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

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Is our Greek and Roman heritage merely allusive and illusory? Or were our founders, and so our republican beginnings, truly steeped in the stuff of antiquity? So far largely a matter of generalization and speculation, the influence of Greek and Roman authors on our American forefathers finally becomes clear in this fascinating book-the first comprehensive study of the foun Is our Greek and Roman heritage merely allusive and illusory? Or were our founders, and so our republican beginnings, truly steeped in the stuff of antiquity? So far largely a matter of generalization and speculation, the influence of Greek and Roman authors on our American forefathers finally becomes clear in this fascinating book-the first comprehensive study of the founders' classical reading. Carl J. Richard begins by examining how eighteenth-century social institutions in general and the educational system in particular conditioned the founders to venerate the classics. He then explores the founders' various uses of classical symbolism, models, "antimodels," mixed government theory, pastoralism, and philosophy, revealing in detail the formative influence exerted by the classics, both directly and through the mediation of Whig and American perspectives. In this analysis, we see how the classics not only supplied the principal basis for the U.S. Constitution but also contributed to the founders' conception of human nature, their understanding of virtue, and their sense of identity and purpose within a grand universal scheme. At the same time, we learn how the classics inspired obsessive fear of conspiracies against liberty, which poisoned relations between Federalists and Republicans. The shrewd ancients who molded Western civilization still have much to teach us, Richard suggests. His account of the critical role they played in shaping our nation and our lives provides a valuable lesson in the transcendent power of the classics.


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Is our Greek and Roman heritage merely allusive and illusory? Or were our founders, and so our republican beginnings, truly steeped in the stuff of antiquity? So far largely a matter of generalization and speculation, the influence of Greek and Roman authors on our American forefathers finally becomes clear in this fascinating book-the first comprehensive study of the foun Is our Greek and Roman heritage merely allusive and illusory? Or were our founders, and so our republican beginnings, truly steeped in the stuff of antiquity? So far largely a matter of generalization and speculation, the influence of Greek and Roman authors on our American forefathers finally becomes clear in this fascinating book-the first comprehensive study of the founders' classical reading. Carl J. Richard begins by examining how eighteenth-century social institutions in general and the educational system in particular conditioned the founders to venerate the classics. He then explores the founders' various uses of classical symbolism, models, "antimodels," mixed government theory, pastoralism, and philosophy, revealing in detail the formative influence exerted by the classics, both directly and through the mediation of Whig and American perspectives. In this analysis, we see how the classics not only supplied the principal basis for the U.S. Constitution but also contributed to the founders' conception of human nature, their understanding of virtue, and their sense of identity and purpose within a grand universal scheme. At the same time, we learn how the classics inspired obsessive fear of conspiracies against liberty, which poisoned relations between Federalists and Republicans. The shrewd ancients who molded Western civilization still have much to teach us, Richard suggests. His account of the critical role they played in shaping our nation and our lives provides a valuable lesson in the transcendent power of the classics.

30 review for The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment

  1. 5 out of 5

    Marsha

    Did you ever wonder why there just "happened" to be so, so many brilliant men who enabled the founding of the United States? Here's one of the major reasons why: they were not only learned in, but immense fans of the Classics. They were fans because the Classics consist of the works of the greatest, most influential, and brilliant minds in history. These writers, from ancient Greece onward, had the ability to recognize fundamentals of human nature, society, and the natural world. They identified Did you ever wonder why there just "happened" to be so, so many brilliant men who enabled the founding of the United States? Here's one of the major reasons why: they were not only learned in, but immense fans of the Classics. They were fans because the Classics consist of the works of the greatest, most influential, and brilliant minds in history. These writers, from ancient Greece onward, had the ability to recognize fundamentals of human nature, society, and the natural world. They identified basic principles that are universal - operating in people and our society today, regardless of the huge differences between ancient and modern life. These principles are not only useful for understanding what's going on today, but for creating the new. The American Founders studied these works in depth. The strife, the conflict, the causes of the fall of ancient Greece and Rome: these were deeply understood by the Founders and informed their thought and action, much to our benefit. Richard's ably lays out the details of the classics' influence on the Founders, in a mostly lively format. If you want to understand our world today, this is a good book with which to start. Then read the Classics yourself!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bryn Dunham

