English as our “Official Language”?

My youngest sister Suzie sent me this question today:

Jim, I’m sure you’ve heard of or seen this email before. I’ve received it several times. Do you have any idea why these Senators would vote against English as the official language of the US.

Could it be that there were other things included in the bill which would cause them to vote against it. I don’t understand how it all works, but I know sometimes unrelated things are included so that they are easily passed or not passed. Can you enlighten me a little??

Attached to this email was another which had been sent to her, which reads:

Lincoln was right!!!!


33 Senators Voted Against English as America’s Official Language on June 6, 2007. On Wed. 6 June 2007, Colonel Harry Riley, USA, Ret. wrote:


Your vote against an amendment to the immigration Bill 1348…. to make English America’s official language is astounding. On D-Day, no less, when we honor those that sacrificed in order to secure the bedrock, character and principles of America, I can only surmise your vote reflects a loyalty to illegal aliens.

I don’t much care where you come from. What your religion is. Whether you’re black, white, or some other color…male or female……Democrat, Republican or Independent……. But I do care when you are a United States Senator representing Citizens of America … and Vote against English as the official language of the United States.

Your vote reflects Betrayal. Political Surrender. Violates Your Pledge of Allegiance. Dishonors historical principle. Rejects Patriotism. Borders on traitorous action and, in my opinion, makes you unfit to serve as a United States Senator…impeachment… Recall……..Or other appropriate action is warranted, or worse.

Four of you voting against English as America’s Official Language are Presidential Candidates: Senator Biden, Senator Clinton, Senator Dodd and Senator Obama. Four Senators vying to lead America, but won’t, or don’t, have the courage to cast a vote in favor of English as America’s Official Language when 91% of American Citizens want English officially designated as our language.

This is the second time in the last several months this list of Senators have disgraced themselves as ‘political Hacks’….. Unworthy as Senators and certainly unqualified to serve as President of the United States .

If America is as angry as I am, you will realize a backlash so stunning it will literally ‘rock you out of your socks’……… And preferably totally out of the United States Senate.

The entire immigration bill is a farce… Your action only confirms this really isn’t about America… it is about self-serving politics……despicable at best. It has been said: ‘Never Argue with an Idiot…They’ll drag you down to their level!’

PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN SAID: ‘Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damages morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, quickly tried and hanged!!!’



I replied to Suzie as follows:

Oh, my, more of this hyperbolic, xenophobic nonsense.

For starters, though there is a real Col. Harry Riley who is now a conservative commentator, I cannot find any source which confirms or denies that he ever wrote this letter. It does not appear on his own website (“Eagles Up”), so he probably didn’t. The piece originally made the rounds without reference to Riley; attribution to him was apparently added after it had been around for awhile. I would guess it was added by someone who wanted to provide a false touch of authenticity.

None of the proposed amendments to Senate Bill 1348 would have declared English our “official language”. There were actually two different proposed amendments which addressed the use of English by the government. Each referred to use of English for government business, though neither actually would have made it our “official” language. Both amendments passed. The senators listed in the email voted against one of them and in favor of the other.

Amendment 4064, which is the referred to in this email, opened with a sentence reading: “The government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America.”

Amendment 4073, which all of the senators addressed by this email voted in favor of, provided in part: “The government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the common and unifying language of America”.

Amendment 4604 also allows, but does not require, the government to provide services only in English. Amendment 4073 specifically says it is not intended to change any existing laws regarding the use of English or any other language in the providing of government services.

Most of this email is just emotional nonsense. As of 2000, 18% of all Americans over the age of 5 spoke some language other than English at home. Most of them, of course, were Spanish speakers (13%), but there are dozens of other languages spoken in American homes as well.

On the other hand, many of the people in the rest of the WORLD speak English, if not as their first language, as their second. It is the language of international commerce and international relations. No matter what happens in the United States, English is not going anywhere. It is, for all practical purposes, the unofficial “world” language.

The numbers of English speakers in other countries where English is not the native language are instructive: 90 million India (some as a second and others as a third language); 79 million Nigeria; 42 million Philippines; 36 million Germany; 17 million Pakistan; 16 million France; 14 million Italy; 12 million Holland; 10 million Spain; and so on (including 7 million Russians and nearly 3 million Chinese, where they are just starting to teach English as a matter of course in their schools). The vast majority of well educated people, including the business, social and political leaders, of every country in the world speak English.

The claim that 91% of all Americans citizens want English as a national language is also incorrect. The number appears to have been taken from a Rasmussen Reports survey, which actually reported 85% overall support, 91% support among Americans over 40 years of age and 78% support among Americans under 40.

It is also interesting that, at the time the U.S. Constitution was written, there was a lot of talk about making English the “official” language of the country. Our forefathers (wisely, in my opinion) specifically decided NOT to do so. They thought it might unfairly deny equal rights to the people then in the US who did not speak English and worried that such a law would be used to deny equal rights to future non-English speakers.

