previous next

Chapter 23: the alphabet as a barrier

There lies before me a document more than two centuries old, signed by the daughter of a Puritan clergyman, a woman who was also a minister's wife. She had what Dr. Holmes called Brahmin blood, for she probably descended, in the sixth generation, from the sister of Chaucer the poet, an ancestress described in the English family tree as “Caterina, soror Galfridi Chaucer, celeberrimi poetae Anglicani.” This descendant of Caterina lived in Salem, Massachusetts, during the witch period; and it is on record that some of the poor imprisoned creatures petitioned that their cases might be taken from the jurisdiction of the courts and referred to her for decision. She reared a large family, and many conspicuous men in church and state, army and navy, all over this land, are descended from her. The great and almost startling peculiarity [161] of the commonplace legal document which bears her name is that, like many mothers in Israel of that period, she did not sign it personally, but could only make her mark. All that long and beneficent life, it seems, was not accompanied by the ability to write her name.

This astounding fact not only illustrates the complete change in women's educational position, but it bears on other social problems. The writer spent an evening in Kansas, forty years ago, with a woman of noble appearance, a Virginian by birth, who was stated to be the first woman who had come to dwell in that Territory. She had reared a dozen or fifteen sons and daughters, most of whom had accompanied her and her husband to make homes in the newly opened region. She was still in magnificent health, large and strong, with a fine head and face, and most intelligent bearing. She might have sat to some sculptor for his symbolic group of “The Pioneers.” Yet this fine creature could neither read nor write. Many of the colored men who enlisted in our army during the Civil War showed the same combination of natural force and leadership with the same ignorance; and there has been at least one President of the United States [162] who could not read and write until he grew to maturity, and then learned it from his wife. The complaint is very general at the South (though I am satisfied of its being premature) that the older men and women among the blacks, who were wholly illiterate, had more vigor and trustworthiness than their better-educated children. The same discrimination is often made at the North, justly or unjustly, in favor of the first Irish immigrants as compared with their more enlightened descendants.

Who that recalls the war for the Union does not remember how we all, from President Lincoln downward, played upon the string of “the open doors of this nation,” its being “a home for all oppressed mankind” ? Lowell again referred to this in that magnificent “Commemoration Ode,” which is the high-water mark of American poetry, and which no Englishman, except perhaps Hughes and Bryce, was ever yet able to appreciate or even understand. How fearlessly we then appealed to the Germans, the Irish, the Swedes, the Scotch, within our borders, and how well they responded? Even the green flag of Ireland, now forbidden to be displayed from our City Halls-and perhaps wisely — was then [163] welcomed with cheers on battle-fields when it was borne to the front, amid decimated regiments, under shouts of “Faugh a Ballagh” --Clear the Way. It is a thing almost certain that if a foreign war were declared to-morrow, all projects for an educational test would fall to the ground. We should instinctively recognize them as inappropriate.

It is a curious fact that against the race least popular as immigrants an educational test would count for nothing, since every Chinese can read and write. We also see through their example, as through that of the Irish and French-Canadian immigrants who preceded them, how short-lived an argument is that based upon their living too economically and so underselling their predecessors. Does any one now complain that Irish families stint themselves in food and clothing, or that Irish cooks and chambermaids do not ask and obtain as high wages as anybody else? No race ever yet submitted to privation merely for the love of it. No path proves so easy as that in the direction of profusion; even the Indian wishes to live as more luxurious hunters live, and Thoreau found in the Maine woods that his aboriginal guide was the only one of the party who remembered to bring a x63 [164] rubber coat. More important is the question, finally, whether it is not true that, as even the Buddhists say, “all men are brethren” ; and whether we have a right to do what we so long condemned the Chinese and Japanese for doing-namely, to build a wall round our borders and exclude all the rest of mankind.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Galfridi Chaucer (2)
Thoreau (1)
Commemoration Ode (1)
Lowell (1)
Lincoln (1)
Thomas Hughes (1)
Mary J. Holmes (1)
Bryce (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1896 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: