As Missouri commemorates its bicentennial this year, one interesting part of our state’s history is the strong opposition to slavery that German immigrants to Missouri frequently expressed and acted upon. As described by Sydney Norton in German Immigrant Abolitionists: Fighting for a Free Missouri, “[t]he passionate anti-slavery beliefs of many German immigrants in Missouri originated in large part from their experiences as young and idealistic revolutionaries…. Having fought for Germany’s freedom from Napoleonic rule and later unsuccessfully against the despotism of the German princes,” they came to Missouri in the 1800s to escape oppression, “excessive taxation, prohibition of free speech, no voting rights, and lack of opportunities for land ownership.” “[W]ell-educated and outspoken, their ideals developed out of a rich tradition of political theory, debate, and activism…. Possessing strong ideals about American freedom and democracy, many of these immigrants were distraught by the fact slavery was a legal and accepted practice in Missouri.”
Hope for freedom for all
Remarkably, many German immigrants, who often spoke no English, recognized that the hope for a growing democracy in America could only be realized if slavery was abolished. Often threatened and even run out of town by Missouri slaveholders, these men and women even started newspapers to spread their ideals for a color-blind democracy. While many German immigrants who settled in the Midwest before and after the Civil War staunchly defended freedom for enslaved people, some chose to set aside those values to survive. Those tensions, with roots in the past, continue today within many American cultural groups. The Germans served in inordinately high numbers during the Civil War in support of the Union. Many had fled Germany after the failed revolutions in 1848 and brought both military experience and their passion for freedom to their service.
Guided tours of Deutschheim State Historic Site include the home of Carl Strehly, who, along with Eduard Müehl published the Licht-Freund and the Hermanner Wochenblatt newspaper from the home. They frequently expressed their opposition to slavery through their publications. As part of the tour, visitors view a historic printing press, identical to the one used by Strehly and Müehl.
“Slavery is nothing other in our republic but the representation of the privileged aristocracy and tyranny, comparable to the actions of the princes in Germany.”
—Eduard Mühl, Editor Hermanner Wochenblatt
In addition to the guided tour, Deutschheim attempts to share the story of the German immigrant abolitionists in other ways. The site hosted a special exhibit in 2016-2017, resulting in a publication of Dr. Sydney Norton’s German Immigrant Abolitionists: Fighting for a Free Missouri. This publication is available for purchase from the Deutschheim gift shop or through the Missouri State Parks Online Store.
On July 20, 2019, the Hermann Showboat Theatre hosted playwright Cecilia Nadal’s work, “An Amazing Story: German Abolitionists of Missouri.” The live theatrical production was, in part, inspired by Nadal’s visit to Deutschheim, where she learned about the German immigrant abolitionists of the area.
On January 11, 1965, the Ordinance Abolishing Slavery was passed by the Missouri Constitutional Convention by a 60 to 4 vote. This action effectively ended slavery in the state of Missouri. This document is significant in the state’s history because it was approved three weeks before the United States Congress proposed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States, did not go into effect until it was fully ratified on December 18, 1865. Deutschheim State Historic Site is fortunate to have one of the original signed copies of the ordinance. In December 2020, the Missouri State Archives returned the copy to Deutschheim after their conservation lab completed restoration work on the document to help preserve and protect this important piece of our history for the future. View the video about the restoration here: https://www.facebook.com/MissouriSOS/videos/2883314125238173
For information about current hours or tours, please call Deutschheim State Historic Site at 573-486-2200.