Harvard and Andrew Jackson

In 1833 the administration of Harvard decided to bestow an honorary doctorate of laws on the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson.  Many Harvard alums, looking down their noses at the rough, uncouth and ill-educated Jackson, were outraged.  None was more angry than Harvard alum John Quincy Adams who had been ousted from the presidency in the election of 1828.  Adams gave his cousin the President of Harvard an earful stating “as myself an affectionate child of our alma mater, I would not be present to witness her disgrace in conferring her highest literary honors upon a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.”

The Harvard administration responded to critics by noting that it had bestowed such degrees on other presidents and it could not fail to do so on the grounds of simple partisanship.  Jackson accepted the degree gracefully.  After the latin speeches were given, he was urged to respond in kind now that he was a Doctor of Laws.  Jackson got up and with good humor said, “E plurubus unum, my friends. Sine qua non!” Privately he got off a better quip in response to his critics:  It is a damn poor mind indeed which can’t think of at least two ways to spell any word!

Published in: on February 24, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. Don,

    Elitist criticism of Andy By God Jackson has always puzzled me a bit. His critics, as you note, even during his lifetime, derided him as a semi-literate. I’ve read many of his speeches, and many things he wrote, including military dispatches and private correspondence. He always seemed quite literate to me.

    What’s your opinion?

  2. The rules of grammar and spelling were often something of a mystery to Jackson who had been rather sparsely educated. However, there was no denying his intelligence except by people who confuse how a person writes and talks with the substance of what they are saying. He always managed to get his meaning across, often strikingly so.

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