The Life of George Washington, in Latin? Some Scattered Notes

The Perseus Project has a few wonderful collections of primary sources, their translation, and accompanying scholarship.  I usually head straight to the “Greek and Roman Materials” or the “Renaissance Materials”.

Last night when I was exploring the Greek and Roman Materials section, a work popped out to me because it wasn’t Greek or Roman, and it wasn’t classical in the sense of being from the classical period of Western history.  The title is the  Washingtonii Vita, the author is Francis Glass, and the first date of publication is 1834.  A life of George Washington in Latin? I was suspicious (I don’t know of what), but had to read on.  I’m pretty interested in most Latin and enjoy the opportunity to read Latin from different time periods, not just Virgil and Catullus. The ancient Romans have monopolized too much of the Latin curriculum, I think, and many Latin teachers are missing opportunities to demonstrate that Latin can help students shed light on any time period since it’s conception, not just on Classical Rome.  In any case, I didn’t think I’d be jumping down a rabbit hole of questions.  I also thought I was putting Virgil and the ancient Romans aside. I was wrong on both accounts.


J.D. Reynolds, Francis Glass, and the Vita

The introduction to the Washingtonii Vita is written by J.D. Reynolds. Reynolds describes how he was a student of the author of the Vita, Francis Glass.  Francis is described as an eccentric and passionate classicist. Reynolds writes:

The moment he learned that my intention was to pursue the study of the languages with him, his whole soul appeared to beam from his countenance.

And elsewhere:

…he poured out a stream of classical knowledge, as clear, sparkling, and copious, as ever flowed from the fountains of inspiration in the early days of the Muses. During these excursive flights, I have sat a delighted listener for hours, hardly daring to hear my own voice, for fear I should break the spell by some unclassical word, and that then the Oracle would be dumb. He had all the enthusiasm of Erasmus, and of those revivers of learning in the fifteenth century, who considered the languages the ornament and the charm of life, and more worthy of pursuit than all other attainments, and, who, from this love of letters, called them “the Humanities.”

As Reynolds describes, Francis Glass was a humanist par excellence, a new Cicero, bringing the gravitas and eloquentia of ancient Rome to America.  Glass would often express his discontent, writes Reynolds, that the life and deeds of George Washington, the “father of his country”,  were only expressed in modern languages and not in Latin, “not traced with a pen plucked from the wing of the ‘Mantuan Swan'”.  The Mantuan Swan refers to Virgil, considered the greatest of all Roman poets by many.  Glass tries to write the work, but never finds the time to bring the project to completion, returning to it time and time again over a span of a few years. Eventually, Reynolds, no longer a student of Glass, generously sponsors a sort of sabbatical for Glass so that Glass can finish the project, as Reynolds is convinced that the work will be “received with favoring kindness, by every one interested in the advancement of literature in the United States”.

After a few months of sabbatical, Reynolds visits Glass and Glass gives Reynolds the completed manuscript, pleading that the manuscript be published. Note bene: this is the opposite of what the rumors say about Virgil, who is said to have requested that the manuscript of the Aeneid be burned, not published. Unfortunately, Reynolds writes, Glass died before the Washingtonii Vita got published, as Reynolds had to wait a decade before he had the leisure to follow through with its publication.  In that decade, Reynolds became a prominent journalist in Washington, lobbying for and participating in various scientific expeditions. He was a prime mover in the expedition that discovered Antarctica, he wrote a popular work considered to be an inspiration behind Moby Dick (see image below). Then, Reynolds returned to the promise he made Glass about getting the Washingtonii Vita published.


Edgar Allan Poe, the Vita, and the purposes of Classical Studies

In 1835, one year after the probable first publication of the Vita, the publisher Harper and Brothers published an edition.  None other than Edgar Allan Poe wrote a review of it in The Southern Literary Messenger.  Although at first Poe and his colleagues regard the strange creation with an “evil and suspicious eye”, even thinking that Harper and Brothers was victim of a hoax, Poe is led to “make a recantation of our preconceived opinions” and he proceeds to write a glowing review.  Poe’s review offers a lot of material for those interested in contemporary (1835) attitudes about Latin teaching, ancient Rome, and the purpose of classical studies.  Poe gives effusive praise to Reynolds, since the Vita had apparently been provoking some enthusiasm for Latin learning, which in turn, says Poe, protects English from  “impurity” (!):

Mr. Reynolds is entitled to the thanks of his countrymen for his instrumentality in bringing this book before the public. It has already done wonders in the cause of the classics; and we are false prophets if it do not ultimately prove the means of stirring up to a new life and a regenerated energy that love of the learned tongues which is the surest protection of our own vernacular language from impurity, but which, we are grieved to see, is in a languishing and dying condition in the land.

