On January 27th, 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following in a letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley, a famous English scientist and educator, then residing in the United States:
This uniform, literary familiarity of eighteenth-century Americans is directly attributable to the common objective of the early American Latin grammar school, regardless of its geographical location. That objective, from the early seventeenth century through the middle of the eighteenth century, was to prepare young men to meet the entrance requirements of the nearby college. At Harvard College, founded in 1636, these simple requirements were described as early as 1642 as follows:
The College of New Jersey (Princeton), founded in 1746, also required that its applicants be competent in the Classical languages. A student would be admitted there in 1748 only if, comparable to his New England counterparts, he could: "render Virgil and Tully's orations into English and turn English into true & grammatical Latin and translate any part of the four Evangelists from Greek into Latin or English."10 It can likewise be assumed that the College of William and Mary, founded in 1690, required all its applicants, Thomas Jefferson included, to satisfy similar Classical language entrance requirements, but the exact authors included in its early entrance examinations are unknown since its eighteenth-century records were destroyed by fire.11
Every colonial college specifically required knowledge of Cicero and Virgil, and familiarity with elementary Greek for admission.12 No college, however, was as precise as King's College (Columbia) in listing by title which individual works of the Classical authors were needed to satisfy its entrance requirements. In 1785, for example, King's College demanded that:
1.2.3. The first three years are spent first in Learning by heart &
acc:[ording] to their capacities understanding the Accidence and
Nomenclator, in construing & parsing acc:[ording] to the English
rules of Syntax Sententiae Pueriles Cato & Corderius & Aesops
5. The fifth year they are entered upon Tullies Epistles (Still continuing
use of Erasmus, in the morning & Ovid de Trist[ibus]: afternoon) the
Elegancies of which are remark'd and improv'd in the afternoon of the day
they learn it, by translating an English which contains the phrase something altered, and besides recited by heart on the repetition day. Ov[id]
Metam[orphoses]: is learn'd by these at the latter end of the year, so also
Prosodia Scanning & turning & making of verses, & 2 days in the week
they continue to turn mr. Gar[retson's] English Ex[ercises] into Latin, w[hen]
the afternoons exerc[ise] is ended, and turn a fable into a verse a distich in a
6. The sixth year they are entered upon Tullies Offices &
for the forenoon, continuing the use of Ovid's Metam[orphoses]: in the
afternoon, & at the end of the Year they read Virgil: The Elegancies of Tull[ius'=Cicero] Off[ices]: are improved in the afternoon as is aforesaid of Tull[ius']: Epist[les]: & withal given the master in writing when the lesson is
recited, & so are the phrases they can discover in Luc[ius] Fl[orus]. All of
which they have mett with in that week are comprehended in a dialogue on
Fryday forenoon, and afternoon they turn a Fable in Lat[in] Verse. Every
week these make a Latin Epistle, the last quarter of the Year, when also they
begin to learn Greek, & Rhetorick.17
7. The seventh year they read Tullie's Orations & Justin for
the Latin and
Greek Testam[en]t Isocrates Orat[ions]: Homer & Hesiod for the Greek in
the forenoons & Vergil Horace Juvenal & Persius afternoons. As to their
exercises after the afternoon lessons are ended they translate Mundays &
Tuesdays an Engl[ish] Dialogue containing a Praxis upon the Phrases out
of Godwin's Roman Antiquities. Wensdays they compose a Praxis on the Elegancies & Pithy sentences in their lesson in Horace in Lat[in] verse. On repetition days, bec[ause] that work is easy, their time is improved in ye
Forenoon in makeing Dialogues containing a Praxis upon a Particle out of
Mr. Walker, in the afternoon in Turning a Psalm or something Divine into
Latin verse. Every fortnight they compose a Theme, & now & then turn a
Theme into a Declamation the last quarter of the year.18
Williams' letter is a valuable source of information about the Latin grammar school in early America since it lists which Classical authors, besides Virgil and Cicero, were read. In addition, it describes, to a limited degree, which individual works of these specific authors were studied, in what sequence, and from what point of view they were examined. Furthermore, Williams' letter partially describes the methodology of instruction used in the eighteenth-century Latin grammar school during a typical week, and he even explicitly mentions some of the exercise books which also could be found in the classroom.
