In 1833 President Andrew Jackson made a tour of New England, a part of the country that had not been inclined to look upon him with favor. But his stand against nullification had won him some friends, and the president of Harvard, Josiah Quincy, proposed to the overseers that the college bestow upon Jackson an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. The board agreed, over the objection of John Quincy Adams, who vowed that he would not “be present to see my darling Harvard disgrace herself by conferring a doctor’s degree upon a barbarian who could hardly spell his own name.” Quincy’s view was less elitist: “As the people have twice decided this man knows enough law to be their ruler, it is not for Harvard College to maintain that they are mistaken.”
Things went well at the ceremony in June. The class president delivered an address in the requisite Latin. Jackson turned to his secretary of the Navy, Levi Woodbury, for a translation: “All I can make out,” Jackson said, “is something about patriots.” Woodbury filled him in; the speech had ended with the words “Harvard welcomes Jackson the President. She embraces Jackson the Patriot.” The President was pleased. He answered: “I shall have to speak in English, not being able to return your compliment in what appears to be the language of Harvard. All the Latin I know is E pluribus unum .” Loud applause for this modest and shrewd remark.
But his enemies were soon at work, and another story went round, invented by Seba Smith, who wrote a column under the by-line of Major Jack Downing. According to Downing, someone had shouted, “You must give ’em a little Latin, Doctor,” and Jackson had responded with “ E pluribus unum , my friends, and sine qua non! ” Josiah Quincy observed that false as the story was, it could be made to bear a noble interpretation. “ E pluribus unum; sine qua non . What have we here but ‘Our Federal Union, it must be preserved.’”