Thomas Jefferson Papers

William S. Cardell to Thomas Jefferson, [ca. 26] February 1820

From William S. Cardell

New York [ca. 26] Feb. 1820

Dear Sir,

I shall need neither apology nor a long introduction in1 addressing you on a subject which you will not deem unimportant as connected with the good2 of our country. This is an association of the best Belles Lettres scholars of the United States as a national philological Academy.

To settle a point on which some difference might exist, it is not designed3 to form an American Language farther than as relates to4 names and terms peculiarly American; but to cultivate a friendly correspondence with any similar association or distinguished individuals, in Great Britain, who may be disposed to join us in an exertion to improve our common Language.

The objects of such an association which directly present themselves, are, to guard against local or foreign corruptions, or to correct such as already exist; to settle varying orthography; determine the use of doubtful words and phrases; decide between disputed keys of pronunciations,5 and generally, to form and maintain, as far as practicable, an English standard of writing and speaking, correct, fixed, and uniform, throughout6 our extensive territory. Connected with this, and according to future ability, may be such rewards for meritorious productions, and such guides and incentives to improvement in the language and literature7 of our country,8 as from existing circumstances may become proper

These objects will not be thought trifling, by those who have spent much time in the cultivation of literature, or attended to its influence on society. Such persons need not be told how directly they are connected with our progress in general knowledge, and with our public reputation; or that their influence may extend from social to national intercourse and to our commercial prosperity. Perspicuity in language is the basis of all science. The philosophy that professes to teach the knowledge of things independent of words, needs only to be mentioned among enlightened9 men to be rejected.

Most of the European nations have considered the improvement of Language as an important national object, and have established Academies with extensive funds and privileges for that purpose. A Governmental interference has, perhaps, been omitted in England from a singular and rather accidental reliance on the acknowledged superiority of a few leading individuals, and so long as all the literature in the English Language had its origin and center in London, there was less danger from thus leaving it to the guidance of chance. Our scholars are not drawn, by accidental circumstances,10 to a virtual and national association, without the form.

It is very properly said of France that its literature has frequently saved the country when its arms have failed. The advantages resulting to that nation from the exertions of a few Academicians have been incalculable, and may serve to show, in some degree, what such a confederacy of scholars is capable of performing. The effect of their influence was not barely to elevate France in the literary world and to improve its learning within itself; but to spread their language throughout Europe; to introduce, at the expence of other nations, their books, their opinions, and, in aid of other causes, their political preponderance. With how much greater force, does every consideration connected with this subject, apply in a free country, where all depends on the virtue and intelligence of the great body of the people.

Without dwelling a moment on invidious comparisons between England and the United States, the time seems to have arrived, in reference to ourselves, when, having acquired, politically, a high standing among nations; having succeeded in a fair trial of the practicability and excellence of our civil institutions; our scholars are invited to call their convention, and to form the constitution of national literature

We have some peculiar advantages in an attempt to establish national uniformity in Language.11 Tho in a country as diversified as ours, there are, from various causes, many particular corruptions, there is hardly any thing which can properly be called a provincial dialect. We have at present no very inveterate habits to correct, where gross barbarisms through larger districts are to be encountered. The attempt therefore seasonably & judiciously made, presents a prospect, not only of success, but of comparative facility. Our scattered population seem only to want, from a competent tribunal, a declaration of what is proper, to guide them in their practice.

Presidents12 Adams13 and Madison, the secretary of state, several of the leading presidents of colleges, Professors of Rhetorick and Belles Lettres, and other gentlemen most distinguished by their attainments as elegant scholars, are consulted respecting the proposed arrangement; and it is hoped there will be a general concurrence in favour of a measure, so truly national, promising so many advantages, and to which so little can be objected. It is deemed unnecessary to enter into arguments in favour of the plan, or to14 dwell on its details, which probably will not be difficult to settle if the leading principles are generally approved.15

To limit the number of members to a hundred in this country at most, with a few honorary members abroad, will tend more to the reputation of the institution, it is thought, than to exceed or perhaps to equal that number.

It was not, Sir, without some hesitation that you were troubled with this correspondence; but if I am not misinformed the subject is not entirely new to you & in looking back to the charter that gave existence to a great nation, and forward, to those institutions which add luster to Freedom, and to society the highest enjoyments of its most polished state, an idea is presented, sublime, new in human history, and grateful to the American people, that in so vast an edifice the foundation and keystone may both be placed by the same hand.16

How far our constituted authorities17 can aid the attempt, you Sir, have the best means of judging, as far as can be ascertained without the trial. If they shall not make a positive grant, perhaps at least, they will exempt from postage all letters to and from the corresponding secretary, and as the business must be done chiefly by18 writing this trifling item alone would be some relief.

There is good reason to believe there will be enough of active talent to give to the institution a very creditable effect.

Your answer, Sir, with your general impressions on this subject or any hints that may occur to you respecting its practicability and the best means of making it effectual will confer a great obligation on the gentlemen concerned and particularly on

Your Respectful Friend & Fellow citizen.

Wm S. Cardell

The following schetch is given as the general basis of the association, subject of course to Such variations as may be thought to increase the prospect of its utility.

To be called “The American Philological Academy.” or “The American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres.”

Not to exceed at most one hundred members in this country with a few honorary members abroad: too great a number would lessen the credit of membership and diminish rather than increase its authority.

To be located in the city of New York where accommodations will be furnished19 free from expence.

Officers to consist of President 3 Vice Presidents corresponding secretary recording Secretary treasurer and nine to 1320 councillors of whom the President and corresponding secretary shall ex officio be 2.

To be chosen first monday in June21 annually.

All members out of the city of New York allowed to vote by proxy or by writing.

