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Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States

Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States

by Jill Lepore

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What ties Americans to one another? What unifies a nation of citizens with different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds? These were the dilemmas faced by Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they sought ways to bind the newly United States together.

In A is for American, award-winning historian Jill Lepore portrays seven men who


What ties Americans to one another? What unifies a nation of citizens with different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds? These were the dilemmas faced by Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they sought ways to bind the newly United States together.

In A is for American, award-winning historian Jill Lepore portrays seven men who turned to language to help shape a new nation’s character and boundaries. From Noah Webster’s attempts to standardize American spelling, to Alexander Graham Bell’s use of “Visible Speech” to help teach the deaf to talk, to Sequoyah’s development of a Cherokee syllabary as a means of preserving his people’s independence, these stories form a compelling portrait of a developing nation’s struggles. Lepore brilliantly explores the personalities, work, and influence of these figures, seven men driven by radically different aims and temperaments. Through these superbly told stories, she chronicles the challenges faced by a young country trying to unify its diverse people.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

What makes America America? More than anything else, it's the fact that we use a common tongue, a system of "letters and other characters" that we've all shared since colonial times, says author and historian Jill Lepore. She looks at the ways these letters have bound us together, and how seven unique individuals strove to make them an integral part of the country. Among them: Noah Webster, Samuel Morse, and Alexander Graham Bell.
What makes a nation national? Almost all of the standard dictionary definitions talk about language, often first and always prominently. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the five defining attributes of a nation are "common descent, language, culture, history, and occupation of the same territory." You would think the English-speaking United States circa 1800 would have fit the bill, but there were those who thought otherwise, and one of them was Noah Webster, the man who gave America its first homegrown dictionary. Webster argued that in order to win true independence from England, Americans needed to invent their own language, related to English but distinct from it. "A national language is a national tie," he proclaimed, "and what country wants it more than America?"

Two centuries down the line, this notion may seem quaint, but it turns out that many other early Americans were also thinking about the ways in which a common tongue can give its users a sense of national identity. Now Jill Lepore, an associate professor of history at Boston University, has written a compact study of what a half-dozen of these very interesting people had on their minds, and it is—not at all surprisingly—a very interesting book.

What sets Lepore apart from other historians who have studied the emerging idea of an "American language" is her concentration on a particular aspect of that language: spelling. Webster, for example, thought that the quickest way to create a national language would be for Americans as a group to adopt a simplified method of spelling, then use that method as a means of imposing a uniform system of pronunciation on the new country. (Under hissystem, "grieve" would have been spelled "greev.") Influenced by Benjamin Franklin, he eventually went so far as to advocate the introduction of a brand-new, all-American alphabet, enthusiastically declaring that it would "render the people of this country national."

Webster's plan, like all previous and subsequent attempts to regularize English spelling, was stillborn, but its underlying purpose—to alter national self-consciousness—remained central to the thinking of other reformers of the period. William Thornton, who designed the rotunda and facade of the U.S. Capitol, also experimented with a "universal alphabet" intended to accurately convey any possible pronunciation of which human beings were capable, hoping that it would lead to greater international cooperation. A Native American named Sequoyah created an eighty-six-character Cherokee "syllabary," the first writing system to be used by American Indians, thus making it possible for his widely dispersed people to attain a significant degree of national unity. Most influential of all was Samuel Morse, whose dot-and-dash alphabet turned the electric telegraph from a clever but ultimately impractical gimmick into a world-changing instrument of "universal communication."

Lepore is keenly alert to the ironies inherent in the stories she tells. (Morse, for instance, may have made the world a smaller place, but he intended nothing of the kind: He was a pro-slavery, anti-Catholic nativist.) She also writes in a clear, crisp English free of all traces of the pseudointellectual jargon beloved by too many of her academic colleagues. A Is for American is so well written, in fact, that you can read almost to the very end before starting to wonder whether its engaging style, like a tasty sauce, might be covering up certain conceptual difficulties.