In Corderius Americanus, Cotton Mather (1663-1728) does not spell out, as Williams did, the specific sequence of Classical authors studied at the Boston Latin Grammar School. However, in his tribute to Ezekiel Cheever (1615-1708), who taught for thirty-eight years at the Boston Latin Grammar School, he confirms virtually the same list of Classical authors who were mentioned in Williams' letter:
Neither Williams nor Mather credits Ezekiel Cheever with the creation of the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century American grammar school curriculum. Rather, Cheever, just as many other American, colonial schoolmasters, who were trained in English universities, simply transported across the Atlantic ocean to the shores of the intellectual frontier in New England the same grammar school curriculum of England, which had already become standardized there at the beginning of the seventeenth century.21 The immediate source of this bi-continental curriculum can be traced to Erasmus (see Unit III), the most famous of the European humanists and educational theorists, who lived from 1466 to 1536, and who actively promoted his ideas on early classical education in England at the beginning of the sixteenth-century. The ultimate source of Erasmus' grammar school curriculum, however, resided in the educational theory and practice of Quintilian, a late first century A. D. Roman educator (See Unit XIX).
Just as there can be claimed direct lineage between the Classical education of Antiquity and that of both England and the American colonies in the seventeenth century, so also can there be found a constant and direct line in the format and nature of the Classical curriculum within the American Latin grammar school itself in the eighteenth century, and long thereafter. This notion of "constancy" is clearly illustrated in the 1795 description of the curriculum of the Latin and Greek preparatory school of the University of Pennsylvania. This description confirms that the young students of Philadelphia, at the end of the eighteenth century, learned their Latin grammar and wrote their Latin themes through the same process of memory and repetition, and through a similar process of stylistic imitation of the same list of Classical authors, as did their counterparts in Boston at the beginning of the same century.22 The curriculum of this Latin grammar school in Philadelphia was as follows:
In this class shall be read the Latin accidence and the rules for
the gender and
for the increase of nouns, followed by the vocabulary, from the beginning of the
book to the end of the adjectives; the rules for the praeterites and supines of verbs, followed by vocabulary from the adjectives to the end of the book; the fundamental
rules of syntax and the rules for the increase of verbs, followed by Sententiae
pueriles and Cordery, and by the practice of putting, once a day, some verb through
its several moods and tenses, showing the formation of each tense and giving the
rules for the quantity of each syllable of increase.23
In hearing a lesson in the nouns of the vocabulary, a rule shall
always be required,
not only for the gender of each noun, but for the quantity of the syllable or syllables increase, if it be a noun which has increase.
Through the whole course no book shall be laid aside upon having
had but one
reading. There may, indeed, be but few books which can be read through, because
time will not permit, but whatever part of a book is read once, it shall be the practice
of this school to read twice.
In going over Cordery the second time (and the same may be said of
Erasmus) the boys shall, occasionally at least, be required to hide the Latin and
to translate from the English, and shall be made to commit whole colloquies to
memory, and to pronounce them in open school, with due regard to tones,
emphasis and quantity, as exercises in elocution.
Long before boys have finished the reading of Cordery, they may be
have gone several times over all parts of grammar, except the rules for the quantity
of final syllables, and what follows respecting feet and the different species of verse
(the knowledge of which could not be of much use to them until they come to read poetry); yet must not the practice of reciting the grammar by memory be
discontinued, and the usual time of doing it, every morning immediately after the examination of the versions is as good as any. But these lessons shall be short,
consisting of but two or three rules, so as to take in but ten or twelve lines, and
each boy shall be made to recite the whole without missing a word, under the
penalty of being made to sit down or of being otherwise disgraced as the case
Of the Second Class
In this class shall be read, during the first half year, Esop's Fables and Erasmus' Dialogues; and during the second half year, Selectae e veteri and Phoedrus.
