Background Research Notes: CODE REFORM (ATTEMPTS) HISTORY

NOTE: Video Excerpts of Code Reform Attempts (including Roosevelt) are now available on line


Theodore Roosevelt

Link to the list of 300 word spellings Roosevelt ordered reformed.



Abroad, observers wondered just what had happened to the unruly and libertarian Americans. “Here is the language of 80 million people suddenly altered by a mere administrative ukase,” marveled an English paper.  “Could any other ruler on earth do this thing?"

From boyhood, Theodore Roosevelt had been a notoriously bad speller; so as President he simply rewrote the rules of orthography—until a swarm of spelling bees stung him back to his senses.

... in August 1906, with characteristic impulsiveness, President Roosevelt directed the Government Printing Office to adopt simplified spelling in all publications of the executive department. His order was not “far-reaching or sudden or violent,” averred Roosevelt, but only a modest effort “to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.”

It may have been the worst miscalculation of T.R.’s career.

The press heaped ridicule upon the Rough Rider, who had a self-deprecating sense of humor but did not much like to be deprecated by others. The Baltimore Sun  asked how the President’s surname would be rendered in the new spelling: “Rusevelt” or “Butt-in-sky”? In best conspiracy-sniffing fashion, the Rochester Post-Express declared, “It is a scheme financed by Carnegie, backed by certain large publishing interests, and designed to carry out an immense project for jobbery in reprinting dictionaries and school books.” Abroad, observers wondered just what had happened to the unruly and libertarian Americans. “Here is the language of 80 million people suddenly altered by a mere administrative ukase,” marveled an English paper.  “Could any other ruler on earth do this thing?”

In the end, the Supreme Court refused to follow the President, as did the House of Representatives, which voted 142-24 to overturn T.R.’s order. The President withdrew his spelling edict and admitted defeat in this “undignified contest.”


The person most responsible for bringing a spotlight of publicity to the Government Printing Office was President Theodore Roosevelt. Not only did he appoint Public Printer Stillings, but he gave him an order that brought him into the limelight. The Associated Press reported it on August 24, 1906: "President Roosevelt has endorsed the Carnegie spelling reform movement. He issued orders today to Public Printer Stillings that hereafter all messages from the President and all other documents emanating from the White House shall be printed in accordance with the recommendation of the spelling reform committee headed by Brander Matthews, professor of English in Columbia University. This committee has published a list of 300 words in which the spelling is reformed. This list contains such words as 'thru' and 'tho' as the spelling for 'through' and 'though.'"

The press had a field day with the "reform spelling crusade" and editorials and cartoons abounded. The Supreme Court entered the fray and directed that its opinions should be printed in the old style. Finally, Congress had the last word when Representative Charles B. Landis of Indiana, Chairman of the House Committee on Printing, introduced a resolution on December 13, 1906: "Resolved, That it is the sense of the House that hereafter in the printing of House documents or other publications used by law or ordered by Congress, or either branch thereof, or emanating from any executive department or bureau of the Government, the House printer should observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language. The motion passed unanimously. The President let the Public Printer and the Nation know that the old style was reinstated.

From A Short History of the Government Printing Office
(The Government Printing Office is also connected to the story of spelling reform through Benjamin Franklin)

Roosevelt's online autobiography:

I wrote John A. Gable, Ph.D. Executive Director, Theodore Roosevelt Association, he replied:

In response to your e-mail of recent date, you might look at C.H.Dornbusch, "American Spelling Simplified by Presidential Edict," American Speech, vol. 36 (1961), pp. 236-238.  Brander Matthews, prof. of English at Columbia, was TR's inspiration and coach on spelling reform, and all books on BRANDER MATTHEWS should be consulted.
    I know many historians interested in Theodore Roosevelt, but none who have any particular knowledge of this subject. It is mentioned only in passing  in books on TR. I could bone up on the topic, I suppose, but my schedule is very full until after February 2003. You might try Edmund Morris. He may be able to put together some material.  You could write to him at 222 Central Park South, New York City 10019-1408.

Before I could respond to the first email he wrote me again...

Lawrence J. Oliver is an expert on Brander Matthew, and therefore on spelling reform. He did two books on Matthews and TR: Lawrence J. Oliver, Brander Matthews, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Politics of American Literature, 1880-  1920  (1992) and Matthew J. Oliver,  The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt and Brander Matthews (1995) Both books were published by The University of Tennessee Press In the 1990s Oliver was a professor of English at Texas A&M University. Try Texas A&M to locate him. Good luck.

I responded...

I am beginning to get the sense that TR's approach to instituting spelling reform by mandate precipitated such ridicule that it knocked the wind out of the whole movement.
It had been building in America and England and had grown to include: William James and Charles Darwin, Mark Twain and H.G. Wells and so many other notables that it seemed to have the backing of the intellectual elite of both countries...then in 1906 just a few months after releasing their suggested reforms to the public, TR edicts some of the movement's reform suggestions upon the office of government printing. The resulting attack on him and the spelling societies seems to have led to the downfall of the movement.
Your input has been very helpful. Understanding the central role TR played in this (and apparently even more so the strategies implicit in how Brander Matthews encouraged him) is a very important area of focus for our series.

Then wrote to Oliver...

        No reply

Then received the following from Gable...

Yes, TR's attempt at the reform was a disaster. It was killed with ridicule. TR was portrayed as trying to act like God, having control over everything.  TR had a photographic memory, but strangely was a relatively poor speller. His spelling may be related to the reform.

He continued to attack particularly the spelling of labour, harbour, the English ours.  There is a manuscript galley at Harvard, in which the our s are used, and he writes angrily in long hand, "I will not be held responsible for these superfluous u s!"

And again from Gable...

