The Language of Race in Early America

Alexander Boulton

In 1782, Hector St. John de Crèvecœur in his book, Letters from an American Farmer, famously asked, “What, then is the American, this new man?” He answered his question by saying that the American is “a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”[1] Today, we are struck by the omission of Africans from Crèvecœur’s list of those who made up “this promiscuous breed,” since they comprised one of every five individuals in North America at the time he wrote. This we know, however, is part of a long history of the erasures of Blacks in American history. The modern reader might find it more interesting that Crèvecœur describes Americans as a “race.” Crevecoeur’s choice of vocabulary reminds us that many words in the eighteenth century, especially abstract nouns, had a wide variety of meanings. The word race was one of many abstract terms that only gained their modern meanings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Through most of the eighteenth century, the word race could refer to almost any group of people. It was common, for example, to refer to the “race of kings,” or the “race of heroes,” or the “Irish race.”

painting of the tower of babel

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel is probably the earliest illustration of human beings’ awareness of the arbitrary relationship between words and reality.
Originally, a divine language represented the world through words that had a direct relationship to the real world. We lost this one-to-one relationship between words and reality when humans divided themselves into nations with different languages. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, natural philosophers like Carl Linnaeus and the Comte de Buffon began to formulate a more restrictive meaning for the word race, but they commonly used the word interchangeably with variety, category, and nation. It was only in the last years of that century that the word race gained its dominant position with its meaning as a division of human beings based on physical (and through much of that period, intellectual and moral) criteria.[2]

This evolution of the word race was part of a much larger transformation in language during the Revolutionary era, which I discuss in my recent JER article, “The Declaration of Independence and the Language of Slavery.” We can see this transformation at work in words like pride, ambition, and enthusiasm, which also underwent significant changes in meaning. Each of these words had primarily negative associations in the texts of writers in the mid-eighteenth century. To them, these words were associated with the uncontrollable and dangerous passions of the “lower orders.” The gradual shift to the more positive associations of these words, later in the century, was essential to the creation of a democratic language and a democratic system of government.

Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities, described this process as the creation of “national print languages.”[3] These new languages, propelled by the rise of new print technologies and the rise of popular literacy, brought together large numbers of people from different geographical areas and different cultures and backgrounds, giving them a sense of a common identity with one another and with the emerging nation–states of the early nineteenth century.

Thomas Jefferson agreed with Anderson that the evolution of language was a necessary condition for the creation of a nation. He argued that in America, a “great growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of production, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”[4]  Jefferson claimed that he was a friend of “neology”—the creation of new words. In this, he opposed the “purists” of language, such as Jonathan Swift, James Burnett, Lord Monbodo, and Robert Lowth, who strived to make language conform to classical models. In this, Jefferson aligned himself with “linguistic radicals” in England, such as Horne Tooke and Joseph Priestly, who advocated the use of common speech as a model for language. Ultimately a synthesis of these two forms of English would come to shape the popular language through most of the modern era.

Black and white illustration of Humpty Dumpty sitting on the wall, with the words

Lewis Carrol’s imaginary world was constructed out of his understanding of the polysemous nature of words. He further illustrated this idea in his poem, “The Jabberwocky.” Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass, by John Tenniel, 1871. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This whole process was brilliantly explored by Alexis de Tocqueville in the chapter of his book Democracy in America titled “How American Democracy has Changed the English Language.” Tocqueville described “the changes that the idiom of an aristocratic people may undergo when it becomes the language of democracy.” Americans, he wrote, “introduced many new words” and “old English words were often given new meanings.” Tocqueville claimed, however, that “the genius of democratic peoples is revealed not only by the large number of new words they introduce but also by the nature of the ideas those new words represent.”[5] Tocqueville was not pleased, however, with the way that Americans frequently resorted to abstractions. Tocqueville claimed that “Democratic peoples have a taste and often a passion for general ideas. . . . This love of generic ideas manifests itself in democratic language through the constant use of generic terms and abstract words.” The problem with this, he said, was that “an abstract word is like a box with a false bottom: you can put in any ideas you please and take them out again without anyone being the wiser.”[6]

One of the ideas that inspired my JER article is that putting in or taking out a single word can affect the meanings of other related words. Linguists call these webs of interconnected meanings “semantic fields.”[7] The word race along with words like freedom, slavery, and equality formed such a semantic field, and this semantic field became embedded in the language that dominated in America throughout the nineteenth and most of twentieth centuries.

Today, as electronic media replaces print media, we are again experiencing dramatic changes in our language. I should say languages—plural. Daily, we are seeing the creation of new words and old words gaining new meanings. Often these are tied to new ideas about race and gender (woke, queer, bougie, Karen, snowflake, they). But it’s not just the meanings of individual words that are shaping and reflecting a fragmentation of American society. It is the whole context of the words we use and how we use them that is increasingly dividing Americans into different realms of language, perception, and understanding.


Endnotes

[1] Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, Letters from an American Farmer (New York, 1981), 68–70.

[2] Nicholas Hudson, “From Nation to Race: The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth-Century Thought,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 29 (Spring 1996), 247–64.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1983), 44–46.

[4] Thomas Jefferson to John Waldo, Aug. 16, 1813, in Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, Library of America edition (New York, 1984), 1295–96.

[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Oliver Zunz, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Library of America edition (New York 2004), 2:, 547, 548.

[6] Ibid., 552–53.

[7] John Lyons, Semantics (Cambridge UK, , 1977), 1: 250–61; Stephen Ullman, The Principles of Semantics (1951; repr. Oxford, UK, 1957), 152–70.

28 March 2024

About the Author

Alexander Boulton (PhD, College of William and Mary, 1991) is a retired professor of history from Stevenson University, Stevenson, Maryland.

Recent Contributions to the JER
Share this Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *