The Classical Tradition in Antebellum America

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Author: E. Christian Kopff

The classical curriculum remained the educational gold standard in nineteenth-century America. In fact, its influence grew, as women’s academies with a classical curriculum were founded all over the expanding nation…

The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States by Carl J. Richard (Harvard University Press, 2009)

bookWith The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States, Carl J. Richard has cemented his place as America’s premier intellectual historian. His investigation of the cultural history of antebellum America is as thorough and persuasive as the case he made for the role of the classics in the Revolutionary period in The Founders and the Classics.[1] By demonstrating the centrality of the classics in the cultural and political life of the republic, he has transformed our understanding of the American way of life and made a compelling case for the degree requirements for the Ph.D. in American history to include firsthand knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin.

Meyer Reinhold called the Founding era the “Golden Age” of American classics and relegated the nineteenth century to the “Silver Age.”[2] Dr. Richard queried this evaluation in 1994.[3] In Golden Age, he asserts the antebellum period’s right to that title: “antebellum Americans of all sections of the country continued to use the classics in the same way as the founding generation,” but classical influence “expanded beyond the narrow confines of the eastern aristocratic elite, affecting new economic classes and geographical regions” and new ways of thinking and creating.

As Dr. Richard’s chapter on “Classical Conditioning: School, Home, and Society” shows, the classical curriculum remained the educational gold standard in nineteenth-century America. In fact, its influence grew, as women’s academies with a classical curriculum were founded all over the expanding nation. Those without a classical education could purchase scores of translations of classical literature published in response to Americans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for the ancient world.

Classical education had its opponents. Dr. Richard recounts “The Utilitarian Assault on the Classical Languages Requirement” in schools and universities. “The arguments themselves were no different from those that had been put forward by Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Paine” in the eighteenth century. These arguments met an uncompromising “Classical Counterattack” from the academy, as exemplified by 1828’s “Yale Report,” which, in Meyer Reinhold’s words, “assured the entrenchment of the classics, not only at Yale, but throughout the country, until after the Civil War.”[4] Dr. Richard concludes, “From the beginning, Americans had been a pragmatic and commercial people, but one who had simultaneously harbored a reverence for tradition, both Christian and classical, and who had seen in these theistic and humanistic traditions a crucial means of moderating their own penchant for utilitarianism and materialism.”

Dr. Richard shows how reverence for the ancient classics permeated the public discourse of the age. Great orators like John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and Edward Everett studied Cicero’s orations. In 1845, Webster spoke at Everett’s inauguration as president of Harvard and, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Latin allusions flew all day.” Dr. Richard hints broadly that William Henry Harrison’s love for classical oratory and Roman history may have caused his death. Although Webster pruned classical references from Harrison’s inaugural address in 1841, boasting that he had killed “seventeen Roman consuls as dead as smelts,” Harrison still spoke for four hours in the freezing rain and died a month later of the cold he caught that day.

The pervasive classicism of America’s political discourse reflected a major sea change in political attitudes. The Founders were suspicious of democracy and Athens. Their descendants came to admire both. The new appreciation for democracy encouraged support for the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire. John Quincy Adams knew and loved the classics, but he was unsettled by what he viewed as reckless philhellenic rhetoric. After a cabinet meeting in which John C. Calhoun “descanted upon his great enthusiasm for the cause of the Greeks,” Adams wrote in his diary (August 15, 1823), “I have not much esteem for the enthusiasm which evaporates in words; and I told the President I thought not quite so lightly of a war with Turkey.” When Adams succeeded Monroe as president, he had to face the hard political fact “that the prejudice in favor of the Greeks in this country is so warm that even the attempt to negotiate with the Turks would meet with censure.”

This new enthusiasm for ancient and modern Greece was consistent with “The Continuing Appeal of Rome.” Admired public figures continued to be compared to heroes from Roman history. The highest praise for a woman was to call her Cornelia, mater Gracchorum, “mother of the Gracchi,” in reference to Plutarch’s story that, when asked where she kept her jewels, Cornelia responded by presenting her two sons. In 1851, Louisa McCord published Gaius Gracchus, a play where Cornelia and Gaius’s wife, Licinia, exemplify the virtues of republican matrons by exhorting their sons and husbands to patriotic deeds, even at the cost of their lives. The play was phenomenally popular. Hiram Powers sculpted McCord dressed as a Roman matron. Her life mirrored her play. “Her son, whom she had exhorted to heroic action, died in battle for the Confederacy.”

