I don’t like to write such, but this note will have a crotchety tone. I have found in reading David McCullough’s Truman only one misprint. On page 956 the Latin word firmissime is spelled firmissine in a Latin citation delivered on the occasion of Truman’s receiving an honorary degree from Oxford. An English translation precedes, and there is thus no loss of clarity and no loss of meaning. There is a loss of respect, though, both for the text as it was originally delivered and for the language in which it was couched. If it was important enough to include the Latin, it was important enough to get it right.

Editors owe it to their readers to be accurate in transcribing foreign languages, particularly ones that have been part of the Western cultural heritage. Failure to get the Latin right implies that it is not important to get the Latin right, that the tradition it represents is not a significant one. An attitude like this is of a piece with the currently fashionable denigration of Western culture.

The Library of America has been doing a marvelous job presenting reliable texts of important American works to the American public. Particularly do I find this the case with its volume of Jefferson’s writings. I have enjoyed reading Jefferson’s thoughts and have learned a lot. And yet on page 1225, where Jefferson quotes the well-known concluding lines of Horace’s Epistles (I, 6.67-8),

vive, vale, siquid novisti rectius illis,

Candidas imperti; si nil, his utere mecum,

the word (?) ulere appears instead of utere, rendering the Latin meaningless. A trivial error, perhaps, but not in context. Jefferson was writing here to James Madison (May 13, 1810), then President. Jefferson knew his Horace and chose his quote wisely: he could assume that Madison would recognize the citation. Editors should be respectful, if not of Latin, at least of Presidents of the United States.

The error is easy to correct. Less easy is the muddle made of Greek in the same volume. Jefferson knew Greek, read it routinely, and used it in his writings. In an early work on English prosody (1786) he had occasion to quote three lines of Greek. I could make sense of the first two because, though bollixed up, they were familiar to me. The third for long remained a complete muddle. I give the line in English transliteration, omitting some typographical oddities: metsa de tem’che theoisi, to / nd metron estin agison. What is one to make of this? There are Greek words in it, but metsa, tem’che, agison are not Greek by any stretch of the imagination. And what might to / nd be?

I finally found the line in the Phocylidea, line 98: metra de teuche theoisi, to gar metron estin ariston. Now this actually makes sense—modern editions prefer gooisi to theoisi—in Greek and illustrates Jefferson’s point, for though metra and metron are forms of the same word, their first syllables have different metrical weights. Through diligent search of Greek texts one can elicit Jefferson’s original intent. There remains the question, though: Who made the mistake? Jefferson? Editor? Printer? Was Jefferson perhaps not so proficient with Greek texts as we are led to believe? This seems unlikely, but we’d like to know. We can at least be certain that the publisher did not think it important to present a Greek text faithful to the original.

In fact, he had no reason to believe that the text was not accurate, for he simply copies here the text as it was presented (for the first time) in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by A.A. Lipscomb & A.E. Bergh in 1903. These editors introduced both the text and its errors to Jefferson’s readers, errors not corrected in the Library of America version. The Library misleads, though, when on the dust jacket it maintains that its commitment “to publish an authoritative version of an author’s work assures the reader that only after thorough research and study is a text selected for this series.” What can this statement mean in our context?

Many years after leaving the White House Jefferson had occasion to write Nathaniel F. Moore (September 22, 1819) concerning the pronunciation of Greek. I forbear to quote here the hash made of his words at that point. I will report, though, that only recently and by comparing earlier published versions— themselves messed up—have I been able to make any sense of what the text says, though I know both ancient Greek and its modern descendant. It should be of great interest to any reader to know what an intelligent observer thought about the pronunciation of ancient Greek on the very eve of the Greek War of Independence, which broke out in March 1821. I present here what Jefferson must actually have written (using h to represent the Greek eta and transliterating the Greek; I also give upsillon for upsilon, not knowing whether this is Jefferson’s spelling or the editor’s—it does not affect the sense):

When at Paris, I became acquainted with some learned Greeks from whom I learned the modern pronunciation. But I could not receive it as genuine in toto. I could not believe that the ancient Greeks had provided six different notations for the simple sound of i, iota, and left the five other sounds which they give to h, u, ei, oi, us, without any characters of notation at all. I could not acknowledge the u, upsillon, as an equivalent to our v, as in Achilleus, which they pronounce Achillevs, nor the g, gamma, to our y, as in alge’, which they pronounce alye.

Jefferson’s choice alge’ has its interest. The word is not a modern Greek word, but occurs in the second line of Homer’s Iliad. Jefferson must, therefore, have tested his Greek friends’ pronunciation of the ancient language on the first lines of the Iliad. Did he have a text of that poem with him, or did he quote from memory? Either would be interesting.

No doubt Jefferson’s manuscript is difficult to read, and he probably used ligatures not familiar to contemporary readers of Greek. No doubt as well a trained scholar could elicit the correct reading from the manuscript. Apparently editors and publishers over the years have not felt the matter sufficiently important. The new edition of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, edited by J.P. Boyd (Princeton, 1950), will no doubt correct this insouciance.

Again the Library of America has copied errors, errors first (to my knowledge) introduced as long ago as 1854 in H.A. Washington’s The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. It was Washington as well that printed ulere in the letter to Madison, an error repeated since. This error is the more unforgivable in that his work was “published by the Order of the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library from the original manuscripts deposited in the Department of State.” Even Congress seems not to care for accuracy of representation.

Jefferson would not have agreed. Though he viewed education as basically scientific, he thought of languages as useful toward acquiring “the eminent degrees of science.” In a letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley (January 27, 1800) he writes:

To all this I add, that to read the Latin & Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science to be at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts. I enjoy Homer in his own language infinitely beyond Pope’s translation of him, & both beyond the dull narrative of the same events by Dares Phrygius; & it is an innocent enjoyment. I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, & have not since acquired.

He makes similar remarks in his letter to John Adams of March 1819, in which he also discusses the pronunciation of Greek. Jefferson has not been well served by his editors, apparently from the very beginning. And did the Oxford students really yell “Give ’em hell, Harricum” at Oxford (McCullough, p. 957)? If they did, Latin learning is in a bad state even at Oxford. Harricum, a pseudo-Latin diminutive of Henricum, Henry, is in the accusative case, as it was and should be in the Latin citation where Harry is the object of the verb. The students should—of course—have used the vocative, Harrice. O tempora, O mores.