Poe also comments on Reynold’s introduction, noting that Reynold’s description of the hyperclassical Francis Glass “will long remain impressed upon our minds as an episode of the purest romance”. Poe, hilariously to me, goes on to say that if he couldn’t be Alexander the Great, he would “luxuriate” in being Francis Glass.

Poe’s analysis of the Latinity of the Vita is a fascinating read for those interested in ideas of linguistic purity, the difficulties of conveying modern ideas and technology with old languages, and the history of Latin.  Poe say that Glass’s Latin is superb and in harmony “with the spirit of the language”, a true feat given that Poe describes Glass’s undertaking as “most hazardous”.  Most interesting to me, though, is that Pope ends his review by saying that as warm as his praise is for the Washingtonii Vita, he wouldn’t recommend its inclusion in school curricula. This is in contrast to Glass himself, who according to Reynolds, wrote the book “for the use of schools”. It also seems hard to square with Poe’s earlier praise of the work for doing “wonders in the cause of the classics”.  Instead, here Poe says:

Still the book is — as it professes to be a Life of Washington; and it treats, consequently, of events and incidents occurring in a manner utterly unknown to the Romans, and at a period many centuries after their ceasing to exist as a nation. If, therefore, by Latin we mean the Language spoken by the Latins, a large proportion of the work — disguise the fact as we may — is necessarily not Latin at all….Did we indeed design to instruct our youth in a language of possibilities… we could scarcely have a better book for the purpose than the Washington of Mr. Glass. But we do not perceive that, in teaching Latin, we have any similar view. (my emphasis added)

Here, I would disagree with the sentiment, that the Latin classroom should be primarily occupied with Classical Latin from ancient Rome.  In a moment of melancholy, Poe ends his review by observing that “the day dream” of making Latin the medium for universal communication is over. For Poe, the Classics classroom isn’t about new possibilities, it’s about imbuing students with “the idiom, the manner, the thought, and above all, with the words of antiquity”. If that’s not the goal, asks Poe, then what is? I might venture a guess: the study of Classics should include a study of its own reception, continuation, and transformation. In any case, though, Poe’s review is full of praise for J.R. Reynolds, Francis Glass, and the Washingtonii Vita:

 “We are quite as fully impressed with the excellences of Mr. Glass’ work as the warmest of his admirers; and perhaps, even more than any of them, are we anxious to do it justice.

All good and fine, besides the fact that an editorial appeared soon after, claiming that Poe had done this review “ironically”.  WTF?

I ran a search for Edgar Allan Poe and J. R. Reynolds together and found that elsewhere Poe expressed a deep respect for Reynolds. Two years later in the same journal, Poe reviewed a proposal that Reynolds made in support of scientific research missions in the Pacific Ocean and South Sea.  Poe gushes about Reynolds that:

With mental powers of the highest order, his indomitable energy is precisely of that character which will not admit of defeat.

To me, it seems unlikely that Poe’s review was done “ironically”, if indeed the main advocate for its publication, J.R. Reynolds, was so well-respected by Poe.  Open questions.



To further complicate the matter, there are very few mentions of the alleged author of the Vita, “Francis Glass” outside of J.R. Reynolds introduction to the text. This leads one modern scholar to speculate in a footnote that “it is possible, therefore, that we are dealing with an elaborate hoax jointly concocted by Reynolds and the Vice-Provost of the University of Pennsylvania…”.   I remember Poe describing Reynold’s depiction of Glass as “an episode of the purest romance”, and indeed there does seem to be something almost mythical about this American Cicero that Reynolds describes.  I’m not sure what circumstances would motivate the tricks behind this “hoax”, if it was one, and I wasn’t able to find any more speculation or evidence either way on the topic.  Another open question.