Among the most memorable pages in The Founders and the Classics are the chapters devoted to “Models” and “Anti-models,” where Dr. Richard shows how the Founders forged antiquity for positive and negative exempla to guide their steps. The classically educated John Adams took Cicero as his model. George Washington, though lacking a classical education, molded his public image on Cincinnatus, who refused to exploit his military victories for political self-aggrandizement but instead resigned his commission and returned to his farm. Similarly, nineteenth-century Americans looked to the ancient world for heroes. Democrats like Sam Houston often compared Andrew Jackson to Cincinnatus. Thomas Hart Benton likened Jackson’s attack on the Bank of the United States to Cicero’s defeat of the Catilinarian Conspiracy, which Americans read about in school in Cicero’s speeches and Sallust’s history. Americans before the Civil War were still living in the Roman Republic.

Classical villains were as significant as heroes and played the important role in the public discourse of the antebellum period that they had during the Founding era. The chief “antimodel” was Julius Caesar, who, unlike Cincinnatus, used his military success to destroy the Republic and become a tyrant. Twenty years later Jefferson still remembered the day Hamilton told him, “the greatest man who ever lived was Julius Caesar,” though Dr. Richard suggests convincingly that “Hamilton was playing a joke on the humorless Virginian.” References to Caesar in Hamilton’s writings are uniformly negative.[5]

Here again, we see the cultural and political continuity of nineteenth-century America with the Founding era. Political enemies never tired of comparing Andrew Jackson to Caesar. “After losing the election of 1828 to Jackson, John Quincy Adams…spent more than two hours a day for the next ten months studying Cicero’s letters and works, in the process seeing parallels between Jackson and Caesar and himself and Cicero.” After his reelection in 1832, Jackson fired his secretary of the treasury, William J. Duane, for refusing to withdraw public funds from the Bank of the United States in his opening gambit to destroy the bank. Henry Clay read to his colleagues in the Senate the passage from Plutarch’s Life of Caesar where Caesar looted the Roman treasury despite a tribunician veto: “As Metellus, the tribune, opposed his taking money out of the public treasure, and cited some laws against it (such, sir, I suppose, as I have endeavored to cite on this occasion), Caesar said, ‘If you are not pleased with what I am about, you have only to withdraw (Leave the office, Mr. Duane!).’“

John C. Calhoun praised Clay’s citation of Plutarch, “one of the most pleasing and instructive writers in any language,” and developed the parallel. “We are at the same stage of our political revolution, and the analogy between the two cases is complete…. ‘With money I will get men and with men money,’ was the maxim of the Roman plunderer. With money we will get partisans, with partisans votes and with votes money, is the maxim of our public pilferers.” Ignoring how America’s political life was permeated with classical ideas and figures changes the story. It makes a difference if his opponents objected to Andrew Jackson as an uneducated backwoodsman who did not know which fork to use at a formal dinner or if they saw him as a Julius Caesar, intent on using his military success for personal and party aggrandizement.

After Dr. Richard Lawrence’s failed attempt to assassinate Jackson, the Washington Globe blamed Clay and Calhoun for provoking the assault, describing Lawrence as “infatuated with the chimaeras which have troubled the brains of the disappointed orators who have depicted the President as a Caesar who ought to have a Brutus.” Dr. Richard rejects the Globe’s analysis with typical humor: Lawrence was “a delusional house painter who had probably sniffed too much lead paint.” But classical parallels did influence Americans. When a president was assassinated in 1865, his killer, John Wilkes Booth, declaimed Latin to the audience at Ford’s Theater: sic semper tyrannis (“This is always the way to deal with tyrants!”), the motto of Virginia.

The classics also played a formative role in American literature. Emerson and Thoreau defended classical education from the utilitarian assault. Although determined to avoid slavish imitation, they found in Homer and Plato irreplaceable masters of insight and inspiration. “We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old,” wrote Thoreau in Walden. “These works of art have such an immortality as the works of nature and are modern at the same time as they are ancient, like the sun and stars.” This is how Pope explained Virgil’s imitation of Homer: “Homer and Nature were, he found, the same.”