It is not enough simply to say, as Lepore does, that this book traces "the tension in the United States between nationalism, often fueled by nativist prejudices, and universalism, inspired by both evangelism and the Enlightenment." That's a road map, not a destination. Does she believe that America did in fact develop an identifiably American language? Does she feel that American nationalism is a bad thing? Does she really think that the people whose tales she tells had more in common than a variously quirky interest in the relationship between language and national character?

Alas, Lepore doesn't come fully to grips with any of these questions. Instead, she closes with an overcompressed discussion of Graffiti, the handwritten English alphabet that can be read by computers (it's used in Palm Pilots), half-concluding that it is sort of like Morse code, but not quite: "Graffiti's globalism ... hints at how, in the transformation from a 'republic of letters' to a 'digital economy,' we've replaced characters with numbers." As a result, A Is for American doesn't end—it just stops.

Despite her inability to weld the book together with a compelling conclusion, Lepore has nonetheless produced a work of cultural history that is both diverting and informative, one that will introduce you to a gallery of "men whose lives are rich with irony and passion and a certain kind of flawed earnestness." That's what makes them worth reading about. They were good and bad, right and wrong, certain and confused—just like America, the endlessly complicated country whose identity they sought to shape.
—Terry Teachout
Publishers Weekly
In her latest effort, historian Lepore (winner of the Bancroft Prize for The Name of War) explores the significant and occasionally unsettling ways language was used to define national character and boundaries in the early American republic. Focusing on seven men Noah Webster, Samuel F.B. Morse, William Thornton, Sequoyah, Thomas Gallaudet, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima and Alexander Graham Bell Lepore offers a scholarly analysis of how they devised alphabets, syllabaries, codes and signs "to build national ties or to break them down." The complex underlying stories the personal flaws or the admirable or questionable intentions that fueled these icons' missions shed new light on history we thought we knew. Webster, for instance, wanted to reform spelling to distance Americans from their British origins; Thornton sought a universal alphabet; and Morse was after a telegraphic code that could connect the world's peoples. Some of the accounts have provocative twists, too, such as the story of Sequoyah's development of the Cherokee alphabet, and that of freed slave Abd al-Rahman's literacy in Arabic, which helped him gain passage back to Africa. "Their stories, and the letters and other characters with which [these men] communicated," Lepore argues, "trace the tension in the United States between nationalism, often fueled by nativist prejudices, and universalism, inspired by both evangelism and the Enlightenment." Lepore concludes with a brief analysis of the philosophies behind the Internet, which seeks to make one neighborhood of the entire globe. Although sometimes academic in tone, this study will find a general audience appreciative of its new perspectives on America's past and its valuable insights into the dynamics at work in society today. Illus. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Award-winning historian Jill LePore has put together a curious little book that she calls "a collection of character sketches." The seven "characters" sketched are Noah Webster, William Thornton, Sequoyah, Thomas Gallaudet, Abd al-Raman Ibrahima, Samuel F. B Morse, and Alexander Graham Bell. Some are still famous; others have barely a paragraph in the history books, but they all were taken by the idea that letters and other characters such as syllabifies, signs, and codes could be used to create and cement national unity. Noah Webster believed that a national language with uniform national spelling could help in the formulation of the new American nation. William Thornton devised a 30-letter alphabet that he believed could be used universally to further the unity of mankind. Sequoyah, a Cherokee Indian, devised an alphabet for the Cherokee language with which he hoped to connect the separated members of his tribe. Abd al-Raman Ibrahima, a black Muslim transported into American slavery, used his education in Arabic to win his freedom and eventual return to Africa. Thomas Gallaudet believed (incorrectly) that non-hearing people shared the same "natural" sign language, while Samuel Morse created a code to allow individuals to communicate at a distance, and Alexander Bell turned aside from his study of methods of teaching the deaf to develop the telephone, sending sounds across a wire. LePore interweaves the strands of all these efforts quite skillfully and produces a text that is as entertaining as it is informative. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 241p. illus. notes. index., Moore
Library Journal
