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The German Revolution of 1848 and Its Impact on Wisconsin

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

March 2023 marks the 175th anniversary of the German National Assembly which had lasting impacts on both Germany and Wisconsin.

Crop failures, growing industrialization, and increasing poverty in the 1840s destabilized the social and political order in multiple European countries that led to a wave of revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848.

Additionally, many Germans were also seeking greater political unity to replace a weak confederation of independent German states. (The current state of Hessen is composed of what were then independent states included the Electorate of Hessen-Kassel, the Grand Duchy of Hessen, the Duchy of Nassau, the Landgravate of Hessen-Homburg, and the Free City of Frankfurt am Main.)

Broad sections of the German population backed reform and delegates from across Germany gathered in Frankfurt am Main on March 31, 1848. This Vorparlament called for the election of a German national assembly which met on May 18 in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche to plan Germany’s political and governmental future.

After long and controversial debates, the Frankfurt National Assembly produced the “Imperial Act Concerning the Basic Rights of the German People” (Reichsgesetz betreffend die Grundrechte des deutschen Volkes), which was adopted on December 21, 1848. The fundamental rights spelled out in the act included equality before the law; the abolition of all class privileges; guaranteed personal and political liberties such as freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom to practice a trade or profession, freedom of movement, and the abolition of the death penalty.

Another proposal called for the various German states to coalesce into a united constitutional monarchy. The head of state would be a hereditary emperor who would have the power to appoint the government. The Reichstag would be comprised of a House of States and a democratically elected House of the People. Germany was to have a unified monetary and customs system but would maintain the internal autonomy of the constituent German states.

The King of Prussia was offered the imperial crown but he refused to accept it from the elected national assembly. Without Prussian support and reduced popular support, the National Assembly bowed to the inevitable and dissolved itself at the end of May 1849 without creating a new form of government for a unified Germany.

While Germany tried and failed to create a united state during the Revolutions of 1848, major elements of the Frankfurt constitution became models for the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.

Many Germans who were disappointed at the failure of democratic reforms in the 1840s (some fearing retribution for supporting political freedoms) chose to leave Germany and settle in the United States. They became known as the “Forty-Eighters.” As the newest state to enter the Union, Wisconsin attracted a large number of these intellectual immigrants.

Young and well educated, the “Forty-Eighters” represented a new type of immigrant. Earlier German immigrants to Wisconsin tended to be farmers and tradesmen. The new immigrants were scholars, scientists, journalists, teachers, and lawyers. Indeed, the “Forty-Eighters” who did try their hand at farming were often referred to as "Latin Farmers" because they spoke better Latin than English. The Wisconsin “Forty-Eighters” were men and women committed to freedom and liberty and came to America with these ideals intact. They helped make Milwaukee one of the most “German” cities in the United States and gave it the nickname, “das Deutsch-Athen Amerikas.” By 1870, 32 percent of Milwaukee’s population was German-born.

Here are brief profiles of four Forty-Eighters:

Carl Schurz (1829-1906) is the most famous of the Wisconsin ‘48ers. He had led University of Bonn student demonstrations against the King of Prussia, but fled to Paris after the failure of the National Assembly and arrived in Wisconsin with his wife in 1855. In the United States, Schurz continued his political activism and championed freedom and anti-slavery ideals. President Lincoln appointed him to be U.S. Ambassador to Spain in 1861. He also served as Secretary of the Interior from 1877 to 1881.

Margarethe Meyer Schurz (1833-1876), Carl’s wife, played her own role introducing the idea of kindergarten to America. In 1856, she used her home in Watertown as a kindergarten for her daughter and other neighborhood children. Her friend, Elizabeth Peabody, was so inspired by this model that she started the first public kindergartens in St. Louis.

Matilda Franziska Anneke (1818-1872) was an internationally known women’s rights advocate, journalist and publisher, poet, and arts critic by the time she emigrated to Milwaukee in 1850. In March of 1852 she started the suffrage newspaper, “Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung. Unfortunately, she faced resistance from male printers who boycotted the publication forcing her to stop publishing after six issues. After some time spent in New Jersey, Anneke returned to Milwaukee in 1865 and took up the cause of women’s suffrage. She often wrote and lectured with other outstanding women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Edward Salomon (1830-1909) studied at the University of Berlin and came to Wisconsin in 1849. In 1861, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin. In April of 1862 when Governor Louis Powell Henry drowned in a freak river accident while on his way to bring supplies to Civil War field hospitals, Salomon became Wisconsin's first German-born and Jewish Governor of Wisconsin.

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