Bennett Law

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For the concept in quantum information, see Bennett's laws

The Bennett Law was a controversial state law passed in Wisconsin in 1889 that required the use of English to teach major subjects in all public and private elementary and high schools. Because German Catholics and Lutherans each operated large numbers of parochial schools in the state where German was used in the classroom, it was bitterly resented by German-American (and some Norwegian) communities. Although the law was ultimately repealed, there were significant political repercussions, with the Republicans losing the governorship and the legislature, and the election of Democrats to the Senate and House of Representatives.


The law seemed to be a noncontroversial effort to require school attendance when it passed, and few paid much attention to the language provision at first. Bennett himself was an Irish Catholic, an English-speaking group that competed for control of the Catholic Church against the Germans.[1][2] In practice, the law was never enforced. Republican politicians had long avoided antagonizing the Germans, since they had considerable support from German voters. 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 tried to mobilize the English-speaking population of the state behind his reelection in 1890 by hammering at the necessity to have all children speak English.

As opposition swelled, Hoard escalated to a defense of the public school system (which was not under attack): "The little schoolhouse--stand by it!" he cried out. Hoard ridiculed the Germans by claiming that he was the better guardian of their children than their parents or pastors. Hoard counted votes and thought he had a winning coalition by whipping up nativist distrust of Germania as anti-American. 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."[3]

The Germans were incensed at the blatant attack not only on their language and culture but also on their religion and the parochial schools were set up and funded by the parents in order to inculcate the community's religious values. Furthermore, the idea that the state could intervene in family life and tell children how to speak was intolerable.

By June 1890, the state's Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod (the main German Lutheran groups) had denounced the law. After strong lobbying by Catholic Archbishop Frederick Katzer of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and other parochial leaders, Democrats, led by Yankee William F. Vilas took up the German cause and nominated Milwaukee Mayor George W. Peck, also a Yankee, for governor.

Traditionally Democratic Irish Catholics were initially not as vigorous in opposition to the law, with a substantial section of the community even supporting it, as Hoard had hoped. However, the outpouring of militantly anti-Catholic rhetoric by many of the law's supporters handily alienated a majority of the Irish in Wisconsin, prompting the top Irish newspaper in the state, the Chippewa Falls-based Catholic Citizen, to write that the law represented a convergence of "all the sectarian, bigoted, fanatical and crazy impurities" within the Republican Party which had taken the reins of power.[4] The Germans, for their part, organized thoroughly and supported Peck. 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. It was the last major attack on German language schools until 1914. In 1925 in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the US Supreme Court made it clear that attacks on parochial schools violated the First Amendment.

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  1. ^ Jørn Brøndal (2004). Ethnic Leadership and Midwestern Politics: Scandinavian Americans and the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin, 1890-1914. Northfield, Minn: Norwegian-American Historical Association. p. 50. 
  2. ^ Joan M. Jensen (2006). Calling This Place Home: Women on the Wisconsin Frontier, 1850-1925. Minnesota Historical Society. p. 329. 
  3. ^ Quoted in Whyte, "The Bennett Law Campaign," p. 388
  4. ^ Richard J. Jensen (1971), pp. 138-139

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