A nation is held together by more than political subdivisions and geography, argues Lepore (Boston Univ.; The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Democracy), who maintains that a common language a set of characters, numbers, and symbols used in a way unique to that nation also creates bonds. Here she describes seven men who formed the special language that is American. Noah Webster wrote his dictionary, and William Thornton devised a universal alphabet. While Sequoyah put the Cherokee language into a written form, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet invented sign language for the deaf, and Samuel F.B. Morse invented the Morse code. Lepore also discusses how Abd al-Rahman demonstrated literacy's importance for freedom and how Alexander Graham Bell brought us the telephone. Unfortunately, Lepore doesn't always argue well for each person's contribution to her theme (e.g., al-Rahman's contribution to a national language is murky at best), and her story of early America through the development of its own language has limited appeal. This thorough, if unexciting, read is recommended only for academic libraries with concentrations in American history. Grant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie District P.L., Metamora Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Lepore (history, Boston U.) sketches the character of seven men, from Noah Webster (1758-1843) to Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) who have in common their belief that letters, alphabets, syllabaries, signs, and codes hold nations together. She portrays them grappling with the fear of disunity from revolution to reconstruction. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
From innovative, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Lepore (The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, 1998), a group portrait of seven 19th-century Americans whose efforts in the development of language paralleled and contributed to the growth of our national identity. Lepore (History/Boston Univ.) relates here the stories of Noah Webster, who sought to standardize American spelling; William Thornton, designer of an international alphabet; Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah, inventor of a written language meant to help his tribesmen avoid assimilation; Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who brought the French idea of sign language for the deaf to the New World; the Mississippi cotton plantation slave Abd al-Rahman, who used his knowledge of Arabic to prove his royal heritage and win his freedom and repatriation to Africa; the frustrated artist Samuel Morse, creator of a telegraph language he believed might promote peace and human understanding; and Alexander Graham Bell, whose efforts to teach the deaf to speak led to his development of the telephone. The seven mini-biographies weave in and around and give new shading to many recognizable aspects of US history: the development of the Constitution and emerging ideas of nationhood, the "back to Africa" movement of the 1820s, the laying of the Atlantic cable in 1858, the advent of an era of American technological enthusiasm in the 1870s. The author's thesis-that her protagonists' strong ideas about language and communication are integral to the nation-building that occupied 19th-century America-seems indisputable, although she herself concedes that grouping these particular stories together is something of a contrivance.Indeed, at times Lepore seems to struggle with sustaining a coherent booklength narrative, but she nonetheless elucidates important back-currents of America's cultural history with splendid erudition. A thematically linked series of insightful essays that will delight students of cultural Americana and fans of the history of language. History Book Club alternate selection
From the Publisher
“Engaging. . . . Deftly evokes a rich and colorful tradition, the American as inventor, unifier, optimist and idealist.” –Newsday

“Remarkable. . . . I read it at one sitting, mesmerized by the scholarship, the erudition and the elegant simplicity of this story of seven consummately noble American lives, each one of them, as Jill Lepore reveals, a pilgrimage in the grand search for a nation-creating linguistic ideal.” –Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman

“Wonderfully engrossing.” –Boston Globe

“Lepore is a terrific storyteller, alert to trenchant details but also able to convey the connections between events, the sweep of an epoch.” –The New York Times Book Review

“This is a book to ponder and re-leaf and return to.” –Times Literary Supplement

“A great read.” –Chicago Tribune

“Eloquent. . . Smart and suggestive. . . Readers will enjoy an intriguing journey filled with many small gems of understanding.” –The New Republic

“Insightful and engaging. . . . Lepore’s handling of [these men’s] distinctive careers gives them the place they deserve in the national consciousness.”–St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Lepore’s fresh work is suggestive of new ways of imagining what unites and divides us, what binds us to this earth.”–Raleigh News & Observer

