America has always been a nation of immigrants. It’s part of the national mythology. The idea of the immigrant arriving on the nation’s shores with empty pockets and a heart full of dreams plays a big role in how many Americans think of themselves and their country. And there is a lot of truth in that conception.
America is a melting pot full of people from different countries and cultures that settled together to take part in the process of building the nation. That story of new beginnings and the promise of success is what makes up “the American dream.”
And just like the people of America reflect the history of immigration in the country, the people who they elect to represent them reflect the people. Just like the people of the nation, the Presidents of the United States have often spoken more than one language. Franklin D. Roosevelt was raised to speak French and German.
Thomas Jefferson spoke six languages fluently and even claimed to have taught himself Spanish in two weeks with a copy of Don Quixote. But amongst all the bilingual presidents, only one spoke a language besides English as their native tongue, Martin Van Buren. And his story says a lot about the linguistic history of America.
At the time of the first European settlement in America, there were a number of different nations striving to create colonies. In the early 1600’s, Swedish colonists established a territory they called “New Sweden” on the banks of the Delaware River. And just a few hundred miles away, Dutch settlers created “New Netherlands” in the area that is now New York. This Dutch colony was particularly influential, which is still reflected in the names of places in the area. Words like Manhattan, Catskill, and Hackensack are all derived from Dutch interpretations of Native American place names.
As wars were fought back in Europe, the conflicts spilled over into the New World. Those conflicts shaped the course of colonization in America. Sweden, for instance, was on the wane in Europe, and couldn’t supply its colonies with the resources they needed to fight the Dutch. Eventually, that lead to the Swedish colonies being absorbed into the Dutch colonies. In turn, the British Empire would eventually seize all of the Dutch territories in North America, turning New Amsterdam into New York.
But even when formal control of the colonies transferred from one European power to another, the people who settled those areas remained, keeping alive their cultural traditions and language. And those languages played a huge part in the gradual development of the shared culture of the United States. Martin Van Buren is a good example of the way that the leaders of the young republic reflected that linguistic legacy. After all, Martin Van Buren spoke only Dutch until he was in his early teens.