Putting the Hick in Hickory

Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past:

The exercises in the Chapel were for the most part in Latin. My father addressed the President in that language, repeating a composition upon which he somewhat prided himself, for Dr. Beck, after making two verbal corrections in his manuscript, had declared it to be as good Latin as a man need write. Then we had some more Latin from young Mr. Francis Bowen, of the senior class, a gentleman whose name has since been associated with so much fine and weighty English. There were also a few modest words, presumably in the vernacular, though scarcely audible, from the recipient of the doctorate.

But it has already been intimated that there were two Jacksons who were at that time making the tour of New England. One was the person whom I have endeavored to describe; the other may be called the Jackson of comic myth, whose adventures were minutely set forth by Mr. Jack Downing and his brother humorists. The Harvard degree, as bestowed upon this latter personage, offered a situation which the chroniclers of the grotesque could in no wise resist. A hint of Downing was seized upon and expanded as it flew from mouth to mouth, until, at last, it has actually been met skulking near the back door of history in a form something like this.

General Jackson, upon being harangued in Latin, found himself in a position of immense perplexity. It was simply decent for him to reply in the learned language in which he was addressed ; but, alas! the Shakespearian modicum of “small Latin” was all that Old Hickory possessed, and what he must do was clearly to rise to the situation and make the most of it. There were those college fellows, chuckling over his supposed humiliation; but they were to meet a man who was not to be caught in the classical trap they had set for him. Rising to his feet just at the proper moment, the new Doctor of Laws astonished the assembly with a Latin address, in which Dr. Beck himself was unable to discover a single error. A brief quotation from this eloquent production will be sufficient to exhibit its character : “Caveat emptor : corpus delicti : ex post facto : dies irae : e pluribus unum : usque ad nauseam: Ursa Major: sic semper tyrannis: quid pro quo : requiescat in pace.” Now this foolery was immensely taking in the day of it; and mimics were accustomed to throw social assemblies into paroxysms of delight by imitating Jackson in the delivery of his Latin speech. The story was, on the whole, so good, as showing how the man of the people could triumph over the crafts and subtleties of classical pundits, that all Philistia wanted to believe it. And so it came to pass that, as time went on, part of Philistia did believe it, for I have heard it mentioned as an actual occurrence by persons who may not shrink from a competitive examination in history whenever government offices are to be entered through that portal. Human annals get muddied by the wits, as well as by the sentimentalists. Some taking rhapsody, be it of humor or fancy, is flung in the direction of an innocent mortal, and the best historian cannot wash him quite clean of it.

An Ass with a Crown” – Advice for Future Rulers – SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

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