The 2008 Republican Party Platform supports English as the official language of the United States.
That fact may have gone unnoticed this week as speakers at the Republican National Convention spent most of their time celebrating war, teen pregnancy, creationism, subprime mortgages, and the constitutional right of Americans to ignore any inconvenient truth they like.
Now the Republicans, who have already gone on record favoring an employer's right to choose English in the workplace, want big government to intrude even further into the lives of Americans by making English official. If more Americans spoke English, they argue, Americans could demonstrate their patriotism while at the same time making it easier for the government to read our emails and tap our cell phones.
But official English is a move that the founders never thought necessary. America in the 18th century was multilingual, a land permeated by speakers of English, German, French, Swedish, Dutch and Spanish, not to mention the many African languages brought here by slaves, and the even greater number of native languages spoken by Indians in the new world long before the Europeans declared it to be new (the term "native American" referring instead to those 19th-century American Anglo-Protestants who thought that Indians, Africans, Catholics, Jews, the Irish, and just about anybody else who wasn't like them should go back where they came from).
However, that was then and this is now. Today the United States is a different kind of multilingual land, one permeated by speakers of English, Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Polish, Arabic, Japanese, French Creole, Hindi, Persian, Urdu, Gujarati and Armenian, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Sure, there are still speakers of German, French, and Italian (the African languages having been stamped out long ago, and the Indian languages coming closer to extinction every year). But today's America displays the kind of linguistic diversity that strikes fear in the hearts of red-meat, small-town nativists, and the Republicans are justifying their official English plank because for them English not only symbolizes national unity, it is also "the fastest route to prosperity in America."
Ignoring for the moment the inconvenient truth (it's not a theory) that English-speakers brought us the current financial crisis, surely a threat to prosperity, English, as delegates to the convention might have put it, serves as a convenient shibboleth allowing the real Americans to spot the illegal ones.
In addition to mandating English for all levels of government, this year's Republican platform would also have American schools adopt an "English first" approach, making students "literate in English, our common language, to participate in the promise of America." Learning this common language, the platform argues, will "foster a commitment to our national motto, E pluribus unum."
That motto is Latin, not English. The founders didn't choose e pluribus unum as the first American sound bite in order to celebrate linguistic diversity, they chose it because they felt a Latin motto would make America sound more like a real country to the Europeans they were trying to impress.
But so far as an official English plank goes, Thomas Jefferson, America's second vice president and one-time ambassador to France, probably wouldn't have supported it.
Like some of today's candidates, Jefferson didn't have much executive experience when he became vice president in 1796 – he had been governor of Virginia for a mere two years, and he was actually running for president, not vice president. He was also said to have a temper, and stories about his family life suggest that he may not have exemplified small town values at their best, though as we've heard so often from Republicans this week, life happens.
These limitations and weaknesses may make Jefferson seem both more modern and more human to us, but unlike today's conservative politicos, Jefferson knew the advantages of speaking more than one language. He could actually read Latin, not just tags like e pluribus unum, but entire books. He also knew Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, and Anglo Saxon, and he strongly believed that a knowledge of languages would help Americans gain their proper place at the table of nations.
But whatever foreign languages are worth for international trade and diplomacy, the current Republican platform doesn't think they have a place at the American dinner table, and it labels any attempts to preserve the languages that immigrants bring with them to this country as "divisive programs that limit students' future potential," even if the immigrants are learning English at the same time.
In contrast, Jefferson championed foreign-language education. He taught Spanish to his daughters using Don Quixote as a text, and his own multilingualism didn't limit Jefferson's potential even though, according to one report, the author of the Declaration of Independence, which supporters of official English today insist can’t be understood unless it's read in the original English, still spoke a bit of his own heritage language, which was Welsh.
When Jefferson became vice president in 1796, his executive experience was limited to two years as governor of Virginia, and his family values included writing the Declaration of Independence, owning slaves, fathering illegitimate children, and speaking languages other than English. Today's politicians might learn from all of these examples, not just the one or two they find convenient.