by Dr. Joe Wolverton II
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
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided,
and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no
way of judging of the future but by the past.
Patrick Henry. March 23, 1775.
Patrick Henry’s view of the value of history was not unique. The men who framed our constitutional republic agreed with French author Charles Pinot Duclos, who observed:
We see on the theater of the world a certain number of scenes which succeed each other in endless repetition: where we see the same faults followed regularly by the same misfortunes, we may reasonably think that if we could have known the first we might have avoided the others. The past should enlighten us on the future: knowledge of history is no more than an anticipated experience.
All our Founding Fathers believed that history was a precursor of the future. In the annals of history — particularly that of the Greek and Roman republics of antiquity — they believed they could find the key to inoculating America against the diseases that infected and destroyed past societies. Indeed, it has been said that the Founders were coroners examining the lifeless bodies of the republics and democracies of the past, in order to avoid succumbing to the maladies that shortened their lives.
The Founders learned very early in life to venerate the illuminating stories of ancient Greece and Rome. They learned these stories, not from secondary sources, but from the classics themselves. And from these stories they drew knowledge and inspiration that helped them found a republic far greater than anything created in antiquity.
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. They were expected to translate Greek and Latin passages aloud, write out the translations in English, and then re-translate the passages back into the original language using a different tense.
The standards were no less rigorous for those taught at home. George Wythe, the renowned Virginian who would come to be known as the “Teacher of Liberty,” was himself taught to appreciate the writings of the ancients at home by his mother. Tragically, Wythe’s mother died when he was very young, but she lived long enough to anchor her son’s education on very firm moorings. Before she died she taught Wythe to read and translate both the fundamental languages of antiquity, Greek and Latin. According to one early biographer, Wythe “had a perfect knowledge of the Greek language taught to him by his mother in the backwoods.”
Whether at home or in a schoolhouse, the goal of education in the early days of our nation was to instill virtue in the students. The Founders were taught that free societies were sustained by a virtuous populace, and that, if a society were to abandon a study of the classics, that same society would eventually abandon the virtues championed by the classical authors.
There was a more pragmatic side to the Founders’ classical education as well. Twenty-seven of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were college educated. Moreover, of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, 30 were college graduates. That is an impressive feat given the challenging entrance requirements of 18th-century universities. 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.
Such requirements were nearly universal in America and remained unchanged for generations. Teachers concentrated their lessons on the works of those classical authors on which students would be tested prior to admission to college. A brief survey of the entrance requirements for colonial colleges will testify to the enlightenment of our Founding Fathers — as well as to the astounding decline in the educational standards of our day.
In 1750, Harvard demanded that applicants be able to extemporaneously “read, construe, and parse Cicero, Virgil, or such like classical authors and to write Latin in prose, and to be skilled in making Latin verse, or at least to know the rules of Prosodia, and to read, construe, and parse ordinary Greek as in the New testament, Isocrates, or such like and decline the paradigms of Greek nouns and verbs.” Of note is the fact that John Trumball, the illustrious artist, passed Harvard’s exacting entrance exam at only 12 years of age.
Alexander Hamilton’s alma mater, King’s College (now Columbia), had similarly stringent prerequisites for prospective students. Applicants were required to “give a rational account of the Greek and Latin grammars, read three orations of Cicero and three books of Virgil’s Aeneid, and translate the first 10 chapters of John from Greek into Latin.”
James Madison had it no easier when he applied for entrance to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1769. Madison and his fellow applicants were obliged to demonstrate “the ability to write Latin prose, translate Virgil, Cicero, and the Greek gospels and a commensurate knowledge of Latin and Greek grammar.”
College lessons were as demanding as the entrance exams. American colonial curricula were based on the Latin “trivium” of rhetoric, logic, and grammar, as well as the “quadrivium” of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Unlike modern universities, where elective courses are innumerable and often inane, the colleges attended by our Founding Fathers offered very few elective courses and coursework focused chiefly on the study of classical works. And those works were in the languages in which they were originally written! 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.
Heroes and Villains
Ancient history provided the Founders with examples of behavior and circumstances that they could apply to their own circumstances. Their heroes were Roman and Greek republicans and defenders of liberty. All of the Founders’ Roman heroes lived at a time when the Roman republic was being threatened by power-hungry demagogues, bloodthirsty dictators and shadowy conspirators. 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.