    Interesting book. Richard discusses in depth how the ancients (Greeks & Romans)influneced the founding generations. Somewhat difficult to describe the differnt topics of the book but it definitley is not for the casual reader whose primary reading time is at night and staying awake is a must. I will have to read this again at another time too as it was pretty hard to get through. Not a lot of places in the chapters to stop and take a break either which was annoying. I enjoyed reading how Adams, Interesting book. Richard discusses in depth how the ancients (Greeks & Romans)influneced the founding generations. Somewhat difficult to describe the differnt topics of the book but it definitley is not for the casual reader whose primary reading time is at night and staying awake is a must. I will have to read this again at another time too as it was pretty hard to get through. Not a lot of places in the chapters to stop and take a break either which was annoying. I enjoyed reading how Adams, Jefferson, Madison, etc. relied on the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Socrates, and a bunch of other ancients, whose names I can't pronounce or spell, as reference for making arguments at the Constitutional Convention and other important moments. Not for pleasure or casual reading, but it was interesting.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

    I’ll add a caveat to my five-star rating and do so with an anecdote. I placed this book in the backseat of my car one weekend, and my 8-year old started reading it. She then asked a number of questions, which prompted a welcome conversation on what transpired as American transformed from a colony to a country. It then culminated with me suggesting that a reader needs to have a foundational knowledge of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers to fully appreciate this book. It also led to I’ll add a caveat to my five-star rating and do so with an anecdote. I placed this book in the backseat of my car one weekend, and my 8-year old started reading it. She then asked a number of questions, which prompted a welcome conversation on what transpired as American transformed from a colony to a country. It then culminated with me suggesting that a reader needs to have a foundational knowledge of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers to fully appreciate this book. It also led to me purchasing a new book for her, which brought us both a great deal of joy. As for “The Founders and the Classics,” I found its subject engaging and insightful, but it would not be the book I recommend to someone making an early exploration of the American Revolution. A brief look at the other books I’ve recorded on this site reveals a sampling of the books I’ve enjoyed on the subject, and “The Founder and the Classics” is a critical connection between each of them. Despite my great enjoyment of the book, I would recommend this book to enthusiasts of the American Revolution, though it is material that lends insight for anyone wanting to better understand how the United States came to exist. One other note before I record my observations from the book. The reason the Founding Fathers’ knowledge of classical philosophy has interested me for so long is simply because it has always struck me as remarkable that the colonists chose to launch a revolution in the first place. Not only was there a great deal of chutzpah in mounting a rebellion against the mighty English but there was a similar brashness in concluding, “yeah, there hasn’t been a successful republic in 2,000 years, but we think we can make it work.” The Grand Experiment—and the ideas that made it happen—are certainly curious, and Dr. Carl Richard’s book was excellent in describing the underpinnings on how it came to be. Here are some of the thoughts I gleaned: • Richard distinguishing classical republicanism (emphasizing civic duty and social cohesion) versus modern republicanism (emphasizing individual rights). He notes that the founding fathers did not take a hard line between one philosophy or the other. Instead, they were connected ideas that evolved over time. • The founders viewed classical texts as entertainment—the history and stories of Greece and Rome. There was a sense of tradition that bound them to previous generations. The ideas “supplied them [the founders] with intellectual tools necessary to face a violent and uncertain world with some degree of confidence.” • Jefferson’s grandchildren described him as follows: “If he had to decide between the pleasure derived from the classical education which his father had given him, and the estate left him, he would decide in favor of the former.” To illustrate, in 1819, Jefferson noted, “I feel a much greater interest in knowing what has happened two or three thousand years ago than in what is now passing.” This idea is one I increasingly share as I watch the world around me. The past offers much to inform the present. As Richards noted with this quote from Patrick Henry: “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 the future but by the past.” • Part of the reason Jefferson held architecture in high regard is due to his limited interest in painting and sculpture, which he found “too expensive for the state of wealth among us.” Architecture had practicality and thus aligned with Jefferson’s republican ideals. Similarly, Jefferson sought a balance to show Europe that republicanism did not mean primitive. He wanted simplicity but not barbarism. He wanted respect without monarchical opulence. A classical knowledge gave the Founders tools to attempt besting Europe. • John Adams has deep affinity for “Judgment of Hercules,” a painting that shows Hercules choosing between a life of virtue and a life of sloth. Adams describes how affecting this image was whenever he heard the siren’s call of slothful pleasures. • Revolutionary leaders looked to replace the aristocracy with a meritocracy. In the eighteenth century, “‘merit’ meant ‘learning’” • One difference between the Roman heroes of the past and the Founders is the effect of Christian influences. “Classical heroes were hardly known for their modesty.” They found no shame in vanity. One wonders if this was a factor in the downfall of Rome. If so, it should serve as a warning to our modern political leaders. • “According to classical doctrine, membership in a political party inevitably involved defending the indefensible vices of one’s allies.” Thus, the historians who recorded the happenings of Rome despised factions. Few observations are timelier. • It is apparent that the founding fathers viewed the ancient heroes of Rome and Greece as heroes and more than just historical figures. I wonder if our lack of noble and commonly appreciated heroes limits our capacity to collectively strive for societal betterment. • Hamilton and other Founders were concerned about being too democratic. In