The Founding Fathers & the Classics: The Stream of Classical History Was One of the Primary Tributaries of American Political Thought at the Time of the Founding

Article excerpt

I have but one lamp by which my feel are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.-- Patrick Henry March 23, 1775

p Patrick Henry's view of the value of history was not unique. The men who framed our constitutional republic agreed with French author Charles Pinot Duclos, who observed:

   We see on the theater of the world a
   certain number of scenes which succeed
   each other in endless repetition:
   where we see the same faults followed
   regularly by the same misfortunes,
   we may reasonably think that
   if we could have known the first we
   might have avoided the others. The
   past should enlighten us on the future:
   knowledge of history is no more than
   an anticipated experience.

All of our Founding Fathers believed that history was a precursor of the future. In the annals of history--particularly that of the Roman and Greek republics of antiquity--they believed they could find the key to inoculating America against the diseases that infected and destroyed past societies. Indeed, it has been said that the Founders were coroners examining the lifeless bodies of the republics and democracies of the past, in order to avoid succumbing to the maladies that shortened their lives.

The Founders learned very early in life to venerate the illuminating stories of ancient Greece and Rome. They learned these stories, not from secondary sources, but from the classics themselves. And from these stories they drew knowledge and inspiration that helped them found a republic far greater than anything created in antiquity.

Early Education

Classical training usually began at age eight, whether in a school or at home under the guidance of a private tutor. One remarkable teacher who inculcated his students with a love of the classics was Scotsman Donald Robertson. Many future luminaries were enrolled in his school: James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John Tyler and George Rogers Clark, among others. Robertson and teachers like him nourished their charges with a healthy diet of Greek and Latin, and required that they learn to master Virgil, Horace, Justinian, Tacitus, Herodotus, Lucretius and Thucydides. Further along in their education, students were required to translate Cicero's Orations and Virgil's Aeneid. They were expected to translate Latin and Greek passages aloud, write out the translations in English, and then re-translate the passages back into the original language using a different tense.

The standards were no less rigorous for those taught at home. George Wythe, the renowned Virginian who would come to be known as the "Teacher of Liberty," was himself taught to appreciate the writings of the ancients at home by his mother. Tragically, Wythe's mother died when he was very young, but she lived long enough to anchor her son's education on very firm moorings. Before she died she taught Wythe to read and translate both the fundamental languages of antiquity, Greek and Latin. According to one early biographer, Wythe "had a perfect knowledge of the Greek language taught to him by his mother in the backwoods."

Whether at home or in a schoolhouse, the goal of education in the early days of our nation was to instill virtue in the students. The Founders were taught that free societies were sustained by a virtuous populace, and that, if a society were to abandon a study of the classics, that same society would eventually abandon the virtues championed by the classical authors.

There was a more pragmatic side to the Founders' classical education as well. Twenty-seven of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were college educated. Moreover, of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, 30 were college graduates. That is an impressive feat given the challenging entrance requirements of 18th-century universities. Fortunately for the young Founding Fathers, the teachers of the day exercised their students in Greek and Latin, so that their pupils could meet the rigorous entrance requirements of colonial colleges. …