Cato the Younger was a Roman of sterling reputation who lived from approximately 95 B.C. to 46 B.C. He is described as being “unmoved by passion and firm in everything,” even from his youth. He was renowned for finishing whatever he started and for hating flattery. He embraced every Roman virtue, and he was especially appreciated for his sense of justice and his even temperament. As a senator, Cato was always in attendance when the Senate was in session. A no-nonsense legislator, Cato was hated by Pompey and Caesar for his integrity and for his refusal to aid them in their corrupt plans to usurp power. Although they imprisoned him, the public clamored for his release and Caesar reluctantly complied.
Unable to squelch Cato’s attacks on their corrupt policies, Caesar and Pompey sent him to Cyprus. Finally, Cato aligned himself with Brutus against Caesar, a decision that would eventually cost him his life. George Washington admired Cato so greatly that he had Joseph Addison’s play about Cato performed in Valley Forge to boost the troops’ morale.
Roman heroes very dear to the hearts of the Founders also included Brutus and Cassius. Brutus was admired by his contemporaries for his pleasant disposition and virtuous temper. Even those who opposed his attack on Caesar believed that Brutus was motivated by a genuine concern for the republic and not by personal animosity toward Caesar. Marc Antony himself said that Brutus was “the only man that conspired against Caesar out of a sense of the glory and justice of the action; but all the rest rose up against the man, and not the tyrant …” America’s Founders looked to Brutus and Cassius as role models because their only aim in overthrowing Caesar was to restore the constitutional Roman government and republican liberties.
The most popular Roman hero of the Founding Fathers was Cicero, the silver-tongued Roman orator. Cicero lived from approximately 106 B.C. to 43 B.C. 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. Cicero delivered his greatest speeches in defense of the republic against the Catilinarian Conspiracy.
The Catilinarian Conspiracy was a plot to overthrow the republic, hatched by aristocrat Lucius Sergius Catiline with the help of a cabal of aristocrats and disaffected veterans. In 63 B.C., Cicero exposed and thwarted the plot, and Catiline was forced to flee from Rome. For his service in saving Rome, Cicero was given the title “Father of his Country” [Pater Patriae] by his countrymen. Like Brutus and Cassius, Cicero’s courageous defense of republican liberty in the face of designing conspirators made him a logical model for emulation by our Founding Fathers.
Regarding the Greek classics, the American Founding Fathers greatly admired Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta. Lycurgus lived in the 9th century B.C. and reformed the entire Spartan commonwealth. His most important reform was the establishment of a senate equal in authority with the monarchy in matters of great importance. Prior to Lycurgus’ innovation, the Spartan government swayed between monarchy and democracy, depending on whether the king or the people had the upper hand. The senate served as a check on the excesses of both king and subjects. The biographer Plutarch called Lycurgus’ institutions “one of the greatest blessings which heaven can send down.”
Another Greek famed for his reform of the law was Solon. Born in Athens about 638 B.C., Solon achieved glory as one of the “Seven Sages of Greece.” Around 590 B.C., he was given the task of reforming the Athenian constitution. Solon’s improvements included the right of trial by jury and the division of society into several bodies that would balance and check each other in governing Athens. After finishing his constitutional reforms, Solon left Athens for 10 years. While he was away, Pisistratus, his former friend, usurped control of the government and fastened tyrannical controls on Athens. Both Lycurgus and Solon appreciated the need for incorporating checks and balances into government, a need that the American Founders understood just as acutely.
As the Founders read the histories of the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman republics recorded by Herodotus, Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, Plutarch Polybius and others, they learned that the liberties enjoyed by the citizens of those commonwealths were quite often targeted by conspiracies of men determined to enslave the people and establish themselves as tyrants. The founders recognized that the conspiratorial view of history was not a theory — it was a fact.
Ancient historians were straightforward in their reports of the secret plots. Surveying the litany of British monarchical abuses, our Founders rightly perceived that the shrouded hand of an evil conspiracy was at work in America and England, just as it had been in the Roman republic they so admired. Famed patriot Charles Carroll of Carrollton invoked the record of Roman historian Tacitus when he wrote that the conspiracy of his own time had led America and England to “that degree of liberty and servitude which [Servius Sulpicius] Galba ascribes to the Roman people in the speech to [Gaius Calpurnius] Piso: those same Romans, a few years after that period, deified the horse of Caligula.”