Upon entering in to this class boys shall begin to write Latin versions,
or, as they
are more usually termed among us, exercises.
Of the Third Class
The books read in this class shall be during the first six months
Selectae e profanis, and during the second six months Ovid and Caesar's
When boys begin Ovid, they shall carefully review what they had before
Prosody, adding, what they can now no longer do without, the rules for the
quantity of final syllables.
They can no longer do without the rules for the quantity of final
because the practice of scanning must now commence and accompany every
lesson that is said in Ovid, and afterwards in Virgil and the other poetical
Of the Fourth Class
The books of this class shall be, for the first six months, Virgil
and Sallust, and
for the second, Virgil and Terence.
When the boys begin Virgil they shall at the same time be made to
Greek Grammar. But the portion of which any morning lesson in the Greek
Grammar shall consist (and the same rule shall be applied when a class is
learning, for the first time, the Latin Grammar) shall be given out and thoroughly explained by the Tutor the preceding evening.
Of the Fifth Class
In this class shall be read, for the first nine months, Horace and
Testament, and for the remaining three months, Horace and Lucian.
Both in this, and in the next class above it, versions or exercises
shall be continued,
as directed above. But in addition to these the boys shall now be required to write themes, which shall be given in and examined every Monday morning, in place of
the exercise. Morning lessons also in the Greek grammar shall continue to be said
in the same way in which morning lessons in the Latin grammar were directed to
be said. And on coming into school, every day in the afternoon, a Greek verb shall
be put through the several moods and tenses, and the rules given for the formation
of each tense.
Of the Sixth Class
The books read in this class shall be, for the first six months,
Lucian and Livy,
and for the second six months Xenophon's Cyropedia and Cicero's Orations.24
2 John Adams also extols the merits of his classical education when he states that if as a youth he had foreseen the career into which he would be thrust as an adult and if he had then studied his classical languages and literatures more diligently than mathematics and natural sciences, which were his natural inclinations, he would have been better prepared for his career as a statesman. At any rate, he was not about to allow his son, John Quincy, to stray in his own educational efforts. In March of 1780, for example, he writes to his son: "As to Geography, Geometry and Fractions I hope your Master will not insist upon your spending much Time upon them at present; because altho they are Useful sciences, and altho all Branches of the Mathematicks, will I hope, sometime or other engage your Attention, as the most profitable and the most satisfactory of all human Knowledge; Yet my Wish at present is that your principal Attention should be directed to the Latin and Greek Tongues, leaving the other studiesto be hereafter attained, in your Country." In May of the same year Adams instructs: "I will take this upon myself, and further I would not have them put any longer to the Master of Fencing and Dancing--let them attend the Drawing and Writing Masters, and bend all the rest of their Time and attention, to Latin, Greek, and French, which will be more useful and necessary for them in their own Country, where they are to spend their Lives." See L. H. Butterfield and Marc Friedlander, eds., Adams Family Correspondence 3 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 308 and p. 348.
3 For a summary of Jefferson's early visionary recommendations, see John M. Jennings, The Library of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, 1693-1793 (Charlottesville, Virginia: The University Press of Virginia, 1968), pp. 65-67. For Jefferson's general view on education, see Roy J. Honeywell, The Educational Work of Thomas Jefferson (Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard Studies in Education, no. 16, 1931).
4 From Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV - "Laws"; see Lipscomb, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson 2, pp. 206-207; also, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), pp. 198-199. The brackets are mine.
5 See Meyer Reinhold, "Opponents of Classical Learning," in Classica Americana (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1984), pp. 116-41, for the ever increasing number of attacks on the traditional format of Classical education in early America. But, when all was said and done, sometimes bitterly, classical education, which was so deeply entrenched in the educational format of colonial and post-revolutionary America, emerged relatively unscathed through the end of the eighteenth century.