Federalist 55, Madison concluded “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” The founders feared too big of assembly would include too many feeble-minded men. • Richards noted that “Whatever his faults, George III was hardly Caligula or Nero; however illegitimate, the moderate British taxes were hardly equivalent to the mass executions of the emperors. But since the founders believed that the central lesson of the classics was that every illegitimate power, however small, ended in slavery, they were determined to resist every such power.” Similarly, history “taught the Antifederalists that tyrants generally proceeded by small degrees.” The Federalists, however, read the same history and concluded marginal increases in federal power was necessary to avoid anarchy. “If federal power were insufficient to maintain law and order, disintegration must lead to interstate warfare, which must eventuate in the dictatorship of a Caesar or Catiline.” • Plato classified government into three categories: (1) monarchy, (2) aristocracy, and (3) democracy. He claimed that each deteriorated into a debased form: (1) tyranny, (2) oligarchy, and (3) ochlocracy/mob rule. This observation led to the conclusion that a mixed government—one that balances the power of the three orders of society—would be the ideal form of government. Plato’s conclusion came a decade after he wrote “The Republic.” The mixed government that the Founders produced—a bit of democracy (House), a bit of aristocracy (Senate), and a bit of monarchy (Presidency) was in the words of Hamilton, “neither Greek nor Trojan, but purely American.” The system of government sought to balance the powers that compose this country. As he described how the Founders wrestled with the nation’s form of government and transitioned from a mixed government to a more representative republic, Richards drew from Aristotle: “Humans are, at least in part, social animals, who crave a sense of participation in something larger than themselves—though not because they are defined by reason, as Aristotle alleged, but because they are defined by powerful emotional needs.” • Richards recorded that “Americans had decided that since education and talent often accompanied wealth, and since wealth (unlike other talent or virtue) could be easily quantified, property was the most appropriate criterion for identifying the ‘natural aristocracy’ which will provide their governments with the necessary senatorial stability.” • It was not of mere interest that the Founders studied Roman and Greek philosophers; it was practical. They studied the ancient republics like coroners to search for a cure and avoid the previous governments’ cause of death. • Richard also spent time analyzing the rise of individualism in America. Even the Bill of Rights was more focused on protecting states’ rights to avoid federal power rather than individual rights. • Jefferson followed Cicero who observed, “For the man who is afraid of the inevitable cannot live with a soul at peace; but the man who is without fear of death, not simply because it is unavoidable, but also because it has no terrors for him, secures a valuable aid toward rendering life happy. • The Founders saw virtue as profitable and vice as folly. Yet they valued fame and the prospect of posterity: “Like Cicero at Lilybaeum, the Founders considered themselves always onstage, subject to the scrutiny of their peers and successors. The did not, however, see the incompatibility of desiring fame and the Christian value of humility. • Richard provides a good summary of the Founder’s philosophy by noting that “both modern scientists and ancient philosophers guided the Founders.“ It may have taken some heretical philosophies to merge Christianity with classical philosophies, but it allowed the Founders to forge ahead without abandoning the religion of their ancestors. • Benjamin Rush compared pressing our brains into the study of Latin and Greek to the Chinese pressing and deforming their feet into bound, small shoes. He wanted a more pragmatic education. He preferred knowing just enough to access the great texts. Rush came at the languages from a physician’s vantage; he feared locking away the sciences kept the benefits of medicine away from those who didn’t know the language. Rush wanted freedom from the time learning the language in order to devote more time studying the content of the classics. • Thomas Paine was similarly ambivalent regarding classical models. In the third “American Crisis” essay (1776) he declared: “The wisdom, civil government, and sense of honor of the states of Greece and Rome are frequently held up as objects of excellence and imitation. But why do we need to go back two or 3,000 years for lessons and examples? Clear away the mists of antiquity!” His quote, however, illustrates how ambitious and audacious the goal of representative government was. It hadn’t occurred successfully in many years. Despite his critique, Paine also recognized that heroes from bygone eras like, “Aristides, Epaminondas, Pericles, Scipio, [and] Camillus, would have been nobodies if they had lived under royal governments.” • Richard highlighted a section where Thomas Paine seemingly contradicted himself on the law of the Old and New Testament. The contradiction, however, reflects the refining nature of reading and thinking. What we read and the time we read it affects how we think about ideas. • “What should we make of the few remarks which appear to reject all classical models, deluged, as they are, in a sea of statements which clearly embrace them?” Richard noted that sometimes it was a rhetorical device, sometimes it was national pride—hope that the U.S. could create a better system—yet often it came back to the foundation that the Founders saw flaws in even their most cherished leaders. Though Richard did not make the following observation, it seems worth noting the Tim Keller observation that humans are not rational but rationalizing. Our philosophical systems are not as consistent as we may hope or believe them to be. • One of Richard‘s key observations is that the classics helped provide an illusion of precedent during the Revolutionary War. This belief enabled even conservative individuals to “argue they were preserving past liberties rather than presumptively tinkering with the natural order.” Thus “the American Revolution was a paradox: a revolution fueled by tradition.” • Richards made the final observation on the benefits the Founders gleaned from the classics: [They] “taught a love of liberty, and understanding of human motivation, an appreciation for the written and spoken word, a respect for order, symmetry, and harmony, and a sense of belonging to an ancient and noble tradition. The latter feeling brought a purpose to the Founders’ lives and gave them a sense of kinship with the world.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Michael Drew

