Why do Tea Partiers capitalize their nouns?

Language and how we use it.
Nov. 1 2010 6:12 PM

Capital Embellishment

Why do Tea Partiers uppercase so many of their nouns?

Sign from teaparty.org. Click image to expand.

If he becomes governor of Colorado, Tea Partier Dan Maes will remind citizens that "freedom originates in a Supreme Ruler of the Universe," according to his Web site. In her campaign materials, New Jersey congressional candidate and Tea Partier Anna C. Little rhapsodizes about the "inalienable rights by our Creator, among them Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" and touts strict border control as "the first step in the process of regaining control of our Republic." As you read these sentences, your first question is surely: Why do these and other Tea Party candidates hold the rules of capitalization in such contempt?

Perhaps they are aficionados of Emily Dickinson's poetry or Thomas Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon, but more probably they're paying homage to two other literary masterpieces: the U.S. Constitution—"No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President"—and the Declaration of Independence—"we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

Capitalizing heavily today is, then, like wearing a tricorn hat or calling your interest group the Tea Party. The point is to hark back to better times, to establish your politics as more authentically American, and to associate yourself with the Founding Fathers. "To restore America we need less Marx and more Madison," Glenn Beck likes to say. More Capitals, less Das Kapital!

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What capital-ist Tea Partiers fail to realize, however, is that their orthography imitates not Thomas Jefferson and James Madison but the far-less famous Timothy Matlack and Jacob Shallus—a couple of secretaries. No one played a larger role in crafting the Declaration and the Constitution than Jefferson and Madison, respectively, but it was Matlack and Shallus who hand wrote the official, signed versions of these documents and freely recapitalized them as they saw fit. By contrast, in Jefferson's drafts of the Declaration, there's a striking absence of caps—he writes "life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness," for example. As H.L. Mencken noted, "nature and creator, and even god are in lower case."

In the century prior to 1765, nouns were generally capitalized. (The reason for this is now obscure; Benjamin Franklin hypothesized that earlier writers "imitated our Mother Tongue, the German.") By the Revolutionary War era, however, chaos was the rule. Everyone, it seems, had a different style, and individual authors vacillated from one sentence to the next. The old heavy-caps system still appealed to many writers, including some Founding Fathers: When Adams made a personal copy of Jefferson's draft, he wrote, "We hold these Truths to be Self evident; that all Men are created equal and independent."

Other founders, including Jefferson and Madison, dropped caps with reckless abandon. Jefferson may have followed the example of a law professor he admired, George Wythe, who lower-cased the beginnings of his sentences and even the personal pronoun I. (e.e. cummings, step aside!) According to the scholar Richard Wendorf, director of the American Museum in Britain, the growing fashion for light caps, in England at least, "was closely tied to a pervasive interest in refinement, regularity and even cultural conformity." In America, Franklin attributed the change to printers who felt that light capitalization "shows the Character to greater Advantage; those Letters prominent above the line disturbing its even regular Appearance." Author Thomas Dyche wrote in 1707 that capitalizing all nouns is "unnecessary, and hinders that remarkable Distinction intended by the Capitals." As you can see, Dyche couldn't convince his publishing house to change its ways, even for his own book.

In the Revolutionary years, the whole idea of standardizing language's appearance was still new and fledgling. (Only in 1755, with the appearance of Samuel Johnson's dictionary, did spelling start becoming uniform.) A certain carelessness may even have been intentional. As historian Tamara Plakins Thornton has written, 18th-century men often affected a "disengag'd Air" in their penmanship, "a studied inattention to appearances that only men secure in their social station could afford." This practice went far back. Hamlet, in his words, "once did hold it, as our statists do,/ A baseness to write fair, and labored much/ How to forget that learning." Men who wrote for publication had especially small incentive to fuss over the capitalization or punctuation of their drafts, because their publisher would probably change it all anyway.

As for why Timothy Matlack and Jacob Shallus so heavily capitalized the signed copies of the Declaration and the Constitution, it is hard to say—revolution seems to me to merit a sober and modern look, but heavy caps arguably lent an appearance of power, the patina of age, and the ornamentation due to a grand gesture. As an 18th-century Spanish novel put it, "capital letters are upon paper what large trees are in a garden, which at once both dignify and adorn it, and immediately give all beholders to understand that this is the garden of a man of affluence and taste; whilst a book all of equal and small letters looks at best but as a mere kitchen-garden, fit only to lie behind a convent of friars, or furnish cabbages for the market." Or perhaps Matlack and Shallus liked heavy caps for their populist flavor—according to Arnold Hunt, a curator at the British Library, they were especially common in cheap pamphlets, penny papers, and books for the barely literate, which were generally slower to adopt orthographical innovation. Light caps, by contrast, could claim an elevated pedigree and were more often employed by sophisticated books and journals.

Extending this logic, the use of heavy caps could be said to align the Tea Party more firmly with the working class of the late-18th-century than the patrician Founding Fathers the party professes to admire. That probably suits their purposes just fine—a self-styled grassroots movement funded by billionaires could use a little extra street cred.

Heavy caps can't help but look a bit "shouty" to modern eyes, but in that sense too they are a good fit for the Tea Party—the party that celebrates Congressman Joe "You Lie!" Wilson and tells America that it needs to "Wake Up!" In any case, heavy caps help the Tea Party stand out in our crowded information marketplace. Were the party to embrace the practice more systematically, it would serve as a kind of instantly legible branding—for a while, anyway. If it succeeds too well, we may all end up subscribing to the Tea Party's concept of Freedom.

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Jon Lackman is writing a doctoral dissertation on the use of invective in art criticism.

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