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Founding Fathers and Official English

There never was a deliberate decision against making English the official language of the United States. With English as the language of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and the vast majority of the population, a declaration of English as our official language may have seemed superfluous. Quite simply, it may not have occurred to them to do so.

Of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, only eight were not born in the United States. Of those eight, four were from Ireland, two from England, one from Scotland, and one (Alexander Hamilton) was born in the West Indies. We have found no evidence to show that any of them had a first language other than English.

This does not mean that none of them did, just that we cannot find any evidence of it. For instance, while it is possible that at least one of the four Irish-born delegates spoke Irish Gaelic as his first language, the very fact of their success in the English-speaking American colonies weighs against the possibility. Surely the story of the immigrant who learned English and went on to become a delegate to the Constitutional Convention would be a story worth mentioning. The absence of such a story strongly suggests that all the delegates were native English speakers.

The founders took it for granted that English was the language of this country. John Jay, in The Federalist No 2, wrote “With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice, that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language….” 

It is not surprising that the founders would think of the United States as an obviously English-speaking nation. The 1790 census was the first comprehensive census of the United States. Since it was taken just three years after the writing of the Constitution, it is a fair reflection of the United States at the time of the Founding Fathers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, people of British origin (English, Scotch, and Irish) made up 92% of the white population. (White colonists are considered here because at the time of the framing of the Constitution, the languages spoken by others would not have been an important consideration to the founders.)  Germans (5.6%), Dutch (2.5%) and French (0.6%) account for all but 0.3% of the rest (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1909, 116-117).

Considering that all the colonies, including the former Dutch colonies, had been under British rule for more than a century before the Revolution, it is likely that most of those of non-British origin in the United States spoke English. The major exceptions would probably have been the German communities in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Since the overwhelming majority of the American population at the time of the Constitutional Convention spoke English, the founders may not have thought it necessary to declare in law what existed in fact. One must also remember that the young nation was still struggling from the expenses of the Revolutionary War to the point where it was unable to pay many of the soldiers who had fought for America’s freedom. It is highly unlikely that, at a time of significant printing costs, the government would have looked upon multilingual documents as a beneficial use of extremely limited funds.

It also bears noting that in 1811, President James Madison signed the Louisiana Enabling Act, establishing the conditions under which Louisiana could become a state. One of the requirements was that “the laws which such state may pass shall be promulgated and its records of every description shall be preserved, and its judicial and legislative written proceedings conducted in the language in which the laws and the judicial and legislative written proceedings of the United States are now published and conducted.”

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