The equally eminent and historically minded John Adams also applied analogies from the Roman republic to the increasingly open threat to the foundations of English liberty by corrupt legislators. The government of England, he said (quoting Roman historian Sallust), had descended to the level where “the Roman republic was when Jugurtha left it, having pronounced it a ‘venal city, ripe for destruction if it can only find a purchaser.‘ “ Sallust was a valuable and oft-cited source of warnings as to the consequences of government corruption and intrigue.
Our Founders heeded these warnings about power elites who used corruption, intrigue, and personal immorality to neutralize public concern and dampen zeal for the protection of liberty. From the 18th to the 21st century, it would seem times have changed very little.
James Madison insightfully noted that most of the tyrants of history masqueraded as democrats, and over time revealed themselves to be power hungry dictators and shameless demagogues. Alexander Hamilton, an astute student of classical history, devoted his first contribution to The Federalist Papers to a warning against tyrants or “men who have over-turned the liberties of republics, commencing as demagogues and ending as tyrants.”
From such statements, it is evident that Adams, Madison, Hamilton and other Founders understood that, throughout the history of the Greek and Roman republics, tyrants were more likely than not to begin their political careers as populists and democrats and to end them as despots. Such demagogues were men of prominence who used their popular support to force their will upon an unsuspecting and trusting populace. As Greek historian Thucydides remarked, “You may rule over anyone whom you can dominate.”
Madison’s study of the ancient Greek confederacies revealed to him that almost every one of these republics came to an end as a result of conspiracy among domestic demagogues and foreign allies. Hamilton called these insidious cabals the “Grecian Horse to a republic.” Both men worried that the same scheme would eventually destroy the American union. This fear, coupled with a thorough understanding of history, made the Founders vigilant guardians against the rise of such combinations in their own nascent republic.
Madison, James Wilson and others who systematically studied the ancient republics and confederacies noted that conspiracies were rampant among them. Those who were successful in carrying out such evil designs would expose and vehemently rail against similar acts on the part of others, thus painting themselves as guardians of liberty. The source of all this evil was an unquenchable thirst for power. Power was the end, and conspiracy was the means commonly used to satisfy the rapacious appetite for dominion.
From Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Jefferson, Adams, Dickinson, Madison, Hamilton and other diligent patriot-scholars learned of a particularly pernicious deception practiced by tyrannically minded conspirators. These instigators would place their fellow conspirators in leadership positions on both sides of a controversy, constantly inciting the “opposing” factions against one another until the innocent citizens didn’t know what to believe. Our American republic in the 21st century is little different, as Democrats and Republicans adamantly “oppose” one another, while between their rival policies lurks not a dime’s worth of difference.
A companion evil to the conspiracies that contaminated and eventually annihilated the ancient commonwealths was the gradual erosion of liberty by seemingly harmless and legal acts. In Demosthenes’ writings, the Founders read of how Philip of Macedon — by slow and nearly imperceptible means — dismantled Athenian freedom. Philip was an enemy even to those who fancied themselves his allies. He used “legal” means to subvert the constitution and rob Athens of her liberty. His favorite tactic was to create frivolous diversions and provide luxuries to lull the Athenians into a false sense of security and distract them from noticing Philip’s usurpations.
Unfortunately, Philip succeeded in gaining control of Athens and in making her formerly freedom-loving citizens slaves to his will. Jefferson described such gradual and planned usurpations this way: “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day, but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.” Will we prove wiser and more zealous protectors of our sacred liberties?
One of the best ways of demonstrating our respect for our Founding Fathers, and our dedication to the principles of liberty they bequeathed to us, is to study the books they studied. By so doing, we will come to appreciate, as they did, that republics are as fragile as they are glorious. We will also more fully recognize that unassailable personal virtue and vigilant loyalty to constitutional principals are the only hope for perpetuation of the freedom that our forebears bought with their blood. May we learn from the successes and failures of the ancients and not allow the “lamp of experience” to be extinguished in our lives.
Source. The New American. 20 September 2004. pp. 35 – 39.