As nineteenth-century Americans had come to value Athenian democracy, so they also developed an appreciation of Greek myth. “While the founders’ generation revered the more rational elements of classical literature, such as its history and political theory, the Transcendentalists valued classical mythology for its passion and mysticism.” After Margaret Fuller devoted one of the “conversations” she held with the cultured women of Boston at the Peabody sisters’ bookstore (for twenty dollars) to Greek myth, word of its brilliance spread and she was persuaded to give an encore performance for men.

Dr. Richard is sensitive in interpreting and convincing in explaining the role of myth in American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne composed two volumes of Greek myths for boys and girls, The Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales. Inspired by Praxiteles’ statue in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, he gave adult readers a vision of the ancient world in The Marble Faun. Dr. Richard remarks:

It is indicative of the hold of the classical world on antebellum Americans that The Marble Faun, not The Scarlet Letter or any of Hawthorne’s other stories set in the American past, was the most commercially and critically successful of his books. For decades American visitors to Rome brought a copy of the novel with them.

It remains a good introduction to nineteenth-century Rome.

A full appreciation of the Transcendentalists requires seeing how deeply they were influenced by the classics. Emerson’s important essays on “Self-Reliance” and “The American Scholar” need to be interpreted in the light of his long essay Plato, whom Dr. Richard correctly presents as a constant presence in the New England mind. It is not enough to mention Margaret Fuller’s call for sexual equality in Woman in the Nineteenth Century and the role of her “conversations” in women’s education. Fuller’s most influential “conversation” was devoted to Greek myth, not woman’s suffrage. To express the high hopes she had for her History of the Roman Republic, 1848–49, which was lost in the shipwreck that took her life, she described it as “a possession forever for man,” echoing the words Thucydides used of his history. In her letters from Rome, she often quoted Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “Oh Rome! My country! City of the soul! / The orphans of the heart must turn to thee.” She always underlined the word “my.” Unless we appreciate just how important Plato was to Emerson and Rome was to Margaret Fuller, we will never understand their accomplishments and aspirations.

Although the classics were less ostentatiously central to Edgar Allan Poe’s creations, his poem “To Helen” gives the classic formulation of what the ancient world meant to nineteenth-century Americans: “The glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome.”

After insightful discussions of the role of the classics in shaping Americans’ growing understanding of their nationalism and the Christian religion, the book culminates with a chapter on the differing ways Northerners and Southerners used their common classical culture to debate slavery. The ancient and modern traditions of natural law afforded Americans material to express their deepest commitments. The Northern critique found in Plato and the Southern defense found in Aristotle ways to discuss this contentious subject. (An excellent supplement to these pages is the discussion on natural law in Dr. Richard’s Battle for the American Mind.[6] The debate on slavery is the tragic denouement of Dr. Richard’ s story. The classics supplied arguments but not a solution. “The Civil War, a catastrophe that caused the death of one out of every fifty Americans, generated a great crisis for both Christian theism and classical humanism, which shared an emphasis on the existence of a universal moral order.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is emblematic here. “After the Civil War the world never seemed quite right,” he told a friend. “In a series of influential books and essays Holmes assaulted the classical doctrine of natural law, claiming that both moral and statutory law were ever-changing products of experience, not universal rules inherent in nature and accessible by human reason.”

After the Civil War, Dr. Richard writes, “the classics began a gradual decline due to social, economic, and intellectual forces.” I would argue that the decline was very gradual until the cultural catastrophe of the 1960s. Episcopalian prep schools and Lutheran and Catholic parochial schools still taught Latin, as did public schools. According to statistics compiled by the United States Office of Education, in 1889–90 34.7 percent of public high school students took Latin. This number grew. In 1900 and 1910 one-half of public high school students were enrolled in Latin classes.[7] As recently as 1962 there were 728,637 students of high school Latin.[8] Knowledge of the classics is as indispensable for understanding the works of twentieth-century literary giants like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, and Eugene O’Neill as they are for those of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. There is still at least one more volume to be written on the classics and American culture. We hope its author will be as learned, cultured, and insightful as Dr. Richard.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. E. Christian Kopff’s essays may be found here.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Fall 2010). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[2] Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 174–203.

[3] Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 279, note 1.

[4] Reinhold, Classica Americana, 194.

[5] Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 92.

[6] Carl J. Richard, The Battle for the American Mind: A Brief History of a Nation’s Thought (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 81–93, 118–123.

[7] John Francis Latimer, What’s Happened to Our High Schools (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1958), 26.

[8] Samuel A. Goldberg, “High School Enrollments in Latin 1964–65,” Classical Bulletin 59 (1966): 299.

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