Monday, June 22, 2009

This I did not know

Last night I was reading The Political Philosophy of George Washington by Jeffry H. Morrison (published by John Hopkins this year) and I was astounded to discover that after the Revolution some of Washington's book purchases after the Revolution included material for the learning of Latin -- specifically a Latin grammar and two Latin-English dictionaries. He had to send away to England to get them. Washington was heavily read in the classics -- Seneca and Cicero were among his favorite classical authors in translation -- but I never knew he made attempts to learn their mother tongue.

There is no evidence, however, that Washington was able to learn Latin. He quotes Latin mottos from time to time, but none of his letters or later documents evidence a reading knowledge of the language.

I take great comfort in that -- that I too have failed at something that the great George Washington failed at! If one cannot share successes with the high and the mighty, perhaps it is something to share their failures????

Update: after some further digging, I went back to Morrison's book and found that I had mistakenly read the date of Washington's purchases. Washington didn't purchase the Latin books after the Revolution, he purchased them in 1760, before the French & Indian War! My apologies for not getting the timeline right.


Jonathan Rowe said...

I met Jeff when he spoke at Princeton and actually went out for drinks with him and other figures at the James Madison Program (mostly Roman Catholics). Jeff, in all seriousness, drank like a Mormon.

He did note that while his heart was Protestant, his head was Catholic.

J. L. Bell said...

Does Morrison say when those purchases occurred? We know that Tobias Lear asked an acquaintance about a good Latin textbook in 1788 because he was about to start G. W. P. Custis in that language.

Mark D. said...

According to Morrison, Washington purchased the Latin grammar and dictionaries in 1760 -- so I got the original timeline wrong, it wasn't after the Revolution, it was before the French & Indian War! I'll correct that in my initial post in a minute.

One more thing, according to Morrison, Washington's personal library included a copy of the New Testament in Latin.

Any idea when Washington was overseeing the education of his step-children?