Morning Lecture guest column — Classical influences on the Founders: Myth or reality?

Guest column by Hunter Rawlings III. Rawlings will give Monday’s Morning Lecture at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater. Check out the preview of Rawlings’ lecture.

Were our Founding Fathers motivated and influenced by the Greek and Roman classics, or is this just a nice myth that makes us feel connected to our European past? This turns out to be a real question, one about which serious scholars have had serious disagreements. Some have argued that our founders’ use of the classics was mere “window dressing,” meant to puff up their Enlightenment ideas with high-sounding rhetoric and impressive paradigms from the past. Others have pointed to our “mixed government” and to the founders’ frequent citations of Greek and Roman authors as clear evidence that our republican institutions were consciously modeled on classical practices and patterns. Which is it, myth or reality?

To begin, let’s be clear on a fundamental fact: 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.

All these examples demonstrate the founders’ consistent use of ancient Greek and Roman figures and institutions as symbols, just as they chose classical architecture and sculpture as artistic symbols for the new capital of Washington, D.C. — and for the U.S. Capitol itself, taken from the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the site of the Temple of Jupiter. But, one might point out, so far we have established only that the founders were steeped in classical culture, inspired and motivated by classical models and liked showing off their knowledge of Greek and Roman antiquity. Did Greece and Rome have real, substantive influence on our founding? Did Greek and Roman institutions and ideas matter in the formation of the American Republic?

The answer is pretty clear: Yes, they did. When Adams argued for our government to have separated powers and to be “mixed” — that is, to have a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary — and for the various “orders” of society to be represented, as in the “aristocratic” Senate and the populist House, he used the Roman Constitution as the proper model. He drew details from Polybius and other ancient authors, whom he clearly regarded as authorities on good government. When Madison prepared to go to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he did extensive reading in Greek and Roman history, focusing his attention on ancient Greek confederacies. Hamilton and Madison constantly refer to classical exempla in writing the Federalist Papers, which had a major role in convincing Americans to ratify the newly drafted Constitution.

Among all our founders, Thomas Jefferson’s knowledge and appreciation of Greek and Latin language and literature were the strongest. He famously wrote in a letter to Joseph Priestley, “I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight [the knowledge of Greek and Latin]; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, and have not since acquired.” In another letter, he said, “I think myself more indebted to my father for this [knowledge for Greek and Latin] than for all the other luxuries his cares and affections have placed within my reach; and more now than younger and more susceptible of delights from other sources.” Jefferson read the classical authors in the original almost every day of his adulthood and derived most of his tastes and predilections in literature, style, philosophy and architecture therefrom.

In spite of these clear influences, however, the classics of Greece and Rome were not the only source of the founders’ ideas. They were, after all, men of the Enlightenment. And though Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and David Hume were themselves avid borrowers from the pagan classics, they developed arguments of their own that were unknown to the Greeks and Romans. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, particularly when he said that “the pursuit of happiness” is an “unalienable right” given to us by our creator and secured by government, did he have a Greek or Roman source for this claim? An Enlightenment source? Or was this Jefferson’s own idea? That is a question worth asking, and we will try to answer it this morning.

Hunter Rawlings III is president of the Association of the American Universities and former president of Cornell University.