On the day after a national election, it’s bracing to stroll through the blustery streets of Colonial Williamsburg—which, lucky for me, is just footsteps away from a conference I’m attending. I’d hoped to find some trace of American medievalism, and the colonial city did not disappoint: along the green leading to the Governor’s Palace is a house where a Virginia lawyer lit a medieval torch in the mind of a Founding Father.
That’s the home of George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Fresh out of William and Mary, a young Thomas Jefferson spent five years here as Wythe’s law apprentice and stumbled early into one of his innumerable lifelong hobbies: the study of Old English.
Poring over a 15th-century legal tract, Jefferson encountered a modern preface arguing that a student should learn “Saxon” to understand the essence of English law. Already intrigued by languages, the young man was hooked; Stanley R. Hauer points out (in “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language”) that the future third president of the United States collected Old English textbooks, painstakingly copied footnotes in Anglo-Saxon script into a 1778 legal treatise, and made sure that the University of Virginia was the first American institution to offer Anglo-Saxon language courses when it opened in 1825. According to Hauer, Jefferson’s grasp of Anglo-Saxon was weak—often he couldn’t distinguish it from Middle English—but if you’ve studied Old English, or even if you’ve read Beowulf in a college class, its presence was partly Jefferson’s doing.
Jefferson’s obsession with Old English resonated far beyond the English department. During his five years in Wythe’s study, he imaginatively plunged into what historians have dubbed the “Saxon myth,” the common belief among Whigs of his era that the best English institutions—parliament, trial by jury, common law—were the unbroken legacy of freedom-loving Germanic tribes who’d crept into Britain as early as the fifth century. (This idea was itself the legacy of 16th- and 17th-century reformers who’d tried to prove that both the Church of England and Parliament were continuations of ancient, primitive democracy.)
In letters and treatises, Jefferson trumpeted his belief that America had directly inherited liberty from the Anglo-Saxons. His strongest statement on the matter was surely his (unsuccessful) push to decorate the Great Seal of the United States with the figures of Horsa and Hengist, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”
I suppose we are the political heirs of the Anglo-Saxons, since Jefferson believed it to be so when he helped establish our republic. He knew, though, that his contemporaries held conflicting views. “It has ever appeared to me,” he wrote to English political reformer John Cartwright in 1824, “that the difference between the Whig and the Tory of England is, that the Whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the Tory from the Norman.” It’s instructive, two centuries later, to see how our predecessors reached into the past for conflicting myths to answer a perennial question: What sort of people are we to be?