The Founding Fathers and Official English
What would the founding fathers think about the official English movement? Some claim that since the founders purposely chose not to have an official language, we should not have one. By that logic, state legislatures should choose senators, slavery should be legal, and women should not vote. But even if the logic were sound, the claim is based on a false premise.
Opponents of official English cite articles by Professor Shirley Brice Heath of Stanford University, who asserts that “[i]n rejecting a national language academy, the founding fathers made clear their choice not to designate a national tongue….” [emphasis in original]
A national language academy would dictate proper grammar, spelling, and vocabulary in the United States. No state official English law and no official English bill before Congress regulates grammar, spelling, or vocabulary in any way. One of the beauties of the English language is its adaptability, its willingness to absorb new words and phrases from other languages. Official English would not affect that. The national language academy is irrelevant to the official English debate.
Why didn’t the founders make English the official language? It simply may not have occurred to them. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. It was not until near the end of the Constitutional Convention that someone suggested something as essential as a Bill of Rights, and the Convention decided against that proposal as unnecessary.
All fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention spoke English. They took it for granted English was the language of this country. Since the overwhelming majority of the American population spoke English, the founders may not have thought it necessary to declare in law what existed in fact.
Those who say the founders favored a multilingual government for the United States point to documents published in French and German during the American Revolution. But the fact remains that after the Constitution of 1789 created our present form of government, there is not a single example of Congress approving multilingual publications during the time of the founders.
Just six years after the Constitution took effect, Congress deliberately rejected a request to publish copies of federal laws in German. (From this incident arose the myth that, by one vote, German failed to become our national language.) Two years later, Congress rejected a similar request. The debates cited the cost of printing in multiple languages and the confusion that might result from problems in translation–concerns as valid today as two hundred years ago.
In 1811, President James Madison signed the Louisiana Enabling Act, establishing the conditions under which Louisiana could become a state. It required the laws, records, and written proceedings of the new state to be in English.
Opponents of official English tend to ignore the votes against printing laws in German, and that James Madison, architect of the Constitution, approved a bill that mandated English as the language of government for Louisiana. These inconvenient facts hurt their claim that the founding fathers favored multilingual government.
The founders never deliberately decided against making English the official language of the United States. But the leaders of the United States deliberately decided against multilingual government in the 1790’s. It is reasonable to think that they would decide similarly in the 1990’s.