    I personally enjoyed this book quite a bit as a fan of history in general but specifically ancient Mediterranean history and recently 18th century history. It would be tough to recommend this book to anyone who wasn’t pretty diehard about either or both as this one often feels a bit repetitive but ultimately does leave one with a greater understanding of the relationship the American founders had with the classics and the influence the classics had on the creation of the United States.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    The writing is sometimes dry but as the book goes along it becomes more engrossing. Richard makes a good case that the Founders' thinkers were both shaped by classical works and looked to classical authors for models for the Revolution and the Constitution. Even those who opposed the classical languages used classicism in their arguments. It raises excellent questions about classicism and the rise of liberalism. Also the role of the Founders desire for mixed government and growth of democratic g The writing is sometimes dry but as the book goes along it becomes more engrossing. Richard makes a good case that the Founders' thinkers were both shaped by classical works and looked to classical authors for models for the Revolution and the Constitution. Even those who opposed the classical languages used classicism in their arguments. It raises excellent questions about classicism and the rise of liberalism. Also the role of the Founders desire for mixed government and growth of democratic government.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Barrett

    Certainly a worthwhile read to acquaint oneself with the relationship the founders had with the classics. In the end, however, it felt kind of like a college term poet that had been expanded to meet length criteria for publication.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kenny

    Very good overview of the influence of the classics on the founding fathers.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Victor