“Entertaining. . . a charming book about the quirky origins of some influential early American inventions.”–The Washington Times

“Lepore has . . . produced a work of cultural history that is both diverting and informative.” –Book

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Read an Excerpt


An American Language

On July 23, 1788, the people of New York spilled out onto the streets of the city, streets that had been specially swept and watered the night before. In the summer sun, five thousand New Yorkers formed a procession a mile and a half long, while thousands more watched from sidewalks, windows, doorways, and rooftops. The Federal Procession was meant both to stir and to display the people's passions

in support of the Constitution, drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, already ratified by ten out of the thirteen states, and now being debated at New York's ratifying convention in Poughkeepsie. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, marchers expressed their support for the Constitution with a splash of panache and a fair bit of wit. A contingent of confectioners carried a ten-foot-long "federal cake," one foot for each state that had ratified. Thirty-one skinners, breeches makers, and glovers wore "buckskin waistcoasts, faced with blue silk, breeches, gloves, and stockings, with a buck's tail in their hats," and waved a standard bearing the motto "Americans, encourage your own manufactures." The butchers' stage carried a thousand-pound ox and a flag reading, "Skin me well, dress me neat, and send me aboard the federal fleet." Even the solitary equine veterinarian was dressed in "an elegant half shirt, with a painted horse on his breast," over which was written, "Federal Horse Doctor." From early morning until nearly dusk, a parade of trumpeters, artillery pieces, mounted horses, floats, and citizens from physicians to upholsterers inched its way down Broadway, through Hanover Square, and, still more slowly, back again. At the end of it all, Noah Webster, who marched with the rest, wearily summed it up in his diary: "Very brilliant, but fatiguing."

Webster trudged along the streets of New York that day as a member of the New York Philological Society, "whose flag & uniform black dress," he noted with pride, "made a very respectable figure." The society, founded in March 1788, "for the purpose of ascertaining and improving the American Tongue," had spent much of July preparing for the grand procession, where, dressed in black, the philologists marched in a division with other pen-pushers-lawyers, college students, merchants, and traders. Perhaps they hoped to keep their distance from more muscular marchers whose displays they could not hope to rival. But if the philologists could not bear the weight of a federal cake or pull a half-ton ox, they did manage to carry four symbolic props: a flag ("embellished with the Genius of America, crowned with a wreath of 13 plumes, ten of them starred, representing the ten States which have ratified the Constitution. Her right hand pointing to the Philological Society, and in her left, a standard, with a pendant, inscribed with the word, CONSTITUTION"); a copy of "Mr. Horne Tooke's treatise on language" (an influential linguistic tract); a scroll "containing the principles of a Federal language" (the text of which unfortunately has not survived); and an extraordinarily elaborate coat of arms. Designed in part by Webster himself, the coat of arms depicted three tongues; a chevron; an eye over a pyramid inscribed with Gothic, Hebrew, and Greek letters; a crest and key; and a shield ornamented with oak and flax, supported, on one side, by Hermes with a wand and, on the other, by Cadmus in a purple robe (holding, in his other hand, papyrus covered by Phoenician characters).2

In the aftermath of the bloody War for Independence, New York's philologists hoped that peacetime America would embrace language and literature and adopt, if not a federal cake, a federal, national language. Winning the war had gained the former colonies their political independence from Britain, ratifying the Constitution would unify the states under a national government, but what would hold ordinary Americans together? Inhabitants of the thirteen "united" states were both too much like the English and not enough like one another. Americans in the 1780s shared very little by way of heritage, custom, and manners, and what little they did share, they shared with England. What, then, made them American? Noah Webster and his supporters believed that Americans needed, first, a national government and, second, a national language.

