NOAH WEBSTER

NOAH WEBSTER

When we were watching episodes of Downton Abbey on a DVD, we turned on the English subtitles, because we had trouble understanding a couple of the actors — particularly Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow and Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason.
It turned out that while some of our difficulty with the dialogue had to do with the one actor’s mumbling and the other one’s accent, some of it also had to do with the vocabulary itself — British terms that we did not know.

  Most of us are familiar with terms like “lorry,” “loo,” and “lift,” but we saw others in the captions that we had never heard before.
It was to be expected that the English used in Britain and the English used in the United States would evolve differently, but I learned recently that that didn’t happen only over time but was done deliberately, on our side of the ocean, soon after the American Revolution.
That’s what Paul Dickson reports in his book Words from the White House, which is a compilation of words and phrases that either were either coined or made popular by presidents and other prominent Americans.

  According to Dickson, an 18th century sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, was that Americans had to craft for themselves a language that was distinct from the “king’s English.”
Webster was so confident that this goal could be achieved that he wrote in 1806 that “In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people than all the other dialects of the language.”

THOMAS JEFFERSON

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Part of the process by which language evolves is “neologizing” — that is, inventing words or phrases from whole cloth.
Dickson writes that the word “neologize” was itself neologized by Jefferson in 1813 in a letter to John Adams.
So Theodore Roosevelt, who — for my money — is disproportionately represented in this book, was neologizing when he invented the term “pussyfooter,” and his distant cousin FDR was doing the same when he created the useful word “iffy.”
Some presidents have been accused of using non-standard terms, not because they were being inventive but because they didn’t know any better.
In this regard, for instance, Dickson mentions Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush.
Harding has often been ridiculed for his 1920 campaign promise of a “return to normalcy,” but Dickson points out that the word “normalcy” had been already in use in several fields, including mathematics.
Harding’s innovation was to give the term a political meaning — and, the author reminds us, it worked.

WARREN G. HARDING

WARREN G. HARDING

The second Bush — who could be hard on English — was kidded mercilessly for his used of the term “decider” which he applied to himself when the press asked him about calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”) Dickson gives Bush credit for coining this word, but apparently the author didn’t check a dictionary: that word was around before George Bush was president, meaning exactly what he used it to mean.

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THOMAS JEFFERSON

My master’s thesis focused on an aspect of the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. As a grad student at Penn State, I had access to the stacks at Butler Library in order to do some of the research. That would have been a good thing for a person with singleness of purpose, but not for an undisciplined scholar like me. The route to the “Jo” section of the stacks took me through the “Je” section, where I frequently stopped to browse through the papers of Thomas Jefferson.  I have always found his intellect irresistible, and he has had an important influence on my writing. Accordingly, my research in the “Jo” section took a lot longer than it should have.

Jefferson, of course, had his flaws, just as we all do. His biggest one, unfortunately, ruined the lives of hundreds of people over several generations — the people he held in slavery, this herald of equality for “all men.”

That’s the topic of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” a book by Henry Wiencek scheduled for publication in October.

MARTHA WAYLES JEFFERSON

 Jefferson, by Wiencek’s account, carefully constructed a society of slaves to do the work at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation estate in Virginia. Those slaves, like slaves on many other properties in that era, were arranged in a sort of hierarchy based on several factors: Jefferson’s assessment of their potential, the nature  of the work they were consigned to, and their relationship to Jefferson. That’s “relationship” in the literal sense, because many of Jefferson’s slaves had a family connection to his wife, Martha. That relationship originated in a liaison between Jefferson’s father-in-law, Thomas Wayles, and one of his slaves, Betty Heming. There were several children born of that relationship and the whole lot, Betty included, became Jefferson’s property when Wayles died. One of those children was Sally Hemings, with whom, Wiencek and many others believe, Jefferson himself was intimate long after Martha Jefferson had died. That subject has gotten a lot of attention in recent years as researchers have tried to determine with certainty whether or not Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings. Wiencek presents arguments on both sides but is convinced by the evidence in favor of paternity, including contemporary accounts of household servants bearing a striking resemblance to the lord of the manor himself.

