We Owe Our Home To Rome
BY KAYLA KANE
Kayla enjoys linking classics to various topics across academia. This paper captures classical allusions mentioned in the American history book Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. Kayla opted to expand on Ellis’ various classical connections to the Founding Fathers, and explore the classics’ place in the American Revolution.
Historical maxims not only prove a legacy, they sustain our remembrance of a figure. Modern minds recall James Madison by his statement, “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may equally be said to have a property in his rights.” Madison’s chiasmus, a sentence in brief, reverse parallel structure, draws influence from classical rhetoric. With the term descending from the Greek letter “chi” (an“X,” reflecting the chiastic structure), the chiasmus was ubiquitous in classical texts, well-known to the revolutionaries who studied them. Madison’s rhetoric reveals that 18th century politicians emulated classical ideologues, particularly from the Roman Republic; these figures guided the decisions of their revolutionary counterparts, and, in the process, secured their spoken legacies. Revolutionaries saw classical figures within each other, which led to a sense predictability within their environment. Joseph Ellis, in his written history Founding Brothers, claims that revolutionary figures were “Actors on a most conspicuous theatre…for the display of human greatness and felicity.” The founders saw American politics as a familiar production, with roles previously cast by the ancient Romans. “If they sometimes look like marble statues,” Ellis writes of the Founding Fathers, “that is how they wanted to look.” Seeing the Roman republic as the longest-standing republic yet, countless revolutionary politicians drew inspiration from prominent classical thinkers. As a result, modernity views the founders with a similar awe as attributed to the classics. Although the late 18th century American republic was in its infancy, politicians already perceived similarities between the American and Roman republics, and therefore, utilized the classics to make sense of their surroundings, avoid past mistakes, and achieve the second successful republic in human history.
In the early American republic, John Adams borrowed ideas from Marcus Tullius Cicero, a successful Roman consul. Adams saw the current American condition as a reflection of Cicero’s time, and thus, applicable to advice from the classics. Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush, “Almost fifty years ago I read Middleton’s Life of [Cicero]. . . Change the names and every anecdote will be applicable to us.” With his classical college education---focused on classical law---Adams saw threads of Ancient Rome in the early American republic. Perceiving his own country as an extension of Ancient Rome, Adams wished to “play the role” of an American Cicero: to incorporate Cicero’s stances into the ideals of American government. In his written letters, Adams marveled at Cicero’s commitment to the Roman republic, writing that “Cicero had the most capacity and the most constant as well as the wisest and most persevering attachment to the republic.” Adams’ description of Cicero set an archetype for his own leadership: the founder saw Cicero’s “capacity” and “attachment” as vital to a republican leader. By viewing the American republic as a reflection of the Roman, Adams felt well-informed of his domestic situation, due to his advanced knowledge of the classics. Within a confounding new era of independence, Adams carried the conscience of Cicero to “act in the play” of republic, doing so through the comfortable means of classics.
Nearly two thousand years before Adams’ life, Cicero wrote fondly of his own republic. As a fond reader of Cicero, Adams was well-versed in the consul’s political philosophies. In his written dialogue, De Re Publica, Cicero describes the Roman republic as the most ideal form of government that one can achieve. The consul acknowledges three forms of ruling: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Claiming that each of these forms always collapses to its faultiest state, Cicero argues that liberty cannot exist permanently in any of these structures. The solution to these flawed systems, Cicero proclaims, is a “mixed and moderated government, which is composed of the three particular forms I have before noticed.” Cicero’s philosophy shines through in Adams’ 1776 pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, which, like Cicero, describes government in its ideal form. According to the historian Katherine Manning, the Founding Father presents “the clearest articulation of the classical theory of mixed government and, in particular, how it related to the emerging American situation.” To avoid the dangers of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, such as lack of representation and unbalanced liberty, Adams suggests that “a [distinct] Assembly be constituted, as a mediator between the two extreme branches of the legislature, that which represents the people and that which is vested with the executive power.” Adams envisions a “mixed government” as a bicameral body with commonwealth representation and executive authority separate, with an intermediary assembly of well-educated men. In this way, government would retain the stability of a monarchy, with equal representation between beneficiaries of both democracy and aristocracy. In agreement with Cicero, Adams reconstructs governmental authority to maximize human liberty and representation, while still ensuring stability.
In a republic with Cicero, a Catiline must also reside. Lucius Sergius Catiline was the enemy conspirator of Cicero; Ellis describes Catiline as “the treacherous and degenerate character whose scheming nearly destroyed the Roman Republic.” The accused Cataline of early America was identified not by the Ciceronian Adams, but by Hamilton. Regardless of Aaron Burr’s political inspiration, this party-shifting politician came to embody a Catilinarian character. Although Hamilton despised Thomas Jefferson, as exemplified by newspaper essays demoting him, Burr’s Catilinarian qualities, chiefly his elevated self interests, caused Hamilton’s ultimate disdain. Therefore, when Burr and Jefferson tied for the presidency in 1800, Hamilton supported his enemy Jefferson. Hamilton saw Burr as motivated by power and wealth to the same extent as Catiline in the Roman republic, who planned to assassinate Cicero, overthrow the Roman government, and secure himself total power. Hamilton wrote of Burr in the year of his election, stating, “If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth.” Hamilton was correct, but the loss of presidency did not stop Burr from attempting a seizure of power; Burr validated Hamilton’s prediction in the long run. After losing the presidency, Burr was ousted from the vice presidency by Jefferson. Similarly, Catiline lost two campaigns for consulship, and subsequently conspired to overthrow the Roman government out of rage. After Hamilton’s death, Burr:
proved Hamilton right, or at least took on a somewhat Catilinarian role: he masterminded a failed conspiracy to invade Texas and the Mississippi Valley, reportedly conspired with the British and with the Spanish to capture Washington, D.C. itself, and was arrested for treason in 1808.
Although Burr’s title of Catiline was not self-established, unlike Adams’ of Cicero, Burr conformed to his classical identity just as well. Through Hamilton’s classical connection, Burr became a predictable threat to the American republic. Without Hamilton’s familiarity with classical Roman politics, he may not have seen the conspiratory threats of Burr, and cast his vote against Jefferson instead.
As the revolutionary scene began to reflect classical republics, classical ideas became prominent in the revolution. While some figures willfully conformed to classical personalities, others adopted ancient tactics inadvertently, by virtue of their parallel situations. Educated politicians, well-read in the classics, utilized classical connections to make sense of the construct of early republic. Adams’ classical education led to an admiration of Cicero, and Cicero’s conscience guided Adams’ political career. While Hamilton’s derogatory “Catiline” statements imply an accidental classicism to Burr’s character, Burr’s classical identity holds importance equal to Adams’. Without Cicero’s ideologies to guide Adams, his influence on American government would have voiced different, non-Ciceronian ideals. Additionally, without Hamilton’s knowledge of Catiline, Hamilton might have voted against Jefferson instead, likely handing Burr the presidency. Without the knowledge of the classics, decisions by Adams and Hamilton could have drastically altered the course of American history. To revolutionary politicians, the classical legacies set an archetype for their own, and by means of classical tactics (as exemplified previously by the chiasmus), figures of the 18th century achieved legacies of similar rank. Revolutionaries borrowed widely from the classics, and similarly, if American government should ever be reconstructed, we would see ideas from Jefferson, Adams, and Burr, re-used by modern politicians.
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