Jews and Joes

Did Benjamin Franklin propose "Hebrew" as the national language of America?

The first design for the official seal of the United States was recommended partially by Benjamin Franklin in 1776 and depicted the Israelites crossing the Red Sea to escape the Pharaoh of Egypt. The motto around the seal read like the following: "Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God." That is an interesting factoid, but you will be hard pressed to find where Franklin ever proposed anything regarding the Hebrew language as the "official" language of the newly independent United States of America. Yet, there are a couple other suspects to be considered.

In America and the Holy Land (p.16), Moshe David writes:

"The story that Hebrew was proposed as the official language of the newly independent United States is an intriguing legend, which H. L. Mencken deflated in characteristic fashion. The legend originated in deep-seated anti-English feeling, which prompted a suggestion to adopt a language other than English as the official language of the United States. Actually, the traveler the Marquis de Chastellux made the suggestion. Greek, too, was considered, but rejected."

From "The Story of English" (p.239) by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil, we here that:

"According to the Marquis de Chastellux, who traveled with George Washington in the 1780s, some Americans 'propose introducing a new language; and some persons were desirous, for the convenience of the public, that Hebrew should be substituted for English...'"

Now, according to H.L. Mencken (1880–1956) in his The American Language (1921):

"William Gifford, the first editor of the Quarterly Review, is authority for the tale that a plan was set on foot during the Revolution for the abandonment of English as the national language of America, and the substitution of Hebrew in its place. An American chronicler, Charles Astor Bristed, makes the proposed tongue Greek, and reports that the change was rejected on the ground that “it would be more convenient for us to keep the language as it is, and make the English speak Greek.” The story, though it has the support of the editors of the Cambridge History of American Literature, has an apocryphal smack; one suspects that the savagely anti-American Gifford invented it. But, true or false, it well indicates the temper of those times."

But JewishLegends.com has this to say about the matter:

"According to noted historian Rabbi Berel Wein, the origins were in the original Mayflower Compact of 1620, the first foundation of written law in the new land. Amongst the Puritans in England were some Hebrew fans. William Bradford (1590-1657), prominent early American and Governor of Plymouth Colony for more than three decades, maintained an intense interest in Hebrew. Bradford stated that he studied Hebrew so that when he died he might be able to speak in the "most ancient language, the Holy Tongue in which God and, the angels, spake." Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a well-known Puritan minister and scholar from Massachusetts, had a similar deep respect for the Hebrew language. Concerning its importance, Mather once observed, "I promise that those who spend as much time morning and evening in Hebrew studies as they do in smoking tobacco, would quickly make excellent progress in the language." According to Rabbi Wein, the minutes of the meetings that drew up the Mayflower Compact note that a vote was taken what language would be spoken in this first settlement in the New World. In that vote, Hebrew lost by one vote."

Unfortunately Rabbi Berel Wein's precise historical work goes unreferenced at JewishLegends.com and like Moshe David, H.L. Mencken, and William Gifford, we are given very little to trace the root origin of the often trumpeted claim.

Possible Sources for the Proposal and/or Witnesses of the Proposal

So far, the following are possible originators or first-hand witnesses of a grass-roots effort for Hebrew to be the new national language of America:

  1. Benjamin Franklin (unlikely, but possible)
  2. Cotton Mather (possible proposer)
  3. Marquis de Chastellux (possible witness of proposals)
  4. William Gifford (possible witness of proposals)

We may never know with certainty with the way misinformation travels, even long before the internet was developed. If you have found or know of the original culprit to this proposal, please leave a comment below.