What is the meaning of the term “Founding Fathers”?
July 2, 2018 § Leave a comment
This Fourth of July the United States celebrates its 241st birthday. The founding of our country motivated me to write about a term 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 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 do not understand what it 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 contributed to the nation and were originally called 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 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 called 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.
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 this 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 means. Just like everything else in the United States of America, it is a group of men and women, some 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!
The U.S. Presidents and First Ladies who spoke a foreign language.
February 12, 2015 § 15 Comments
In a few days Americans will 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.
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. There is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson spoke fluent French, but his claim that he could speak Spanish seems unlikely. 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. Thomas Jefferson spoke French, and he could read and perhaps write and speak some Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish.
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.
Is it the American Revolution or the War of Independence?
July 4, 2014 § 11 Comments
It seems to me that every year around the 4th of July I get the same question from friends and colleagues: What do you say when you are interpreting an event and the speaker brings up the 4th of July? Sometimes they refer to this event as the revolutionary war; sometimes they call it the war of independence, and to some it is just the American revolution. Which one is the correct term to describe what happened in the United States of America at the end of the 18th century?
Those of you who know me personally have seen how much I like history, so this is an issue that I have studied and researched in the past. We should start by going to the dictionary to see what the difference between the terms revolution and independence is. According to the Oxford dictionary, a revolution is: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.” It also defines it as: “A dramatic and wide reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation.” Webster calls it: “A total or radical change,” and “A fundamental change in political organization, or in a government or constitution; the overthrow or renunciation of one government, and the substitution of another, by the governed.” Oxford defines independence as: “The fact or state of being independent,” and independent as: “Free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority.” Webster tells us that independence is: “(the) freedom from outside control or support,” and also as: “The time when a country or region gains political freedom from outside control.”
The American revolution (or war of independence) was the very first of its kind. It emerged at a time when most of the world was ruled by monarchs, and most of the people were confined to a place in society they had inherited and could not leave. It was also a movement led by wealthy intellectuals who organized, debated, compromised, and reached decisions by majority of votes.
The American movement was triggered by resentment of the economic policies of Britain, particularly the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, and by the exclusion of the colonists from participation in political decisions affecting their interests. This has come to be known as “taxation without representation.” After the end of the costly French and Indian War of 1763 the British Crown needed money, so it imposed new unpopular taxes such as the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act, as well as trade restrictions on the colonies. For over a century the colonies had been fairly unattached to the Monarchy because of geography and religion. The people of the 13 colonies had made a life with very little help from the British monarch who now wanted even more of the colonists’ hard earned money, fueling growing resentment and strengthening the colonists’ objection to their lack of representation in the British Parliament.
Determined to achieve independence, the colonies formed the Continental Army, composed chiefly of minutemen, to challenge Britain’s large, organized militia. Following disturbances such as the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the war began when Britain sent a force to destroy rebel military stores at Concord, Massachusetts. After fighting broke out in 1775 in Lexington and Concord, rebel forces began a siege of Boston that ended when the Americans forced out the British troops in 1776 during the battle of Bunker Hill. The Crown’s offer of pardon in exchange for surrender was refused by the Americans, who declared themselves independent on July 4, 1776. British forces retaliated by driving the Continental Army of George Washington from New York to New Jersey. On December 25, Washington crossed the Delaware River and won the battles of Trenton and Princeton. After winning the battle of Saratoga, Washington quartered his troops through a terrible winter at Valley Forge, where they received the military training that gave them victory in Monmouth in 1778. British forces in the north were concentrated near New York, and France, which had been secretly furnishing aid to the Americans since 1776, finally declared war on Britain in June 1778. French troops assisted American troops in the south, culminating with the British surrender in 1781, bringing an end to the war on land. War between Britain and the U.S.’s European allies continued at sea. The navies of Spain and the Netherlands contained most of Britain’s navy near Europe and away from the fighting in America. The last battle of the war was won by the American navy in March 1783 in the Straits of Florida. With the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783 Britain recognized the independence of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River and ceded Florida to Spain.
