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The Question: What has the Ethics to do with the Declaration?

As the subtitle indicates, we are to examine whether or not Aristotle spoke to the founding generation. Sadly, I must be rather blunt: Aristotle had almost no direct influence on the Founding or the founding generation. And, when he did speak to them, he spoke through his logic and rhetoric first, his politics, second, and his Ethics almost certainly not at all.

This is not in any way to suggest that the ancients had nothing to say to the Founders. They had quite a bit to say, and the Founders had quite a bit to hear. Looking to the ancient world, through the eyes of a Christianized and reformed Europe, the founders overall desired a the purification of what they inherited: the western or European (Anglo-Saxon-Celtic, but larger as well) common wealth—a republic rooted in right reason, first principles, and the Natural Law.

As most Americans understood Providence in the eighteenth century, God had written the republican principles of the American drive for independence into nature herself. “We do not by declarations change the nature of things, or create new truths, but we give existence, or at least establish in the minds of the people truths and principles which they might never have thought of, or soon forgot. If a nation means its systems, religious or political, shall have duration, it ought to recognize the leading principles of them in the front page of every family book,” a leading Anti-Federalist wrote in the aftermath of the war for Independence.

Unlike today, the world of antiquity spoke volumes to the Americans of the 18th and early nineteenth centuries, with figures such as Cicero especially guiding gently by commands, encouragements, and prohibitions.

As Forrest and Ellen McDonald have written: when an American student entered college (usually at age 14 or 15) in the time leading up to the American revolution, he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek. He would need to “read and translate from the original Latin into English ‘the first three of [Cicero’s] Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid’ and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be ‘expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character.’” [McDonald and McDonald, Requiem, pp. 1-2]

“Furthermore, Americans who had had any schooling at all had been exposed to eight- and ten-hour days of drilling, at the hands of stern taskmasters, in Latin and Greek. This was designed to build character, discipline the mind, and instill moral principles, in addition to teaching language skills. (Educated French military officers who served in the United States during the Revolution found that even when they knew no English and Americans knew no French, they could converse with ordinary Americans in Latin).” [McDonald and McDonald, Requiem, pp. 5]

Just to offer one example of the extent to which the average American (the MOST average American) understood the world of the classics: In 1786, when there was a dispute about Alexander Pope’s translations of Homer’s Iliad, The Massachusetts Spy printed Pope’s translation on one side and the Greek on the other, allowing Americans “the opportunity to decide for themselves” if it was good or not. [McDonald and McDonald, Requiem, pp. 5]

And, we can think of more tangible examples. The U.S. Capitol is a Roman Republican building—it is not patterned after the Hanging Gardens, or the Taj Mahol, or the Mayan Pyramids, or English Parliament, but after the architecture of the Roman Republic ; the employment of the term “Senate” (from Latin—“old man”); of Congress (probably from Latin for “come together”, but might be related to Anglo-Saxon “witan”); and the Fasces (Latin for “bundle”).

Or, perhaps, we might think of Alexander Hamilton’s pseudonym, later adopted by Madison and James Jay as well, “Publius.”

Even a relatively cursory perusal of The Federalist Papers (using the index to the Carey edition), though incorrectly believed to be important at the time (they became important, only in hindsight) reveals a number of interesting things:

  • There are at least 56 separate entries regarding classical and medieval history/republics/persons/events.
  • John Locke is never quoted, mentioned, or even alluded to.
  • There is only one reference to Declaration of Independence, and it is a poetic reference rather than a philosophical one.
  • There are also no direct or indirect references to Aristotle’s works, though Aristotle’s name appears next to that of Cicero’s and Polybius’s in Madison’s personal notes for Federalist 63 on the notion of the Senate.

Most Americans, though, lived and breathed the air of antiquity, and it spoke to them—as a whole—in ways they themselves might not have overtly recognized: in the naming of children (Homer, Virgil, and Narcissa were common names, especially in the South); in the architectural styles of homes and public buildings (our area in Michigan is full of Greek Revival); and in the establishment of towns (Homer, Romulus, Remus, etc.).

