Skip to main content

Latrobe’s Scrumptious Journals

ISSUE:  Winter 1979
The Virginia Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe 1795—1798. Edited by Edward C. Carter II.2 vols, Yale. $60.

WHEN von Ranke told his students to go to the documents in search of historical truth, he doubtless meant that a discovery of fresh material would require digging in archives to the sound of crackling parchment, An obstacle course had to be run before the battle for truth could be won. In the era before technological wonderment, Edmund C. Burnett pursued materials for his work on the Continental Congress by offering good penmen 25 cents an hour for copies of significant documents. If the copyists were lucky, they had an electric fan. But in our time the editing of documents is no longer a matter of physical endurance or of penury. Prodded by Presidents Truman and Kennedy, the federal government now subsidizes most editors, and the Xerox corporation has made the sacrifices of past ones read like accounts from a torture chamber.

Indeed, since 1950 and Julian Boyd’s first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s academic presses have been competing with each other to provide historians with a complete, convenient, and even elegant series of volumes stamped as “definitive” editions. What was once possible for the diligent researcher only through a trip to Washington or New York City can now be accomplished in ease and comfort in Anchorage or Austin. The emphasis in these endeavors, of course, has been on presidents or statesmen— some of whom should have been president.

With a full generation of historical editing behind us (and even more, if we include Lewis’s Walpole and Pottle’s Boswell), the trend in this country now is to look for secondary figures who held pencils or pens rather than office. The scrumptious Virginia journals by Latrobe are publishing showpieces which are further testimony of the swing away from the pretended art of politics to the real artistry of sculpture, painting, and architecture. Similar projects for Charles Willson Peale, Daniel Chester French, and William Thornton are also under way.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a Yorkshire-born man-of-the-world, was bound to attract editorial attention. He moved in high circles, he kept records, and he saved those records. He also moved voluntarily to America after his young wife’s death, hoping to erase the bitterness of his grief through the migration. A tedious trans-Atlantic crossing which took almost four months, marked by poor navigation and foul weather, helped dissipate some of Latrobe’s melancholy. He came ashore at Norfolk in March 1796 to begin life anew amongst the rising generation in Virginia and the new nation. Latrobe proceeded to leave his mark on the architecture of the republic, but he was more often disappointed than not; the grand opportunity never came so that his pursuit of glory in Richmond, Philadelphia, and then the new federal capital finally carried him to a malaria-infested New Orleans and death in 1820.

These handsome volumes contain the journals kept by Latrobe from the time he left England in November 1795 until he departed from Richmond early in December 1798.The books abound with Latrobe’s attractive landscapes and plantation vistas, many of them in full color, as well as some not-so-pretty sketches of Patrick Henry, James Innes, Edmund Randolph, and Nancy Randolph. His water-colors of Mount Vernon, Greenspring (William Lee’s home outside Williamsburt), the Botetourt statue at William and Mary, and the entrance to Lake Drummond are among Latrobe’s feasts for the eye related to the Virginiana theme. Less attractive are his graphic portrayals of a Richmond electrical storm-cloud, a variety of insects (their habits fascinated Latrobe), and some romanticized landscapes made along the Appomattox and James rivers. As Fiske Kimball noted long ago (in a notable portrait in the Dictionary of American Biography), Latrobe was no dilettante but a skilled professional influenced by the English standards of style and form that would enrich American art and architecture.

Latrobe’s 14 sketchbooks, 13 journals, and other papers acquired by the Maryland Historical Society in 1960 included a sizable trove covering the Yorkshireman’s first years in America. The papers related to Latrobe’s Virginia experiences are more revealing of the man than of his locale. He is a troubled man, searching for a new life in what he must have thought would be a land much like an English countryside. As Carter says in the introduction, “Although he made valuable and even loyal friends in Virginia, Latrobe was frankly becoming bored . . . .seized not so much by a sense of superiority to but estrangement from the merchant and gentry circles in which he found friendship, entertainment, and, on occasion, even enlightenment.” Here the editor touches on one of the chief causes of Latrobe’s restless years in Virginia. The enlightened milieu of Jefferson and Madison was not to be found in the company of William Ludwell Lee or John Mayo. Indeed, the Virginian Latrobe spoke of as “my only friend”— Bushrod Washington—was the supreme court justice Senator William Branch Giles soon said was “obnoxious” to most Virginians. Latrobe never grew close to anyone other than Washington during his Virginia sojourn; still Washington had his flaws.”But yet he is only a Lawyer,” Latrobe wrote, “and I have the itch of Botany, of Chemistry, of Mathematics, of general Literature strong upon me . . .and yawn at perpetual political or legal discussions especially conducted in the cramp[ed], local manner in which it is treated in Virginia.”

Latrobe had left his two children in England, to await his beckon after he found himself. He bought Washington’s 80-acre island in the James and was commissioned as the architect for the state penitentiary at Richmond on a £200-a-year salary. Nothing went well. He had to argue with state officials about the building plans, about his pay, and from his dealings public and private found it easy to conclude that the famous Virginia hospitality was overpraised. The manners of Virginians, he noted, were English. Hence Virginians in society were “cold hearted and cautious” like their English cousins. “None but Mr. Jefferson, and 3 Gentlemen at Richmond” knew how to put Latrobe at ease. Black marks against Virginia abound in other areas. The roads were abominable, the lodgings expensive, and the flies intolerable. Along with the bickering of bureaucrats, Latrobe had to contend with the anguish of writing The Apology, a play loosely based on one of Alexander Hamilton’s indiscretions which flopped so badly the author appears to have destroyed the manuscript. There was also a frustrated love affair along the way. No wonder that Latrobe began to look for an escape, and finally found it late in 1798.

Editor Carter has deftly annotated the text. He may have been too conscientious in one respect—he has kept texts and added letters which might have been omitted by judicious editorial risk-taking.(John Updike’s recent remark about the Boswell project, that it “has been on the scale of talmudic commentary,” needs more attention in editorial circles.) The long account of a domestic crisis in England and a tedious recollection of an English cobbler’s rise to power as the Baron de Rothe seem to be unnecessary distractions, as is the device of placing an asterisk after all the persons identified in a useful glossary. Latrobe’s “Essay on Landscape” takes 74 pages but has little to do with Virginia and much to do with English landscape drawing, so it could have been omitted without harm to the overall work. If these matters had been left for later volumes, the flow of them would probably have been smoother, their pertinence more apparent, and the title more truly descriptive.

After struggling with Latrobe through two volumes, there is a sense of relief in learning that he is off to Philadelphia. His obvious talents, his apostlehood for the English Enlightenment, and his efforts at goodwill toward Virginia had not made the impact on his adopted home which the ambitious Latrobe had anticipated. In his first entry, before departing from England, Latrobe wrote: “Nothing at present presents itself but dirt and disappointment.” He might have written a similar entry when he left Richmond three years later. These showy journals mainly tell us that Latrobe expected too much of the people and places he was to encounter in the Old Dominion. He left Virginia without a tinge of regret.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading