July 4, 2017 § 2 Comments
This Fourth of July the United States celebrates its 241st birthday. The founding of our country motivated me to write about a term that is frequently used but seldom understood: “The Founding Fathers”.
Many interpreters, U.S. and foreign born, including some who use the term at work, have told me that they believe they know who we are referring to when we speak of the “Founding Fathers”, but they ignore the meaning of such a phrase. They really do not understand what it truly means. The fact is they are not alone. Let me explain:
Since the foundation of the United States, there has been a great deal of respect for those who made it possible to have a new nation free of tyranny and monarchy, where people would be recognized as equal and govern themselves according to their own collective will. These remarkable individuals made a priceless contribution to the nation and were originally referred to as the “fathers” of the country.
These American heroes included those who participated in the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence, those who signed the Articles of Confederation of 1781, and the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
Another equally recognized and honored group of American heroes are known as the “framers”. They include all delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the authors of The Federalist Papers. Of the 55 framers, only 39 were also signers of the Constitution.
The “Fathers” are called “Founding Fathers” for the first time by President Warren G. Harding in 1916. The phrase was catchy and stayed.
After 1916 the term “Founding Fathers” has been applied to all those who contributed to the birth of the nation. The original “Fathers”, the “Framers”, and many others who fought for independence on the battle field or at Independence Hall are now referred to as America’s “Founding Fathers”; and the list of “Founding Fathers” is constantly expanding to include all individuals, regardless of race, gender, or national origin, who contributed to the success of the Revolutionary War.
Presently, many authors set some of the “Founding Fathers” aside from the rest and are sometimes called the “Key Founding Fathers”. It is usually these individuals that historians, speech writers, journalists, and lay people have in mind when they speak of the “Founding Fathers”. Columbia University professor, and renowned historian, Richard Morris, identified the following American heroes as the “Key Founding Fathers”: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.
Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Washington were Presidents of the United States. Adams, Jefferson and Franklin were part of the 5-member Committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay authored The Federalist Papers. Jay, Adams, and Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the War of Independence; and George Washington was the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and presided over the Constitutional Convention. Washington, just like Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, did not sign the Declaration of Independence.
Now you know who the “Founding Fathers” are and what the term really means. Just like everything else in the United States of America, it is a group of men and women, some of them foreign born, with diverse ethnicity, who contributed their life’s work, and occasionally their own life, to create the country we honor today. We welcome your comments. Happy Fourth of July!
February 15, 2016 § 12 Comments
This Monday the United States observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English. Currently the United States is in the middle of a presidential political campaign and only two of all major candidates, Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, and former Governor Jeb Bush, also from the same state, are fluent in a second language: Spanish.
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.
Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. 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. According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States. He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.
At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works. This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had.
President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin. President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.
President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French. President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English. Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.
Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.
Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent. President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.
There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency. John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch. Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).
Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.
Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families. I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here. I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.
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. I now invite you to share with the rest of us any story you may know about the foreign languages spoken by a President or First Lady of the United States.
July 3, 2013 § 2 Comments
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 that this year it would be interesting to once again 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!