This is the second of a three-part series, with part 1 appearing on “War Room.”
Prior to the War of 1812, American leaders had struck out on a new course from all the nations of Europe. Barbary pirates had been seizing merchant and passenger ships (such as there were) and holding captives hostage for ransom. It had become something of a game, with the poorer Islamic countries engaged in a form of wealth redistribution. They not only wanted money, but as historian Ian Toll points out, they demanded fully-outfitted ships; tar; lumber; canons; rigging; sails; not to mention a variety of 1800s-era “bling” such as jewelry and animals. Modern rappers had nuthin’ on the beys of the Algerian coast. It was a giant game.
There was a difference with the United States, however. We refused to play. As historian Paul Johnson noted, “America was thus already distinguishing itself by its refusal to follow time-honored European paths of compromise and its determination to take the high road of moral righteousness.” In short, the USA sent the Navy to kick ass. And they did. Eventually, the beys were brought to heel, and the hostage-taking stopped, all without an ounce of naval support from the Euros. (Sound familiar?)
President John Quincy Adams put it this way in his 1825 address to Congress:
“The spirit of improvement is abroad upon the earth. . . . . [and] let us not be unmindful that liberty is power; that the nation blessed with the largest portion of liberty must . . . be the most powerful nation on earth. . . . (emphasis mine).”
Already, though, Americans were exercising another form of power. Consider that America was, despite some qualifiers, an English nation. Yet removed by thousands of miles of ocean, Americans were their own people. A remarkable dichotomy appeared: within the educated classes—including virtually all of the Founders—”speaking good” was a requirement. They read and reviewed the Classics; they knew scripture and had studied virtually all of the major voices in history and politics for the last 1000 years. When you read “When, in the course of human events,” or “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” you read literary perfection. This trend of eloquence continued through Abraham Lincoln. Instead of “Eighty-seven years ago,” he wrote “Four scores and seven . . . .” Perfection.
Here, however, is where the other element of the dichotomy arises.
Americans could “talk good” when they needed to. They would write eloquently. Historian Paul Johnson is wrong to say there were no literary giants in the first eighty years of the Republic, for to this day, not only Washington Irving (whom he admits to as great) but also James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville all influenced storytelling and literature across the globe. Who hasn’t seen “Jaws?”
The fact is that while Americans knew correct and incorrect diction, speech, and writing, we, above all, have been a practical people. As such, adopting and adapting other languages or words constituted nothing to be ashamed of—quite the contrary, it was something to be facilitated. Americans embraced words such as cocktail (1806), barroom (1807), and mint julep (1809), then borrowed from the Dutch boss and from the French/Canadian’s depot, rapids, prairie, shanty, cache, and crevasse. Then there were Spanish words: ranch and mustang (1808), sombrero (1823), patio (1827), corral (1829), and lasso (1831). Americans developed everyday use for out-of-date English words such as obligate and modified; the Germanic dumm, which became dumb, meaning stupid or unable to speak; took caucus mass meeting from slaves and made up their own words on the plains: lot (meaning property, not gambling), section, squatter, buckshot. We stole from Indians (travois, squaw, papoose) or applied words to Indians (redskin).
When not making up words or aggrandizing them, Americans developed euphemisms such as help instead of servant, passed away instead of died, killing time meaning to do nothing, hot seat for being in trouble, cool your heels for waiting, bone cracker for a chiropractor, or used to this day the curse bless your heart when precisely the opposite was meant. Miners and trappers also sent in a plethora of new speech: logjam, rattlesnake, overalls, groundhog, backtrack, parley, portage, war party, raccoon, huckleberry, and moose.
Never averse to changing original words, Americans assigned new meanings to snag, stone, suit, brand, bluff, fix, hump, knob, and settlement. They invented what was thought to be an English term, Keep a stiff upper lip (1815), plus fly off the handle (1825), get religion (1826), knock-down-drag-out (1827), in cahoots (1829), and barking up the wrong tree (1833). Americans said there were no two ways about it, or they were trying to get the hang of it or had a campfire meeting. We found Jesus, nailed it, made a killing, or went off-road.
George Carlin captured the ultimate elements of American idioms with his “I’m a modern man” routine, where he noted that he was smoke-free, a post-modern deconstructionist who was anatomically, ecologically, and politically incorrect who was uplinked, downloaded, who knew the downside of upgrading who could give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond, a warm-hearted cool customer with a database in cyberspace. He was hyperactive and radioactive, ahead of the curve, behind the eight ball, dodging the bullet, pushing the envelope and on task, on point, under the radar, streetfighter bottom-feeder, who takes power naps and runs victory laps; a slam-dunk rainmaker and a raging workaholic out of rehab and in denial. He had a personal trainer and a personal agenda who was wireless, an alpha male on beta-blockers, fast-acting, hands-on, knee-jerk post-traumatic head case. Carlin had a love child who sent him hate mail, read junk mail, ate junk food, bought junk bonds, and had a revenue stream with its own cash flow. He was user-friendly but lactose intolerant; he had software on his hard drive; ate fast food in the slow lane; he was pre-screened, double-wrapped, and had an unlimited broadband capacity; a real deal who takes it slow, goes with the flow, rides with the tide, and keeps the pedal to the medal, but doesn’t snooze, so he doesn’t lose. Above all, he was hangin’ tough.
It was e.e. cummings who deliberately avoided capitalization in his writing as a social protest, and in that vein, I’ll close with more American rebellion, Schweikartisms:
And those are just the ones I can remember today. If our ancestors could do it, so can I.
To read part 3 visit my substack: American Exceptionalism vs. Globalism – by Larry Schweikart (substack.com)
Larry Schweikart is the co-author with Michael Allen of A Patriot’s History of the United States, now in its 34th printing; author of Dragonslayers: Six Presidents and their War with the Swamp; and founder of the Wild World of History, a history curriculum website featuring full U.S. and World history high school curriculum (www.wildworldofhistory.com)