The Vita’s Splash

The Vita was a hit. In 1835, a newspaper in New York wrote that since it was written in Latin, it would be read all over the world.  Because Harper published this Vita three times, it probably had some popularity.  It received quite a few notable endorsements from within academia. Philip Lindsley, president of what was at the time University of Nashville, said “I will cheerfully do all in my power to extend its circulation in this part of the country.” Further research revealed that this work, little known amongst Classicists today, was a staple in the Latin curriculum of many schools in the 19th century.  Charles Anthon, perhaps the leading classicist of the day, wrote a letter to Reynolds in praise of the Vita and its potential use in schools. Today, I don’t know any classical scholars who have ever mentioned knowing this work, and many are surprised by knowledge of its existence.   The original Classical Studies curriculum at the University of Michigan included the Washingtonii Vita, although by 1850 it was replaced by Virgil’s Aeneid and Bucolics.

Vie de Washington, French studies

I want to loop back to a subject that came up in Poe’s review about the kinds of things that are best suited for the Latin classroom, because of the purposes of the Classics curriculum.

It’s interesting that the Washingtonii Vita was quickly translated into French, and the French translation, Vie de Washington, was used in French classes at the time.  A. N. Girault, a French teacher at the time and translator of this work, complains in his preface to it that the traditional French textbooks are written for French youth, not Americans, and he says that the study of the Vie would also “impress upon [American students’] minds many facts connected with the history of their own country…”. This attitude is a total reverse of the prevailing mentality that a study of a language, classical or modern, should always be intertwined with a study of the culture of that language’s speakers.  In 1850, the 24th printing of the Vie de Washington text came bundled with a French translation of the Declaration of Independence.


Aeneas, here?

In one paragraph of the Washingtonii Vita, the author writes that Washington was “maritus pius, amicus sincerus, dominus benignus…. “a dutiful husband, a sincere friend, and a gentle ruler”. I’ve translated the word pius as dutiful, but it’s one of those words that is now notoriously problematic, and scholars love to talk learnedly about its nuance and about how difficult it is to translate. Because it’s one of the primary epithets with which Virgil describes Aeneas, the hero of his epic, almost every introduction to the Aeneid that I’ve read includes a discussion of the word pius.  The author of the Vita doesn’t want us to miss the fact that he wants the reader to be thinking about Aeneas as we read about George Washington. A footnote on the pius sentence leaves no doubt, reminding us that “it is the epithet which Virgil invariably designates his hero”.  Subtle, subtle.


George Washington, Latin scholar?

There was controversy about whether George Washington himself studied or saw value in Latin. One biography written in 1837 notes somewhat gleefully that although historians try proving otherwise, George Washington didn’t know “a syllable of Latin”, and that Washington’s teacher knew as much Latin as “Balaam’s Ass”, which apparently means not at all.  Most sources agree that later Washington wanted to educate his son, Jack, in the Classical tradition, and Washington ordered Latin dictionaries, editions of Horace, Sallust, and Terence for his son’s studies.  Later, though, Washington apparently eased up on the Classics stuff for Jack and replaced Greek with French, reasoning that exclusive attention to the Classics wasn’t fit for a wealthy Virginian planter. Jack might not have been thrilled by any of the languages, however, as Jack’s tutor reported that “Jack has a propensity to the Sex, which I am at a loss how to judge of, much more how to describe”.  The author of the Washingtonii Vita, Francis Glass or otherwise, probably wouldn’t approve, since he writes in the introduction that no degree should be conferred on an individual that can’t read, write, and speak Latin and Greek!


I’m glad Perseus has this interesting literary artifact in its collection. I encourage Latinists to check it out, and I encourage Latin teachers to introduce it in their classes. Its creation and history speaks to the vibrancy and controversies of the classical tradition in early America.  Students might learn something about early America, using their Latin in a way they are perhaps not used to, and they will be encouraged to think of Latin outside the borders of classical Rome.


One thought on “The Life of George Washington, in Latin? Some Scattered Notes

  1. Pingback: Washingtonii Vita, food, and music: Links for 31 October | CANEns: The CANE Blog and Newsletter

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