The Founding Fathers, determined to establish an enduring republic that would safeguard the liberties of the American people, looked to the classical world—and especially Republican Rome—for enlightenment and inspiration. Their thoughts, writings, and actions were infused with Roman ideals, and they saw the United States as the natural inheritor of Roman liberty.
Thomas Jefferson at William & Mary; James Madison at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), John Adams at Harvard, and George Washington in his private studies all devoured the poetry of Horace and Virgil; the speeches of Cicero; and the histories of Plutarch and Tacitus. The classics were the common language of the educated elite, or, in the case of Washington, one who wished to move among them. But even those early Americans without the benefit of higher education or a well-stocked library—a vast majority—were, if they went to school at all, taught the rudiments of ancient history from a young age.
The Roman poets sang the praises of hardy farmers and brave soldiers, celebrating their noble virtues. These qualities were deemed vital by the founders to the success of the revolutionary project. As Madison observed, “to suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”
During the terrible winter months at Valley Forge in 1777-8, when the colonial army battled hunger and frostbite, Washington arranged for the performance of Cato, a play by Joseph Addison about the Roman republican statesman. Washington intended this bleak drama of resistance, in which Cato the Younger’s military forces fall to Caesar’s, as a warning about the consequences should the revolutionary cause fail. Washington himself followed the example of Cincinnatus, the great Roman general, who famously resigned his position and returned to his plow after leading the defense of the Republic. The society of former Revolutionary War officers founded in 1783, the motto of which was “He relinquished everything to serve the republic,” was named for Cincinnatus. Washington was elected its first president.
As Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick observe in their magisterial The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800, “The very nomenclature of government—“president,” “senate,” “congress”—as well as the official iconography, the mottoes of state, even the architecture, would be heavily Roman.” And indeed, when the federal government decamped from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, the legislature assembled in a soon-to-be columned building atop an elevation christened “Capitol Hill,” and the president took up residence in a neoclassical house designed in the Palladian style.
This reverence for the classics persisted long after the storms of the Revolutionary era and the early Republic had subsided. Rekindling the friendship with Adams that had been sundered by partisan conflict, the retired Jefferson wrote to his former comrade, “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides…and I find myself much happier.” From then on, their many letters were laced with quotations in Latin and Greek, in a display of presidential erudition never equaled since.
But there was more to the example of Rome than rural virtue and republican selflessness. The light that glinted off the gleaming marble also cast a dark shadow. Profligate spending and rampant corruption weakened the foundations of the Roman Republic. After half a millennium, the representative democracy on the banks of the Tiber gave way to the rule of the Caesars. The United States has endured thus far for half as long as its republican predecessor. Is it, too, destined for a similar fate? To avoid it, the American people and their leaders must revive the virtues celebrated by Horace and Virgil and personified by the founders.
Michael F. Bishop is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.