“The Bennett Law” The American Sentinel 5, 23, pp. 177-179.

June 5, 1890

THE Bennett law of Wisconsin has excited much discussion not only in that State but throughout the country. This law was enacted last year, going into effect April 18, 1889. The object of the law is to compel all the children between the ages of seven and fourteen years, to learn the English language. Every such child is compelled to attend school where the teaching is in English, “not less than twelve weeks in each year” under penalty of a fine of “not less than three dollars nor more than twenty dollars” for each offense; “and failure for each week or portion of a week on the part of any person to comply with the provisions of this act shall constitute a distinct offense.” Section 5 reads as follows:—

No school shall be regarded as a school under this act, unless there shall be taught therein, as part of the elementary education of children, reading, writing, arithmetic, and United States History, in the English language.

This law has incurred the open and determined opposition of the whole Lutheran body in the State, assisted by that portion of the Roman Catholics who speak German or other foreign tongues. The Lutherans seem to be the leaders in the contest. Illinois has a similar law, only worse if anything, and the Bennett-law contest in Wisconsin has awakened a much more active opposition to the Illinois law. The cause is one in both States.

In several papers that have discussed this matter we have noticed a singular misapprehension of the question at issue, and a misstatement of the reasons of the opposition.

1. The opposition is not to the public school in any sense. The Lutherans maintain the perfect right of the public school to exist; and willingly pay their proportion of the public-school taxes.

2. The opposition is not to the use, nor the teaching, of the English language in the public schools. The Lutherans cheerfully admit the right of the public school to teach the English language.

.3. The opposition is not to the English language itself, nor to its use. The opponents of the Bennett law do not prohibit their children from either learning or speaking the English language. They know full well that their children will learn English. They know that in the nature of things they cannot live very long in this country without learning it. They teach it in their schools, and speak it, and write it, upon occasion.


While admitting all this, they deny that the public school may teach religion, much less the religion which they believe; and they maintain their own exclusive right to teach their own religion to their own children, in their own schools, at their own expense, in their own native language, if they choose.

While maintaining the right of the public school to exist, they maintain likewise the right of the parochial school to exist.

While cheerfully paying their proportion of taxes in support of the public school, they maintain their right to pay what they please for the support of their own private school.

While they maintain the right of the State to use and to teach the English language in the State school, they maintain their own right to use and to teach the German, or any other language, in their own school.

While they cheerfully admit the right of the public to establish and maintain the public school, they deny the [178] right of the public to turn their private schools into public schools. For that, in one sentence, is what the Bennett law means, and the Illinois law also.

The Bennett law requires that every child between the ages of seven and fourteen years shall attend school such period of time, not less than twelve, nor more than twenty-four weeks, in each year, as “shall be fixed” “by the Board of Education, or Board of Directors of the city, town or district;” “and such Boards shall, at least ten days prior to the beginning of such periods publish the time or times of attendance.”

The Illinois law requires that the children shall attend school “at least sixteen weeks,” with a penalty of not less than one dollar, nor more than twenty dollars “for every neglect.” “But if the person so neglecting, shall show to the satisfaction of the Board of Education or of Directors that such child has attended for a like period of time a private day school, approved by the Board of Education or Directors of the city, town, or district in which such child resides, etc., then such penalty shall not be incurred.”

The only effect of these laws is to make every private school a public school. The use of the term “private school” in the sections quoted is a misnomer; because when the public fixes the time or times of attendance at the school, and fixes what shall be taught there and how; when what is done must be “to the satisfaction” of the public authorities, and must be “approved” by the public authorities, then such schools are no longer private in any proper or legal sense of the word.

Yet these laws do not openly propose the abolition of the private schools, they only mildly propose to confiscate them—to turn them into public schools at private expense. These two States generously grant the right of the churches to establish church schools; but when the schools are once established, then the States merely assert the authority to turn them into State schools at the churches’ expense. The effect of these laws therefore is as clearly confiscation of property as need be. The State lays a public tax, collects it, and uses it under its own direction in the work of the public school. The people who hold church schools pay their proportion of the tax levied by the State. They pay all that the State asks. But besides this they as church members organize schools of their own in which to teach their own children the religion in which they believe, and whatever else they may choose; they use their own money to pay teachers, to build school-houses, etc. Then the State steps up and demands, “I must have all this too. These schools must be under my control; the teaching there must be to my satisfaction; in short they shall not be counted schools at all unless you teach there what I say shall be taught, and as I say it shall be taught. In other words, and to be plain about it, you must spend your money and teach your children as I choose and as I direct.”

That is precisely what these laws mean. The confiscation of the money and property however is a very small item, as compared with the usurpation of the place, and the authority of the parent and the Church. These laws are identical in effect, and almost identical in word, with a bill introduced in the New York Legislature, January 16, 1890, which the Union League Club unanimously denounced as “a dangerous and vicious bill,” and “in the line of the most vicious class of legislation with which we are afflicted;” and which met the death it deserved, and which it is to be hoped is everlasting. Any private or church school that obeys these laws thereby consents to the State’s assumption of authority to control the school, and dictate in its affairs. And if the State can say what any church or association of parents shall teach to their own children, and how it shall be taught, then there is no longer any such thing as parental or church authority to teach anything except at the direction and dictation of the State. The State has no more right to say what shall be taught in a private school, than a private individual has to say that his private views shall be taught in the public school. The State has not a particle more right to say what shall be taught in a church school, than a church has to say what shall be taught in the public school.