That any group of people form a "nation" is a kind of fiction, an act of imagination. A common ethnicity, heritage, and culture make this act of imagination a bit less strenuous, and a common language can make it a great deal easier. As early as the seventh century Isidore of Seville observed: "Nations have arisen from tongues, not tongues from nations." Yet national boundaries and language boundaries are rarely one and the same. Spain is not a nation of only people who speak "Spanish," nor do all Spanish speakers live there. According to one recent estimate, "there are some four to five thousand languages in the world but only about 140 nation-states." Much as their governments might claim, or wish otherwise, all the world's nations are multilingual to one degree or another. Why, then, do so many people believe, and some insist, otherwise?

A "nation" is a relatively recent Western invention. And the idea that languages define nations-that how we speak and write and even spell is a necessary marker of our national character-is an assumption or really an invention that many people now take for granted but that first became commonplace and assumed special prominence during Noah Webster's lifetime. By 1849, six years after Webster's death, the French minister Paul de Bourgoing could declare with confidence that "this principle of the division of nationalities by their languages thus appears to be in truth the ruling political idea of our times."

During the early modern era, when modern nation-states were founded, the idea that languages define nations had a special resonance. In Europe, nations fully emerged as political bodies only when vernacular languages began to stabilize. Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, books that circulated in manuscript were usually written in Latin and read only by scholars and nobles; literacy among the common people, who spoke a variety of vernacular languages and dialects, remained very low. With printing came not only a proliferation of print and a sharp rise in literacy rates but also printing in vernacular tongues. Over time a single French dialect out of the many spoken in France came to be favored by printers, and that "French" became a national standard. That the people of France began increasingly to read and eventually to speak something that came to be called the French language made it easier for them to consider themselves as belonging to a single nation. They might continue to speak different dialects and even different languages, but the fiction of linguistic uniformity made the fiction of nationhood easier to swallow: the French are French because they speak French.

The new United States could adopt no such seemingly simple solution. An American is an American because he speaks . . . English? In the aftermath of the American Revolution, Americans faced the same problem many postcolonial nations face today: speaking the language of the now-despised mother country. As one American put it in 1787, "In most cases, a national language answers the purpose of distinction: but we have the misfortune of speaking the same language with a nation, who, of all people in Europe, have given, and continue to give us fewest proofs of love." Noah Webster believed he had found the solution. "Language, as well as government should be national," he insisted. "America should have her own distinct from all the world. Such is the policy of other nations, and such must be our policy."6

On that sultry New York summer day in 1788, a phalanx of philologists dressed in black and carrying a flag, a scroll, a treatise, and an extraordinary coat of arms insisted that a national language was nearly as necessary to national unity as the Constitution itself, a main but missing ingredient in a half-baked nation. Were they right?

Our Pretended Union

Noah Webster was an ardent Federalist, an admirer of the Constitution and a vigorous proponent of its ratification. He admired the Constitution so much that he liked to take credit for it, even though he wrote not a line of it and was nowhere to be found among the fifty-five delegates to the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 who debated and revised a document initially drafted by James Madison. (Although Webster was at the time in Philadelphia, serving as schoolmaster and delivering lectures on language). What Webster liked to take credit for was not the text of the Constitution but the idea of it. In 1785 he had published a pamphlet in Hartford, titled Sketches of American Policy, that included an essay on a "Plan of Policy for improving the Advantages and perpetuating the Union of the American States," and later in life he claimed that this essay contained "the first public proposition" urging "the establishment of a National Constitution."

