Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

A Social History of English Grammar in the Early United States

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

A Social History of English Grammar in the Early United States

Article excerpt

As grammar opens the door to every department of learning, a knowledge of it is indispensable; and should you not aspire at distinction in the republick of letters, this knowledge cannot fail of being serviceable to you, even if you are destined to pass through the humblest walks of life.

Samuel Kirkham, 1820

In one of the most puzzling passages in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1831), David Walker recounted a conversation with a Boston man about the importance of English grammar. The man boasted that he had paid a great deal of money so that his son could learn to "write as well as any white man, and I assure you that no one can fool him." Walker was astonished. "What else can your son do, besides writing a good hand?" he asked. "Can he post a set of books in a mercantile manner? Can he write a neat piece of composition in prose or in verse . . . did your son learn, when he was at school, the width and depth of English Grammar?" The man admitted that he had not. In that case, Walker replied, his son had "hardly any learning at all - he is almost as ignorant, and more so, than many of those who never went to school one day in all their lives." A few paragraphs later, Walker noted "the heart-rending fact" that very few young men of color in Boston could correctly answer his queries about Murray's English Grammar - the most popular grammar book of the day. Although "considered by the coloured people to have received an excellent education" because they practiced penmanship, Walker thought these young men were "almost as ignorant, in comparison, as a horse." His voice rose as he charged that grammar marked out a color line of singular significance. Even white Boston schoolmasters who believed that free black children should learn to read and write refused to teach them grammar. Walker knew of one young man with nine years of schooling whose school committee explicitly forbade him to learn it. This "notorious fact," Walker raged, proved that white Americans had "tried to keep us ignorant, and make us believe that God made us and our children to be slaves to them and theirs."1

The power of English grammar was self-evident to David Walker in ways that have been lost to us. Why did a man who labored to free his race from the yoke of slavery and race prejudice bother with this arcane subject? What agency could possibly be granted by mastery of the four parts of grammar - orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody? Why did Walker extol knowledge of grammar when so many African Americans could not read or write? In short, why was English grammar so important?

It turns out that this singular man had a remarkably ordinary faith in English grammar for his day. Walker's view accorded with an ancient tradition that placed the mastery of language at the center of all higher learning. Students who aspired to eloquence began formal study of language with grammar before moving on to rhetoric. In the nineteenth century, people of all walks of life, many of whom were self-taught - slaves, farmers, clerks, school teachers, and artisans - began their pursuit of self-improvement by learning English grammar. Abraham Lincoln famously studied it by firelight as a young man in Illinois, "imperfectly of course," he said, but well enough to fit him for his legendary eloquence. In the Virginia Blue Ridge, few Sabbath afternoons passed that did not see the young weavers Amanda and Elizabeth Cooley bent over their grammar books, straining to understand them so that they might "write a shining hand." On the first page of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe described Haley the slave trader as "a low man . . . trying to elbow his way upward in the world," who conversed "in free and easy defiance of [Lindley] Murray's Grammar." Mollie Thomasson, the unschooled wife of a North Carolina farmer and teacher, began to memorize lessons from her grammar book two years before she learned how to write. In Ohio, Frederick Douglass refuted the charge that African languages were inferior by displaying a grammar of Mpongwe, the language of the Gabon River region in west central Africa, before an audience at Western Reserve College. …

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