Early Americans were worried about German!
Is Spanish a Threat to American English?
Don't Make English Official - Ban it
A humorous look at official language
John Adams felt Americans
should all speak English...
Founding Father and second U.S. President John Adams considered every detail in building the new nation. Excerpts from his Revolutionary War correspondence letters, stored in the U.S. Library of Congress reveal how his thoughts went beyond obvious concerns such as raising an army and establishing a common currency. Adams felt strongly that one common language was important to the new United States — and despite the dispute with England, that the language should be English.
Excerpts 1 and 2 are
drawn from The
Correspondence of the United States, Volume 4, J. Adams to President of
Excerpt 3 is taken from a letter from Adams to French diplomat Edmond Genet, found in The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 3, J. Adams to Genet.
Excerpt 4 continues the letters in The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 4, J. Adams to the President of Congress.
Excerpt 5 comes from The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 5, J. Adams to Livingston. The recipient was Robert Livingston, the nation’s first Secretary of Foreign Affairs (Secretary of State).
Amsterdam, September 24, 1780.
Sir: Since the receipt of the despatches by the Hon. Mr. Searle, I have been uninterruptedly employed in attempting to carry into execution the designs of Congress.
The first inquiry which arose was whether it was prudent to make any communication of my business to the States-General or to the prince. Considering that my errand was simply an affair of credit, and that I had no political authority, I thought, and upon consulting gentlemen of the most knowledge, best judgment, and fullest inclination for a solid and lasting connection between the two republics, I found them of the same opinion, that it was best to keep my designs secret as long as I could. The same reasons determined me to communicate nothing to the regency of Amsterdam or any other branch of government, and to proceed to seek a loan upon the foundation of private credit. I have accordingly made all the inquiries possible for the best and most unexceptionable house, and to-morrow I expect an answer to some propositions which I made yesterday.
This business must be conducted with so much secrecy and caution,and I meet so many difficulties for want of the language, the gentlemen I have to do with not understanding English and not being very familiar with French, that it goes on slower than I could wish. Commodore Gillon, by his knowledge of Dutch and general acquaintance here has been so useful to me as he has been friendly. I never saw the national benefit of a polished language generally read and spoken in so strong a light as since I have been here. The Dutch language is understood by nobody but themselves; the consequence of which has been, that this nation is not known with as profound learning and ingenuity as any people in Europe possess. They have been overlooked because they were situated among others more numerous and powerful than they.
I hope that Congress will profit by their example, by doing what they have lost so much reputation and advantage by neglecting; I mean by doing everything in their power to make the language they speak respectable throughout the world. Separated as we are from the British dominion, we have not made war against the English language any more than against the old English character. An academy instituted by the authority of Congress for correcting, improving, and fixing the English language would strike all the world with admiration and Great Britain with envy. The labors of such a society would unite all America in the same language, for thirty millions of Americans to speak to all nations of the earth by the middle of the nineteenth century.
I have the honor to be, with the greatest respect, your excellency's most obedient and humble servant,
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Amsterdam, September 5, 1780.
Sir: As eloquence is cultivated with more care in free republics than in other governments, it has been found by constant experience that such republics have produced the greatest purity, copiousness, and perfection of language. It is not to be disputed that the form of government has an influence upon language, and language, in its turn, influences not only the form of government, but the temper, the sentiments, and manners of the people. The admirable models which have been transmitted through the world and continued down to these days, so as to form an essential part of the education of mankind from generation to generation by those two ancient towns Athens and Rome would be sufficient, without any other argument, to show the United States the importance to their liberty, prosperity, and glory of an early attention to the subject of eloquence and language.
Most nations of Europe have thought it necessary to establish institutions for fixing and improving their languages
The honor of forming the first public institution for refining, correcting, improving, and ascertaining the English language I hope is reserved for Congress; they have every motive that can possibly influence a public assembly to undertake it. It will have a happy effect upon the union of the States to have a public standard for all persons in every part of the continent to appeal to, both for the signification and pronunciation of the language. The constitutions of all the States in the Union are so democratical, that eloquence will become the instrument for recommending men to their fellow-citizens and the principal means of advancement through the various ranks and offices of society.
