In 2011, Texas State Senator Chris Harris told an immigrant rights activist that using an interpreter to translate his Spanish testimony was “insulting“. One can find examples of this disheartening “English only” attitude in many parts of the United States, although it is particularly rich for a white man in Texas to tell someone to not speak Spanish in a place that used to be part of Mexico and where Spanish was spoken before English.
In this post, I intend to prove them wrong by demonstrating that America has always been a multilingual place, even in colonial times and the early years of our nation.
Many of our founding fathers were multilingual. Benjamin Franklin taught himself French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. James Madison knew Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. John Adams spoke French and Latin. The most impressive polyglot was Thomas Jefferson, who spoke French, Italian, and Latin, had some reading proficiency in Greek and Spanish, and may have spent time studying Gaelic, Welsh, Arabic, and German as well. He advocated for his daughters and young correspondents to learn French and (gasp) Spanish “because of the increasing diplomatic importance Spain would presumable hold in U.S. foreign relations.” According to the book Language Loyalties by James Crawford, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush was also an advocate for multilingualism. He wanted German and French taught in schools and for German to be preserved as an asset for the new nation. He said that people who feared Germans in Pennsylvania were “narrow-minded” and that “a man who is learned in the dialect of a Mohawk Indian is more fit for a legislator than a man who is ignorant even in the language of the learned Greeks.”
(Thomas Jefferson’s Paris house memorial)
Early Americans used many languages besides English. According to Crawford, “[p]rior to the arrival of the Europeans, more than 500 languages were spoken in North America.” He notes that “[m]any churches offered services in different languages” and that there were French and German language schools, societies, and libraries in both the North and South. In fact, none other than Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) suggested that our primary language not even be called English and said that “circumstance render a future separation of the American tongue from the English necessary and unavoidable.” In Webster’s view, the way Americans speak would become as different from English as “modern Dutch, Danish, and Swedish are from…German.” New Amsterdam (today’s New York) was incredibly diverse where “18 languages were spoken on Manhattan Island as early as 1646.” In what is today New York, “English not even introduced into Dutch schools until 1774.”
The Early American press was multilingual. In 1732, Ben Franklin published Philadelphische Zeitung, the first ever German or non-English paper in what is today the United States. Crawford notes that “acceptance of and support of French and German newspapers” was common throughout the country. Die Freyheits-Fahne was founded in Pennsylvania in 1814 and there were at least eight other German papers and at least two French papers in the state by the early 1800s. Americans even founded a French language paper in South Carolina, Echo du Sud, Moniteur Francais, in 1801. The book Language Loyalties notes that the Continental Congress even issued publications in French and German to persuade the local population to join the revolutionary cause. One of those documents was the Articles of Confederation, which you can find here in French.
(Ben Franklin’s German paper published in Philadelphia)
In conclusion, people like State Senator Chris Harris want you to believe that speaking languages other than English is un-American. However, our history shows that America has always been a multilingual place. Speaking other languages is as American as Ben Franklin and as patriotic as Thomas Jefferson.
I’d like to extend a special thanks to Rachel Jirka, the Research Services Librarian of the Society of the Cincinnati, who generously offered her time to help me research this piece.