Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Christopher Grasso


"American Languages: Indians, Ethnology, and the Empire for Liberty" is a study of knowledge and power, as it relates to Indian affairs, in the early republic. It details the interactions, exchanges, and networks through which linguistic and racial ideas were produced and it examines the effect of those ideas on Indian administration. First etymology, then philology, guided the study of human descent, migrations, and physical and mental traits, then called ethnology. It would answer questions of Indian origins and the possibility of Indian incorporation into the United States. It was crucial to white Americans seeking to define their polity and prove their cultivation by contributing to the republic of letters.;The study of Indian languages was both part of the ongoing ideological construction of the "empire for liberty" and it could serve practical ends for the extension and consolidation of imperial relations with the native groups within and on the borders of the United States. Administrators of Indian affairs simultaneously asserted continental mastery and implicitly admitted that it was yet incomplete. Language could be used to illustrate Indian "civilization" and Indian "savagery," the openness of the U.S. nation and its exclusivity, Indian affinities to "Anglo-Saxons" and their utter difference. Language was a race science frequently opposed to understandings of race defined through the body alone.;The War Department repeatedly sought linguistic information that it could use as the basis of policy, but philology was not a discourse of scientific control imposed upon helpless Indians. On the contrary, Indians lay at the heart of almost all that was known of Indian languages. This was especially true once European scientific interest shifted from the study isolated words to grammatical forms, which happened to coincide with debates over Indian removal in the United States. This meant that Indians were in an unprecedented position to shape the most authoritative scientific knowledge of "the Indian" at the moment that U.S. Indian policy was most uncertain. Native tutoring, often mediated through white missionaries, led Peter S. Du Ponceau to refute the notion, shared alike by apologists for removal (e.g. Lewis Cass) and European philosophers (e.g. Wilhelm von Humboldt) that the American languages indicated Indian "savagery.";Yet in attempting to prove that Native American languages were not "savage," Du Ponceau defined Indian grammatical forms as unchanging "plans of ideas" that all Indians, and only Indians, possessed. Henry R. Schoolcraft, Indian agent, protege of Cass, and husband to the Ojibwa-Irish Jane Johnston, extended this line of thought and defined a rigid "Indian mind" that refused "civilization." Such conclusions suggested that Indians possessed fixed mental traits. This conclusion largely agreed with those that ethnologists of the "American school" would advance years later, but those scientists argued that language could offer no information on physical race. The rapid (but brief) rise of the American school undermined the ethnological authority of the philological knowledge that Indians, such as David Brown (Cherokee) and Eleazer Williams (Mohawk) had produced in the preceding decades.;After decades of debate over Indian "plans of ideas," "patterns of thought," and whether Indian languages were a suitable medium for teaching the concepts of Christianity and republican government---debates intensified by the invention of the Cherokee alphabet and the understanding that Sequoyah, its author, intended it to insulate Cherokee society from white interference---the federal government began moving toward a policy of English-only instruction. Even after the strident opposition of the American school, language remained a key marker of civilization and nationhood.



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