The MARQUIS de LAFAYETTE

Sexual relationships between masters and slaves were commonplace. If Jefferson and Sally Hemings had such a relationship it would not be nearly so remarkable as the fact that Jefferson owned slaves at all. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Tommy J wrote that. He also publicly denounced slavery and mixed-race sexual relations and argued for emancipation and citizenship for black Americans. He simply didn’t apply those principles to his own life and “property.” Privately he argued — although he knew from the achievements of his own slaves that he was lying — that he didn’t believe black people were capable of participating in a free society, that they were, in fact, little more than imbeciles. He compared them to children. Wiencek writes and documents that Jefferson once even privately speculated that African women had mated with apes. (CP:  Mr. Wiencek points out in his comments below that Jefferson made this observation publicly.)

Perhaps Jefferson was trying to make himself feel better about his real motive for keeping people in bondage: profit. He had meticulously calculated what an enslaved human being could generate in income, and it was enough for a long time to allow him to live a privileged life, entertaining a constant train of distinguished guests and satisfying his own thirst for fine French wines, continental cuisine, and rich furnishings.

TADEUSZ KOSCIUSZKO

Jefferson wasn’t the only “founding father” to engage in this behavior. James Monroe, James Madison, and George Washington all kept slaves; Washington freed his only in his will. (CP: This is true but out of context, as Mr. Wiencek explains in his comment below.) It is often written in defense of such men that they had grown up in an atmosphere of slavery and were simply products of their time. That’s an idea that Wiencek debunks, both because Jefferson himself had so often excoriated the institution of slavery and because he had been urged by some of his contemporaries to free his slaves. In fact, Jefferson was upbraided by the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution, who visited the United States in 1824 and bluntly expressed his disappointment not only that slavery was still in place but that Jefferson himself was still holding people in bondage.

Wiencek also reports that at the request of the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who also had participated in the Revolution, Jefferson assisted in the preparation of Kosciuszko’s will in which he left $20,000 with which Jefferson was to buy and free slaves. When Kosciuszko died, Jefferson refused to carry out the will.

Wiencek’s book is a good opportunity to take a close look at how slavery was constituted, how enslaved men, women, and children lived in Virginia in the early 19th century. But its real value  is in stripping away the veneer that has been placed over men like Jefferson in an effort to legitimize modern political philosophy through a distorted view of the purity of their motives and personal lives.

PAUL JENNINGS

Folks confer a couple of lofty titles on James Madison, but “hypocrite” isn’t usually one of them. But Elizabeth Dowling Taylor isn’t bashful about using that term in her book A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons. 

The subject of the book was born into slavery on Montpelier, Madison’s farm in Virginia, and remained in bondage until he was 46 years of age. Within the stifling confines of slavery, Jennings rose to the highest possible place, serving for many years — including the White House years — as Madison’s “body servant.” That meant that he attended to Madison’s personal needs — shaving him, for instance — and traveled with him pretty much everywhere. He also was often the first person a visitor encountered, and he supervised the other household staff in preparing dinners and receptions. Taylor surmises that Jennings, who was literate, paid a lot of attention to the conversations that took place when political and social leaders visited the Madisons.

JAMES MADISON

One of the influential people Jennings became familiar with was Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who served as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state. Madison had agreed, under pressure from a family member, to provide in his will that his slaves would be freed after specified periods. Madison — whose titles included “Father of the Bill of Rights” — reneged on that commitment and left about 100 slaves to his wife, with the provision that they would not be sold and that they would be freed at some point. When Dolley Madison began selling slaves in order to allay her financial problems, Jennings approached Webster, who had in the past assisted slaves. Webster arranged through a third party for Jennings to buy his freedom; Jennings worked for Webster for several years, and eventually, Webster took on the loan himself.

DANIEL WEBSTER

Jennings was the father of five; he married three times and was widowed twice. When he had satisfied his debt to Webster, he took a job in the Interior Department and worked there until a few years before his death in 1874. During the balance of his working life, he was a bookbinder.

Jennings also seems to have been something of an activist. The evidence Taylor had at her disposal suggested to her that even while he himself was a slave, he forged documents for others trying to get to free states and that after he had achieved his own freedom he was a player in the largest known attempt by slaves to escape to the North — 77 men, women, and children who tried to slip out of Washington via the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.

MARQUIS de LAFAYETTE

The most dramatic incident that occurred during Jennings’ years as a slave probably was the invasion of Washington by British troops in 1814. By Taylor’s account, Jennings was one of the servants at the White House with Dolley Madison when the alarm came that the house had to be evacuated, and he evidently was among the small group that removed the life-sized Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that now hangs in the East Room. The painting almost certainly would have been destroyed when the British ransacked and burned the mansion.

