Men like John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Dickinson and James Wilson were superb classicists — they could read both Latin and Greek fairly well and knew Greek and Roman literature, history and philosophy rather thoroughly. Just as importantly, from the time they went to school, they saw ancient Greek and Roman statesmen as models to be emulated in their own careers as lawmakers, civic-minded leaders, public figures of responsibility. Most of these Americans actually learned how to speak publicly by channeling Greek and Roman orators; in fact, while in college, many of our founders gave public speeches in Latin as well as in English, and they engaged in debates using the personae of famous Greek and Roman orators and politicians.
John Adams thought of himself as an American Cicero, the great Roman lawyer and civic leader. George Washington portrayed himself as Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer-turned-general; he made his soldiers at Valley Forge watch his favorite play, Cato, about the Roman patriot who fought against Caesar’s attempt to take over Rome. James Madison looked upon Solon and Lycurgus, two Greek lawgivers, as models for his Constitution-making. Alexander Hamilton regularly and pointedly used pertinent Greek and Roman pseudonyms in publishing pamphlets arguing policy positions — the outstanding case was, of course, his choice of “Publius” for the Federalist Papers; Publius being Publius Valerius Publicola, a founder of the Roman Republic.
Classical training usually began at age eight, whether in a school or at home under the guidance of a private tutor. One remarkable teacher who inculcated his students with a love of the classics was Scotsman Donald Robertson. Many future luminaries were enrolled in his school: James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John Tyler and George Rogers Clark, among others. Robertson and teachers like him nourished their charges with a healthy diet of Greek and Latin, and required that they learn to master Virgil, Horace, Justinian, Tacitus, Herodotus, Plutarch, Lucretius and Thucydides. Further along in their education, students were required to translate Cicero’s Orations and Virgil’s Aeneid. Fortunately for the young Founding Fathers, the teachers of the day exercised their students in Greek and Latin, so that their pupils could meet the rigorous entrance requirements of colonial colleges. Those colleges stipulated that entering freshmen be able to read, translate and expound the Greco-Roman classical works. Students were taught lessons in virtue and liberty from the works of Herodotus, Xenophon, Plutarch, Livy, Sallust, Tacitus and Polybius.
Thomas Jefferson’s classmates recalled that he studied at least 15 hours a day and carried his Greek grammar book with him wherever he went. Because of the formidable classical curricula at colonial colleges, the classics became a well from which the Founders drank deeply. In the classics, the Founding Fathers found their heroes and villains, and they also detected warning signs along the road of statecraft on which they would tread.The Founders’ principal Greco-Roman heroes were Roman statesmen: Cato the Younger, Brutus, Cassius and Cicero — all of whom sacrificed their lives in unsuccessful attempts to save the republic — as well as the celebrated Greek lawgivers Lycurgus and Solon.
From the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, the Founding Fathers looked to classical history as a reliable guide to their successful experiment in building a lasting republic.
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, authors of the Federalist Papers, advocating ratification of the new US Constitution, signed themselves jointly as 'Publius', recalling Publius Valerius Poplicola, first consul of the Roman Republic.Universities in that era placed enormous emphasis on reading Latin and Greek authors.Women read classical books, Abigail Adams wrote regular letters to her husband, John Adams, signing herself as Portia, wife of Brutus.
The dialogue with the history of Antiquity helped to separate the new republics, the bastions of liberty, from the old feudal and monarchic regimes of Europe.
The Lycian League, which brought together twenty-three Greek city-states, was held up as a model of an excellent republic model.Jefferson stated in 1795 on the American experiment that 'we have seen no instance of this since the days of the Roman republic.'
Historian and professor Carl J. Richard
"As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us."
Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, Oct. 31, 1819
"He read Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and Thucydides in the original Greek, which he considered the supreme language. But in his need to fathom the "labyrinth" of human nature, as he said, he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume of English poetry with him on his journeys. "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket," he would tell his son Johnny."
DAVID McCULLOUGH on John Adams
"A successful physician and progressive thinker, Joseph Warren became an outspoken advocate of inoculations to battle the smallpox plague sweeping colonial America and vaccinated his most famous patient, John Adams. But medicine was not his only passion. As the colonies clashed with Mother England, Warren was drawn to the red-hot center of patriot firebrands. He became a propagandist, spymaster and orator who modeled himself on Cicero, occasionally donning a toga to deliver incendiary speeches. It was Warren who led the men to the “party” where they tossed a shipload of British tea into Boston Harbor. And he was the crucial link between Boston’s upper crust patriots –who got most of the glory– and the workingmen and artisans who did most of the dirty work. But Warren was left out of our poems. And our schoolbooks. And that’s too bad."
Historian Kenneth C Davis
"What Athens was in miniature America will be in magnitude. The one was the wonder of the ancient world; the other is becoming the admiration of the present."
Thomas Paine, Rights of Man
John Adams, in his Defense of the Constitution, said of Cicero: “All of the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero…”
First as a lawyer, then as a consul and senator, Cicero boldly defended the republic against the rise of dictators. John and Abigail Adams wrote over a thousand letters to each other during the months (sometimes years) that John was away from home helping found a new nation. As was the custom of the time, they adopted pen names: Abigail was Diana, after the Roman goddess of the moon and later she adopted the pen name, Portia, wife of the great Roman politician Brutus. John adopted the name, Lysander, after the Spartan war hero.
The Roman Classical Revival style was promoted and popularized by Thomas Jefferson, who found the impressively monumental architecture of ancient Rome a suitable model for the newly formed nation. This style was thus a political symbol as well, likening the young United States to the once powerful and influential Roman Republic. Jefferson designed his own home Monticello, the campus of the University of Virginia, and the Capitol of Virginia in this style, using ancient Roman temples as his guide. (Pennsylvania Historical Museum)
George Washington was sometimes called an American Cincinnatus because he too held his command only until the defeat of the British and, at a time when he could have chosen to exercise great political power, instead returned as soon as he could to cultivating his lands. After the end of the Revolutionary War, a group of former officers in the (now) American army formed The Society of the Cincinnati, taking the name from the Roman general. The city of Cincinnati was named after this organization, and a statue of Cincinnatus stands there today.
M.T. Cicero's Cato Major, Franklin's personal favorite from his press, is considered to be the finest example of the printing art in colonial America. Furthermore, this work by the Roman philosopher statesman Cicero is the first classic work translated and printed in North America.
Cicero and Franklin
In the summer of 1787 legend has it that when Benjamin Franklin walked out of the Constitutional Convention, Mrs Powel ran up to Franklin and asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin turned to her and said, "A republic, Madam, if you can keep it."
There was an element of Antiquity that was not a good inspiration and that was slavery.
Thomas Paine stood tall among the founders in that he was against Slavery in the strongest terms, he wrote in 1774:
"To Americans: That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising; and still persist, though it has been so often proved contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of Justice and Humanity. How shameful are all attempts to excuse it!"