6 See Koch and Peden, The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: The Modern Library, 1944), p. 4. The brackets are mine. For Jefferson's views on education, books, and the Classical world, see Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1986), pp. 135-179, 233-251, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1935), p. 333 and p. 433.
7Samuel Eliot Morison, The Founding of Harvard College (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1935), p. 333 and p. 433.
8 Pauline Holmes, A Tercentenary History of the Boston Public Latin School 1635-1935 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1935), pp. 260-262. See also Samuel Eliot Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard 1636-1936 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1936), p. 103.
9 Edwin Oviatt, The Beginnings of Yale, 1701-1726 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1916), p. 199. It was not until 1745 that the trustees of Yale changed any of the original entrance requirements. Then they stated that applicants, in addition to their knowledge of Greek and Latin, should also understand the rules of "Common Arithmetick." See Richard Warch, School of the Prophets (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 186-188.
10 Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Princeton 1746-1896 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1946), pp. 91-92.
11 For a description of the 1705, 1859, and 1862 fires which, to varying degrees, ravaged the records and the main building of the College of William and Mary, see Marcus Whiffen, The Public Buildings of Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg, 1958), pp. 23-24, 188-198. Also, for some indication of the social and educational environment which Thomas Jefferson experienced while a student at William and Mary, see Alf J. Mapp, Jr., "Young Thomas Jefferson at William and Mary," William & Mary 55:6 (Winter 1988), 10-15.
12 The Greek requirement was most leniently interpreted, however, as the entry for 11 May 1803 of the Faculty Minutes of Princeton attests: "Mr. George Harston was likewise admitted to study with the sophomore class, without being considered as a candidate for a diploma, unless he acquires a competent knowledge of the Greek language, with which he is totally unacquainted." See Princeton University Archives, Faculty Minutes 1787-1810.
13 Louis Franklin Snow, The College Curriculum in the United States (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1907), p. 93
14 For a reproduction and discussion of Williams' text, see Pauline Holmes, A Tercentenary History of the Boston Public Latin School 1635-1935, pp. 258-261; K. B. Murdock, "The Teaching of Latin and Greek at the Boston Latin School in 1712," Publicationsof the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 27, pp. 21-29; John Rexine, "The Boston Latin School Curriculum in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Bicentennial Review," Classical Journal 72 (1976-77), pp. 261-266; and Robert Francis Seybolt, The Public Schools of Colonial Boston 1635-1775 (New York: Arno Press, 1969), pp. 69-71.
15 In the early eighteenth century there were available several Accidences, or grammar books, of which the two most popular were William Lily's Latin Grammar, first published in England in 1509, and its American counterpart, Cheever's Accidence, first formally published in Boston in 1709 with the rather formidable title: A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue, for the use of the lower forms in the Latin School, Being the Accidence abridged and compiled in that most easy and accurate method wherein the famous Mr. Ezekiel Cheever taught; and which he found the most advantageous by seventy years experience. Many nomenclators, or dictionaries, were also available at this time. J. A. Comenius' Orbis Sensualium Pictus, 1658, was, perhaps, the most popular because of its many illustrations. Among the books which included collections of moral maxims were John Brinsley's Sententiae Pueriles (1622), Leonhard Culmann's Sententiae Pueriles (1658) and J. Hoole's Catonis Disticha de Moribus (1659, 1670 and 1704); there were many editions of Aesop and Corderius in circulation, including the very popular one of John Clarke, Corderii Colloquiorum Centuria Selecta (1718). All brackets explaining the abbreviations in Williams' text are mine. The parentheses are part of the original text.
