Modern history



THE LATE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY in the Atlantic world has been called “the age of the democratic revolution.” It might better be called “the age of the republican revolution.” For it was republicanism and republican principles, not democracy, that brought down the ancient monarchies.1

It was an astonishing moment in Western history, and we are living with its effects still. Monarchies that had existed for centuries were suddenly overthrown and replaced by new republican governments. Since republican governments have become so natural and normal for most of the world in the early twenty-first century, it is hard to recover the surprisingly novel and radical character of those eighteenth-century republican revolutions. In the eighteenth century, monarchy was still the standard for most people, and, as events in our own time demonstrate, there was always something to be said for large and diverse countries being ruled from the top by a single authority. Monarchy had history on its side; the kings of Europe had spent centuries consolidating their authority over unruly nobles and disparate peoples. The Bible endorsed kingship. Had not the ancient Israelites proclaimed that “we will have a king over us; that we ... may be like all the nations”?2

Since most people in the Atlantic world and elsewhere had lived with kings for all of their recorded histories, why in the late eighteenth century should these kings have been so suddenly overthrown by republican revolutions? Why, as John Adams wondered in 1776, should “[i]dolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride [be] so totally eradicated from so many minds in so short a Time”?3 If change were inevitable, why should republicanism have been chosen as the alternative to the ancien régimes? There were political and constitutional changes short of establishing republics that could have been tried. Hereditary lines could have been shifted; new kings could have been set upon the thrones. After all, the English in their Glorious Revolution in 1688–1689 and in their constitutional adjustment in 1714 had not abolished monarchy; they merely had found new heirs to the crown and placed some new limits on their king. Besides, during the seventeenth century the English had already tried a brief experiment in republicanism, and it had ended in disaster and dictatorship. Why would anyone want to try such an experiment again? The tiny self-proclaimed republics that did exist in eighteenth-century Europe—the Swiss cantons, the Italian city-states, and the Dutch provinces—were in various stages of confusion and decay and were very unlikely models for the large and populous countries of the Western world. Why would any state—either the sprawling provinces of British North America or the conglomeration that constituted the ancien régime of France—want to emulate them?

Amidst this monarchy-dominated culture, however, there was one republican model that did seem worth emulating—one republic that had achieved in glory and fame all that any people anywhere could ever hope for. And that republic was ancient Rome. While the eighteenth century was not much interested in the past, antiquity was the exception; no modern era has ever invested so much in the classical past. And although all the ancient republics—Athens, Sparta, Thebes—were familiar to educated people in the eighteenth century (their names had “grown trite by repetition,” said one American), none was more familiar than that of Rome. People could not hear enough about it. “It was impossible,” said Montesquieu, “to be tired of as agreeable a subject as ancient Rome.” There was nothing startling about Edward Gibbon’s choice of subject for his great history. “Rome,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “is familiar to the schoolboy and the statesman.” To be educated in the eighteenth century was to know about Rome; Latin, as John Locke had said, was still regarded as “absolutely necessary to a gentleman.”4

If any one cultural source lay behind the republican revolutions of the eighteenth century, it was ancient Rome—republican Rome—and the values that flowed from its history. It was ancient Rome’s legacy that helped to make the late eighteenth century’s apparently sudden transition to republicanism possible. If the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was, as Peter Gay has called it, “the rise of modern paganism,” then classical republicanism was its creed.5 To be enlightened was to be interested in antiquity, and to be interested in antiquity was to be interested in republicanism. Certainly classical antiquity could offer meaningful messages for monarchy too, but there is no doubt that the thrust of what the ancient world, and particularly Rome, had to say to the eighteenth century was latently and at times manifestly republican.

If the Enlightenment was to discover the sources of a flourishing society and human happiness, it was important to learn what lay behind the ascendency of republican Rome and its eventual decline and fall. The French and American revolutionaries’ view of the ancient past was therefore very selective, focusing on the moral and social basis of politics and on social degeneracy and corruption. Since the eighteenth century believed that “similar causes will forever operate like effects in the political, moral, and physical world,” the history of antiquity inevitably became a kind of laboratory in which autopsies of the dead republics, especially Rome, would lead to a science of political sickness and health—“political pathology,” one American called it—matching the medical science of the natural world.6

It was the writings of the golden age of Latin literature that fascinated the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, preoccupied as it was with cyclical history and the decline and fall of the Roman republic. These Roman writings of the Enlightenment spanned the two centuries from the breakdown of the republic in the middle of the first century B.C. to the reign of Marcus Aurelius in the middle of the second century A.D. Together with the Greek Plutarch, the Roman authors of this literature—Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Virgil, Tacitus—set forth republican ideals and values about politics and society that have had a powerful and lasting effect on Western culture. Writing at a time when the greatest days of the Roman republic were crumbling or were already gone, these Latin writers contrasted the growing corruption, luxury, and disorder they saw about them with an imagined earlier republican world of ordered simplicity and Arcadian virtue and sought to explain why the republic had withered and decayed.7

These classical ideals and values were revived and refurbished by the Italian Renaissance—becoming what has been variously called “civic humanism” or “classical republicanism”—and were carried into early modern Europe and made available in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to wider and deeper strata of the population, which rarely possessed an original or unglossed antiquity; they often saw a refracted image of the vanished republic, saw the classical past and classical values as Machiavelli and the Renaissance had passed them on. While some in the English-speaking world did own and read the ancient authors in Latin, most generally preferred translations, popularizations, and secondary surveys such as Thomas Gordon’s Sallust and Tacitus, Basil Kennett’s Roman Antiquities, Walter Moyle’s dabblings in antiquity, Charles Rollin’s popular histories, Thomas Blackwell’s Memoirs of the Court of Augustus , Oliver Goldsmith’s history of Rome, and Edward Wortley Montagu’s Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Antient Republicks. By the eighteenth century, monarchical culture in Europe and particularly in Great Britain was thoroughly infused with these republican writings and their classical values and to that extent at least was already republicanized.8

The source of monarchy’s destruction and replacement by republicanism in the late eighteenth century was already present several generations earlier. Consequently, monarchy was not supplanted by republicanism all at once—not in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, not in 1789 with the calling of the Estates General, not even in 1792–1793 with the National Convention’s proclamation of the republic and the execution of Louis XVI. The change came before these events, and slowly. Classical republican values ate away at monarchy—corroding it, gradually, steadily—for much of the eighteenth century. Republicanism seeped everywhere in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, eroding monarchical society from within, wearing away all the traditional supports of kingship, ultimately desacralizing monarchy in France and America to the point where, as David Hume observed, “the mere name of king commands little respect; and to talk of a king as God’s vice-regent upon earth, or to give him any of these magnificent titles which formerly dazzled mankind, would but excite laughter in everyone.”9

Of course, the French and English subscribed to these classical republican values with varying degrees of intensity, and the term “republican” remained pejorative, something to hang on the head of an opponent in order to damage his credibility, if not his loyalty to the crown. Nevertheless, what is remarkable is the extent to which the thinking of the educated eighteenth-century French and English on both sides of the Atlantic was republicanized in substance, if not in name. It is true that many thinkers, such as Montesquieu, Mably, and Rousseau, despite their admiration for ancient Rome, conceded that a country like France was too large to become a republic. But some, like Mme. Roland, actually confessed that reading Plutarch “had disposed me to become a republican; he had aroused in me that force and pride which give republicanism its character, and he had inspired in me a veritable enthusiasm for the public virtues and for liberty.”10 Although most others were reluctant to admit to being republican, some responded as did the editor of the South Carolina Gazette, Peter Timothy, in 1749 when he was denounced as a republican for publishing Cato’s Letters: he was not a “Republican . . . ,” Timothy said, “unless Virtue and Truth be Republican.”11

These classical ideals, this vision of what James Thomson in his Whig poem “Liberty” called “old virtuous Rome,” thus became the best means by which the disgruntled French and dissatisfied Britons on both sides of the Atlantic could voice their objections to the luxury, selfishness, and corruption of the monarchical world in which they lived.12 Although the intellectuals and critics who invoked republican principles and classical values were opposed to the practices and values of the dominant monarchical world, few of them actually intended to foment revolution and overthrow monarchy. They sought to reform and revitalize their society and to enlighten and improve monarchical rule, not cut off the heads of kings. These critics and many others—including good, loyal colonial subjects of His Britannic Majesty—used republicanism of classical antiquity merely as a counterculture to monarchy. Though rarely cited specifically by name, classical republicanism represented all those beliefs and values that confronted and criticized the abuses of the eighteenth-century monarchical world.

Monarchical and republican values therefore existed side by side in the culture, and many good monarchists, including many good English Tories, adopted what were in substance if not in name republican ideals and principles without realizing the long-run political implications of what they were doing. Although they seldom mentioned the term, educated people of varying political persuasions celebrated classical republicanism for its spirit, its morality, its freedom, its sense of friendship and duty, and its georgic vision of the good society. Classical republicanism as a set of values, an explanation of history, and a form of life was much too pervasive, comprehensive, and involved with being liberal and enlightened to be seen as subversive or as antimonarchical.

