Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William S. Cardell, 26 February 1820

New York Feb. 1820

Dear Sir,

I shall need neither apology nor a long introduction in addressing you on a subject which you will not deem unimportant as connected with the good of our society. 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 designed to form an American Language farther than as relates to names and terms peculiarly American; but to cultivate a friendly correspondence with an 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, and generally, to form and maintain as far as practicable, an English standard of writing and speaking, correct, fixed, and uniform, througout 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 literature of our country, 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 enlightened 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, 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. 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 a 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 a 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.

Mr Presidents Adams 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 to dwell on its details, which probably will not be difficult to settle if the leading principles are generally approved.

To limit the number of members to be 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 character that gave existence to a great nation, and forward, to these 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.

How far our constituted authorities 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 be writingthis trifling item alone would be 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 mans 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 cource to such variations as may be thought to increase the prospect of its utility.

DLC: Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

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