Not only did the generations leading up to and passing through and beyond the Founding generation study the classics, but they also connected the classical tradition through the Christian tradition, mostly Protestantized, to a mythologized view of the liberties and common law of the Anglo-Saxons. “The minds of the youth are perpetually led to the history of Greece and Rome or to Great Britain,” Noah Webster wrote, as “boys are constantly repeating the declamations of Demosthenes and Cicero or debates upon some political question in the British Parliament.”

Until the 1870s, most Americans assumed that education was liberal education. If not liberal, it wasn’t education, it was training.

Even the settlers of the so-called “wild west” understood this. “Should the time ever come when Latin and Greek should be banished from our universities and the study of Cicero and Demosthenes, of Homer and Virgil, should be considered as unnecessary for the formation of a scholar,” a writer or the Cincinnati Western Review warned in 1820, “we should regard mankind as fast sinking into an absolute barbarism, and the gloom of mental darkness is likely to increase until it should become universal.”

Little Aristotle and Certainly No Ethics

Though the American Founding (though we could easily make an argument there was either no founding or many, many foundings) was a return—purified, reformed, Christianized, and mythologized—to antiquity, it was most certainly a reawakening and return, nonetheless. This does not mean, however, that Aristotle was an important part of this return, unless we want to consider Aristotle only as a symbolic representation of antiquity.

Even then, we would do far better to pick a Roman figure—such as Cicero (the single most important figures in antiquity for the Founding generation), Virgil, Livy, or Tacitus.

Aristotle is

  • Never cited once in the three month-long constitutional convention.
  • Never cited in The Federalist Papers.
  • Never cited in Dickinson’s Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer (though, JD loves Antigone), the most widely read piece of revolutionary literature until the printing of Paine’s Common Sense).
  • Never cited in any of George Washington’s letters or speeches (except in mentioning the ordering of a bust of Aristotle, along with a significant number of other classical figures.
  • Never cited in the complete works of Alexander Hamilton.
  • Never cited in the first history written of the American Revolution by David Ramsey in 1789 or in the second history by Mercy Otis Warren in 1805.

In the works and correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, we find Aristotle’s name appearing only a few times.

As a young man, Jefferson embraced Aristotle’s ideas of slavery as a justification to continue to enslave blacks, believing them “inferior.” [Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 97]

In a letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, he dismissed Plato and Aristotle as “mystics” who give ammunition to priests to corrupt religion.

In another, his famous letter of 1825 to Henry Lee, he claims the ideas of Declaration to be from “Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Sidney.”

Nine years earlier, though, Jefferson had dismissed the ideas of Aristotle as irrelevant in the post-Revolutionary period of American history. “The introduction of this new principle of representative democracy has rendered useless almost everything written before on the structure of government: and, in a great measure, relieves our regret, of the political writings of Aristotle, or of any other ancient, have been lost, or are unfaithfully rendered or explained to us.” [Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 157]

In the most authoritative study on the sources of the Founding, Professor Donald Lutz quantifies the references made to various sources, ca. 1761 to 1802. During that time, he found 36 widely cited authors: including St. Paul, Montesquieu, Blackstone, Locke, and Hume, and Plutarch as the top 6. Cicero is #12, Livy #21, Tacitus #24, and Plato #25.

Aristotle does not even make the list.

This, however, is not to suggest that the founders did not absorb the teachings of Aristotle—they did, but secondarily through the works of Machiavelli, Bacon, Sidney, Harrington, Locke, and Montesquieu.

When Aristotle is referenced in the founding generation (a generation, it should be remembered yet again, raised on a love of antiquity), it is never (not once!) for his Ethics. His logic, however, appeared as the logic of Isaac Watts’s in his popular 1719 textbook on that subject. [Kopff, 74]

Many American students also learned the art of rhetoric, in part, from Aristotle.

Additionally, many in the Founding assumed that Aristotle’s greatest role was the tempering of the excesses of his supposed pupil, Alexander the Great.

John Adams was probably the only American we have who offers proof of someone actually having read through much of Aristotle, but even he sought other figures as ultimate models. When John Quincy began studying the classics, his father worried terribly that JQA would become too taken with the wrong figures. To be safe, his father insisted, always fall back on Demosthenes for the Greeks and Cicero for the Romans. [Richard, Founders and the Classics, 33]

Though Americans inherited the idea of mixed government, they did so mostly through Montesquieu, as noted before, but Plato first presented the idea of the three branches in the “Laws,” years before Aristotle did in “Politics.”