Instead of being some thin eddy that ran only on the edges of British or European culture, this classical republicanism thus became an important current in its own right that blended and mingled with the monarchical mainstream and influenced its color, tone, and direction. Eighteenth-century republicanism did not so much displace monarchy as transform it. At times it became virtually indistinguishable from monarchy. Certainly it came to stand for something other than a set of political institutions based on popular election. In fact, republicanism was not to be reduced to a mere form of government at all; instead it was what Franco Venturi has called “a form of life,” classical ideals and values that were entirely compatible with monarchical institutions. Republicanism “was separated from the historical forms it had taken in the past, and became increasingly an ideal which could exist in a monarchy.”13

This republicanism rooted in the Latin writings of ancient Rome was thus never a besieged underground ideology, confined to cellar meetings and marginal intellectuals. On the contrary: kings themselves participated in the cult of antiquity. While reading a passage from Livy’s Roman history to the artist Benjamin West, George III suggested to West that he paint The Departure of Regulus (1767) as an example of self-sacrificial patriotism. The archbishop of York likewise requested a classical painting from West, drawing on a passage from Tacitus. There were no more enthusiastic promoters of classical republicanism than many members of the English and French nobility, who were presumably closest to monarchy and whose privileges depended upon it. All those French nobles who in 1785 flocked to the Paris salon to ooh and aah over Jacques-Louis David’s severe classical painting The Oath of the Horatii had no idea they were contributing to the weakening of monarchy and their own demise. Likewise, all those aristocratic sponsors of the 1730 edition of James Thomson’s Virgilian-derived georgic poem “The Seasons”—including the queen, ten dukes, thirty-one earls and countesses, and a larger number of the lesser peerage and their sons and daughters—little sensed that their celebration of agricultural simplicity and rural virtue was contributing to the erosion of the monarchical values that made their dominance possible. When even hereditary aristocrats, “disclaiming as it were [their] birthright, and putting [themselves] upon the foot of a Roman,” could subscribe enthusiastically to the view voiced by Conyers Middleton in his Life of Cicero (1741) that “no man, howsoever born, could arrive at any dignity, who did not win it by his personal merit,” then we know something of the power of these republican sentiments in the culture. “Radical chic” was not an invention of the twentieth century.14

No culture in the Western world was more republicanized than that of England and its North American colonies. The literature of the first half of the eighteenth century in the English-speaking world—both belles lettres and political polemics—was a literature of social criticism, and this social criticism was steeped in classical republican values. Most English writers of the period—whether Tory satirists like Pope and Swift or radical Whig publicists like John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon—expressed a deep and bitter hostility to the great social, economic, and political changes taking place in England during the decades following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The rise of banks, trading companies, and stock markets, plus the emergence of new moneyed men, the increasing public debt, and the corruption of politics all threatened traditional values and led opposition poets and polemicists alike to set classical models and morality against the spreading luxury and commercialization. They knew from the experience of ancient Rome that the same energy that produced a country’s rise eventually caused an excess of wealth and luxury that in turn led to its inevitable fall.15

Classical republican Rome, like some South Sea tribes for twentieth-century anthropologists, became the means by which the enlightened eighteenth-century English could distance themselves from their own society and criticize it. Gibbon admired Juvenal because the Roman satirist refused to surrender his republican ideals in the face of monarchical realities. He had, said Gibbon, “the soul of a republican” and was “the sworn enemy of tyranny.” Thus Dr. Johnson found that the best way to condemn the corruption of eighteenth-century London was to imitate Juvenal’s third satire on Nero’s Rome.16

So pervasive, so dominant was this literature of social criticism that it is difficult to find anything substantial that stood against it. All the great eighteenth-century British writers spoke in republican tones. The long administration of Sir Robert Walpole (1722–1742) eventually united in intellectual opposition all of what William Pulteney called “the gay, the polite and witty Part of the World”; and that opposition, whether from the Tory John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera or the Whig James Thomson in his poem “Liberty,” inevitably drew on classical republican values to voice its love of freedom and its antagonism to corruption. Hume in 1742 thought that more than half of what had been written during the previous twenty years had been devoted to satirizing the machinations of Walpole, the figure who seemed most responsible for what ailed Britain. One administration defender in 1731 concluded that, simply for the sake of getting at Walpole, “the whole nation hath been abused, Corruption and Degeneracy universally charged.” All the country-opposition citations to Roman writers were moral strictures against a polluted court, and as such they were often unwitting celebrations of republican values. Consequently, it is virtually impossible to separate the country-opposition tradition, which included radical Whigs and estranged Tories, from this republican heritage of antiquity, so intertwined were they.