This would be the story of a successful war of independence like many others throughout history. However, the military campaign is only part of what happened in America in 1776. Perhaps the most important event of the war of independence happened in a Philadelphia hall, away from the battlefield.
You see, unlike other nations that have obtained their independence from a foreign power, the thirteen original colonies were not a single entity. This was not a country trying to be independent from another. These were thirteen distinctively different peoples; they had different economies, different religious practices, different geographical circumstances, even different ethnicity. Unlike other independence movements, this was a decision made by a population with very little ties to their European monarch. Spanish and Portuguese nobility established in the rest of the Americas, they were governed by a king through a viceroy. The thirteen colonies had none of that. The immigration to what is now the eastern United States consisted of laborers, farmers, people who had been oppressed and persecuted by their European government. ) We can now see a similar situation with some of the 21st century immigration into the United States from Latin America). These people owed nothing to the crown. Ignored by the Crown, they took advantage of that freedom and successfully built a country where hard work and creativity gave them a lifestyle unimaginable for them in Europe. Two kinds of Americans participated in the movement of independence: the common hard-working individual who knew that it was wrong to give his hard-earned money to the British Monarch who had done nothing for him, and the well-educated, wealthy American segment of the population who were able to articulate this general desire shared by all Americans, and produce a blueprint for a government never seen before where all thirteen colonies, now states, would keep their independence while at the same time would unite with the other colonies for two fundamental purposes: to defend themselves from more powerful foreign nations, and to facilitate commerce and free trade among the thirteen states. They designed a system of government as far away from the powers of the monarch, with a very limited role for the government, with a divided power for checks and balances, and with an inverted pyramid structure where the government closes to the people would have more power than the government more removed from the American citizens. They elaborated this master plan in order to achieve three goals: the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and they made it clear that the government would never be able to take any of that away from the people because the people created the government to serve it, because no authority or power, or rights ever came from the government; they made it clear that all this inalienable rights came from a higher power, by the Creator. In doing so, they doomed all potential tyrants for eternity, because in the United States the government gave nothing to the people and therefore, it cannot ever take it back. It is true that in 1776 blacks were considered property, and women and also men who did not hold land could not vote. It is true that it took an even bloodier war to eliminate slavery, and another century to begin a process of true equality; it is a work in progress; but the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the true American revolution.
Therefore, my friends and colleagues, when asked the question is it the American Revolution or the War of Independence, you should pause and remember that it was a military war of independence because it severed the ties between the United States and the British crown, but it was also a revolution because it went far beyond breaking away from the monarch, it created a brand new system with a limited role by the government, with checks and balances, and with the triple goal of protecting life, liberty, and guaranteeing the pursuit of happiness to all those in the United States. Therefore, as you answer the question, remember John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, signing his name at the bottom of Jefferson’s master piece, with huge letters so that King George III “could see it all the way across the ocean” and answer that it depends on what you are addressing: the military movement or de fundamental change in government; and if they ask you for a term to describe it all, then in my opinion you should say: The revolutionary war. Now I ask you all, limited to the question posed in this post, to share your opinion and comments about this issue.
What do Americans celebrate on Presidents’ Day and how do you spell it?
February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February. As you know, the United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process. As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state. The latter ones are referred to as state holidays. By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays. The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them. The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.
The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.” There is only one George Washington. Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States. On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February. As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd. For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”
Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12. It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored. A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents. This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either. The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.” Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.
By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit. Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.” In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy. In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29. In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.” In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”
Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday” we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”
Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.” Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.” As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term. Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone. So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique and diverse holiday. Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.
The Electoral College in the United States.
October 16, 2012 § 2 Comments
During my career I have noticed that every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters are faced with the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political. Because of its American uniqueness, this topic presents a challenge to many colleagues who usually work outside the United States and to others who live in the country but grew up somewhere else. In fact, the Electoral College is one of those issues that many Americans do not fully understand, even if they vote every four years. Interpreters cannot interpret what they do not understand, and in a professional world ruled by the market this topic will continue to appear on the radar screen. Therefore, a basic knowledge of this legal-political process should come in handy every four years.