In the last century Latin was the universal language of Europe. Correspondence among the learned, and indeed among merchants and men of business, and the conversation of strangers and travelers, was generally carried on in that dead language. In the present century Latin has been generally laid aside, and French has been substituted in its place; but has not yet become universally established, and according to present appearances it is not probable that it will. English is destined to be, in the next and succeeding centuries, more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age. The reason of this is obvious, because the increasing population in America and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations will, aided by the influence of England in the world, whether great or small, force their language into general use, in spite of all the obstacles that may be thrown in their way, if any such there should be.
"The American Academy for refining, improving, and ascertaining the English language”
It will be necessary that the society should have a library, consisting of a complete collection of all writings concerning languages of every sort, ancient and modern. They must have some officers and some other expenses, which will make some small funds indispensably necessary. Upon a recommendation from Congress there is no doubt but the legislature of every State in the Confederation would readily pass a law making such a society a body-politic, enable it to sue and be sued, and to hold an estate, real or personal, of a limited value in that State.
I have the honor to submit these hints to the consideration of Congress.
I have the honor to be, etc.,
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The third excerpt is taken from a letter from Adams to French diplomat Edmond Genet, found in The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 3, J. Adams to Genet.
Paris, May 17, 1780.
When two nations have the same interests they are natural allies; when they have opposite interests they are natural enemies
The third material of which the general barrier is created is language. This, no doubt, occasions many difficulties in the communication between the allies; but it is lessening every day. Perhaps no language was ever studied at once by so many persons at a time, in proportion, as the French is now studied in America; and it is certain that English was never so much studied in France as since the Revolution; so that the difficulties of understanding one another are lessening every day.
Religion is the fourth part of the barrier. But let it be considered, first, that there is not enough of religion of any kind among the people in power in England to make the Americans very fond of them. Secondly, that what religion there is in England is as far from being the religion of America as that of France. The hierarchy of England is quite as disagreeable to America as that of any other country. sides, the Americans know very well that the spirit of propagating any religion by conquest and of making proselytes by force or by intrigue is fled from all other countries of the world in a great measure, and that there is more of this spirit remaining in England than anywhere else. And the Americans had, and have still, more reason to gear the introduction of a religion that is disagreeable to them, at least as far as bishops and hierarchy go, from a connection with England than with any other nation of Europe.
The alliance with France has no article respecting religion. France neither claims nor desires any authority or influence over America in this respect; whereas England claimed and intended to and the English society for propogating religion in foreign parts has, in fact, for a century sent large sums of money to America to support their religion there, which really operated as a bribe upon many minds and was the principal source of toryism. So that upon the whole the alliance with France is in fact more natural, as far as religion is concerned, than the former connection with Great Britain, or any other connection that can be found.
Habit, language, and religion will for the future operate as natural causes of animosity between England and America
After all, the circumstances of modes, language, and religion have much less influence in determining the friendship and enmity of nations than other more essential interests. Commerce is more than all these and many more such circumstances, Now, it is easy to see that the commercial interests of England and America will forever hereafter be incompatible. America will take away, or at least diminish, the trade of the English in shipbuilding, in freight, in the whale fisheries, in the cod fisheries, in furs and skins, and in other particulars too many to enumerate. In this respect America will not interfere with France, but, on the contrary, will facilitate and benefit the French commerce and marine to a very great degree. Here, then, will be a perpetual rivalry and competition between England and America and a continual source of animosity and war. America will have occasion for the alliance of France to defend her against this ill-will of England, as France will stand in need of that of America to aid her against the natural and continual jealousies and hostility of England.
The boundaries of territory will also be another constant source of disputes. If a peace should unhappily be made leaving England in possession of Canada, Nova Scotia, the Floridas, or any one spot of ground in America, they will be perpetually encroaching upon the States of America; whereas France having renounced all territorial jurisdiction in America, will have no room for controversy.