Taylor’s account of Jennings’ life provides a lot of insight into slavery in Virginia, which was a complex system governed by both necessity and tradition. Her book also explores the contradictory position in which Madison and his close friend, Thomas Jefferson, found themselves. Both men publicly acknowledged that human slavery was essentially evil and that it should be eliminated, but both men kept scores of slaves to labor on their behalf. They were openly berated for this by abolitionists in the United States and by visitors from abroad. The Marquis de Lafayette, for example, visited the United States in 1824 and told Madison and Jefferson that he was nonplussed to find that almost a half century after he had fought for human liberty in the colonies, two of the principal figures of the Revolution were still keeping human beings in bondage.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Madison gave what turned out to be only lip service to emancipation, insisting that while it was desirable, it was also more important to preserve the federal union. Madison also argued that any plan to emancipate slaves had to include a plan to remove them from the United States — probably to west Africa, where none of them had ever lived. His reasoning was that black and white Americans could not live together in peace, and he based that conclusion on his opinion that black people were a depraved race, lazy, profligate, and likely to resort to violence — an idea that apparently was not diluted by his long and close exposure to Paul Jennings, who was none of those things.

Books: “American Emperor”

November 29, 2011

ALEXANDER HAMILTON

I grew up with Alexander Hamilton. It’s not that I was his contemporary; it’s that I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up on its streets. I heard over and over again that Hamilton had founded the city. Like a lot of things children are taught, that wasn’t true. What was true was that Hamilton accurately envisioned an industrial city growing up  around the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Paterson became the silk-weaving center of the world and was also the source of steam locomotives and Colt revolvers.

Aside from the fact that he was born on Nevis – a rare distinction – the only other thing I associated Hamilton with was the duel in which Aaron Burr, who was then the vice president of the United States, shot Hamilton to death. That happened in Weehawkin in 1804.

I never thought much about Burr at all until I read David O. Stewart’s book, American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. Come to find out that Burr was a rip-snorting renegade who wanted to invade Spanish territories in North America, merge them with states he hoped would secede from the Union, and set himself up as ruler of the new nation.

AARON BURR

Burr, who was born in Newark, came from a distinguished family. He  himself had an impressive military and political career which reached its zenith, in a sense, when he was elected the third vice president in the old electoral system. After a contentious series of ballots, Thomas Jefferson and Burr were tied for the presidency. Although Burr was willing to serve as vice president – which was the consolation prize under that system – Jefferson, once he was in office, gave Burr the cold shoulder, marginalizing him to the point that the once influential man was a supernumerary.

Meanwhile, Stewart explains, although Burr and Hamilton had been on good social terms, Hamilton conducted a political campaign against Burr in the public press, ridiculing him in the acidic fashion that was common in those days. Burr – whatever other faults he may have had – wouldn’t wouldn’t play that game, and he did not answer Hamilton until he read a published account of remarks Hamilton had made at a dinner. Burr and Hamilton exchanged a series of letters over the incident, with Hamilton ultimately refusing Burr’s demand that he apologize for that and other slights. Burr challenged him to a duel, and Hamilton accepted. Dueling was illegal in New York and New Jersey; the two men and their parties crossed the Hudson from Manhattan to a spot on the bluff in Weehawkin that was inaccessible from above. Hamilton was mortally wounded.

AARON BURR

Burr was indicted for murder in both states, which meant that he had to live on the road – an odd situation for the vice president of the United States. By this time, he was already concocting a vague plan to put together a realm for himself carved out of Spanish holdings – including parts of Mexico and Texas – and what were then western states that Burr imagined might be interested in leaving the union. He actually negotiated directly with Great Britain over this idea.

Meanwhile, Burr enlisted as one of his principal co-conspirators Gen. James Wilkinson who, on the one hand, was the highest ranking officer in the U.S. military and, on the other hand, was a paid spy for Spain. Burr enlisted numerous other people, including Andrew Jackson, although he seems to have given different information to different people, including in some cases the fantastic claim that the Jefferson administration was aware of and sympathetic to his plan.