These are the grounds, and these the basic reasons, of the opposition to these laws in Wisconsin and Illinois. It is in defense of the American principle of the rights of the people, and of the Christian principle of religious liberty.

These compulsory school laws of Wisconsin and Illinois have not a scintilla of justice to rest upon. The principle is that of absolutism, the laws are but the assertion of it, and the defense of the laws is but the defense of it. We have read everything we could get hold of on the subject, from the laws themselves and Governor Hoard’s speech, to whatever else we could find on either side of the question, and we have found the principle of the laws and the defense of them to be absolutism only; and in all that has been said in defense of them we have not yet found a single valid reason.

As we have shown, the laws logically assert the right of the State to say that neither the parent nor the Church shall teach anything to the children except at the direction and dictation of the State, and so argue that the State is absolute. All the advocates of the laws have not asserted openly and in plain terms that this is so, but some of them have. The words of one such we give. The Chicago Tribune of April 8, 1890, gives the words of Mr. William C. Goudy, a well-known lawyer and political leader, as follows:—

The State has the power over its citizens. The State may even abolish the relations between parent and child, though as to the result of such an act I do not care to speak. The fact is that the law does interfere with the custody of children. Time and again children are taken away from both father and mother.

It is true enough that where parents maltreat a child, the State may, in fact it must, exercise its protective power in behalf of the child. Protection of the rights of the subject is what the State is for, and it must protect a child as well as a man. But it is only the assertion of the rightfulness of tyranny to argue from that the right of the State to abolish the relations between parent and child. It is a wicked spirit that turns the doing of a favor, into authority for an assertion of power—to make the exertion of a protective power in an exceptional case, the authority to assert a commanding or dictatorial power in all cases.

Further it is gravely argued that it is necessary to “the peace and safety of the State” that the State shall compel all the German and other children of foreign tongues to learn the English language. And it is America that says it. Well now, if all the people of Illinois and Wisconsin both should speak German, or Latin, or even Choctaw, we should like to know what calamity could threaten the peace and safety of either of the States from that source. Is every person necessarily a thief, or a murderer, or an outlaw who does not speak the English language? Is the peace or safety of States or communities never disturbed or threatened by people who speak English?

But if it is necessary to the peace and and [sic.] safety of the State that all the children of foreign tongues shall learn to read and write and speak English, why is it not necessary that the parents shall learn it also? Why jeopardize the peace and safety of the State all these years till all the parents the who do not speak English, and all the children learn to speak, read, and write English? Why is it not necessary, yea, much more necessary, that the parents be compelled to learn English as well as the children? Or is it a fact that the peace and safety of the State are endangered only by the children, and by such of them only as are between the ages of seven and fourteen years?

Besides, upon the theory of these laws that English can be learned only in school, not to compel the parents to use English is to continue the greatest possible hindrance to the children’s learning to use it. So long as the parents are suffered to use German in the home, in the shop, in the field, everywhere, it will be almost an interminable task, successfully to get the children to learn it. Why then do not Wisconsin and Illinois go about this work in the right way? Why not adopt the plan that will positively assure speedy and certain, and permanent results? Why does not each of these States enact a law—doubtless Mr. Bennett for Wisconsin, [179] and America for Illinois, could easily frame the laws—declaring that after a pertain time, say three or six months, everybody in the State shall use the English language exclusively, or else have his tongue cut out?

That will bring the result, and speedily, which these present laws aim to secure. We know it will, for it has been tried with perfect success. Some years ago a certain province of Turkey spoke another than the Turkish language. This was deemed not to be good for the State. Therefore a decree went forth that after a certain time whoever should speak any language but the Turkish should have his tongue cut out. And we have it from a person who was there that the thing worked splendidly. It is true some of the people lost their tongues, but what was that, in view of the immense result accomplished—the peace and safety of the State!

And just now, even in this present month, that most excellent ruler, that father of his country, the Czar of all the Russias, has issued an edict, abolishing the Finnish tongue and establishing the Russian only, in all the schools in Finland. We are not informed what penalties are attached to the law, but undoubtedly the mildness of temper that is characteristic of this model ruler will be expressed in penalties at the most no heavier than are those of these kindred laws in Wisconsin and Illinois.

The opponents of the Bennett law in Wisconsin and its counterpart in Illinois are in the right. It is the same old contest of justice against despotic power, of private rights against public wrongs, of the freedom of the individual against the despotism of the State. They are in the right, and we wish them unbounded success.

Will the people of these two splendid States come back to the place of enlightenment and American civilization? Will they redeem themselves from the reproach of Russian and Turkish despotism? We earnestly hope they will.

A. T. J.

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