Although some Englishmen in the late seventeenth century had found in the age of Augustus a model of restored stability where the arts were allowed to flourish, most after 1688—even aristocrats close to the court—criticized Augustus and looked to the Roman republic for values and inspiration. Cicero and Cato, not Augustus, were the Romans to be admired. To Voltaire, Augustus was “ce poltron qui osa exiler Ovide” (“this coward who dared to exile Ovid”). For Jefferson, Augustus was always that “parricide scoundrel.” Augustus, Montesquieu said, had led the Romans “gently into slavery,” and most Englishmen agreed. Augustus became a code word for tyrant, and as such he was attacked by nearly everyone except royal absolutists. The Tories, thinking of George I, called Augustus a despot, but the court Whigs and all defenders of the Hanoverian settlement, thinking of the Stuarts, did likewise.

From 1688 on, the need for the government to defend the Whig settlement and to attack the Stuart pretensions to the crown meant that a quasirepublican, antiroyalist bias was necessarily built into the official center of English culture. During Walpole’s era, both court and country writers alike condemned Augustus as an imperial dictator, the murderer of Cicero, and the destroyer of the republic. If Virgil and Horace were tainted by their too-close association with, in Gibbon’s words, “the crafty tyrant,” then it had to be argued, as Thomas Blackwell and Thomas Sheridan did, that these great Augustan poets were really republican in spirit, that their talent had actually been formed under the republican era that preceded Augustus’s monarchical takeover.

From Addison to Dr. Johnson, English intellectuals expressed their admiration for Tacitus’s anti-Augustan, prorepublican view of Roman history. Tacitus remained for Jefferson “the first writer in the world without a single exception.” Thomas Gordon originally dedicated his edition of Tacitusto Walpole, his patron, but the work so fully expressed a republican antagonism toward Augustus (“the best of his Government was but the sunshine of Tyranny”) that it was celebrated by English commonwealthmen as well. David Hume thought that even the Tories had been so long obliged to talk “in the republican stile” that they had at length “embraced the sentiments as well as the language of their adversaries.”17

These appeals to antiquity made anything other than a classical conception of leadership difficult to justify. All political leaders were measured by the ancient republicans:

You then whose Judgment the right Course wou’d steer,

Know well each ANCIENT’S proper Character,

His Fable, Subject, Scope in ev’ry Page,

Religion, Country, Genius, of his Age.18

SO ALEXANDER POPE TOLD HIS countrymen, and nearly every gentleman agreed. It was almost always classical standards—Catonic and Ciceronian standards—that British opposition writers invoked to judge the ragged world of eighteenth-century politics. They all placed the character of classical republicanism—integrity, virtue, and disinterestedness—at the center of public life.19

Although these classical republican ideals were set within a monarchical framework, they nonetheless established the foundations not only for liberal arts education and for political debate in the English-speaking world but also for what a good society ought to be. The writings of classical antiquity thus provided more than scholarly embellishment and window dressing for educated Britons on both sides of the Atlantic; they were in fact the principal source of their public morality and values. All political morality was classical morality; people could not read enough about Cato and Cicero. Every lawyer aspired to be another Cicero, and Cato—well, there was no ancient hero like him. Addison’s play Cato was one of the most popular in the English-speaking world; Thomas Gray even declared it to be a better model for English tragedy than anything by Shakespeare.20In America the play went through at least eight editions before 1800. George Washington saw it over and over and incorporated its lines into his correspondence; he learned from it what it was to be a stoical classical hero and an uncorrupt public leader.

The classical past helped to form much of eighteenth-century political theory in the English-speaking world—from the ideal of balanced government to the conception of virtuous citizenship. According to the antique republican tradition, man was by nature a political being, a citizen who achieved his greatest moral fulfillment by participating in a self-governing republic. Public or political liberty—or what we now call positive liberty—meant participation in government. And this political liberty in turn provided the means by which the personal liberty and private rights of the individual—what we today call negative liberty—were protected. In this classical republican tradition, our modern distinction between positive and negative liberties was not yet clearly perceived, and the two forms of liberty were still often seen as one.21

Of course, the English did not need ancient Rome to tell them about liberty—at least, not about negative liberty. An acute sense of their liberties and rights, expressed and reinforced by their common law, had been a central part of their culture from time immemorial—from before the Norman conquest and, some said, from before the Roman invasion. Yet however little the classical republican conception of liberty may have affected English law and culture on the home island, it did have important effects on some of the North American colonists. To the extent that colonial Americans’ thinking about liberty was affected by the classical past and made positive and republicanized, so was liberty made compatible with the maintenance of slavery. The ancient Romans, after all, had seen no inconsistency between their love of liberty and their practice of slavery; indeed, the labor of their slaves was what made possible their liberty—that is, their independence and their participation in government. All of this made the slaveholding Southern planters of America extraordinarily receptive to classical republicanism.

This kind of positive liberty was realized when the citizens were virtuous—that is, willing to sacrifice their private interests for the sake of the community, including serving in public office without pecuniary rewards. This virtue could be found only in a republic of equal, active, and independent citizens. To be completely virtuous citizens, men—never women, because it was assumed they were never independent—had to be free from dependence, and from the petty interests of the marketplace. Any loss of independence and virtue was corruption.

