J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Joshua Green Begins in the Accidence

A Boston 1775 reader asked to know more about the difference between the two types of public schools in colonial Boston that I mentioned on Monday: Latin Schools and Writing Schools. Since the town apparently saw more value in the Latin or grammar schools, to judge by what it paid the schoolmasters, I’ll start with those.

On 26 July 1773, Joshua Green, Jr., wrote in his diary, “I enter’d at Latin School & began in ye. Accidence.” In fact, he began studying the copy of the Accidence shown right here, printed in Boston in 1766. He wrote his name in the upper right corner. (I think I found this image years ago in Pauline Holmes’s Tercentenary History of the Boston Public Latin School). Joshua was about nine years old, and some of his classmates were only seven.

This textbook was often called “Cheever’s Accidence” after Ezekiel Cheever (1614-1708), who had taught in New England grammar schools for seven decades. However, it was probably assembled by Cheever’s last usher, or assistant teacher, Nathaniel Williams. Williams succeeded his mentor in 1708, and the first edition appeared on the market in 1709. With revisions, it continued to be printed until 1838.

And what an exciting read the Accidence was, too:

A Noune is the name of a thing that may be seen, felt, heard or understand. As the name of my hand in Latin, is Manus: The name of an house, is Domus: The name of goodnesse, is Bonitas.

Of Nounes some be Substantives, and some be Adjectives. A Noune Substantive is that standeth by him selfe, and requireth not an other worde to be joyned with him: as Homo, a Man: and it is declined with one article: as Hic magister, a Maister: or else with two at moste: as Hic & haec parens, a Father or Mother. A Noune Adjective is that can not stand by him selfe, but requireth to be joyned with an other worde: as Bonus, good: Pulcher, faire. And it is declined either with thre terminations: - as Bonus, bona, bonum: or els with thre articles: as Hic haec & hoc Foelix, Happy. Hic & haec levis, & hoc leve, Light.

A Verbe is a parte of speche, declined with mode and tense, and betokenenth dooying: as Amo, I love: or suffering: as Amor, I am loved: or beeying: as Sum, I am.
That’s not necessarily the text as Joshua would have seen it in 1773; it comes from this site from Holy Cross College on the teaching of Latin in the 1600s and 1700s. But it no doubt has the same flavor. Pedagogical technique at the time involved a great deal of reciting aloud and memorization.

In September, Joshua moved on to “Nomenclator,” then “Corderius.” Eventually Latin School lessons consisted of “making verses,” or translating back and forth. Scholars in the top two classes (or forms) at the school studied the rudiments of Greek. All this was to prepare the boys for Harvard College, and particularly for the ministry. Creating a supply of Puritan ministers was, after all, why the Massachusetts Bay colony had founded Harvard and required all towns above a certain size to provide some sort of public schooling for their boys. Nevertheless, by the 1700s most Harvard graduates were going into law, medicine, or business, not the pulpit.

The Latin School curriculum left out a lot of interesting and useful subjects:
  • science
  • math
  • history (besides what was in Caesar and other Latin writers)
  • geography (One Latin School graduate recalled, “I never saw a map, except in Caesar’s Commentaries, and did not know what that meant.”)
  • handwriting
  • literature or composition in English
  • other languages
  • business
  • art and music
The upshot was that if a boy wasn’t doing well enough at a Latin School to go on to Harvard or another college, there was almost no value in remaining at that school at all. It was a highly impractical education. In the two decades before the Revolutionary War, only one-third of the boys who entered Boston’s South Latin School finished all seven years. Notable grammar-school dropouts included Benjamin Franklin, Henry Knox, Henry Pelham, and Samuel Breck.


Anonymous said...

Thank, JL, for writing about this. You list the things Latin school did *not* teach--did they teach nothing but Latin? Once the language was understood, did the boys then read texts about theology, ancient history, natural sciences(?) in that language? The way one learned Latin looks excruciating--that text was dreadful--but think of the worlds it opened up, as the language of scholars worldwide. Kit

J. L. Bell said...

Harrison Gray Otis wrote: “The books studied in the first year were Cheever’s Accidence, a small Nomenclature, and Corderius’ Colloquies. The second year, Æsop’s Fables, and towards the close of it, Eutropius and Ward’s Lilly’s Grammar. The third year Eutropius and Grammar continued, and a book commenced called Clarke’s Introduction. In the fourth year, the fourth form, as well as the fifth form and sixth, being furnished with desks, commenced ‘making Latin,’ as the phrase was, and to the books used by the third form Caesar’s Commentaries were added. After this were read in succession by the three upper classes, Tully’s [i.e., Cicero’s] Orations, the first books of the Æneid, and the highest classes dipped into Xenophon and Homer."

No theology, no natural science, no law, no drama, although a thorough grounding in Latin helped men in all those fields. Some history and literature, of the ancient sort. Some politics through Cicero and Caesar. A selection of Virgil and Homer.

The boys don’t seem to have engaged with the literary works beyond rewriting verses from them—“making Latin.” They didn’t write critical essays, compose their own odes, act out scenes, &c.