    The American founders were moved by Greek and Roman history and literature in the same way that the moon tugs at the tides. To say it more plainly: Without the moon there would be no tides. The same with the founders and their accomplishments--at least, that is the conclusion I reached after reading Mr. Carl J. Richard’s book. Can most Americans appreciate the power the classics held over our colonial ancestors? Given that public schools no longer offer deep lessons in the works of Plato, Aristot The American founders were moved by Greek and Roman history and literature in the same way that the moon tugs at the tides. To say it more plainly: Without the moon there would be no tides. The same with the founders and their accomplishments--at least, that is the conclusion I reached after reading Mr. Carl J. Richard’s book. Can most Americans appreciate the power the classics held over our colonial ancestors? Given that public schools no longer offer deep lessons in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Livy, Pliny, Cato, Cicero--to name a few of the Greeks and Romans who defined Western Civilization, I doubt it. Our modern society is far removed from the ancient world of the Mediterranean, and for most students, it seems to me, that world is as dead and dry as petrified tree bark. It’s a shame. Modern students might read a bit of Homer and Plato in a high school literature lesson on mythology, or they might read something of the Roman Empire in a course on World History, but it will not be for the purpose of informing their understanding of the political and spiritual world they inhabit, nor will it be for the purpose of instilling in them moral character and virtue. The founders, on the other hand, studied the classics for these and other purposes, and the lessons that men like Jefferson, Washington, and Madison gleaned from the ancient past, they used as chisels to carve out a new nation for a free people. Although the classics were also sources of entertainment and solace for the early Americans, the author reveals that the works of ancient Greeks and Romans defined the colonists’ understanding of tyranny and liberty. He suggests that without the classics, the founders may have lacked the vision and inspiration for the American Revolution. Richard clarified several things for me about the character of the American form of government. For instance, I’d often heard, through vague explanations, that the founders probably acquired the concept of confederacy from American Indians, specifically the Iroquois League (Six Nations) of New York. But Richard makes no mention of this. Instead, he explains that ancient Greek societies like the Amphictyonic League and the Achean League, were the sources of inspiration for the American republic the founders envisioned. This book helped me understand the mindset of the founders and the pivotal role that the classics played in the conception of the United States of America.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Interesting book that examines the effects of classical education on the minds and works of our Founding Fathers. Richard points out how the classics saturates the public and private writings of the time, and how only through a knowledge of the classics could one fully participate in the debates of the young American state. I especially enjoyed his chapters on symbols, models, and anti-models, as well as a chapter examining how the founders interpreted governments mentioned in classical texts an Interesting book that examines the effects of classical education on the minds and works of our Founding Fathers. Richard points out how the classics saturates the public and private writings of the time, and how only through a knowledge of the classics could one fully participate in the debates of the young American state. I especially enjoyed his chapters on symbols, models, and anti-models, as well as a chapter examining how the founders interpreted governments mentioned in classical texts and reshaped these descriptions to fit either the Federalist or Republican viewpoint. Interesting book if you have a fairly good knowledge of both classical literature (esp. history and philosophy) and the American Revolutionary period.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mae

    This book covers the schools and type of education received by the founders of the United States. It gives you a clear view of who and what influenced the aouthors of the American Constitution. It is in fact surprising for Americans to find out that the authors of the constitution wrote and read French, Greek and Latin and that they actually were more influenced by French Philosophers than any others. I used this book as a basis for a Class I taught in the History of the American Constitution.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Oh, man. Reading this book was TORTURE. It was "a gift" for entering the Honors Program at Roger Williams University, a book we'd have to read for one of our special honors classes in our first semester. I have never been interested in classical philosophy, or the writings of the founders of our country, and now I probably never will be. It was the painful memory of this book that almost made me stop reading Octavian Nothing, which had a similar writing style, but since Octavian was actually int Oh, man. Reading this book was TORTURE. It was "a gift" for entering the Honors Program at Roger Williams University, a book we'd have to read for one of our special honors classes in our first semester. I have never been interested in classical philosophy, or the writings of the founders of our country, and now I probably never will be. It was the painful memory of this book that almost made me stop reading Octavian Nothing, which had a similar writing style, but since Octavian was actually interesting... I managed to enjoy it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Colin

    An excellent book, and essential for a sense of how the Classics shaped the thought of the men who first shaped these United States . . . all the more vital in an age in which we are wont to forget that without the Classics, there would be no United States, and that the Greek and Latin Classics in a real sense constitute the soul of America. The degree to which we have lost touch with that is, to a large degree, the extent to which America has lost its soul.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ronald

    For anyone who doubts our nation's Greek and Roman heritage, this book should convince you otherwise. I found it most interesting how our founders used the ancients as a form of shorthand for many of their arguments about the proper form of government. For anyone who doubts our nation's Greek and Roman heritage, this book should convince you otherwise. I found it most interesting how our founders used the ancients as a form of shorthand for many of their arguments about the proper form of government.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mac Read

  15. 5 out of 5

    Dan

  16. 5 out of 5

    Will Dorton

  17. 4 out of 5

    Alexander

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mark Notestine

  19. 5 out of 5

    Phil

  20. 5 out of 5

    Randy

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jake

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jane

  23. 4 out of 5

    Brian

  24. 5 out of 5

    John Paris

  25. 4 out of 5

    Brian Fitzroy

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jonathon Awtrey

  27. 4 out of 5

    Christina

  28. 5 out of 5

    Hugh MacNab

  29. 5 out of 5

    Shayne Gardner

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ian Vance

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