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A Is for American
A Is for American


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  • Jill Lepore is an editor of the online journal Common-place. In the words of the website, "Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks--and listens--to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900."

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An American Language

On July 23, 1788, the people of New York spilled out onto the streets of the city, streets that had been specially swept and watered the night before. In the summer sun, five thousand New Yorkers formed a procession a mile and a half long, while thousands more watched from sidewalks, windows, doorways, and rooftops. The Federal Procession was meant both to stir and to display the people's passions

in support of the Constitution, drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, already ratified by ten out of the thirteen states, and now being debated at New York's ratifying convention in Poughkeepsie. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, marchers expressed their support for the Constitution with a splash of panache and a fair bit of wit. A contingent of confectioners carried a ten-foot-long "federal cake," one foot for each state that had ratified. Thirty-one skinners, breeches makers, and glovers wore "buckskin waistcoasts, faced with blue silk, breeches, gloves, and stockings, with a buck's tail in their hats," and waved a standard bearing the motto "Americans, encourage your own manufactures." The butchers' stage carried a thousand-pound ox and a flag reading, "Skin me well, dress me neat, and send me aboard the federal fleet." Even the solitary equine veterinarian was dressed in "an elegant half shirt, with a painted horse on his breast," over which was written, "Federal Horse Doctor." From early morning until nearly dusk, a parade of trumpeters, artillery pieces, mounted horses, floats, and citizens from physicians to upholsterers inched its way down Broadway, through Hanover Square, and, still more slowly, back again. At the end of it all, Noah Webster, who marched with the rest, wearily summed it up in his diary: "Very brilliant, but fatiguing."

Webster trudged along the streets of New York that day as a member of the New York Philological Society, "whose flag & uniform black dress," he noted with pride, "made a very respectable figure." The society, founded in March 1788, "for the purpose of ascertaining and improving the American Tongue," had spent much of July preparing for the grand procession, where, dressed in black, the philologists marched in a division with other pen-pushers-lawyers, college students, merchants, and traders. Perhaps they hoped to keep their distance from more muscular marchers whose displays they could not hope to rival. But if the philologists could not bear the weight of a federal cake or pull a half-ton ox, they did manage to carry four symbolic props: a flag ("embellished with the Genius of America, crowned with a wreath of 13 plumes, ten of them starred, representing the ten States which have ratified the Constitution. Her right hand pointing to the Philological Society, and in her left, a standard, with a pendant, inscribed with the word, CONSTITUTION"); a copy of "Mr. Horne Tooke's treatise on language" (an influential linguistic tract); a scroll "containing the principles of a Federal language" (the text of which unfortunately has not survived); and an extraordinarily elaborate coat of arms. Designed in part by Webster himself, the coat of arms depicted three tongues; a chevron; an eye over a pyramid inscribed with Gothic, Hebrew, and Greek letters; a crest and key; and a shield ornamented with oak and flax, supported, on one side, by Hermes with a wand and, on the other, by Cadmus in a purple robe (holding, in his other hand, papyrus covered by Phoenician characters).2

In the aftermath of the bloody War for Independence, New York's philologists hoped that peacetime America would embrace language and literature and adopt, if not a federal cake, a federal, national language. Winning the war had gained the former colonies their political independence from Britain, ratifying the Constitution would unify the states under a national government, but what would hold ordinary Americans together? Inhabitants of the thirteen "united" states were both too much like the English and not enough like one another. Americans in the 1780s shared very little by way of heritage, custom, and manners, and what little they did share, they shared with England. What, then, made them American? Noah Webster and his supporters believed that Americans needed, first, a national government and, second, a national language.

That any group of people form a "nation" is a kind of fiction, an act of imagination. A common ethnicity, heritage, and culture make this act of imagination a bit less strenuous, and a common language can make it a great deal easier. As early as the seventh century Isidore of Seville observed: "Nations have arisen from tongues, not tongues from nations." Yet national boundaries and language boundaries are rarely one and the same. Spain is not a nation of only people who speak "Spanish," nor do all Spanish speakers live there. According to one recent estimate, "there are some four to five thousand languages in the world but only about 140 nation-states." Much as their governments might claim, or wish otherwise, all the world's nations are multilingual to one degree or another. Why, then, do so many people believe, and some insist, otherwise?

A "nation" is a relatively recent Western invention. And the idea that languages define nations-that how we speak and write and even spell is a necessary marker of our national character-is an assumption or really an invention that many people now take for granted but that first became commonplace and assumed special prominence during Noah Webster's lifetime. By 1849, six years after Webster's death, the French minister Paul de Bourgoing could declare with confidence that "this principle of the division of nationalities by their languages thus appears to be in truth the ruling political idea of our times."

During the early modern era, when modern nation-states were founded, the idea that languages define nations had a special resonance. In Europe, nations fully emerged as political bodies only when vernacular languages began to stabilize. Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, books that circulated in manuscript were usually written in Latin and read only by scholars and nobles; literacy among the common people, who spoke a variety of vernacular languages and dialects, remained very low. With printing came not only a proliferation of print and a sharp rise in literacy rates but also printing in vernacular tongues. Over time a single French dialect out of the many spoken in France came to be favored by printers, and that "French" became a national standard. That the people of France began increasingly to read and eventually to speak something that came to be called the French language made it easier for them to consider themselves as belonging to a single nation. They might continue to speak different dialects and even different languages, but the fiction of linguistic uniformity made the fiction of nationhood easier to swallow: the French are French because they speak French.

