–by Don Kennon
Last month we wrote about the “Muhlenberg myth”that wrongly posits Frederick Muhlenberg cast the deciding vote against making German the official language of the US. As part of our October theme, German Americans in Congress, we’ll continue with another rumor or myth that swirls around Peter Muhlenberg, Frederick’s brother and fellow minister and member of Congress.
The American Revolution propelled Frederick and Peter Muhlenberg to positions of prominence in the new nation. Frederick had no hesitations supporting independence. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1776 before New York was occupied by the British. In 1779-80 he was a delegate to the Continental Congress. He served in the Pennsylvania Assembly from 1780 to 1783, where he presided as its Speaker. Frederick wrote many letters and articles, in both English and German, supporting the revolution. In one letter during the darkest hours of the war, he exhorted his brothers to “be steadfast, rely on God, and our own strength, and endure courageously, then we shall after be sure of reaching our goal.”
As a minister, Frederick’s support of independence did not include military service. Peter, on the other hand, stepped down from the pulpit to take on the uniform of an officer in the Continental Army. There is a legend that he ended a sermon on January 21, 1776, in dramatic fashion, throwing back his black ministerial robe to reveal a military uniform.
Although there is no contemporary evidence to back up the story, it does reveal the importance of the clergy’s support for the revolution. The British even referred to such support as “the Black Robe Regiment.” The myth, however, was so powerful and persistent that Blanche Nevin’s 1889 granite statue of Muhlenberg in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection depicts him with the ministerial robe draped around his right arm and shoulder as he stands proudly in his military uniform.
From colonel of the 8th Virginia Regiment, Peter rose to the rank of brigadier general. As one of George Washington’s trusted commanders, he led his troops at several battles, including Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and Yorktown. After the war, Peter was elected to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania and became its vice president in 1787. Both Peter and Frederick supported the drafting and ratification of the new US Constitution and served in the First Congress, which opened in 1789. Muhlenberg descendents continued to serve in the US Congress until the mid-twentieth century.
History Detectives on PBS did a segment on a robe at the Lutheran Theological Seminary that may have belonged to Peter. They found no evidence of a dramatic disrobing in the pulpit, but learned that the robe could have belonged to Muhlenberg. A transcript of the segment is available here.
Have a favorite German American member of Congress? Know another myth about a Muhlenberg (Frederick and Peter had 9 more siblings)? Let us know in the comments.