On this day in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to a friend explaining a recent political defeat. Roosevelt, who won fame as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War and served two terms as president from 1901-1909, was not used to defeat. He broke up monopolies, championed federal regulation of railroads, spurred conservation of natural resources, and began the construction of the Panama Canal. As the leader of the Progressive Movement, however, there was one reform that Roosevelt could not make happen: spelling reform.
In addition to being an age of reform, the 19th century was also a time when public education was being expanded and democratized in America. Roosevelt, along with other education advocates, viewed spelling reform as a practical and economical way to improve education. After all, English orthography is plagued with words that have more letters than necessary as well as inconsistent and capricious spelling rules.
In March 1906, the Simplified Spelling Board was founded and funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Its mission was to reform and simplify English spelling.
On August 27, 1906, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that 300 words from the Simplified Spelling Board’s list of revised spellings be used in all official communications of the executive department. Some of the examples of changes are as follows:
blessed to blest
kissed to kist
passed to past
purr to pur
though to tho
through to thru
On December 3, 1906, Roosevelt wrote his annual message to Congress using the new spelling. He became an easy target for criticism, however, as can be seen in the following sentence from a newspaper editorial:
[Roosevelt] now assales the English langgwidg, constitutes himself as a sort of French academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot himself.
On December 13, 1906, soon after it received Roosevelt’s annual message, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution rejecting the new spellings and urging that government documents be written using “the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”
At this point Roosevelt decided to surrender. He withdrew his executive order, and wrote a letter to his friend Brander Matthews, who was also the chairman of the Simplified Spelling Board, admitting defeat:
I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in, and it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten. (1)
Today’s Challenge: Spelling Bee or Spelling De-bate
What are the arguments for and against spelling reform? Should schools hold spelling bees? Should correct spelling be a major criterion in evaluating writing? Debates about spelling did not end in the 19th century. Today people are still arguing about issues of spelling. Select one of the resolutions listed below and take a side, yes or no. Write your argument using reasons, evidence, and explanation to defend your position.
Resolved: English spelling should be reformed
Resolved: All students grades 1 to 7 should participate in an annual spelling bee.
Resolved: Spelling should be weighted as a significant element in the evaluation of student writing.
(Common Core Writing 1: Argument)
1-Thomas V. Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Ride Over Spelling Rules. The Wall Street Journal 16 April 2015.