The people of America, therefore, whose very farmers appear to have considered the interests of nations more profoundly than General Conway, are universally of the opinion that from the time they declared themselves independent England became their natural enemy, and as she has been for centuries and will be the natural enemy of France and the natural ally of other natural enemies of France, America became the natural friend of France and she the natural friend of the United States--powers naturally united against a common enemy, whose interests will long continue to be reciprocally secured and promoted by mutual friendship.
It is very strange that the English should thus dogmatically judge of the interests of all other nations. According to them, the Americans are, and have been for many years, acting directly against their own interest; France and Spain have been acting against their own interests; Holland is acting against her own interest; Russia and the northern powers are all acting against their own interests; Ireland is acting against hers, etc.; so that there is only that little island of the whole world that understands their own interest; and of the inhabittants of that, the committees and associations and assemblies are all in the same error with the rest of the world; so that there remains only the ministry and their equivocal and undulating majority among all the people upon the face of the earth who act naturally and according to their own interests. The rest of the world, however, think that they understand themselves very well, and that it is the English or Scottish majority who are mistaken.]
Your friend, etc.,
This fourth excerpt continues the letters in The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 4, J. Adams to the President of Congress.
Amsterdam, September 25, 1780.
Sir: There are persons in this republic who have been attentive to this war, and who know somewhat of the history of the rise and progress of the United States of America; but it is surprising that the number should be so small. Even in the city of Amsterdam, which is the most attentive to our affairs and the best inclined towards us, there are few persons who do not consider the American resistance as a desultory rage of a few enthusiasts, without order, discipline, law, or government. There are scarcely any who have an adequate idea of the numbers, the increasing population, or the growing commerce of America.
Upon my arrival here some gentlemen were inquisitive about our governments. I asked if they had seen them in print, and was answered no. Upon this I made it my business to search in all the booksellers' shops for the collection of them which was published in French two or three years ago, but could find only two copies, which I presented to the gentlemen who made the inquiry. Nothing would serve our cause more than having a complete edition of the American constitutions correctly printed in English by order of Congress and sent to Europe, as well as sold in America. The Rhode Island and Connecticut constitutions ought not to be omitted, although they have undergone no alteration; and it would be proper to print the Confederation in the same volume. This work would be read by everybody in Europe who reads English and could obtain it, and some would even learn English for the sake of reading it; it would be translated into every language of Europe, and would fix the opinion of our unconquerability more than anything could, except driving the enemy wholly from the United States.
There has been nobody here of sufficient information and consideration to turn the attention of the public towards our affairs, to communicate from time to time to the public, in a language that is understood, intelligence from America, France, England, etc.; but, on the contrary, there have been persons enough employed and well paid by our enemies to propagate misinformation, misrepresentation, and abuse.
England has more influence here than France
Amidst all these conflicts of interest and parties and all these speculations the British ambassador, with his swarms of agents, are busily employed in propagating reports, in which they are much assisted by those who are called here stadtholderians, and there has been nobody to contradict or explain anything. This should be the business in part of a minister plenipotentiary. Such a minister, however, would not have it in his power to do it effectually without frequent and constant information from Congress. At present this nation is so ignorant of the strength, resources, commerce, and constitution of America; it has so false and exaggerated an imagination of the power of England; it has so many doubts of our final success; so many suspicions of our falling finally into the hands of France and Spain; so many jealousies that France and Spain will abandon us or that we shall abandon them; so many fears of offending the English ministry, the English ambassador, the great mercantile houses that are very profitably employed by both, and, above all, the stadtholder and his friends, that even a loan of money will meet with every obstruction and discouragement possible. These chimeras, and many more, are held up to people here, and influence men's minds and conduct to such a degree that no man dares openly and publicly to disregard them.
