The American Founding Fathers and their Foreign Languages.

July 4, 2012 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

On this Fourth of July all Americans celebrate our independence.  We know that on this day we recognize the immense wisdom and unlimited courage of a group of men who lived in the same right place at the same right time.  Although most of us will spend the better part of the day watching baseball, having a hot dog, and attending some local fireworks tonight, I thought it would be interesting to talk about a little known aspect of the founding fathers’ lives: Their knowledge of foreign languages.

It is undisputable that they were all bright, well-educated, and visionary heroes who crafted an idea and implemented a concept never attempted before: a country with no monarch where the people were in charge.  We have read about their political, diplomatic, scientific, and military qualities, about how gifted they were. It is time to review their knowledge of foreign languages.  George Washington did not speak any other language. No doubt because of his very little formal education and humble beginnings he just spoke English.  Abraham Lincoln would fit the same bill. The emancipator was a self-educated attorney with a very modest upbringing and he never learned any foreign languages either. These two American heroes did not travel abroad in their lifetime.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State under Washington, and our third President spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and he could read Greek, and Spanish. Benjamin Franklin, America’s first diplomat and well-known genius spoke English, French and Italian.   Our second President: John Adams spoke English, French and Latin. President James Madison spoke English, Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  James Monroe spoke English and French.

Although Samuel Adams and John Hancock did not speak any foreign languages, Hancock, the wealthiest of our founding fathers, and perhaps the most generous, founded a Professorship of Oriental Languages and Hebrew in Massachusetts.  All in all, 21 of America’s 44 Presidents have known at least a second language, and if you consider that America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient: President Teddy Roosevelt spoke French and German,  then we can say that two out of four Presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore spoke a foreign language.

This may not be the most relevant aspect of a hero’s life, but it is a good way for a linguist to wish all of my friends and colleagues, together with their families, a happy Fourth of July!

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§ 11 Responses to The American Founding Fathers and their Foreign Languages.

  • Another well written and informative post. So easy to read.

  • Lee Eisenberg says:

    I recommend offering this as a rebuttal to anyone who thinks that all Americans should just speak English. After all, we can’t compete in foreign markets if every citizen is a monoglot.

  • lwoodssr7 says:

    Reblogged this on voz en el desierto blog and commented:
    Here is a blog that gives us something to think about, as we try to encourage Americans to improve the language abilities. I also saw in another place that none of our more contemporary presidents have become fluent in another language.

  • James says:

    I happen to be reading Washington’s journals. I am only on the first and the time is 1754. He seems to have worked quite extensively with Native American Tribes. In your research of his language fluency, were any of the Native American languages considered?

    • Dear James, thank you for your comments. Although President Washington had many contacts with several Native American Nations, there are no records indicating he spoke any of their languages. He always communicated through an interpreter, and the notes and speeches to Native Americans that survived to this day talk about learning English as part of Native American education. This suggests he expected them to speak his language. The only record of a president speaking, at least some of a Native American language, is that of president Andrew Jackson who apparently spoke some Choctaw.

  • says:

    Thomas Paine worked hard at learning languages when practicalities dictated. As secretary to a Congressional Commission seeking to persuade Indian tribes, in February and March 1777, to support the colonists rather than Britain he learned enough of the Iroquois language to understand it without interpretation. Later, as a delegate to the French National Convention during the French Revolution, he struggled to learn French and ultimately was able, given time and a good dictionary, to write letters in French.

    Richard Moriarty

  • Cliff says:

    I have read that Franklin’s fluency in French was marginal but that he was able to make himself understood. Is there any record of him bringing along interpreters to act as “back up” or did he rely, if necessary, on the interpreters there on scene in France? (if you know)

    • Cliff, thank you for your comment. You are right. Franklin “spoke” French under the definition of speaking a foreign language during the Age of Enlightenment. Like many others, he learned on his own how to understand oral and written foreign languages. There are accounts of his acceptable reading comprehension and understanding of French. Records show his French writing and pronunciation were not very good, but due to his personal charm, and above-average intellect, he got the job done. There are stories of Franklin playing chess with French nobility, and being popular with the ladies of Versailles. I have never seen evidence of any interpreter, but at the time, French was the world’s Lingua Franca (even the Russian court spoke French) so his French was probably similar to most foreign diplomats at the Court of Louis XVI. Great question.

  • guibjj says:

    What a great text thank you !

    I have a question for the author regarding Ben Franklin. Is it true that Franklin produced a text in French only to be sent to Montreal , in quebec, in hope to get some help from them against the British Crown?

    Since he knew that some french canadians were not fan of the British rule, he hoped to have some french canadian help against the british and he supposedly printed a text in french and sent it to Montreal. Do you know about this incident ?

    Thank you again for the informative historic text

    • Dear guibjj, thank you for your comments. You are right, at the time of the American Independence from Great Britain, Ben Franklin envisioned Quebec as the 14th. original State of the new country. He believed the way the British Crown treated the citizens of Quebec would motivate them to join the revolutionary war. Franklin established the first Canadian postal service in Halifax, and through his business presence in Canada, he befriended a French republican named Fleury Mesplat who owned the Montreal Gazette. Franklin’s letter to the French Canadian people was in French. For several reasons, his dream did not come true, and Canada remained loyal to the Crown. Unfortunately, I have never seen the letter; the only document related to this matter I have ever seen is Franklin’s letter to Lord Kames, and it is written in English.

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