Thoughts from 19th century America


Several 19th-century presidents were classical scholars. Garfield, shot by a deranged man during his first months in 1881 before he could live up to his promise, was said to write simultaneously Latin with one hand and Greek with the other. Adams (1797-1801) had read Latin while he was at Harvard; Madison (1809-1817) had studied Latin and Greek at Princeton.

But the president especially revered for his intellect and his presidency was Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809). He admired Cicero, and had been the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. It was he who insisted that the building be called the Capitol. He was the architect, not only of his own house in the Palladian style, and other buildings, but also of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Jefferson was a classicist and a polymath: a linguist who insisted on the power and the primacy of words.

The necessity of the classics was stated by Henry Thoreau in 1854. During the two years he spent in his cabin among the trees by Walden Pond, he thought about other things beside life in the woodland and his amazement at the sudden advent of spring. One of them was the classics, which he had read as part of his course at Harvard:

  • ‘Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.’
    Henry Thoreau, Walden, Chapter 3.

Next post: Prose: the periodic style.

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