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One of the ‘German Infidels’ Who Came to America: Clemens Vonnegut, Freethinker

In the beginning was Clemens….

The year was 1848 and the first of Kurt Vonnegut’s ancestors on this father’s side arrived in the United States, having been booted out of the German confederation of states by the authorities. They were not sorry to see Clemens Vonnegut, age twenty-four, and his kind depart. He was a socialist and had participated in the republican uprising that year against the government.

Kurt always admired his great-grandfather. He had, in one of Vonnegut’s favorite words, a lot of “moxie.” But more than that, Clemens is wellspring of liberal thought and freethinking trickled down through generations of the Vonnegut family, and informed Kurt’s thought and writing throughout his life.

I wanted to include more about this fascinating man in my biography of Vonnegut, but the book is about Vonnegut the novelist, and not about Clemens Vonnegut the lapsed Catholic immigrant, empire-building businessman, civic leader, and educational reformer. He was nothing short of remarkable.

Clemens was part of a tidal wave of Germans who arrived in the United States between 1845-1854 and most, like him, had been forced out of the country by an outraged government that wanted, as one historian put it, “the dissatisfied, the troublemakers, the agitators, the failures, and the paupers to leave, and aided them in making a speedy exit.”

True, he was a troublemaker, and an agitator, but certainly no failure. Ever the optimist, Clemens saw nothing but opportunity waiting for him in New York. One of his heroes was Benjamin Franklin, and he was eager to make his own luck through hard work and perseverance.

Clemens Vonnegut in the 1850s

Clemens Vonnegut in the 1850s

One the other hand, like many other educated Germans, he was a rationalist and a liberal, an admirer of Voltaire, and a deist, if not an outright non-believer. American nativists observed the arrival of these European eggheads with contempt and hostility. The North American Review warned of the “atheists or radicals” coming by the boatload, and deplored the “irreligious influence of thousands of German infidels.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer referred regularly to “hair-lipped, infidel red Republicans.” The New York Tribune regarded “skepticism and materialism” as one of the “bad effects of the German immigration.” The Journal of Commerce denounced “recently imported infidels” who indulged in orgies of drunkenness, published “devilish German papers,” and desecrated Sunday by picnicking— with beer! (Blue laws in many states forbid such behavior.)

And they were quite right, as a matter of fact to be fearful of German immigrants like Clemens and fellow exiles during the mid-19th century. In the United States gentlemen were expected to belong to a church, religious oaths were administered in the courts, legislative bodies opened their sessions with prayer and politicians invoked God to justify their policies. Foreigners spouting humanism were defying convention and belief, nor were they meek about doing so. “They resolved to turn the light of German art, science, and philosophy on the dark night of American Puritanism,” wrote Carl Witte in The German Forty-Eighters in America (1952) “and refused to compromise with American bigotry. They would remold their adopted country according to the enlightened European pattern, and end the ‘materialism and corruption’ of the United States.”

Noble goals. But in the meantime, Clemens needed to make a living. He headed to Indianapolis, intending to open a general goods store.

He located it on East Washington Street and served his customers cheese, crackers, and Madison ale because restaurants downtown were rare. They trusted him and those whose lacked confidence in the early banks gave him their savings to safeguard. Across the street was a waitress, a German girl he fell in love with, Katrina Blank, and he married her.

Then, with his business and a growing family well in hand, he turned his attention to improving public life in his adopted city.

To start with, he assisted in founding the private, bilingual German-English Independent School. Because he and his fellow German-Americans believed that schools should graduate students with employable skills, the curriculum included industrial training, which was then unknown in the United States. As the popularity of the program grew, it drew the interest of the city’s public high school. By then, Clemens was well into his twenty-eight-year tenure on the public school board. In 1891 the Indiana legislature authorized the first nation’s first independent technical high school in Indianapolis, with a German-American as principal.

Next, Clemens lobbied for physical education. Having received gymnastics training as a young man, he walked every day, sometimes swinging heavy stones in both hands. He could be seen chinning himself on overhanging tree branches, too. At one point, when it seemed that interest in the idea of adding physical education was flagging, he persuaded the local German-American sports and debating society to pay for a physical education teacher until parents saw value of the class.

His progressive thought create a kind of nimbus around Kurt Vonnegut where we can see twinklings of concern about civic responsibility, magnified through his novels such as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. in which a rich man, Eliot Rosewater, turns philanthropist. “Just think of the wild ways money is passed around on Earth!” he said. “You don’t have to go to the Planet Tralfamadore in Anti-Matter Galaxy 508 G to find weird creatures with unbelievable powers. Look at the powers of an Earthling millionaire! Look at me! I was born naked, just like you, but my God, friends and neighbors, I have thousands of dollars a day to spend!”

Vonnegut Hardware in Indianapolis where Kurt worked as a teenager.

Vonnegut Hardware in Indianapolis, founded by Clemens Vonnegut, where Kurt worked as a teenager.

Clemens’ proudest achievement, however was founding the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. The Freethinkers were a religious rationalist organization that assailed Biblical infallibility and advocated the natural religion based on man’s moral freedom. The movement had its roots in the American Revolution and took as its patron Thomas Paine. (Robert G. “Bob” Ingersoll was another German-American Midwesterner, the spellbinding speaker who toured the country preaching free thought, essentially joshing his huge audiences into religious skepticism with his wit. Would he be tolerated today?)

At one of the inaugural meetings of the Indianapolis Freethinker Society, Clemens spoke as president of the organization, urging his audience, “This earthly life is the only one we have. We must seek heaven in this world. It offers enough of everything we need and, indeed, for everyone and, to the extent that all resources are brought to bear in producing the means, will provide much more still for the satisfaction of life. The possibility therefore does exist of turning this world into a place of comfort and of joy for all.”

His great-grandson could not have been more eloquent.

Sometime later, “on a cold December day in the year 1904,” wrote a Vonnegut family historian, “in his eighty-third year, he left his home for his usual walk. He apparently became confused and lost his way. When he did not return at his accustomed time his family instituted a search with the assistance of the police. He was found several miles from his home lying by the side of a road— quite dead.”

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Clemens Vonnegut, the Unitarian minister Reverend Frank S. C. Wicks (who married Kurt’s parents) said of him during a ceremony at the Clemens Vonnegut School, “He was a profoundly religious man, though he would have been surprised if anyone had told him so. His religion was that of Thomas Huxley whose intellectual honesty was his own; reverence and love for the ethical ideal and the desire to embody that ideal in life!”

“I am a humanist,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “which mean, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War, called themselves ‘Freethinkers,’ which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, ‘If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?’ I myself have written, ‘If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.’”