5.4.5. The Midwest, 1900-1925: English-Only Laws and Flag Desecration Laws


Coming to terms with diversity:  English-only laws

  • Many immigrants who settled in the Midwest in the late 19th century viewed their children’s schools as an essential tool for preserving their cultural and religious heritage.  Established Midwesterners, particularly descendants of the Yankees who had settled the upper Midwest, took pride in their public school systems as a tool for assimilating immigrants’ children and teaching them “American,” meaning Yankee-influenced, values. 

  • This triggered a clash:  many newer immigrants, particularly Catholics, supported parochial schools that often taught classes in German rather than English.  Yankee lawmakers, sometimes supported by non-Catholic and non-German immigrants, enacted laws requiring that schools teach classes in English only.  In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers who enacted such a law in 1889 were thrown out of power and the law was repealed in 1891. 
  • But laws limiting use of foreign languages in public schools continued to advance.  A new wave of English-only laws followed in the wake of anti-German sentiment engendered by World War I.  The laws triggered a round of legal challenges.


Key cases:  English-only laws

State v. Bartels – Iowa, 1921 (181 N.W. 508), reversed, 262 U.S. 404 (1923); Pohl v. State – Ohio, 1921 (132 N.E. 20), reversed, 262 U.S. 404 (1923)

  • Bartels was the leading challenge in the Midwest.  In 1897, Iowa prohibited all use of German in public schools except for foreign language instruction; later, the state prohibited German language instruction until 9th grade.  Iowa’s supreme court rejected charges that the law discriminated against German-Americans and interfered with efforts to teach religion in the parochial schools.  The court noted that the inability of many Iowa Germans to speak English had hampered recruiting efforts during the war, and affirmed that use of English-only laws to promote assimilation of immigrant children and inculcation of “American” values was a legitimate state function.  Three dissenters argued that because German was used for religious instruction in parochial schools the law impaired freedom of religion; on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the dissenters.


Flag desecration laws 

  • The sentiments that drove English-only laws also impelled many Americans to venerate the United States flag more deeply than before.  The flag, like the English language, was viewed as a symbol and a bastion of the old-settler view of America as one nation - a homogeneous one.  Use of the flag for advertising and other commercial purposes was widespread and generally passed without comment during much of the 19th century; but between 1890 and 1920,a flag-protection movement sprang up and many states enacted laws prohibiting commercial use and other uses of the flag that were viewed as disrespectful. Flag desecration laws did not become controversial until the Vietnam war era.

"Our Beloved German-American," Puck magazine, 1900 (courtesy Library of Congress)



“[Iowa’s English-only law] was to encourage the more complete assimilation of all foreigners into our American life, to expedite the full Americanization of all our citizens that the Legislature deemed this statute for the best interests of the state.” -Justice Frederick Faville, in Bartels

“It goes without saying that the free exercise of religion is impossible without the free use therein of such language as the worshiper may choose. … Ability to speak and to read a language is essential to intelligent worship.  Concededly the parents had a right to worship in their own language.  Necessarily the children had a constitutional right to worship in the same language.”  -Chief Justice William D. Evans (dissenting), in Bartels