The first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1789 was a German-American, Frederick Muhlenberg. In Joseph Wright’s 1790 portrait of Frederick Muhlenberg, the Speaker’s likeness bears out contemporary descriptions of Muhlenberg’s rosy complexion and ample dimensions.
Although born in Pennsylvania, his immigrant father made sure that he and his brothers were all university educated in Germany. Frederick became a Lutheran pastor but the Revolutionary War changed his career path toward politics. Muhlenberg gained considerable experience as a presiding officer… he served a stint as President of the Continental Congress and had presided over the Pennsylvania state convention called to ratify the Constitution in 1787. His selection as Speaker of the House was based upon his experience and physical bearing and also provided a nice geographic balance for the new government’s start. President George Washington from the South, Vice President John Adams hailing from New England, and Muhlenburg from Pennsylvania in the middle.
Some interesting anecdotes :
- Muhlenberg was the first signer of the Bill of Rights.
- In 1794, during Muhlenberg’s second tenure as Speaker, the House voted 42-41 against a proposal to translate some of the laws into German. Muhlenberg, who himself abstained from the vote, commented later, “the faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be.” Despite not having voted against the bill, a legend called the Muhlenberg Legend developed in which he was responsible for prohibiting German as an official language of the United States.
- According to another legend, Muhlenberg also suggested that the title of the President of the United States should be “Mr. President” instead of “His High Mightiness” or “His Elected Majesty”, as John Adams had suggested.
- Frederick Muhlenberg was quite a successful person, but you could also say that he came from a remarkable family of German-Americans.
Frederick’s brother, the Reverend Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, served not only as a Lutheran and Anglican pastor but also as a General in the Continental Army during the entire Revolutionary War, from 1776 to 1783. After the war he served as a Representative in Congress and as a Senator from Pennsylvania.
His father, Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg... an immigrant from Halle, a German city in the southern part of Saxony (Sachsen-Anhalt)… received his degree in Theology from the University of Halle and some years later, in 1742, volunteered to emigrate to America as a missionary. He proceeded to found the Lutheran Church as an institution and is considered the first Patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America.
Even Frederick Muhlenberg’s maternal grandfather was a remarkable man. He was the Pennsylvania German colonial leader Conrad Weiser, born in 1696 in the small German village of Affstätt in Herrenberg, in the Duchy of Württemberg. Once in America, Conrad Weiser became a Pennsylvania German (a.k.a., Pennsylvania Dutch) pioneer, interpreter and effective diplomat between the Pennsylvania Colony and Native Americans. He was a farmer, soldier, monk, tanner and judge. Having lived with the Mohawks, he was able to work as an emissary in councils between Native Americans and the colonies, especially Pennsylvania…and especially during the 18th century’s tensions of the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War).