As soon as organized a respectful communication to be sent to such literary gentlemen in the British dominions as may be thought proper,22 explaining the design and inviting their cooperation.

Every disputed point may be made a case, subjected to rule as far as possible and brought to a decision, endeavoring to have Such decision concurrent between the British and ourselves.

It would be desirable that an adequate fund should be provided by the public. Should this fail it would be improper to lay a burthensome expence on the members. Expenditures to any considerable amount are not considered absolutely necessary: for Though individuals may not be able to do all that might be wished much may be done at a very trifling actual expence.

It is particularly desired, Sir, that you may consent to be a member of the association and as far as ascertained the wish is unanimous that it may have the sanction of your name as its first President. The Hon. J. Q. Adams and Chancellor Kent are mentioned as vice Presidents. Mr Madison’s concurrence is very desirable. It is important to commence with a high character and earnestly hoped that those most able to aid will not withhold the weight of their authority.

RC (DLC: TJ Papers, 217:38719–22); partially dated; addressed: “Hon. Thomas Jefferson Monticello (Va)”; franked; postmarked New York, 26 Feb.; endorsed by TJ as received 4 Mar. 1820 and so recorded in SJL. Printed as a circular letter dated 25 Feb. 1820, with only the most significant variations noted below and ignoring differences in postscript, which is much longer than in the RC to TJ (MHi: Adams Papers).

William Samuel Cardell (1780–1828), author and grammarian, was a native of Connecticut. He was educated at Williams College but did not obtain a degree. By 1810 Cardell was working as a merchant in Bennington, Vermont, under the name of W. S. Cardell & Company, first in partnership with Joshua Griswold and Daniel Rogers and then until 1813 with Rogers alone. The following year he was operating a marble factory, supplying material for gravestones and construction. Cardell taught French in Albany in 1818 and French and Spanish in New York City in 1821, having moved to that city by 1820. That same year he founded the American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres, and thereafter he wrote several influential books on language and grammar as well as popular moral tales for children. Cardell died in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Reuben H. Walworth, Hyde Genealogy; or the Descendants, in the Female as well as in the Male Lines, from William Hyde, of Norwich [1864], 1:118, 529–30; John R. Shook, ed., The Dictionary of Early American Philosophers [2012], 1:174–5; Bennington, Vt., Green-Mountain Farmer, 30 July, 15 Oct., 9 Dec. 1810, 29 July 1811, 12 July 1814; Bennington Newsletter, 1 Apr. 1813; New York Commercial Advertiser, 30 July 1816; Albany Gazette & Daily Advertiser, 17 Aug. 1818; DNA: RG 29, CS, N.Y., New York, 1820; Longworth’s New York Directory description begins Longworth’s American Almanac, New-York Register, and City Directory, New York, 1796–1842 (title varies; cited by year of publication) description ends [1820]: 110; [1824]: 111; New-York Evening Post, 15 Mar. 1821; Hartford Connecticut Mirror, 7 May 1827; New York Spectator and Washington Daily National Intelligencer, both 15 Aug. 1828).

The American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres existed from 1820 until at least 1822. John Quincy Adams served as its president, Cardell was corresponding secretary, and John Adams, TJ, James Madison, and James Monroe were among those elected honorary members. The academy offered a prize for a schoolbook on American history and another for one of reading lessons (Constitution of the American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres [New York, 1820]; Albany Argus, 27 Oct. 1820; City of Washington Gazette, 9 Feb. 1821; New-York Gazette & General Advertiser, 4 Mar., 23 Aug. 1821; New-York Columbian, 9 Mar. 1821; Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser, 10 July 1822).

Cardell also sent a handwritten version of this letter and enclosure to John Adams. He enclosed the printed circular in a 4 Mar. 1820 letter to Madison that invited him to accept the presidency of the academy should TJ refuse it, and he likewise sent the printed circular to John Quincy Adams with the hope that he would accept a vice presidency (Cardell to John Adams, 24 Feb. 1820, and Cardell to John Quincy Adams, 4 Mar. 1820 [both in MHi: Adams Papers]; Madison, Papers, Retirement Ser., 2:31).

1Instead of preceding seven words, printed circular reads “no apology for.”

2Printed circular: “best interests.”

3Printed circular here adds “independently of England.”

4Printed circular here adds “the numerous and constantly increasing.”

5Preceding six words not in printed circular.

6Manuscript: “througout.”

7Preceding two words interlined.

8Printed circular here adds “and in the general system of instruction.”

9Manuscript: “enlightned.”

10Preceding three words not in printed circular.

11Printed circular here adds “Happily for us our forefathers came chiefly from that part of England where their language was most correctly spoken, and were possessed of a good degree of intelligence, according to the learning of that time.”

12Cardell erased “Mr” preceding this word.

13Printed circular here adds “Mr Jefferson.”

14Preceding ten words not in printed circular.

15Printed circular here adds “Arguments to prove the utility and importance of the object are deemed useless. These points will not probably be doubted by those whose opinions are most valued.”

16Preceding two paragraphs not in printed circular.

17In printed circular remainder of sentence reads “will aid the attempt, can only be known by the trial.”

18Manuscript: “be.”

19Manuscript: “furnish.”

20Preceding two words interlined.

21Word interlined in place of “May.”

22Manuscript: “propre.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; and American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres search
  • Adams, John Quincy; and American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres search
  • American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres; founding of search
  • American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres; identified search
  • American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres; TJ proposed as president of search
  • belles lettres; promotion of search
  • Cardell, William Samuel; and American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres search
  • Cardell, William Samuel; identified search
  • Cardell, William Samuel; letter from search
  • English language; improvement of search
  • France; literature of search
  • franking privilege; requested search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Honors & Memberships; American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres, membership search
  • Kent, James; and American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); and American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres search
  • Monroe, James; and American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres search