A brave new classical world

The Founders and the Classics:
January 6, 1995

The classics (Greek and Latin) and the canon (the western tradition of "great books" with Homer, Virgil and Co at the fountainhead) make a highly combustible mixture with a potent explosive charge -- as the mostly verbal "canon" or "culture wars" being waged on many United States campuses (good Latin word) amply attest. Add in the founders for good measure, write from Louisiana and publish from a rather smart New England address (the "other" Cambridge) -- and you have a history book that is itself a contribution to, as well as a reflection upon, historical process (not to be confused with progress).

In a nutshell, what Carl Richard sets out to explore and explain in this handsomely produced and well-written monograph is whether the US would have come into being as it did -- politically, ethically and ideologically, rather than militarily, diplomatically or economically -- without the classics, or rather without the particular spin the founders placed on their reception of certain Greek and Roman writers, ideas and institutions. His conclusions are nothing if not definite, and are stated firmly in both introduction and conclusion. His founders were not merely classically educated but "conditioned" by their reading of Greek and Latin authors, to such a degree that the latter did not only affect the form but also determined the content of speech and action, in private communing with self and correspondence with others, no less than in public political discourse.

A quarter of a century ago Richard's problematic seemed a relatively minor side-issue in revolution studies. Despite the best efforts of Richard Gummere and Henry Steele Commager, among others, the consensus among Americanists (reflected on this side of the Atlantic by Elizabeth Rawson in the note on the US she appended to her intellectual history of the Spartan tradition in European thought), was that references to Graeco-Roman antiquity in the critical years of the late 18th century were neither very prominent nor formed a clear pattern. Ancient precedent was occasionally sought, but for the most part the (euphoric) feeling was that the ancients had been left far behind. Even if undoubtedly republican, Sparta, Athens and Rome had not been republican in the right way through either omission (of the principles of representation and separation of powers) or commission (of "simple", that is direct, democracy, or rather mobocracy). Certainly the founders did adopt classical pseudonyms, and ordinary Americans (not to mention slaves) and American towns were named "Leonidas" and "Cassius" or "Athens" and "Sparta" -- but that was just so much window-dressing or nostalgic froth and flotsam.

Richard, building on the more recent research of especially the ancient historian Meyer Reinhold (Classica Americana) and of his "Vanderbilt mentors in American intellectual history and the classics, Paul K. Conkin and Susan Ford Wiltshire", will have little or none of that meiosis. In seven chapters he takes us from the founders' classical "conditioning", through their inspiration from and appeal to the ancients in their use of symbolism, models and antimodels, especially those of mixed government, pastoralism and (mainly Stoic) ethics, to the supposed decline -- actually, according to Richard, a "myth" -- of classical influence in the early national period.

Quantitatively, so to speak, his revisionist case would seem to be unanswerable. With the not-insignificant exceptions of Franklin and Paine, the most important of the founders (imprimis Jefferson, Hamilton and the Adams family) were indeed classically trained, and when either seeking models of excellence in patriotism, moral virtue, statesmanship and literate taste, or requiring personal comfort, consolation and inspiration, they did indeed throughout their lives habitually and without affectation appeal to the classics as familiar friends. Such appeal to the classical heritage moreover did undoubtedly reinforce the sense of shared discourse and traditional continuity necessary for a comparatively open elite to carry through successfully a revolution that was represented as a creative appropriation and renovation of the ancient tradition of liberty, rather than a destructively tabula rasa innovation.

Yet the larger question of causation naggingly remains: did the founders' classicism really make the difference, or would the US have been born pretty much when and as it was even if Jefferson and his co-revolutionaries had never read a page of Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, or Plutarch? Richard himself has to admit the virtual impossibility of separating the real lessons the founders learned out of their reading of antiquity from the mere ammunition they drew out of the classical literary arsenal to support positions adopted on other grounds; a less committed observer might well feel that their alarming inconsistency of ancient citation and their willingness to recant at dazzling speed argue quite strongly for the "mere ammunition" explanation.

Classicism, moreover, was typically a part, not the whole, of the story. For instance, Jefferson's architectural predilections were an eclectically neoclassical compound. More importantly, American mixed-government theory, which Madison and Jefferson anyhow later abandoned in favour of representative democracy, was dubiously classical in inspiration. Not only did the Americans espouse a modern "seesaw" rather than the original ancient "pudding" version, but the checks and balances they built into the Constitution were of powers and sectional interests not of social classes; besides, Tacitus himself had doubted whether a genuinely mixed constitution had ever existed or could endure. Classicism's abhorrence of radical democracy (fully explored in Jennifer Tolbert Roberts's recent Athens on Trial) may have been wholly congenial, but its anti-egalitarian slant was not. As for classical pastoralism, even on Richard's interpretation that was a myth (in a different sense from that of the alleged decline of classical influence), that is, an expression of false consciousness, a sort of noble lie.

Doubt arises finally because of Richard's own agenda, which he unveils at last in his three concluding pages. He has come not to worship and certainly not to kill the (founding) fathers of his nation, people and state, but he does wish to endorse their Enlightenment ideals and, by recovering the founders for the great classical tradition, to urge the latter's continued propagation and renewal via the teaching of the classics in the America of the 1990s no less than the 1790s. It is difficult not to wonder whether that enthusiastic agenda might not have led him too to read the founders "with an eye toward corroborating his own views, as most people read most literature" (verb. sap.).

Against those doubts, however, may be set a number of telling insights, individually not sufficiently cogent perhaps but cumulatively persuasive. The founders' very classicist conditioning was itself a triumph of tradition over reason, and had as its dark side a disutilitarian proneness to conspiracy theory. Washington's otherwise puzzling resignation does seem to attest the enormous power wielded over American minds by classical republican ideals. The founders' most impressive "antimodels" were drawn from antiquity -- and overdrawn because of that: George III, for instance, was made to appear as a dictator in the mould of Julius Caesar (or Nero). Even the most severely anti-classicist founders -- Franklin, Paine, and Rush -- found themselves compelled to fight fire with fire, using against their opponents in the political elite the very classical weapons they purported to disdain for improving the lot of the huddled masses of ordinary Americans. Inconsistency of classicist appeal and willingness to recant, finally, are not only fully acknowledged by Richard but made grist to his mill. For within the founders' code and ideology there were implanted Liberal seeds alongside the classical Republican flowers, so that in the mechanising and industrialising North, liberalism, and in the slave-based South, classicism, could bloom concurrently during the first half of the 19th century.

It seems cruel then to end on a note of mild complaint. But I cannot resist observing that, were Richard's brave new classical world actually to become American education's novus ordo, it ought at any rate to be a world without such "howlers" as armae and fascii. Alas, poor Richard! -- as even the classically challenged Ben Franklin might have been moved to exclaim.

Paul Cartledge is reader in Greek history, University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Clare College.

The Founders and the Classics:: Greece, Rome and the American Enlightenment

Author - Carl J. Richard
ISBN - 0 674 31425 5
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £33.95
Pages - 288pp

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