in 1888 became a 30,000 vote minority, as he lost 43% to 52% to Peck. The Democrats won every seat in the executive branch, and control by a 2-1 advantage in both houses of the state legislature. Wisconsin's congressional representation went from 7 Republicans and 2 Democrats, to 8 Democrats and 1 lone Republican. That year Wisconsin voted for a Democratic President for the first time since 1852. And everybody blamed William Dumpster Hoard (above, left).
On February 3. 1891 the new Democratic Wisconsin legislature repealed Bennett's law. It was replaced a few months later with an almost identical law, but without the English only requirement. But, as John Metzlaff had predicted. just seven years later the Democrats in Wisconsin passed a law requiring English only be used in even parochial schools, and this time there were no mass protests. It seemed as if the citizens of Wisconsin did not so much object to the language requirement, as they did not trust preachers like William Demptser Hoard to make that decision for them. “Demp” might be able to energize his base, but his inability to respect his opponents lead the Republican party to an electoral disaster. It was the dawning of the Progressive era.
“Demp” would have done well to remember his own advice, from the pages of “Hoard's Dairyman”. “Happiness”” he observed, “doesn't depend on what we have, but it does depend on how we feel toward what we have.”
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