The virtue that classical republicanism encouraged was public virtue. Private virtues such as prudence, frugality, and industry were important but, said Hume, they only made men “serviceable to themselves, and enable them to promote their own interest”; they were not “such as make them perform their part in society.” Public virtue was the sacrifice of private desires and interests for the public interest. It was devotion to the commonweal. All men of genius and leisure, all gentlemen, had an obligation to serve the state. “Let not your love of philosophical amusements have more than its due weight with you,” Benjamin Franklin admonished the New York royal official Cadwallader Colden in 1750. Public service was far more important than science. In fact, said Franklin, even “the finest” of Newton’s “Discoveries” could not have excused his neglect of serving the commonwealth if the public had needed him.22

The power of the ancient Roman republic had flowed from the freedom of its citizens to govern themselves. But as Rome’s fate showed, republics required a high degree of civic virtue and disinterestedness among their citizens, and thus they were very fragile polities, extremely liable to corruption. Republics demanded far more morally from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In monarchies each man’s desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by fear or force, by patronage or honor. In republics, however, each man somehow had to be persuaded to sacrifice his personal desires, his luxuries, for the sake of the public good. Monarchies could tolerate great degrees of self-interestedness, private gratification, and corruption among their subjects. After all, they were based on dependence and subservience and had all sorts of adhesives and connections besides virtue to hold their societies together. Monarchies relied on blood, family, kinship, patronage, and—ultimately—fear, as one loyalist clergyman in western Massachusetts tried to make clear to several of his neighbors who were thinking of taking up arms against their king in 1775. Do not do it, the cleric warned. “The king can send a company of horse through the country and take off every head; and in less than six weeks you will be glad to labor a week for sheep’s head and pluck.”23 But republics could never resort to such force. In their purest form they had no adhesives, no bonds holding themselves together, except their citizens’ voluntary patriotism and willingness to obey public authority. Without virtue and self-sacrifice, republics would fall apart.

One did not have to be a professed republican or a radical Whig, however, to believe in virtue and the other classical values that accompanied it. Virtue, along with the concept of honor, lay at the heart of all prescriptions for political leadership in the eighteenth-century English-speaking world.

If virtue was based on liberty and independence, then it followed that only autonomous individuals free from any ties of interest and paid by no master were qualified to be citizens. Jefferson and many other republican idealists hoped that all ordinary yeoman farmers who owned their own land and who depended for their subsistence only “on their own soil and industry” and not “on the casualties and caprice of customers” would be independent and free enough of pecuniary temptations and marketplace interests to be virtuous.24

Others, however, questioned the capacity of most ordinary people to rise above self-interest, particularly those who were dependent on “the casualties and caprice of customers.” No doubt Cicero and other ancients believed that everyone was born to seek what was morally right, and that this heritage reinforced the moral sense philosophy of the eighteenth century that formed a basis for the eventual emergence of democracy. Indeed, Jefferson’s famous aphorism about a ploughman knowing right from wrong better than a professor can be traced through Trenchard and Gordon’s “Cato” back to Cicero.25 Yet Cicero and classical republicanism scarcely celebrated the democratic mass of ordinary people. The classical republican heritage assumed that common people and others involved in the marketplace would be usually overwhelmed by their interests and would thus be incapable of disinterestedness. Of course, these common people were not to be the leaders of the society. Although republicanism, compared to monarchy, rested on a magnanimous view of common people, it retained a traditional classical patrician bias in regard to office-holding. Many good Whigs and republicans believed that important public offices, including even membership of grand juries, ought to be filled only with “the better sort because they are less liable to temptations, less fearful of the frowns of power, may reasonably be supposed of more improved capacities than those of an inferior station.” As ancients from Aristotle to Cicero had pointed out, people who had occupations, who needed to engage in the market, who worked with their hands, who were without a liberal education could scarcely possess the enlightenment and disinterestedness to stand above the haggling of the marketplace and act as impartial umpires.26

Classical republicanism was naturally suspicious of the marketplace, of commerce and business. Of course, commerce as the handmaiden of agriculture was considered benign and in the eighteenth century was even applauded as a source of peace and prosperity among nations. Still, classical republicanism was mistrustful of merchants as political leaders. Despite the fact that they moved agricultural goods abroad and brought great wealth into the country, merchants were thought to put their own interests ahead of those of their country and thus seemed incapable of disinterestedness.

