Rick Santorum greatly overreached when he claimed that Congress required “English be the principal language and that it be taught and spoken universally” in several Southwest territories, Oklahoma and Hawaii as preconditions for them attaining statehood.
Congress did require in some cases that new states conduct government business in English, or that public schools teach in English. But those were the limits of the requirements. There were no requirements that English be the “principal language” or that it be “spoken universally.” In fact, Hawaii is officially a bilingual state — English and Hawaiian.
The issue of English as a requirement for statehood arose after Santorum made headlines for saying — while campaigning in Puerto Rico — that if Puerto Rico wanted to become a state, residents there needed to speak English. On Puerto Rico, the predominant language spoken is Spanish. According to 2012 Census data, 81 percent of Puerto Rico residents spoke English “less than very well.”
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” on March 18, Santorum was asked about his previous comment that for Puerto Rico to become a state, “They would have to speak English. That would be a requirement. It’s a requirement that we put on other states. It is a condition for entering the Union.”
Host Jonathan Karl asked what Santorum meant by that, “because as far as I can tell, there’s no requirement for official English right now.”
Santorum, March 18: There were requirements — yes, there were requirements put on other states when they came into the union that English be the principal language and that it be taught and spoken universally in those states. There’s several states where, as you know, there were other languages spoken in the Southwest, Oklahoma, Hawaii. And so it was a condition of admission to statehood, and that’s simply what I’ve said.
Santorum is correct that Congress has made some English-language requirements for territories seeking to become states. This was done through “enabling acts” that spelled out details for those impending states. But none required that “English be the principal language and that it be taught and spoken universally in those states.”
In 1811, Congress passed the Louisiana Enabling Act which required that government records and judicial and legal proceedings in Louisiana be conducted in English (see Sec. 3).
In the Enabling Act of 1906, which dealt with Oklahoma statehood — specifically referenced by Santorum — the law called for the establishment of public schools, “and said schools shall always be conducted in English.” (see Sec. 3)
As for Hawaii, Sec. 577 of its enabling act requires that “all legislative sessions be conducted in English language.”
But speaking English “universally” was not a prerequisite of statehood for Hawaii. In fact, Hawaii is officially a bilingual state. The state constitution notes that “English and Hawaiian shall be the official languages of Hawaii” though Hawaiian “shall be required for public acts and transactions only as provided by law.” (Article XV, Sec 4).
“That’s the extent of the English requirements,” said Karin Davenport, a spokeswoman for U.S. English, a group that seeks to have English made the official language of the U.S. Santorum’s statement, she said, is “not quite accurate.”
Arizona and New Mexico also had English provisions written into enabling acts that preceded statehood. In Arizona, it required that “schools shall always be conducted in English.” It also states that state officers and members of the state legislature must “understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without the aid of an interpreter.” A similar requirement was enacted for New Mexico.
“New Mexico has since territorial days had two official languages: English and Spanish, and that stayed over with statehood in 1912,” said Sterling Evans, a professor in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma. “Arizona balked more with more Anglo settlers there, but in both states it was more a matter of making sure English was taught in schools.”
Santorum is “out of touch with the historical facts,” Evans said.
“In fact, of all people, Santorum should have known his point to be untrue, as there has been a recent effort by some arch-conservative state legislators to make English the official language now,” Evans told us via email. “So, thus it obviously is not on the books.”
In all, 31 states have passed laws making English the official language. Numerous efforts have been made to make English the official language of the United States, but to date, none have been successful.
One such bill — the English Language Unity Act (H.R. 997) — was introduced by GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa on March 10, 2011. It would require all official U.S. government functions to be in English, although there are exceptions — including for matters of national security, public health and safety, and criminal justice. Similar bills have been introduced in nine of the past 10 Congresses, Davenport said. But none has yet passed both the House and Senate.
— Robert Farley, with Michael Morse