Burr went so far as to assemble the crude makings of a private army, and set off by river transport to carry out a plot that still wasn’t clear to anyone except, perhaps, Aaron Burr. The numbers of supporters he had hoped for did not materialize, and some of those who did were arrested. Burr himself was taken into custody and sent to Richmond to be tried for treason.

JAMES WILKINSON

He was not convicted of treason, however. Stewart, who is an attorney, explains the fascinating intricacies of the trial and the verdict. The short version is that treason consists of conducting an armed attack on the United States, and Burr hadn’t done that.

Burr facing further charges in Ohio and was still under both murder indictments. Although he was broke, he traveled to Europe  and stayed for four years. Even then, he tried to get first the British government and then Napoleon to support him in a campaign against Spain in the Americas.

When the indictments had been dropped, Burr returned to New York and in 1831 resumed the practice of law.

This account portrays the United States and its surroundings as tumultuous and unstable. Stewart points out, in fact, that even Jefferson accepted the idea that some of the states still might opt out of the republic and go off on their own.

Stewart also provides details of a contrasting and touching aspect of Burr’s life – his affectionate but ill-fated relationship with his daughter.  The portrait Stewart paints of Burr is that of a charismatic, adventurous, and impetuous rascal, a man of courtly manners and an incorrigible womanizer — in short, far more interesting a character than I had ever imagined.

Once in a while we hear of an Independence Day ceremony in which someone reads the text of the Declaration of Independence. I have never attended such an event, but I can imagine that the presentation could be effective. The language in the document has always enthralled me. I have read it so often and pored over various passages while I was simultaneously reading about the history of that period, that I know the declaration as well as I do the prayers we say at Mass.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

I frequently use portions of the text  — most of which was written by Thomas Jefferson — as examples for my English students. There are excellent illustrations, for example, of the use of  parallel structure: He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

Unfortunately, many of my students don’t seem to know what part the Declaration of Independence played in American history, as though the title didn’t make it clear enough. I don’t mean to ridicule the students, but I have learned in their essays that many can’t distinguish between the Declaration and the Constitution. They don’t understand that the nation as we know it was not formed until a couple of decades after the Continental Congress published the Declaration.

I don’t know how well the public at large knows that history, but I do wonder at least once a year about how deeply citizens appreciate the philosophy of the Declaration, and especially its  observation that in order to secure people’s natural rights “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Jefferson was arguing, of course, that the British Parliament was not operating under that principle, that Parliament was making decisions without the consent of the governed. The underlying principle didn’t apply only to that situation, however.

The idea codified in the Declaration was, indeed, that government should act in accordance with the will of the majority of citizens, but that also presumed that more than a few citizens would participate in the process, at least by exercising the right to vote. As it is, some parts of the population had to struggle long and hard to gain full citizenship, including the franchise. The turnout at most elections in this country suggests that the ballot is not as valuable to many of us as it is to those who have been denied it.

So you’ll have a hot dog, and you’ll think about it. The text of the Declaration of Independence is available HERE.

John Trumbull's 19th century painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress

BARACK OBAMA

It’s not that I don’t like ritual – I’m a Catholic, for heaven’s sake. And I can never be distracted when the managers exchange lineup cards before a baseball game. But there can be too much of a good thing, and the State of the Union speech is an example of that.

Every year I am disappointed after hoping that some president — I’ve been waiting since Franklin Roosevelt’s last term — will talk some sense into us. Every year I hope to see the sergeant -at-arms announce the president, and the president come in from the wings instead of striding down the center aisle as though he were George Clooney on yet another red carpet and Carrie Ann Inaba were waiting to gush all over his silk suit.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

The speech isn’t even necessary. The Constitution doesn’t require it; it only calls on the president “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

After George Washington and John Adams established the precedent of strutting into Congress to give that “information,” Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice, and it wasn’t revived until Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Presidents in the meantime sent only written messages. The republic survived the hiatus.

WOODROW WILSON

I’ll probably still be alive in 2013. Maybe the man or woman who takes office that January will quiet the Members and speak as follows: “Let’s try this. Don’t applaud again until I’ve said, ‘And God bless the United States of America,’ and don’t get out of your chair again unless you have to use the bathroom.”

I realize that this would put a burden on the commentators who analyze the “state of the union” by the pattern of standing O’s, but maybe that challenge would make them better journalists.

I’m a little late in getting to this, but I wanted it on the record. And, hey, Irving Kahal, “I can dream, can’t I?”