The new United States could adopt no such seemingly simple solution. An American is an American because he speaks . . . English? In the aftermath of the American Revolution, Americans faced the same problem many postcolonial nations face today: speaking the language of the now-despised mother country. As one American put it in 1787, "In most cases, a national language answers the purpose of distinction: but we have the misfortune of speaking the same language with a nation, who, of all people in Europe, have given, and continue to give us fewest proofs of love." Noah Webster believed he had found the solution. "Language, as well as government should be national," he insisted. "America should have her own distinct from all the world. Such is the policy of other nations, and such must be our policy."6

On that sultry New York summer day in 1788, a phalanx of philologists dressed in black and carrying a flag, a scroll, a treatise, and an extraordinary coat of arms insisted that a national language was nearly as necessary to national unity as the Constitution itself, a main but missing ingredient in a half-baked nation. Were they right?

Our Pretended Union

Noah Webster was an ardent Federalist, an admirer of the Constitution and a vigorous proponent of its ratification. He admired the Constitution so much that he liked to take credit for it, even though he wrote not a line of it and was nowhere to be found among the fifty-five delegates to the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 who debated and revised a document initially drafted by James Madison. (Although Webster was at the time in Philadelphia, serving as schoolmaster and delivering lectures on language). What Webster liked to take credit for was not the text of the Constitution but the idea of it. In 1785 he had published a pamphlet in Hartford, titled Sketches of American Policy, that included an essay on a "Plan of Policy for improving the Advantages and perpetuating the Union of the American States," and later in life he claimed that this essay contained "the first public proposition" urging "the establishment of a National Constitution."

At the time Webster wrote his Sketches of American Policy, very many Americans were eager for a new plan of union. Since 1776 the thirteen states had been united under a legal pact called the Articles of Confederation, but especially because Article II declared that "each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence," America under the Articles was basically a loose alliance of wholly independent states over which the Continental Congress had almost no authority. When the war ended in 1783, terms of peace had to be negotiated with all thirteen states, and after the peace, the states only fragmented further. With no executive or judicial body, and with a legislative body lacking any real power, the federal government was unable to intervene in the disputes between states that became all too common in the war's aftermath, not least because seven of the thirteen colonies printed their own money, nine had their own navies (likely to seize the ships of other states), most passed tariff laws against neighboring states, and many quarreled over boundaries. Eyeing this state of affairs, Alexander Hamilton complained that the Articles had created "little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord," while George Washington called the Continental Congress "a half-starved, limping government, that appears to be always moving upon crutches, and tottering at every step."8

Noah Webster agreed. "Our pretended union is but a name," he declared in his Sketches of American Policy, "and our confederation, a cobweb." Before the Philadelphia convention met in 1787, most critics of the existing government had called for revisions to the Articles that would give more power to the Continental Congress, including the power to tax. Webster, however, believed increasing the powers of Congress required a wholesale reconstitution of the federal government and the establishment of a wholly national union. "Must the powers of Congress be increased?" he asked, and answered: "This question implies gross ignorance of the nature of government. The question ought to be, must the American states be united?" If yes, "there must be a supreme head, in which the power of all the states is united."9

Webster was neither the first nor the only pundit to advocate abandoning the Articles in favor of a federal constitution (his own distant relation Pelatiah Webster had earlier published A Dissertation on the Political Union and Constitution of the Thirteen United States of North America).10 And, although Noah Webster urged modeling the national constitution on state constitutions (specifically, on the Connecticut constitution), his "Plan of Policy for Improving the Advantages and Perpetuating the Union of the American States" was more polemic than plan. Still, he did write with passion about national union. In his Sketches, Webster contended that "three principles . . . have generally operated in combining the members of society under some supreme power: a standing army, religion and fear of an external force." None of these "can be the bond of union among the American states." Americans would never allow a standing army, a weapon of despots. The Protestant religion might bring peace and harmony to the United States, but it would never compel union as do religions of "superstition" by keeping people in ignorance. And America, remote from Europe, need not fear invasion or conquest. "We must therefore search for new principles in modelling our political system," Webster concluded. "We must find new bonds of union to perpetuate the confederation."

In Webster's mind, those new bonds of union would derive in large part from a strong national government that would serve as the "supreme power" necessary to hold the states, and the people, together. Yet, he hinted, something more was needed. The Articles of Confederation were not all that weakened the Union, weaving it together with the slender threads of a cobweb. Poor education, which fueled local prejudices, especially between New Englanders and southerners, pulled the nation apart. And, just as ignorant Americans cherished the ways in which they were different from one another, they also stupidly aspired to be more like Europeans. "Nothing can be more ridiculous," Webster complained, "than a servile imitation of the manners, the language, and the vices of foreigners. . . . Nothing can betray a more despicable disposition in Americans, than to be the apes of Europeans." And nothing, but nothing, nauseated Webster more than those preposterously affected Americans who "must, in all their discourse, mingle a spice of sans souci and je ne scai [sic] quoi."

"America is an independent empire," Webster insisted, "and ought to assume a national character." A national constitution would strengthen political union, but Americans must also constitute themselves as a distinct and united people. "We ought not to consider ourselves as inhabitants of a single state only," he implored his readers, "but as Americans, as the common subjects of a great empire." To develop a "national character," America must first cast off its cultural subservience to Europe and, second, eradicate local prejudices. Language, Webster believed, was the stone that could kill both those birds: if Americans could be shamed into silencing their pretentious je ne sais quois and coached out of their provincial twangs and drawls, the resulting national, homegrown American language would go a long way toward establishing a national character. It was a nice, neat plan, one that Webster had first contemplated in 1783, even before he'd come up with the idea for a national constitution.

Excerpted from A Is for American by Jill Lepore. Copyright 2002 by Jill Lepore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.