Since merchants and mechanics and others who worked for a living were generally unqualified for disinterested public office, the responsibility rested on those leisured gentry whose income came to them, as Adam Smith and Francis Hutcheson said, without much exertion.27

If public service were to be truly disinterested, the officeholder ought to serve without salary—in accord with what Jefferson called “the Roman principle.” “In a virtuous government,” he said, “. . . public offices are, what they should be, burthens to those appointed to them, which it would be wrong to decline, though foreseen to bring with them intense labor, and great private loss.” Public employment contributes “neither to advantage nor happiness. It is but honorable exile from one’s family and affairs.” For these reasons Washington refused a salary as commander in chief and attempted to refuse his salary as president. And for these same reasons Benjamin Franklin at the Philadelphia Convention proposed that all members of the executive branch of the new federal government receive no fees or salaries.28

Leaders were not to be modern professional politicians but ideally aristocratic farmers who temporarily assumed the burdens of office out of patriotic obligation. In ancient Rome, wrote James Wilson, magistrates and army officers were always gentlemen farmers, always willing to step down “from the elevation of office” and, like Washington in 1783, resume “with contentment and with pleasure, the peaceful labours of a rural and independent life.” These Horatian and Virgilian notions of agriculture as a sacred activity were central to eighteenth-century English culture; Addison described Virgil’s Georgics as “the most complete, elaborate, and finished piece of all antiquity.” Many gentlemen on both sides of the Atlantic sought to establish country houses where they could escape from the trials and tribulations of the world. The wealthy Virginia planter Landon Carter named his plantation Sabine Hall after Horace’s rural retreat “Sabine vale” located in the hills behind Rome.29

But classical agrarianism was not seen simply as Horatian retirement. It was celebrated as well for being a Virgilian source of virtue and social health. Indeed, the georgic vision of moral and social happiness flowing from the simple life of field and plow was shared equally by Southern planters and New England Federalists. Jefferson’s praise of the yeoman farmer and the georgic writings of Connecticut poets such as Timothy Dwight and David Humphreys are virtually unintelligible except within this classical republican tradition.30 How else but in the context of this classical heritage can we make sense of John Dickinson’s pose in 1767 as a “Pennsylvania Farmer”? Dickinson was in fact a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer very much involved in city business, yet at the outset he had to assure his readers of his disinterestedness by informing them that he was a farmer “contented” and “undisturbed by worldly hopes or fears,” living not off participation in the market but off “a little money at interest.”31 How else can we explain the fervor with which New England Revolutionary War officers in the 1780s set out to establish landed estates in the wilds of the newly acquired territory of Ohio in emulation of those military veterans described by Gibbon who settled in the provinces conquered by Rome? Well into the early decades of the new American Republic’s history, establishing a seat in the country and experimenting georgic style with new agricultural products remained a consuming passion, especially among the New England gentry.32

The American Revolutionaries exploited all of these classical ideas in their creation of the United States. Many of them saw the new country as a rebirth of the ancient Roman republic. They established mixed constitutions in emulation of ancient Rome and re-created the Roman conception of citizenship open to everyone in the world. For Alexander Hamilton, Rome had been “the nurse of freedom.” For John Adams, it had “formed the noblest people and the greatest power that has ever existed.”33 The Revolutionaries hoped to realize what England, according to its critics, had been unable to realize—the antique republican values of the good society, free of contention, selfishness, and luxury. The American leaders went to extraordinary lengths to fulfill classical ideals and to create suitable classical settings and personae. On the banks of a tiny tributary of the Potomac (called Goose Creek and renamed the Tiber) they laid out grandiose plans for a spacious and magnificent classical capital for their new Rome. Like David Humphreys, they believed the Revolution represented a recovery of antique virtue:

What Rome, once virtuous, saw, this gives us now—

Heroes and statesmen, awful from the plough.34

Joseph Warren actually wore a toga while delivering the Boston Massacre oration in 1775. Joseph Hawley, in a supreme act of Catonian denial, resolved never to accept any promotion, office, or emolument under any government. Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” echoed the cry of Cato in Addison’s play: “Gods, can a Roman senate long debate / Which of the two to choose, slavery or death!” Likewise, Nathan Hale’s dying words, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” resembled Cato’s “What a pity is it / That we can die but once to serve our country.” John Adams, like Brissot de Warville, idolized Cicero and yearned to have his own Ciceronian moment in which talent alone would count as it had in Roman times. Samuel Adams’s virtue was legendary, and he became known as “one of Plutarch’s men.” And George Washington became the perfect Cincinnatus, the Roman patriot who returned to his farm after his victories in war.35

It was a neoclassical age and it was a neoclassical revolution the Americans undertook. They hoped to make their new republic a worthy place—a Columbia, the poets called it—where, in the words of Ezra Stiles, the enlightened president of Yale, “all the arts may be transported from Europe and Asia and flourish . . . with an augmented lustre.” Of course, the Americans realized, as Benjamin Rush said, that the arts “flourish chiefly in wealthy and luxurious countries” and were symptoms of social decay. To the end of his life, John Adams, despite his sensuous attraction to the arts, remained convinced, as he told his wife in 1778 in a letter from France, “that the more elegance, the less virtue, in all times and countries.” Buildings, paintings, sculpture, music, gardens, and furniture—however rich, magnificent, and splendid—were simply “bagatelles introduced by time and luxury in change for the great qualities and hardy, manly virtues of the human heart.”36 If Americans were to exceed Europe in dignity, grandeur, and taste, they would somehow have to create a republican art that avoided the vices of overrefinement and luxury.

