How American became the official language of Illinois

Hey, guys. I've been busier than ever these days, even if it's the holiday season. Please enjoy this classic article from the old blog, written September 12, 2013.

~ C.L.

Washington J. McCormick, was your typical 1920s congressman. A lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Columbia, and formerly a State Representative in Montana, he was elected to United States Congress in 1921. But when McCormick failed to win re-election in 1922, he decided to spend his lame duck months proposing unpopular legislation, and as a Republican with a strong independent streak, Representative McCormick argued that the United States of America adopt American as its official language. As quoted in The Nation:

I might say I would supplement the political emancipation of '76 by the mental emancipation of '23. America has lost much in literature by not thinking its own thoughts and speaking them boldly in a language unadorned with gold braid. It was only when Cooper, Irving, Mark Twain, Whitman, and O. Henry dropped the Order of the Garter and began to write American that their wings of immortality sprouted. Had Noah Webster, instead of styling his monumental work the "American Dictionary of the English Language," written a "Dictionary of the American Language," he would have become a founder instead of a compiler. Let our writers drop their top-coats, spats, and swagger-sticks, and assume occasionally their buckskin, moccasins, and tomahawks.

The bill failed.

Nevertheless, McCormick's firey passion stoked some coals in the hearts Illinois' congressmen, who thought it was a good idea. By the end of 1923, Illinois had adopted "American" as the official state language. Thus it was secured that the official language of Illinois was American and not English.

Drop your swagger-sticks: Representative W. J. McCormick of Montana's 1st District is in town. Image credit: Wikipedia and Library of Congress

Drop your swagger-sticks: Representative W. J. McCormick of Montana's 1st District is in town.
Image credit: Wikipedia and Library of Congress

Today it is controversial to adopt an official language. Many find it hypocritical, or even ignorant, to say the official language of America is a European tongue while none of us learn real American languages like Oneida, Algonquin, or Navajo. That was not a problem to Illinois representatives in 1923, who were more concerned with separating America from England.

Frank Ryan, sponsor of the bill in Illinois, intended the bill to be a patriotic symbol. Like McCormick said, it would serve as a declaration of linguistic independence from England. Ryan included anti-British language in the Illinois bill, saying American loyalists "have never become reconciled to our republican institutions and have ever clung to the traditions of King and Empire." Ryan's vitriolic words were removed from the final edition that became law.

The bill was amended in 1969 and "American" was changed to "English." Thus ending one of the weirder chapters in American legislative perspectives on language.

Read the 1923 Draft of the bill at the Language Policy archive!

Read further discussion of Illinois' policy at the PBS' transcript of Do You Speak American?

Read the history of the controversy of English as an official language in Language Loyalties.