J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Predictions for America

In his column in yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks wrote:
In 1800, Noah Webster projected that the U.S. would someday have 300 million citizens, and that a country that big should have its own dictionary.
Actually, the passage Brooks alluded to came from a preface Webster wrote for a reissue of that dictionary in 1828. Webster flattered his main audience this way:
The United States commenced their existence under circumstances wholly novel and unexampled in the history of nations. They commenced with civilization, with learning, with science, with constitutions of free government, and with that best gift of God to man, the Christian religion. Their population is now equal to that of England; in arts and sciences, our citizens are very little behind the most enlightened people on earth; in some respects, they have no superiors; and our language, within two centuries, will be spoken by more people in this country than any other language on earth, except the Chinese, in Asia, and even that may not be an exception.

It has been my aim in this work, now offered to my fellow citizens, to ascertain the true principles of the language, in its orthography and structure; to purify it from some palpable errors, and reduce the number of its anomalies, thus giving it more regularity and consistency in its forms, both of words and sentences; and in this manner, to furnish a standard of our vernacular tongue, which we shall not be ashamed to bequeath to three hundred millions of people, who are destined to occupy, and I hope, to adorn the vast territory within our jurisdiction.
In an 1824 letter, Webster wrote that he had arrived at that number through “the regular laws of population” applied to “two Centuries.” (That letter also made clear he included Canada in his counting.) I believe Webster was calculating not the population of America at a given time but the number of people who would live in America over those centuries. In other words, he would still have been surprised that there are about 315,000,000 people living in the U.S. of A. right now.

As for Webster’s earlier prediction, experts estimate that there are more native speakers of both Chinese and Spanish than English. In many fields, of course, English has become that oddly named lingua franca.

Brooks also wrote:
In 1775, Sam Adams confidently predicted that the scraggly little colonies would one day be the world’s most powerful nation.
It’s not too hard to figure out what Brooks was alluding to since he quoted a passage from Adams’s writings in his book On Paradise Drive (later collected in The Paradise Suite), also dating it to 1775.

However, that passage comes from Adams’s 4 Apr 1774 letter to Arthur Lee in London:
I wish for a permanent union with the mother country, but only on the principles of liberty and truth. No advantage that can accrue to America from such an union can compensate for the loss of liberty. The time may come sooner than they are aware of it, when the being of the British nation, I mean the being of its importance, however strange it may now appear to some, will depend on her union with America. It requires but a small portion of the gift of discernment for any one to foresee, that providence will erect a mighty empire in America; and our posterity will have it recorded in history, that their fathers migrated from an island in a distant part of the world, the inhabitants of which had long been revered for wisdom and valour. They grew rich and powerful; these emigrants increased in numbers and strength. But they were at last absorbed in luxury and dissipation; and to support themselves in their vanity and extravagance they coveted and seized the honest earnings of those industrious emigrants. This laid a foundation of distrust, animosity and hatred, till the emigrants, feeling their own vigour and independence, dissolved every former band of connexion between them, and the islanders sunk into obscurity and contempt.
Adams wasn’t pleased when the postwar generation opened Boston up to new forms of conspicuous consumption and recreation, including theater. “Luxury and dissipation,” as he called it. There were limits to his predictive powers.

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