The Story of the Forty-Eighters in Davenport, Iowa

Der Demokrat

Davenport's German newspaper

When German immigrants entered the United States by the thousands after 1848, suddenly a lucrative market for German-language newspapers emerged. Of the 2,526 newspapers that existed in America by the middle of the century, around fifty were printed in German. This number would rapidly increase in the following years as the stream of German immigrations would hold on throughout the decade. In Iowa, it took a German population of 1,000 to 2,000 in a county to sustain a German weekly newspaper, according to Forty-Eighter expert Joachim Reppmann .

Since Davenport was the center of German immigration to Iowa, attempts to found a German newspaper were made as early as 1850. But Samuel Jacobs’ Demokratischer Herold had no lasting success, folding a few weeks after the publication of its first edition. A new, more successful journalistic endeavor - Der Demokrat - was founded by 23-year old Theodor Gülich in November of 1851. The paper serves as an example why journalism appealed to many German immigrants. The initial costs to start a newspaper were relatively low – Gülich payed $40 for the Herold’s types and $70 for a printing press. For politically minded Forty-Eighters like Gülich, a newspaper was also another means of continuing the struggle for a free and democratic society.

For German immigrants, many of whom were yet unable to speak English, German-language newspapers were an essential source. The papers provided them with translations of national and international news. Papers like Der Demokrat were the channels through which American public opinion reached the German immigrants, according to Hildegard Binder Johnson. Furthermore, people were able to keep in touch with their homeland through the newspaper, which provided extensive coverage of European events. Especially those Forty-Eighters that originally planned to return to their homeland were highly interested in these news accounts.

Despite the public's demand for news, Der Demokrat had a rough start. August Richter characterizes its early years as a “serious fight for survival.” Only 83 to 97 copies of the first numbers were printed. The paper found its first home on Gaines Street, where Gülich rented two rooms for printing and typesetting. Lack of space forced Gülich to also use the rooms as a kitchen, a dining and a reception room. Business was further obstructed by a very cold first winter, during which the printing press regularly froze up.

At this time, most Germans in Davenport were still struggling to make ends meet, so that the public support for the paper was little. A collection on behalf of the paper netted $40. But despite such hardships, the paper was respected for its quality, in part because of journalistic contributions of well-educated Germans. The paper’s financial situation slightly improved when Forty-Eighter Rudolph Reichmann became co-owner in 1852 and worked hard to attract more subscribers among the growing German population.

With its finances improving, Gülich decided to expand. From January of 1856 on, Der Demokrat also had a daily edition while the weekly edition, mostly aimed at the rural population of Scott County, continued to appear. A few months later, however, Gülich’s tenure at Der Demokrat was over. To further pursue his study of law, he sold the paper for $1,800 to Theodor Olshausen and Henry Lischer. Although the number of subscribers was still not very impressive at 250, job printings represented a reliable stream of income for the paper, especially since it was the only one in Davenport that could print in German.

Though founded as a Democratic newspaper (and with funds from Democratic politicians), Der Demokrat was a “free paper.” In the words of Joseph Eiboeck, it remained independent from party doctrines, but was always taking sides in the interest of freedom and human rights. The paper’s clear positions became evident in an anti-slavery editorial on the death of John Brown:

“Brown fell victim to the preservation of slavery in this “land of liberty”; a victim to the obstinacy of a handful of aristocrats who did not want to give in one inch in the struggle between liberty and slavery.”

In similar fashion, Olshausen criticized the conditions in his homeland after the failed revolution. Angered by the paper’s liberal political attitude, the Prussian state in 1858 ordered all copies of Der Demokrat destroyed upon their arrival at the Prussian border. Der Demokrat faced tough times when Lischer and Olshausen, who took over the Westliche Post in St. Louis, left the paper. The new owners, John Daldorf and Heinrich von Ramming, were hampered by two aspects: they adopted a radical political position and felt the economic effects of the Civil War. Consequently, the paper’s daily edition had to be abandoned, but the financial situation still remained critical. Since Henry Lischer did not want to see the paper go bankrupt since he still held claims in it, he decided to return to Davenport.

Lischer became the sole owner of Der Demokrat, a position he would hold for the next 40 years, and quickly brought back the paper’s daily edition in September 1861. One of Lischer’s next moves was to hire an experienced journalist to lead the paper. Jens Peter Stiboldt, coming to Davenport from Illinois, was exactly such a person. He continued the paper’s espousal of freedom and social reform, thus winning back the trust of the German population, which gave Der Demokrat the nickname “Low-German bible.” The phrase “Stiboldt said so” became a dictum among the Germans in Davenport and underscores the paper's authority in the city.

Der Demokrat
An edition of Der Demokrat from 1862
(Click image to enlarge)

Under Stiboldt’s editorial leadership, Der Demokrat continued its strong anti-slavery position, calling on the North to increase its war effort. Stiboldt felt that President Lincoln, whom he got to know during his time in Illinois, was too soft on the rebels, and even joined the movement to prevent Lincoln’s renomination in 1864. When the Republican Party adopted prohibitionist positions after the Civil War, the paper started supporting the Democrats. In the 1884 election, for example, Der Demokrat endorsed the Democrat Grover Cleveland.

In the early 1880s, Der Demokrat had developed into a well-regarded German-language newspaper with a circulation of more than 1,300 for the daily and more than 4,300 for the weekly edition. (Davenport had a little more than 20,000 inhabitants at this point). The considerable influence the paper had on the German population in Scott County became measurable when Iowa voted on a prohibition amendment in 1882. Although the amendment won popular support on the statewide level, it was clearly rejected in Scott County where 5,197 people voted against and 1,467 people voted for it.

In the following years, Davenport remained largely unaffected by the prohibition amendment. Davenport’s oldest brewery and the largest in the state, “City Brewery,” owned by Forty-Eighter Matthias Frahm, continued its operation even during prohibitionist times. Mayor Ernst Claussen said that this is mainly due to Stiboldt’s paper, which agitated tirelessly against the prohibition movement. In an editorial on June 22, 1882, Stiboldt wrote:

"The contemporary battle of Iowa's prohibitionists is a battle for whiskey and against German beer, for churchly hypocrisy and against German sincerity, for puritan bigotry and narrowness and against German education and openness, for paternalism of the people and against the enjoyment of inalienable human rights."

After 25 years as the editor of Der Demokrat, Stiboldt - “a giant of the German press of this country” (Richter) – died in June 1887. His obituary read that his goal for this republic was its development in a liberal sense, according to the lofty tenets the Declaration of Independence preaches. Although he and the paper's later editors Gustav Donald and August Richter were not part of the 1848 revolution in Germany, they certainly carried on the Forty-Eighter spirit on the pages of Der Demokrat, promoting the liberal idea of freedom, education and well-being for all to the best of their abilities.