16 None of the examples "on backside A," mentioned by Williams, have survived. The most commonly studied essays of Erasmus were his Colloquia familiaria, de Copia Verborum, and his Adagia, for each of which there were many editions in circulation. Propr: As in pres.: is a reference to William Lily's Propria quae maribus, Quae genus, As in praesenti, Syntaxis, Qui mihi construed, or a series of short essays which were frequently attached to Lily's Latin Grammar. J. Garretson, English exercises for school-boys to translate into Latin, comprizing all the rules of grammar, and other necessary observations; ascending gradually from the meanest to higher capacities (London, 1683, 1687, 1690, 1698).
17 Lucius Annaeus Florus in the early second century A. D. wrote Epitome Bellorum Omnium Annorum DCC; it is a history of Rome in abbreviated form.
18 Justin's Historia was written in the third century A.D. Thomas Godwin's, Romanae historiae Anthologiae. An English exposition of the Romane antiquities wherein many Romaneand Englishe offices are parallelled and divers obscure phrases explained, was published in London in 1658, 1668, etc. William Walker, Treatise of English particles, showing much of the variety of their significations and uses in English, and how to render them into Latine according to the propriety and elegancy of that language. With a praxis on the same (London, 1655, 1663 and 1686).
19 For the complete English text of Mather's Corderius Americanus, see Wilson Smith, ed., Theories of Education in Early America 1655-1819 (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1973), pp. 32-38. Mather's original eulogy concluded with nearly forty additional lines of latin verse.
20 Smith, Theories of Education in Early America 1655-1819, p. 36.
21 The sixteenth century English background of the Classical curriculum of early American education is splendidly described in T. W. Baldwin's two volume, William Shakspere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1944). See also, Courtland Canby, "A Note on the Influence of Oxford University upon William and Mary College in the Eighteenth Century," William and Mary Quarterly, 2nd ser. 21 (1941), pp. 243-47. The reduplication of the English educational scheme was so rigid that Lyon C. Tyler states the grammar school students in early eighteenth-century Virginia "studied the same books as were by law and custom used in England, but the master was permitted, with the president's consent to make criticisms on the grammar employed." Tyler, The College of William and Mary in Virginia: Its History and Work 1693-1907 (Richmond, Virginia: Whittet and Shepperson, 1907), p. 26.
22 To reinforce the notion of the "constancy" of the curriculum in the American Latin grammar school over the entire course of the eighteenth century some mention should be made of the curriculum of the Latin Academy in Philadelphia whose curriculum in 1756 included: lst Stage. Grammar, Vocabulary. Sententiae Pueriles. Cordery. Aesop, Erasmus. N.B. To be exact in declining and conjugating. To begin to write Exercises, for the better understanding of Syntax. Writing and Reading of English to be continued if necessary. 2d Stage. Selectae e veteriTestamento. Selectae e Profanis Authoribus. Eutropius. Nepos. Metamorphosis. Latin Exercises and Writing continued. 3d Stage. Metamorphosis continued. Virgil with Prosody. Caesar's Comment. Sallust. Greek Grammar. Greek Testament. Elements of Geography and Chronology. Exercises and Writing continued. 4th Stage. Horace. Terence. Virgil reviewed. Livy. Lucian. Xenophon, or Homer Begun. N.B. This Year to make Themes, write Letters; give Descriptions and Characters. To turn Latin into English, with great Regard to Punctuation and Choice of Words. Some English and Latin Orations to be delivered, with proper Grace both of Elocution and Gesture. Arithmetic begun. See Edwin L. Wolf, "Classical Languages in Philadelphia," in Classical Traditions in Early America, edited by John W. Eadie, (Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, 1976), pp. 68-69.
23 Cordery, i.e., the same Corderius, or Mathurin Cordier (1479-1564), the French scholar, educator and writer of Latin textbooks for early education after whom Cotton Mather named his eulogy for Ezekiel Cheever.
24 Snow, The College Curriculum, pp. 129-134.
25 Holmes, A Tercentenary History of the Boston Public Latin School, pp. 275-276. Bold print is mine.
26 Sarah N. Randolph, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1958), pp. 340-341.