I have this day received an answer to some propositions which I made last Saturday to a very respectable house, declining to accept the trust proposed. I do not, however, despair; I still hope to obtain something; but I am fully persuaded that, without a commission of minister plenipotentiary, and without time and care to lead the public opinion into the truth, no man living will ever succeed to any large amount. Those persons who are both able and willing to lend us money are the patriots who are willing to risk the British and stadtholderian resentment for the sake of extending the commerce, strengthening the political interests, and preserving the liberties of their country. They think that lending us money without forming a political connection with us will answer these ends. That cause stands very insecurely which stands upon the shoulders of patriotism in any part of Europe. And in such case, if patriotism is left in a state of doubt whether they ought to sustain it, the cause must fall to the ground.
I have the honor to be, etc.,
The final excerpt comes from The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 5, J. Adams to Livingston. The recipient was Robert Livingston, the nation’s first Secretary of Foreign Affairs (Secretary of State).
Paris, November 6, 1782.
Sir: Two days ago arrived by Captain Barney the letters you did me the honor to write me on the 22d, 29th, 30th, triplicate of May, 4th of July, 29th of August, and 15th of September.
I was unconditionally received in Holland and promised upon record conferences and audiences whenever I should demand them, before I entered into any treaty, and without this I should never have entered into any; and full powers were given to the Committee of Foreign Affairs before I entered into any conferences with them. I have ventured upon the same principle in the affair of peace, and uniformly refused to come to Paris until our independence was unconditionally acknowledged by the king of Great Britain. Mr. Jay has acted on the same principle with Spain and with Great Britain. The dignity of the United States, being thus supported, has prevailed in Holland and Great Britain; not indeed as yet in Spain, but we are in a better situation in relation to her than we should have been if the principle had been departed from. The advice of the Count de Vergennes has been contrary; but, however great a minister he may be in his own department, his knowledge is insufficient and his judgment too often erroneous ia our affairs to be an American minister.
Intelligence from Holland through France is impossible. Events in Holland can seldom be foreseen one day. When they happen they are inserted in the gazettes, transferred to the Courrier de l' Europe the English and French gazettes, and get to America before it is possible for me to transmit them directly. Besides, sir, I have sometimes thought that my time was better employed in doing business that might produce other events than in multiplying copies and conveyances of despatches which would contain nothing but what I knew the newspapers would announce as soon; my reputation may not be so well husbanded by this method, but the cause of my country is served. I am not insensible to reputation; but I hope it has not been a principal object. Perhaps it has not been enough an object. I see so much of the omnipotence of reputation that I begin to think so. I know very well, however, that if mine can not be supported by facts, it will not be by trumpeters.
Thank you, sir, for the hint about the English language
I thank you, sir, for the hint about the English language. I think with you that we ought to make a point of it, and after some time hope it will be an instruction from Congress to all their ministers.
As to the negociations for peace, we have been night and day employed in them ever since my arrival on the 26th of October. Dr. Franklin, without saying anything to me, obtained of Mr. Jay a promise of his vote* for Mr. W. T. Franklin to be secretary to the commission for peace; and as the Doctor and his secretary are in the same house, and there are other clerks enough, I suppose he will transmit to Congress details of the negociations. I shall be ready to lend them any assistance in my power, and I will endeavor, as soon as I can, to transmit them myself; but, after spending forenoon, afternoon, and evening in discussions, it is impossible to transmit all the particulars. No man's constitution is equal to it.
[Note : * This proved to be an error. Mr. Jay wrote to Dr. Franklin on the 26th of January, 1783, as follows: "It having been suspected that I concurred in the appointment of your grandson to the place of secretary to the American commission for peace, at your instance, I think it right thus unsolicited to put it in your power to correct the mistake," etc. See the whole letter infra under that date.]
The English have sent Mr. Oswald, who is a wise and good man and if untrammeled would soon settle all, and Mr. Strachey, who is a keen and subtle one, although not deeply versed in such things, and a Roberts, who is a clerk in the board of trade, and Mr. Whithead, who is private secretary to Mr. Oswald. These gentlemen are very profuse in their professions of national friendship, of earnest desires to obliterate the remembrance of all unkindnesses, and to restore peace, harmony, friendship, and make them perpetual by removing every seed of future discord. All this on the part of Mr. Oswald, personally, is very sincere. On the part of the nation it may be so in some sense at present; but I have my doubts whether it is a national disposition, upon which we can have much dependence, and, still more, whether it is the sincere intention of the Earl of Shelburne.
