The American Founders: Latin Lovers

The American Founders: Latin Lovers

Rob & daughter Sarah atop Leaning Tower of Pisa

Take out a dollar bill and look on the back. There you will see the two sides of the Great Seal of the United States. Look at the left hand side—the circle with the pyramid.

Above the pyramid is a representation of the Eye of Providence—of God. Above the eye is the phrase, Annuit coeptis. Below the pyramid is Novus ordo seclorum.

The words are in Latin, of course. Most people know that Latin was the official language of the western half of the Roman Empire and the basis for most western European tongues: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Provincal, Romanian, and Swiss Romansh. It also is the source for at least half the words in English (although the foundation of English is German.)

What fewer people know is that Latin remained the language of learning for centuries after the Western Empire “fell” in 476 C.E., and after the collapse of the Eastern Empire in 1453. During the Founding Era, every boy (and some girls) in the English-speaking world with any hope of a decent education began Latin studies around the age of eight. Before entering college, the student could read, and often write, the language with ease. In other words, Latin literature was a mainstay of the education of our Founders. It also held a prominent place in Anglo-American law.

As Forrest McDonald, arguably our greatest living constitutional historian, wrote in the book he entitled, Novus Ordo Seclorum:

“[In understanding the 18th century English in which our Constitution is written] a rudimentary knowledge of Latin is highly useful; after all, every educated Englishman and American knew Latin, English words were generally closer in meaning to their Latin originals than they are today, and sometimes, as with the use of the subjunctive, it is apparent that an author is accustomed to formulating his thoughts in Latin.”

Yet few of those who pontificate on the Constitution today, and this includes law professors in particular, have even the “rudimentary knowledge” of Latin that McDonald thinks is so important. And as I point out in my book, The Original Constitution, they sometimes they make mistakes that reveal their ignorance.

One of the two or three greatest classical Roman poets (perhaps the greatest)—and probably the one most read by the Founders—was Publius Vergilius Maro (“Virgil”).  Both inscriptions on the Great Seal are echos from Virgil’s work. Annuit coeptis means “He [i.e., God] has approved [literally “nodded at”] our undertakings.” In Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, the hero’s son prays to the king of the gods, “Iuppiter omnipotens, audacibus adnue coeptis.” (Book 9, Line 625). That is, “All-powerful Jupiter approve [give the nod to] our bold undertakings.” The invocation to Virgil’s agrarian poem, the Georgics, similarly asks, “audacibus adnue coeptis” (Book 1, line 40). By their inscription in the Great Seal, our Founders were announcing that God had, indeed, approved the creation of the United States of America.

Novus ordo seclorum means “new order of the ages,” and to the Founders, the evocative force of this phrase would have been very powerful. The phrase is based on the fourth poem in Virgil’s ten-poem book, “The Eclogues,” written about 37 BCE.  In that poem Virgil tells of a newborn child whose birth announces a new golden age: magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo. “A great order of the ages is born anew.” The poem, written about a three decades before Christ was born, induced many medieval and early modern  Christians to believe Virgil had been divinely inspired. (The Italian poet Dante made Virgil his guide through the Inferno and the Purgatorio.)

These are only two examples of how the Latin language opens windows on how the Founders thought. There are many, many others.

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