It was, by the way, rare that Theodore Roosevelt's advocacy of anything hurt that cause, as you say is the case with spelling reform. His advocacy of such things as women's suffrage, workmen's compensation, the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, conservation, etc. greatly speeded those causes down the road.

I responded...

Yes, I have been reading his online autobio ( and I find his orientations to be both authentic and noble. I am in awe of reading him and am very impressed with the clarity of his mind and the courage of his heart.
As I meant to caveat in my language, I am not sure of what happened. It 'appears' at my current level of altitude that the Simplified Spelling movement in the US went into a stall when the movement was attacked (
“It is a scheme financed by Carnegie, backed by certain large publishing interests, and designed to carry out an immense project for jobbery in reprinting dictionaries and school books.” Abroad, observers wondered just what had happened to the unruly and libertarian Americans. “Here is the language of 80 million people suddenly altered by a mere administrative ukase,” marveled an English paper.  “Could any other ruler on earth do this thing?”
It was the kind of fundamental issue smear common to those days (and still in our own) and for which TR fought against so valiantly. I am not saying TR did anything wrong. It appears as if he understood the 'fulcrum' implications of the orthography and tried to help it move. In retrospect it seems he grasped what Noah Webster said about the need for reform a century earlier:
Delay in the plan here proposed may be fatal ... the minds of men may again sink into indolence; a national acquiescence in error will follow, and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties which time and accident will perpetually multiply."
From my read of his words I think he was quite aware of both the 'language imperialistic and 'ecology of mind' arguments and I am quite confident in the nobleness of his participation. Nonetheless, I do want to understand how the movement, which at its peak had so many of the English language's best and brightest, floundered, and, I think the backlash against TR's actions marked some kind of significant turning point. Our 'reading war' debates have been developing within a 'box' whose shape reflects what happened in those days. I hope to learn more about this and when I do I will share it with you.

I found references to the following not available online... 

Spelling an end to orthographical reforms; newspaper response to the 1906 Roosevelt simplifications [by] John H. Vivian. [University, Ala., 1979] p. 163-174 Photocopied from American speech, v.54, no.3, Fall 1979.

American spelling simplified by presidential edict [by Clyde H. Dornbusch. New York, 1961] p. 236-238 Photocopied from American speech, v.xxxvi, no.3, October 1961. Includes bibliographical references.

Theodore Roosevelt's 1906 Letter to the Government Printing Office

by John Reilly of the Simplified Spelling Society:
A minor mystery attends this document. Public Printer Charles Stillings says in the Government Printing Office directive of September 4, 1906, that the spelling changes are being made pursuant to "Executive order."
Histories that mention Roosevelt's spelling initiative usually say that the president issued an executive order for this purpose on August 27, 1906. However, "executive order" is a term of art.
Executive orders are the ordinary means that presidents use to carry out the duties of their office. They are numbered sequentially. Since the middle of the 20th century they have been systematically codified. However, no such executive order appears in the list of presidential documents issued by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 or in any other year. Thie letter below may be a simple letter of transmittal.
The text here is widely available in The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Volume V: The Big Stick 1905-1907; edited by Elting E. Morison, John M Blum, Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., and Sylvia Rice; Havard University Press, 1952; pages 389-390. Note that this collection of letters does not include the list of reformed spellings. The list of spellings may be found, along with the text of the president's letter, in the Government Printing Office document of September 4 mentioned above. That document is available on mircofiche at major federal documents repositories. The series is US Executive Branch Documents, 1789-1909: no. GP102-27.1, GP102-27.2). The material includes copies of the Circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board mentioned in the president's letter.

Oyster Bay, August 27, 1906
To Charles Arthur Stillings
My dear Mr. Stillings: I enclose herewith copies of certain circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board, which can be obtained free from the Board at No. 1 Madison Avenue, New York City. Please hereafter direct that in all Government publications of the executive departments the three hundred words enumerated in Circular No. 5 shall be spelled as therein set forth. If anyone asks the reason for the action, refer him to Circulars 3, 4 and 6 as issued by the Spelling Board. Most of the critcism of the proposed step is evidently made in entire ignorance of what the step is, no less than in entire ignorance of the very moderate and common-sense views as to the purposes to be cahieved, which views as so excellently set forth in the circulars to which I have referred.
There is not the slightest intention to do anything revolutionary or initiate any far-reaching policy. The purpose simply is for the Government, instead of lagging behind popular sentiment, to advance abreast of it and at the same time abreast of the views of the ablest and most practical educators of our time as well as the most profound scholars—men of the stamp of Professor Lounsbury. If the slighest changes in the spelling of the three hundred words proposed wholly or partially meet popular approval, then the changes will become permanent without any reference to what officials or individual private citizens may feel; if they do not ultimately meet with popular approval they will be dropt, and that is all there is about it. They represent nothing in the world but a very slight extension of the unconscious movement which has made agricultural implement makers write “plow” instead of  “plough”; which has made most Americans write “honor” without the somewhat absurd, superfluous “u”; and which is even now making people write “program” without the “me”—just as all people who speak English now write “bat,” “set,” “dim,” “sum,” and “fish” instead of the Elizabethan “batte,” “sette,” “dimme,” “summe,” and “fysshe”; which makes us write “public,” “almanac,” “era,” “fantasy,” and “wagon,” instead of the “publick,” “almanack,” “aera,” “phantasy,” and “waggon” of our great-grandfathers. It is not an attack of the language of Shakespeare and Milton, because it is in some instances a going back to the forms they used, and in others merely the extension of changes which, as regards other words, have taken place since their time. It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all. It is merely an attempt to cast what sleight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.
Sincerely yours

Link to the list of 300 word spellings Roosevelt ordered reformed.

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