At the time Webster wrote his Sketches of American Policy, very many Americans were eager for a new plan of union. Since 1776 the thirteen states had been united under a legal pact called the Articles of Confederation, but especially because Article II declared that "each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence," America under the Articles was basically a loose alliance of wholly independent states over which the Continental Congress had almost no authority. When the war ended in 1783, terms of peace had to be negotiated with all thirteen states, and after the peace, the states only fragmented further. With no executive or judicial body, and with a legislative body lacking any real power, the federal government was unable to intervene in the disputes between states that became all too common in the war's aftermath, not least because seven of the thirteen colonies printed their own money, nine had their own navies (likely to seize the ships of other states), most passed tariff laws against neighboring states, and many quarreled over boundaries. Eyeing this state of affairs, Alexander Hamilton complained that the Articles had created "little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord," while George Washington called the Continental Congress "a half-starved, limping government, that appears to be always moving upon crutches, and tottering at every step."8

Noah Webster agreed. "Our pretended union is but a name," he declared in his Sketches of American Policy, "and our confederation, a cobweb." Before the Philadelphia convention met in 1787, most critics of the existing government had called for revisions to the Articles that would give more power to the Continental Congress, including the power to tax. Webster, however, believed increasing the powers of Congress required a wholesale reconstitution of the federal government and the establishment of a wholly national union. "Must the powers of Congress be increased?" he asked, and answered: "This question implies gross ignorance of the nature of government. The question ought to be, must the American states be united?" If yes, "there must be a supreme head, in which the power of all the states is united."9

Webster was neither the first nor the only pundit to advocate abandoning the Articles in favor of a federal constitution (his own distant relation Pelatiah Webster had earlier published A Dissertation on the Political Union and Constitution of the Thirteen United States of North America).10 And, although Noah Webster urged modeling the national constitution on state constitutions (specifically, on the Connecticut constitution), his "Plan of Policy for Improving the Advantages and Perpetuating the Union of the American States" was more polemic than plan. Still, he did write with passion about national union. In his Sketches, Webster contended that "three principles . . . have generally operated in combining the members of society under some supreme power: a standing army, religion and fear of an external force." None of these "can be the bond of union among the American states." Americans would never allow a standing army, a weapon of despots. The Protestant religion might bring peace and harmony to the United States, but it would never compel union as do religions of "superstition" by keeping people in ignorance. And America, remote from Europe, need not fear invasion or conquest. "We must therefore search for new principles in modelling our political system," Webster concluded. "We must find new bonds of union to perpetuate the confederation."

In Webster's mind, those new bonds of union would derive in large part from a strong national government that would serve as the "supreme power" necessary to hold the states, and the people, together. Yet, he hinted, something more was needed. The Articles of Confederation were not all that weakened the Union, weaving it together with the slender threads of a cobweb. Poor education, which fueled local prejudices, especially between New Englanders and southerners, pulled the nation apart. And, just as ignorant Americans cherished the ways in which they were different from one another, they also stupidly aspired to be more like Europeans. "Nothing can be more ridiculous," Webster complained, "than a servile imitation of the manners, the language, and the vices of foreigners. . . . Nothing can betray a more despicable disposition in Americans, than to be the apes of Europeans." And nothing, but nothing, nauseated Webster more than those preposterously affected Americans who "must, in all their discourse, mingle a spice of sans souci and je ne scai [sic] quoi."

"America is an independent empire," Webster insisted, "and ought to assume a national character." A national constitution would strengthen political union, but Americans must also constitute themselves as a distinct and united people. "We ought not to consider ourselves as inhabitants of a single state only," he implored his readers, "but as Americans, as the common subjects of a great empire." To develop a "national character," America must first cast off its cultural subservience to Europe and, second, eradicate local prejudices. Language, Webster believed, was the stone that could kill both those birds: if Americans could be shamed into silencing their pretentious je ne sais quois and coached out of their provincial twangs and drawls, the resulting national, homegrown American language would go a long way toward establishing a national character. It was a nice, neat plan, one that Webster had first contemplated in 1783, even before he'd come up with the idea for a national constitution.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Jill Lepore is an associate professor of history at Boston University. She is the author of The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, which won the Bancroft Prize, Phi Beta Kappa’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians’ Book Prize, and the New England Historical Association’s Book Award. She is cofounder and coeditor of the Web magazine Common-place (www.common-place.org), and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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