Carefully examine the back of a dollar bill. You will find three inscriptions written in the Latin language. The one on the right is “E pluribus unum”. The two on the left are adaptations of the work of the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, whom we call “Virgil”. More on him in an upcoming episode.
This is the second essay in a series on the ideas that formed the Constitution. It focuses on the education of the Founders. You can read the first essay here.
Eighteenth-century education encompassed religion, music, and English. The girls also learned household management, French and sometimes Italian. The boys studied recent European history.
But the heart of the program – for the boys and some girls – was the Greco-Roman classics. The Greco-Roman classics are a large body of writings composed in Greek and Latin between the time of the poets Homer and Hesiod (about 800 BCE) until the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 EC Virgil’s paraphrased lines on the dollar bill were published around 39 BCE
Classics offers courses in literature, poetry, logic, math, science, politics, history, rhetoric, and morals.
Almost all of the Greco-Roman classics have been translated into English. But much of their power is lost in translation. Before I started studying Latin at the age of 32, I had read the orations of the Roman statesman Cicero in English, and wondered what the hell was up with. But the first time I read Cicero’s prose in Latin, it made me cry.
It was therefore with wisdom that teachers in the 18th century taught their students to read Greek and Roman authors in their original language.
Outside of Massachusetts, there were few public schools in 18th century America. Children under the age of 8 often attended private institutions owned by women, known as “ladies schools”. By age 8, boys were enrolling in (mostly) private high schools.
Unlike those who prescribe the curricula of modern public schools, the founding generation understood that teaching languages is best started when students are very young. Although adults often learn best through concepts and connections, these are often lost to young people, who absorb them more effectively by rote.
Thus, the teaching of Latin began as soon as a child enrolled in high school. Classes usually started at 8 a.m., continued until 11 a.m., resumed at 1 p.m., and continued until dark.
As an alternative to high schools, wealthy parents sometimes hired private tutors. Other children were educated by their parents. For example, Patrick Henry learned Latin from his father. Fellow Virginian George Wythe learned it from his mother. (Wythe was America’s first law professor, one of the framers of the Constitution, and chairman of the committee of the whole at the Virginia Ratification Convention.)
Most modern Latin teachers make the unfortunate mistake of starting Latin teaching with grammar rather than speaking and listening. Most make the additional mistake of teaching students only to read, not to speak or write the language. The schoolmasters of the founding era made the first mistake, but not the second: high school graduates had to speak and write Latin and read it.
Once the fundamentals are covered, high school students read authors such as Virgil and Cicero; the historians Sallust, Livy and Tacitus; and the poets Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Juvenal. There seems to have been less interest in Julius Caesar’s books than is common in Latin classrooms today.
The high schools did not aspire to teach Greek as completely as Latin. The boys read the New Testament, where the Greek is relatively easy. They also studied passages from Homer; the philosophers Plato and Aristotle; the historians Thucydides and Polybius; the biographer and moralist Plutarch; and a writer difficult to pin down by subject: Xenophon the Athenian.
Relatively few boys attended college, although a disproportionate number of Constitution writers did. To enter the university, the student had to pass an admission test. As a rule, it was necessary to translate passages of Latin authors into English and to translate parts of the Greek New Testament into Latin.
Much of the academic curriculum consisted of additional readings in the Greek and Latin classics.
Love for life
High school pedagogy was often crude and sometimes cruel. (Caning was common.) You might think that made students hate the classics. Not so.
The surviving Greek and Roman literature has survived for a reason: it really is a good thing. Despite the shortcomings of their teachers, most of the main Founders remained dedicated to classic literature and the lessons it imparted.
Thomas Jefferson is a prominent example. He read the Greek and Latin classics more than any other book, and Greek was his preferred language. But Jefferson isn’t really on point for us, as he was in France when the Constitutional Convention met and had little influence on the Constitution itself.
More relevant to the Constitution is a 1783 committee report to the Congress of the Confederacy recommending that Congress acquire copies of crucial books. The committee’s list included works by Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch; several volumes of Greek and Roman history; and what has been described as the “best Latin dictionary”. The report is constitutionally relevant because its authors were James Madison of Virginia, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, all future editors. Williamson, by the way, had been a Latin teacher.
Wilson, Dickinson, Mason, Henry and Adams
Historians often credit James Wilson as, next to Madison, the most influential drafter of the text of the Constitution. Wilson was born and raised in Scotland and educated at what is now the University of St. Andrews.
In 2005, the Chief Librarian of St. Andrews invited me to review Wilson’s academic records from 1757 to 1758, which I finally did in 2009. The records included the list of books Wilson had borrowed from the stacks to satisfy their own reading interests. I found his most requested subject (by far!) was the history of Rome. Wilson also borrowed a volume of poems from Horace.
After immigrating to America, Wilson taught Latin for a time and remained devoted to the classics: his collected works include dozens of references to Greek and Roman authors.
Delaware’s John Dickinson has been called the most underrated cameraman. However, as I documented in one of my research papers (pdf), his contributions to the Constitution were considerable. Dickinson collected books by Greek and Latin writers throughout his life and cited them extensively. After the end of the Constitutional Convention, he wrote a series of influential essays calling for ratification. He employed the pseudonym “Fabius” after a Roman general who figured prominently in the works of Livy and Plutarch. In a letter sent late in life, Dickinson announced that he was re-reading the Roman historian Tacitus, one of the most difficult Latin writers.
George Mason of Virginia, a drafter who composed the Virginia Bill of Rights, contributed to the final Constitution by insisting that it contain a Bill of Rights. After the convention, Mason spent his retirement years re-reading classic works. Another prominent proponent of the Bill of Rights, Patrick Henry, made a point of proofreading an English translation of Livy’s story every year.
Although John Adams was in Europe during the editorial convention, he influenced its deliberations in two ways. First, he was the primary drafter of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which, along with the New York Constitution, served as a model for delegates. Second, Adams wrote an encyclopedia of republican governments, the first volume of which was published just before the convention met. This volume relied on Cicero, Plato, Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch, among others. The delegates consulted him often.
Some Founders had been denied the benefits of a formal education. Among these were Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. Both have worked diligently to ensure that the youngest members of their own families are not similarly deprived.
The Greco-Roman classics remained constantly in the minds of those who drafted and ratified the Constitution. In future episodes, we’ll see how the Founders incorporated lessons from classic literature into the document.
This test first appearance November 3, 2022 period time. and is republished here with permission from the author.