When James Wilson, one of only six men to sign the Declaration as well as the Constitution, and a future member of the U.S. Supreme Court, gave his famous lectures at what is now the University of Pennsylvania in 1790 and 1791, describing the meaning and philosophy of the American founding, he offered an almost purely Ciceronian vision of Natural Law and Natural Rights. Though he draws upon Aristotle here or there, he constantly refers back to Cicero, though his Cicero is, admittedly, more mythologized than real. As with John Adams, the two revered Cicero, focusing almost exclusively on the Roman’s Stoic ethics.

In attendance at his lectures: President George Washington; Vice President John Adams; and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson.

When I am told of scholars today who try and link Aristotle to the founding, I sympathize, as I too would like Aristotle to have spoken directly to the Founders. But, I am also reminded of the painful admonitions of Petrarch, one of the finest Christian Humanists of the fourteenth century, “Let them keep their exorbitant opinion of everything that regards them, and the naked name Aristotle which delights many ignorant people by its four syllables. Moreover, let them have the vain joy and the unfounded elation which is so near to ruin; in short, let them have all the profit people who are ignorant and puffed up earn from their errors in vague and easy credulity.” Further, as Petrarch noted, though Aristotle “has indeed said a good deal in the beginning and at the end of his Ethics. . . . he knew absolutely nothing of true happiness that any pious old woman, any faithful fisherman, shepherd or peasant is—I will not say more subtle but happier in recognizing it.” [Petrarch, Of his own Ignorance and That of Many Others”]

As we think about happiness, we must also remember Chesterton’s statement: one “peasant, while holding one small bead of the rosary in his fingers, can be conscious, not of one eternity, but of a complex and almost a conflict of eternities.”

While the Founders believed in “happiness” and derived much of their belief from seventeenth-century political philosophy, the average American derived his notion of it from Martin Luther, St. Paul, and colonial experience.

George Washington, Roman

In preparation for their time at HC, the freshman were asked to read Brookheiser’s Founding Father as well as Aristotle’s Ethics. Wisely, Brookheiser never tries to tie the Founding Father to Aristotle (he’s only mentioned once in the biography, and then only in passing). Instead, Brookheiser rightly claims the Stoics and Roman republicans spoke most clearly to Washington. Our first president is, after all, not the American Aristotle, but the “American Cincinnatus,” the ultimate Roman Republican, and the “American Aeneas,” the ultimate antique bearer of truth.

When Washington famously submitted the following on April 30, 1789, he did so much more as a Roman than a Greek:

There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. (First inaugural address)

It’s worth remembering that GW’s favorite play (presumably his favorite story) is the Joseph Addison eighteenth-century play, Cato: A Tragedy. Two representative scenes from that play reveal much:

From Cato: A Tragedy


These all are virtues of a meaner rank,
Perfections that are placed in bones and nerves
A Roman soul is bent on higher views:
To civilize the rue, unpolished world,
And lay it under the restraint of laws;
To make man mild, and social to man;
To cultivate the wild, licentious savage
With wisdom, discipline, and liberal arts—
The embellishments of life; virtues like these
Make human nature shine, reform the soul,
And break our fierce barbarians into men.

Later in the play we have a stunning conversation about the meaning of man, his relationship to another, and his citizenship in the Cosmos:

Juba: I blush and am confounded to appear/Before thy presence, Cato

Cato: What’s thy crime?

Juba: I’m a Numidian

Cato: And a brave one too/Thou hast a Roman soul

Juba: Hast thou not heard/Of my false countrymen?

Cato: Alas! Young prince/Falsehood and fraud shoot up in every soil,/The product of all climes—Rome has its Caesars.

None of what I state this afternoon is meant to be a dismissal or diminution of either Aristotle or Washington. Each is a great man, and each should be revered for who he was and what he did.

Even if Aristotle spoke to the Founding generation, he did so very, very softly and only in side whispers and rumors as if by the child’s game of “telephone.” But, when the many voices of antiquity speak to the Founders, they do so never as members of an esoteric sect in which knowledge is passed down as by apostolic succession or in a way that would force the reader to “read between the lines.” Instead, the ancients spoke to the Founders as members of a choir, proclaiming openly the most beautiful of truths in the harmony of a symphony.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

**A lecture by Brad Birzer given September 14, 2012, Hillsdale College. Part of a Symposium, sponsored by Rachel Kalthoff and Nate Schlueter. 