In my opinion, ceremonial designation of English as our “official” language would in and of itself be okay, but any law which declares that government services cannot be provided in other languages for those who do not speak English would be unconstitutional. There is no constitutional requirement that every citizen speak English, nor should there be. Nor is there any constitutional authority for imposing such a requirement.

The truth of the matter is, virtually ALL second generation Americans (that is, children of immigrants) learn to speak English because they have no practical choice. Many become bilingual, but many others do not (your nephew Jay and niece Marion are good examples of children of an immigrant who speaks another language but never learned it themselves). [Note: My sister-in-law Magdalene Reilly is a refugee from Hungary, brought to this country by her parents in the mid-1950’s. She speaks Hungarian and English; her children, Jay and Marion, do not speak Hungarian.]

The diversity of the American population is one of the great strengths of this country. The language thing will, and always does, over the course of a single generation, take care of itself.

By the way, Lincoln was right about a lot of things … this isn’t one of them, as he never even said what is quoted here. The statement was written by one J. Michael Waller for an article that he wrote for Insight magazine in December 2003. He didn’t even intend it to be a quote (a copy editor erroneously put quotation marks on it). Lincoln himself, as a congressman in 1848, vigorously opposed the war with Mexico.

Apparently, America isn’t as angry as the actual author of this piece, whoever that is. Not only has there been no “backlash so stunning it will literally ‘rock you out of your socks’… And preferably totally out of the United States Senate“, one of the targets of the piece (Senator Obama) is quite likely to be “rocking out” of the Senate right into the White House.

The writer of this thing couldn’t even get his quote about arguing with an idiot right. The actual quote (attributed to one John Guerrero, though I can’t find anything which identifies him) is:

“Never argue with an idiot, because they will only bring you down to their level and beat you by experience.”

Which is interesting primarily because the grammatical errors make the author sound like an idiot! There is a reference error (singular “an idiot” with a plural reference “they”) and an incorrect preposition (“by” implies physicality or measurement, as in “beaten by a mile”; the correct word here would be “with”).

On the other hand, I probably should have followed this advice, as preparing this response has taken me more than two hours!! I will, however, get double use out of it by putting it on my weblog, too.

And so, here it is.


Col. Harry Riley’s website is called “Eagles Up”. The home page is at:


For information on Senate Bill 1348 and amendments 4604 and 4073, see the Snopes article at:


For information on Spanish language speakers in the U.S., see:


or the U.S. Census Bureau report at:


Regarding the speaking of English around the world, see:


For the Rasmussen report on support for English as the official language of the U.S., see:


For information about consideration of English as an official language at the time the U.S. Constitution was written (and for another perspective on the subject in general), see:


Regarding the “idiot” quote, see this website:


Regarding the supposed Lincoln quote, see:


4 thoughts on “English as our “Official Language”?

  1. Massive, primarly, Mexican immigration over the last 20 years has enable non english speaking people to not have to learn english because of the rate at which they are entering the USA. If Immigration was controlled and enforced then we wouldn’t have the prob of press 1 for English press 2 for Spanish…

    Multi-Culturalism has never worked and only degrades community, unity and patriotism. If individuals refuse or don’t have to assimilate then our country is no longer a country, we become another Europe and that my friend is sad, sad indeed

  2. Did you study history in school, Jeff?

    We have had waves of immigrants throughout the history of this country. Each such wave brought a group of people most of whom did not speak English, who lived in cultural enclaves, and who endured bias and discrimination by bigots and xenophobes like yourself.

    The children of such immigrants have always assimilated, just as the children of Spanish speakers are doing today. They are learning English, just as the children of English speakers are doing. And, from all appearances, most of them are learning it better than you have, there being no less than seven grammatical errors in your rather short comment.

    The multi-cultural history of this country has always been one of its great strengths. I am a descendant of immigrants from at least four different countries. And, unless you are 100% Native American, you are a descendant of immigrants as well.

    Do you know these words?

    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

    They appear on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty (a gift from France, by the way … that’s in Europe, you know).

    Are you familiar with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team? The most highly decorated unit of its size in American military history, including 21 Medal of Honor winners. Patriotic? As much as or more so than any other Americans of their generation. And guess what … this unit was made up of immigrants or second generation children of immigrants of Asian descent, mostly Japanese … who fought bravely in defense of this country even while their families were interred in concentration camps.

    When he announced the formation of the 442nd, President Roosevelt said, “Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.โ€

    Current military enlistment rates for eligible Hispanics are comparable with current military enlistment rates for Americans of other races and ethnicities. They are, overall, every bit as patriotic as any other segment of the American population.

    By the way, Jeff, in what branch of the military did you serve?

    Jim Reilly
    USMA, West Point, NY, Class of 1967
    US Navy 1967-1971, Vietnam Vet (1967-68)
    Son of GMCM Lawrence John Reilly, Sr., US Navy (Retired) (WWII & Vietnam Vet)
    Gold Star Brother of BT3 Lawrence John Reilly Jr, US Navy (killed in the line of duty, 6-3-1969)
    Father of US Army Sgt. Sean Thomas Reilly (now on his 2nd tour of duty in Iraq)

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