The solution lay in the taut rationality of republican classicism. Classicism allowed artistic expression without fostering corruption and social decay; it froze time and defied change. Classicism offered a set of values that emphasized, as the commissioners who were charged with supervising the construction of public buildings in Washington, D.C., put it in 1793, “a grandeur of conception, a Republican simplicity, and that true elegance of proportion, which correspond to a tempered freedom excluding Frivolity, the food of little minds.”37 Such a neoclassical art was not an original art in any modern sense, but it was never intended to be. The Americans’ aim in their literature, painting, and architecture of the 1780s and 1790s was to give a new and fresh republican spirit to old forms, to isolate and exhibit in their art the eternal and universal principles of reason and nature that the ancients had expressed long ago. Poets in the wilds of the New York frontier thus saw nothing incongruous in invoking comparisons with Virgil or Horace. And Joel Barlow could believe that his epic of America, The Columbiad, precisely because of its high moral and republican message, could exceed in grandeur even Homer’s Iliad.

Jefferson was completely taken with neoclassicism. Although in the 1780s he momentarily accepted the Benjamin West–inspired fashionableness of having Houdon’s statue of Washington done in contemporary dress, several decades later his true feelings came out: he was more than happy that Canova’s statue of Washington was done in a Roman toga. “Every person of taste in Europe” preferred the Roman costume, he said. “Our boots and regimentals have a very puny effect.” Jefferson was contemptuous and even ashamed of the “gothic” Georgian architecture of his native Virginia, and he sought in Monticello to build a house that would do justice to those Palladian villas that harked back to Roman antiquity. In the 1780s he badgered his Virginia colleagues into erecting as the new state capitol in Richmond a magnificent copy of the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple in Nîmes from the first century A.D., because he wanted an American public building that would be a model for the people’s “study and imitation” and “an object and proof of national good taste.” The Maison Carrée was a building, he said, that “has pleased universally for near 2,000 years.” Almost single-handedly he became responsible for making America’s public buildings resemble Roman temples.38

The cultural relics of these revolutionary classical dreams are with America still: in the names of cities and towns like Rome, Syracuse, and Troy; in the designation of political institutions like senates and capitols; in the profusion of unread georgic poems like Timothy Dwight’s “Greenfield Hill”; in the political symbols like the goddess Liberty, the numerous Latin mottos, and the Great Seal of the United States with its Roman eagle, its phrases novus ordo seclorum and annuit coeptis from Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues, and its Roman numerals, MDCCLXXVI, for greater dignity; and of course in the endless proliferation of Roman temples. But the spirit that inspired these things—the meaning these institutions, artifacts, and symbols had for the revolutionaries—has been lost, and it was being lost even as they were being created.

The American leaders may have begun their Revolution trying to recover an idealized and vanished Roman republic, but they soon realized that they had unleashed forces that were carrying them and their society much further than they had anticipated. Instead of becoming a new and grand incarnation of ancient Rome, a land of virtuous and contented farmers, America within decades of the Declaration of Independence had become a sprawling, materialistic, and licentious popular democracy unlike any state that had ever existed. Buying and selling were celebrated as never before, and the antique meaning of virtue was transformed. Ordinary people who knew no Latin and had few qualms about disinterestedness began asserting themselves with new vigor in the economy and in politics. Far from sacrificing their private desires for the good of the whole, Americans of the early Republic came to see that the individual’s pursuit of wealth or happiness (the two were now interchangeable) was not only inevitable but justifiable as the only proper basis for a free state.

In the rapid transformation to democracy in the decades following the Revolution, ancient Rome lost much of its meaning for Americans. The transformation began early, often initially taking the form of attacks on the relevance of learning Latin or Greek in school. These democratic assaults on republican values, like the earlier ones on monarchical values, were undertaken by people who had little idea of the ultimate consequences of their actions. Benjamin Rush, for example, had contended that the study of Greek and Latin was “improper in a peculiar manner in the United States” because it tended to confine education to only a few, when in fact republicanism required everyone to be educated. Within a few years, however, Rush became alarmed that too many ordinary people were going to college and lowering the standards of civilization. But it was too late to stop the spread of this bumptious and bustling democracy.39 By the 1820s American society had left the georgic dreams of quiet farms and settled husbandmen far behind. Classical Rome was now thought to be too stolid and imitative to express the restlessness and vulgar originality of this new democratic America. Ancient Greece, said Edward Everett, was a better model. Ancient Greece, Homer’s Greece, was tumultuous, wild, and free, said Everett, “free to licentiousness, free to madness.”40 For most Americans the great legacy of ancient Rome was gone.