He has been compelled to acknowledge American independence because the Rockingham administration had resolved upon it, and Carleton and Digby's letter to General Washington had made known that resolution to the world; because the nation demanded that negociations should be opened with the American ministers, and they refused to speak or hear until their independence was acknowledged unequivocally and without conditions; because Messrs. Fox and Burke had resigned their offices, pointedly, on account of the refusal of the king and my Lord Shelburne to make such an acknowledgment; and these eloquent senators were waiting only for the session of Parliament to attack his lordship on this point; it was, therefore, inevitable to acknowledge our independence, and no minister could have stood his ground without it. But still I doubt whether his lordship means to make a general peace. To express myself more clearly, I fully believe he intends to try another campaign, and that he will finally refuse to come to any definitive agreement with us upon articles to be inserted in the general peace.
We have gone the utmost lengths in our power to favor the negociations. We have at last agreed to boundaries with the greatest moderation. We have offered them the choice of a line through the middle of all the great lakes, or the line of 45 degrees of latitude, the Mississippi, with a free navigation of it at one end and the river St. Croix at the other. We have agreed that the courts of justice be opened for the recovery of British debts due before the war, to a general amnesty for all the royalists against whom there is no judgment rendered or prosecution commenced. We have agreed that all the royalists who may remain at the evacuation of the States, shall have six months to sell their effects and to remove with them.
These are such immense advantages to the minister that one would think he could not refuse them. The agreement to pay British debts will silence the clamors of all the body of creditors and separate them from the tories, with whom they have hitherto made common cause. The amnesty and the term of six months will silence all the tories except those who have been condemned, banished, and confiscated; yet I do not believe they will be accepted.
It is easy to see that the French, Spanish and Dutch would not be very fond of having it known a general peace were settled between Great Britain and America
The negociations at Versailles between the Count de Vergennes and Mr. Fitzherbert are kept secret, not only from us but from the Dutch ministers, and we hear nothing about Spain. In general, I learn that the French insist upon a great many fish. I dined yesterday with M. Berkenrode, the Dutch ambassador, and M. Brantzen, his colleague. They were both very frank and familiar, and confessed to me that nothing had been said to them, and that they could learn nothing as yet of the progress of the negociation. Berkenrode told me as an honest man that he had no faith in the sincerity of the English for peace as yet; on the contrary, he thought that a part of Lord Howe's fleet had gone to America, and that there was something meditated against the French West India islands. I doubt this, however; but we shall soon know where my Lord Howe is. That something is meditating against the French or Spaniards, and that they think of evacuating New York for that end, I believe. Berkenrode seemed to fear the English, and said like a good man that in case any severe stroke should be struck against France it would be necessary for Holland and America to discover a firmness. This observation had my heart on its side; but without an evacuation of New York they can strike no blow at all, nor any very great one with it.
Mr. Oswald has made very striking overtures to us; to agree to the evacuation of New York; to write a letter to General Washington and another to Congress advising them to permit this evacuation, to agree that neither the people nor the army should oppose this evacuation or molest the British army in attempting it; nay, further, that we should agree that the Americans should afford them all sorts of aid, and even supplies of provisions. These propositions he made to us in obedience to an instruction from the minister, and he told us their army were going against West Florida to re-conquer that from the Spaniards. Our answer was that we could agree to no such things; that General Washington could enter into a convention with them for the terms upon which they should surrender the city of New York and all its dependencies, as Long Island, Staten Island, &c., to the arms of the United States. All that we could agree to was that the effects and persons of those who should stay behind should have six months to go off, nor could we agree to this unless as an article to be inserted in the general peace.
I have the honor to be, &c.,
William and Flora Hewlett
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