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Rediscovering an 1836 Biography of Washington in Latin

4 July 2003

Several years ago, we came across a reference to an obscure biography of George Washington written in Latin for American school children. After some searching, we found a well-worn copy of Vita Washingtonii by Francis Glass, a teacher and scholar living in the wilds of frontier Ohio in the early 19th century. It was immediately clear that the book deserved to be more generally known. Writing when the republic was still young, and Washington's presidency was still a living memory, Glass hoped to honor his hero in the manner of the most eloquent writers of antiquity. Glass' Latin is excellent, and his writing is delightful.

The English Introduction to the work, which describes how the biography came to be written, is fascinating and well worth reading on its own. It provides a remarkable view of the life and work of a solitary genius living in what was then still a very wild part of the American West -- South-west Ohio. The introduction was written by J.N. Reynolds, a student, friend, and later patron of the author. He writes, "It is a duty we owe to society, to preserve every memorial of intellectual superiority, that chance may throw in our way, and, more particularly so, those productions which reflect honor on our native genius." It is our hope that by digitizing this book and making it available once more to the world we might continue the work of Reynolds more than a century and a half later.

The book is divided into 22 chapters, each between six and ten pages long. The entire work is similar in length to the works of Caesar -- about halfway between the Civil War and the Gallic Wars. The difficulty of the Latin is also similar, probably deliberately so, to Caesar. Glass was a teacher writing specifically for students, so he included a number of explanatory footnotes and a full glossary. The book's vocabulary is broad enough to be expressive, but nevertheless accessible to students. The necessary modern coinages are generally well thought out, and almost always fully explained in the author's footnotes.

The book is old enough that many of the typographic conventions may not be familiar to readers. A circumflex accent appears over certain long vowels, for instance to distinguish between nominative and ablative singulars of first declension nouns. Grave accents appear on prepositions and adverbs, often to distinguish words that may look like adjectives. For example, if Glass uses "multum" as an adverb, it will be printed as "multùm". These conventions are no longer common, but can be extremely helpful to students.

Several sections that may be of particular interest include the Battle of Lexington, the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, Crossing the Delaware, and a description of Washington's character.

At the end of the book, Glass included a short discussion, in Latin, on the proper teaching of Classical languages. Those currently engaged in similar pursuits may find his opinions interesting.