This piece was presented as a lecture several times, including at a conference held in Rome in October 2008 sponsored by the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. In the course of reading and listening to the other papers at that conference, I concluded that some of our historical debates over the influence of the classics on the Founders were misplaced.

No doubt the classical world was an important part of the political memory of the Founders. We might even say that the relationship between the Founders and the classical past was similar to our present relationship to the Founders. Just as we use the Founders, such as Jefferson and Washington, to get our bearings and reaffirm our beliefs and reinvigorate our institutions, so too did the Founders use antiquity, especially republican antiquity, to help shape their values and justify their institutions. It was a memory bank that they drew on to make sense of their experience. Today this classical memory bank—those sets of ancient meanings—no longer exists for most Americans.

My distinguished mentor Bernard Bailyn once wrote that the classics played a minor role in the thought of the Founders. Antiquity, he said, was mere “window dressing” to the ideas of the Revolutionaries. It was “illustrative, not determinative” of their thought—not determinative, he says, in the way their radical Whig ideology was. The classics “contributed a vivid vocabulary but not the logic or grammar of thought, a universally respected personification but not the source of political and social beliefs. They heightened the colonists’ sensitivity to ideas and attitudes otherwise derived.”1

One of many discussions at the Rome conference focused on Bailyn’s provocative remarks. The question I raised is the following: are the ideas of one era ever determinative of the thought of another? I don’t think so. I don’t believe ideas of an earlier period ever determine the ideas of a later period. What really determines thought are the events of the participants’ present, their immediate interests and emotional needs, their present experience. Reality presses in upon us, and we look to bodies of ideas, or sets of meanings, to make sense of that reality, to explain, justify, or condemn it. For the Revolutionaries the classical past offered a body of meanings that they could draw upon to make meaningful their behavior and their goals. They didn’t absorb it intact but drew upon it willy-nilly to fit their particular needs.

That’s the way we still use ideas. Who reads a book and absorbs the whole thing? Rather, we select those parts that seem relevant or meaningful to us. We pick and choose the ideas from those available to us that seem most appropriate and that make our experience and circumstances most meaningful. But it is our experience that is determinative. Madison did not get his ideas for reforming the federal government in the 1780s from reading the trunks of books that Jefferson sent him from Paris. As I try to indicate in my “Interests and Disinterestedness” essay, his ideas were shaped by his experience in several sessions of the Virginia Assembly, and he used what ideas he could find, from David Hume as much as anyone, to justify and explain what he wanted to do in limiting the excesses of democracy in the state legislatures. His effort to use antiquity in order to justify the need for an upper house or senate, as described by historian Caroline Winterer at the conference, is another such example.

Moreover, as I suggest in the introduction to this volume, if we are using ideas to persuade someone of something, we have to select those ideas that will be most persuasive to whatever audience we are addressing. Of course, we can’t just make up ideas out of whole cloth or concoct any old notion to make things meaningful. We have to draw upon those ideas, those sets of meanings, that are publicly available to us. For the Revolutionaries, the classical past offered a rich set of meanings to draw upon.

We borrow what we need from the ideas of the past, and in the process we inevitably distort those past ideas. Of course, the Founders’ use of classicism was different from the classicism of antiquity, just as our use of the ideas of the Founding bears little resemblance to the thinking of the eighteenth century. But I would say that this sort of distortion went on with the ideas of the radical Whigs as well. In other words, ideas by themselves are never determinative of thought. Eighteenth-century Americans selected and used what they found relevant and appropriate in the ideas of Locke, Trenchard and Gordon, or James Burgh and in the process fit what they read into their circumstances. This is inevitably how ideas are used, and since our experience of reality is constantly changing, and we always have to make it meaningful, it is not surprising that our intellectual life is always dynamic and changing. Our intellectual quarrels are over what meanings we will give to our experience, to fulfill our present-day needs.

Yet by questioning whether the ideas of antiquity were determinative of the Founders’ thinking, I do not mean to suggest that the classical past was unimportant to them. Even if ideas of an earlier era are not determinative of later thinking, it does not follow that these earlier ideas were simply ornamentation and had little influence. I believe that the classical past was much more than illustrative of the Founders’ thoughts. Earlier ideas can, as I tried to indicate in the essay, influence and affect behavior.

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