Because we are once again approaching the final days of the presidential campaign and election day is three weeks away, I decided to put my legal background and my passion for history to work (I have a Law Degree)
Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on a Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for any of the presidential candidates. We Americans vote for a preference (Republican, Democratic and occasionally other) and for electors who will go to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in the month of December to cast all electoral votes from that state, in favor of the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on that Tuesday in November. In other words, we vote for the people who will go to Washington D.C., to vote on our behalf for the presidential candidate who received the most direct votes from the citizens of that state during the general election. After the November election, those electors are pledged to the candidate who received the most votes in that state. The result: We have direct vote elections in each state, and then we have the final election in December when the states vote as instructed by the majority of its citizens. It is like a United Nations vote. Think of it like this: Each state elects its presidential favorite; that person has won the presidential election in that state. Now, after the November election is over, in December the states get together in an Electoral College and each of them votes. This is the way we determine a winner. The states will each vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry. We do not have proportional representation in the United States.
Historically and culturally this country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit: Those who risk everything want everything, and when they succeed, all benefits should go their way. We are an “all or nothing” society. That is even reflected on our sports. All popular sports invented and played in the United States have a winner and a loser by the end of the game: We do not like ties because we associate a tie with mediocrity. A baseball game can go on forever until a team wins. We do the same in politics. Once the citizens have voted, the winner gets all the benefits, in this case all the electoral votes; it does not matter if he or she won by a million votes or by a handful. You may remember how President George W. Bush was elected to his first term; he won the state of Florida by a very small margin, but winner takes it all, therefore all of Florida’s electoral votes went to him and he became the 43rd. President of the United States. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams got to the White House with a smaller margin than George W. Bush.
I mentioned earlier that we like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, we are a country of fairness and justice with such diversity that the only way to achieve this goal is through a balance of the rights of the people on one side, and those of the states on the other. (For those who have a difficult time understanding why the states have rights separate from the people, please imagine the United States as a mini-world where each state is an independent country. Then think of your own country and answer this question: Would you like a bigger or more populated foreign country to impose its will over your country, or would you like for all countries to be treated as equals?) In December when the electors or delegates from each state meet as an electoral college in Washington D.C. to cast their state’s electoral votes, all states have a voice, they are all treated as equal. This is the only way that smaller states are not overlooked; their vote counts.
We find the final step to achieve this electoral justice to the states of the United States of America (all fifty states and territories that make this country) and to the citizens of the country, in the number of electoral votes that a state has; in other words, how many electors can a state send to Washington D.C. in November. The answer is as follows: The constitution of the United States establishes that there will be a House of Representatives (to represent the people of the United States) integrated by 435 members elected by the people of the district where they live. These districts change with the shifts in population but additional seats are never added to the House. When the population changes, the new total population are divided by 435 and that gives you the new congressional district. The only limitations: An electoral district cannot cross state lines (state borders) therefore, occasionally we will have a district slightly larger or slightly smaller, and every state must have at least one electoral district (one house member) regardless of its population. The American constitution establishes that there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state, for a total of 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that particular state. When new states have been admitted to the Union (the last time was 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states number 49 and 50 respectively) the senate grows by two new members.
As you can see, all states have the same representation in the Senate (2 senators each) regardless of the state’s size or population. The House of Representatives on the other hand, has more members from the states with larger population, but all states have at least one representative in the house. This way the American system makes sure that the will of the majority of the people is heard in Congress (House of Representatives) and it assures the 50 states that all of them, even the smaller ones, will be heard as equals in the Senate. You need both houses of Congress to legislate.
Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (425 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state, therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538. Because of this totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes. This is the reason why California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)
The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 separate countries who have an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December. Because on November 6 of this year we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election or reelection of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.
Electoral votes by state Total: 538; majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270
|state||number of votes||state||number of votes||state||number of votes|
|District of Columbia||3||Missouri||11||Tennessee||11|
|Indiana||11||New Mexico||5||West Virginia||5|