That Was Then: July 1775

Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library
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From a 1787 letter by John Witherspoon to St. George Tucker about Witherspoon’s ideas on education: 

“In the College the Trustees chuse the Teachers & make the Laws & the faculty execute them. In the School I have the Sole Right of chusing the Teachers & directing every thing that is done in it.

It was a pleasure to me to receive your Letters because you have precisely the Idea which I wish were more general respecting Education. We are obliged to contend against the Prejudices of the Times which are much against the ancient Languages meaning particularly the Latin & Greek. Yet these are plainly the fountains both of Science & History as well as they furnish us with the Standard of Taste.”

Two hundred forty years after Princeton president John Witherspoon first lent his eloquent voice to the cause of American independence at a meeting of New Jersey freeholders, we recall him as a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the professor who taught James Madison 1771 and a dozen members of the Continental Congress.

He was also a stickler for grammar. 

From the moment he arrived from Scotland in 1768 to head the College of New Jersey, Witherspoon began compiling a list of cringe-worthy mistakes heard on colonists’ tongues. It grew longer and longer, until he finally published it.

Witherspoon endured much in his life, from being briefly imprisoned in a medieval castle to seeing his campus turned into a battlefield. But these episodes were rivaled by the pain of hearing lay instead of lie, or the politician’s tautology my fellow countrymen. 

The legendary educator who helped us win our independence fought tirelessly to stamp out such barbarisms as equally as good and he was drownded in the Delaware.

Witherspoon would have been horrified to know that some of his “improprieties and vulgarisms” are still current: We get mad at each other (instead of angry), and young scholars will once in a while get drunk (instead of sometimes). 

He would be happy to know, however, that nobody uses the contraction han’t anymore, and I see him yesterday is a thing of the past.

What could improve Americans’ grammar? That recent invention called the dictionary made things worse by giving credence to “blemishes” like bamboozle (Witherspoon wished Samuel Johnson had left that term out). Perhaps we needed some committee to set grammatical norms for the nation, equivalent to the French Academy.

A few New World expressions weren’t so bad, Witherspoon acknowledged, and as Founding Grammarian he coined a useful term: Americanisms. It’s in every dictionary today.