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4 replies to this post
  1. Dr. Birzer,
    Could it be that part of the lack of Aristotelianism is explained by the minimal Roman Catholic presence at the founding? I am thinking of the Aristotelianism of Aquinas. Is there any mention of Aquinas in the Founders' writings?

  2. Professor Birzer writes, “Sadly, I must be rather blunt: Aristotle had almost no direct influence on the Founding or the founding generation.”
    Thomas Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee (May 8, 1825) = Writings (1984) 1501, denying an original contribution to the Declaration: “It was intended to be an expression of the American mind….All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.” (“Harmonizing sentiments” means more or less what we mean by “consensus.”) Jefferson’s memory is confirmed by earlier writers.
    On December 26, 1774 Tory polemicist Massachusettensis (Daniel Leonard) mocked Whig rabble rousers: “They begin by reminding the people of the elevated rank they hold in the universe, as men; that all men by nature are equal; that kings are but the ministers of the people; that their authority is delegated to them by the people for their good, and they have the right to resume it, and place it in other hands, or keep it themselves, whenever it is made use of to oppress them.”
    John Adams Responded in his Letters of Novanglus (January 23, 1775) = Works (1851) 4:15: “These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington and Locke: the principles of nature and eternal reason.”
    In the previous century Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651) Part II, Chapter 2 protested against the Whigs’ use of the Classics: “In these western parts of the world, we are made to receive our opinions concerning the institution and rights of commonwealths from Aristotle, Cicero, and other men, Greeks and Romans, that living under popular states, derived their rights, not from the principles of nature, but transcribed them into their books out of the practice of their own commonwealths, which were popular
    Professor Birzer denies the Founders were influenced significantly or directly by Aristotle. Jefferson and Adams, Founders who served on the committee that prepared the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, both say they were. Thomas Hobbes finds this influence on Whigs a century earlier.
    How can Professor Birzer be right and Jefferson and Adams be wrong about what influenced the Founders? This is a sincere question. If we cannot explain that influence, that is our problem. Like Socrates, I love being refuted, although in this case it will involve refuting Adams and Jefferson about themselves.

  3. Chris, thanks so much for replying. I just reposted this piece at the CU CTP before realizing you’d commented. Strange things in the air, I suppose. I am and have been wrestling with your questions for a while now. When I first gave this talk, my Straussian colleagues offered the same challenge. It is more than possible that to make my point, I overstated the case. Still, that Jefferson mentions Aristotle ONLY four times in his entire body of correspondence seems telling to me, especially when three of the four times are either pro-slavery or dismissive. Would it be fair to state that the Founders looks far more to the Romans than the Greeks? At least, that’s what I’m finding.

  4. This is a good speech, because it is so clear that it is possible to formulate clear questions in response. I asked, implicitly, why did Jefferson, Adams and Hobbes falsely claim that Aristotle was a significant part of the “one worthy tradition, the tradition of liberty,” as Carl Richard called it, “the doctrines of civil liberty,” in Jonathan Mayhew’s words. Garry Wills had an answer. Jefferson lied. He was really influenced by the contemporary Scottish Enlightenment, but falsely claimed he had read Locke. One of Wills’ arguments is Jefferson’s “crediting Aristotle (of all people!) with formation of the background for his Declaration.” (Inventing America, p. 174). For Wills this claim is so obviously false—nay ludicrous—that it does not require an argument. Even Wills does not explain WHY Jefferson, Adams, Hobbes et al. misstated the case. One argument THAT they lied or misspoke or whatever is Lutz’s article. He counted explicit references. Montesquieu comes close to the top. Then one reads Montesquieu and sees the pervasive presence of the classics. He reformulated in modern terms and eloquent French Whig ideas that go back to the ancients. The whole notion of evaluating the quality of pervasive and fundamental influence by counting references is the fundamental mistake of “social scientists.” When their error is pointed out, they have the gall to accuse the Humanist of “cherry picking” the evidence, because he is evaluating and judging, that is, thinking critically about the evidence. So we return to the question. If what Jefferson, Adams, Hobbes et al. said about Aristotle’s place in the “one worthy tradition of liberty” is false, why did they say it?

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