the imaginative conservative logo

forgotten founderThe American Founders were Men of the West. For all intents and purposes, they might as well have been the remnants of Numenor, each capable of wielding Anduril.

As such, they would not readily recognize the divisions modern historians and scholars often proclaim in history. Indeed, for the founders, history was a continuity and a cycle, not a progression. They were as much in line with Cicero, for example, as they were of John Locke or Baron Montesquieu. Sadly, though, while historians and scholars have readily found innumerable (or sort of) references to the thinkers living rather near (relatively speaking) to the founders, they have forgotten those who seem more at a distance. It is comparatively easy to show paraphrases from Locke. It is far more difficult to determine exactly where Horsa fits into it all.

In his often quoted letter of 1825, Thomas Jefferson admitted that the Declaration of Independence offered nothing original in thought, but drew upon “common sense,” giving voice or “harmonizing sentiments” to the ideas of Aristotle, Marcus T. Cicero, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke. Fair enough, of course, though it should also be remembered that the name Aristotle appears in Jefferson’s writing only four times in the entirety of his writings. 1) To promote and defend his own idea of slavery; 2) to dismiss him as a “mystic”; 3) to claim his influence on the Declaration (per above); and 4) to discount any importance of him after the passing of the Declaration. That is it.

To be fair, though, very few American founders cared much about the Greeks. I have attempted to address this issue in great detail in a previous essay at The Imaginative Conservative.

In his own exhaustive research on the intellectual sources of the American Founding, everyone’s favorite pirate political scientist, Don Lutz, has demonstrated—really beyond question—that the Founders gave little serious thought to the Greeks, at least directly. Of the top thirty-six most-cited authors in the Revolutionary period, the only Greek to appear is Plato, and he appears at number twenty-six. Safely above Plato rest Plutarch, Cicero, Tacitus, and Livy. Aristotle does not make the list at all.

Understandably, several very fine and respected scholars have disagreed with me, and I might have unintentionally exaggerated my case to make my point. There can be little doubt that Aristotle influenced those who influenced the Founders. But, then, why did the Founders so often cite great thinkers but rarely Aristotle himself? The greatest exception to this, however, is James Wilson, who relied heavily upon Aristotle’s ideas in drawing up his justly famous University of Pennsylvania lectures of 1790 and 1791, attended by men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

In addition to the work of Professor Lutz, the grand and vital work of Chris Kopff, Forrest McDonald, Trevor Colbourn, Carl Richard, and a few others has shown the critical importance of the classical thinkers on the American Founders.

In his own work, co-authored with Ellen McDonald, Forrest McDonald writes: “Just to enter college during the eighteenth century–which students normally did at the age of fourteen or fifteen–it was necessary, among others things to be able to read and translate from the original Latin into English (I quote from the requirements at King’s College–now Columbia–which were typical) ‘the first three of Tully’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]. In his excellent work on the same subject, Carl Richard reveals that such entrance requirements originated at Harvard and appeared in the entrance requirements for all of America’s colonial colleges [Source: The Founders and the Classics, 19].

It is worth noting that while the students had to read the Latin of Cicero and Virgil, they had to learn the Greek of St. John, not of Plato or Aristotle.

Virgil: Forgotten Founder

I have also tried elsewhere to show Cicero’s profound influence on the American Founders. Truly, I think it would be hard to find an ancient author more loved by the Founders than Cicero, at least over the time period of each of their lives.

And, though Virgil does not make Professor Lutz’s list mentioned above, a case can be made for his vitally as a classical figure even if rarely—comparatively—cited.

It might be easy—and I have done it myself for far too many years—to pass quickly over the college entrance requirements regarding the translation of the first three books of the Aeneid. In my mind, I have mistakenly thought of this as a sort of eighteenth-century, three-hour AP or SAT exam. In reality, it is much more. Even the most cursory look at the first three books of the Aeneid reveals much. Book one has 908 lines of poetry, book two has 998 lines, and book three has 830. In other words, such an exam would have taken days to complete, and the prospective student would had to digest, understand, and absorb the essence of Virgil’s argument(s).

John Adams once wrote that the “Aeneid is like a well-ordered Garden, where it is impossible to find any Part unadorned or to cast our Eyes upon a single Spot that does not produce some beautiful Plant or Flower” [Source: Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (1984), 232].

Virgil’s influence went well beyond his story, The Aeneid. His Georgics as well as his Eclogues influenced the founders as well.

fed11_01One direct and obvious example of Virgil’s influence can be found on the 1782 Seal of the United States, still found on various government documents (such as the $1 bill). “Annuit Copetis” comes from the Georgics, a prayer to Jupiter, asking for his blessing upon an endeavor; “Novus Ordo Seclorum” comes from Eclogue 4; and “E Pluribus Unum” from one of Virgil’s minor poems [also used at the time by a British men’s magazine].

In his own work on Virgil, the profound Christian Humanist Theodor Haecker recognized the Roman poet as the “Man of the West,” the man who understood the need to find the universal in the particular and the particular in the universal. The true Western mind, at least in its pagan form, finds its highest expression in Virgil. We could easily claim, I believe, that Haecker’s argument can be extended to our own American Aeneas, George Washington. Rather than replanting Trojan culture on the Tiber, he replanted English and western culture on the Hudson and the Potomac (poetically speaking).

The myth of Aeneas has been retold several times in American literature. Perhaps most famously, it serves as the root of the plot of The Last of the Mohicans, with Natty as Aeneas.

My favorite use of Aeneas, though, comes from a speech delivered by John Quincy Adams on April 29, 1839.

Would it be an unlicensed trespass of the imagination to conceive that on the night preceding the day of which you now commemorate the fiftieth anniversary—on the night preceding that thirtieth of April, 1789, when from the balcony of your city hall the chancellor of the State of New York administered to George Washington the solemn oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States, and to the best of his ability to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States–that in the visions of the night the guardian angel of the Father of our Country had appeared before him, in the venerated form of his mother, and, to cheer and encourage him in the performance of the momentous and solemn duties that he was about to assume, had delivered to him a suit of celestial armor–a helmet, consisting of the principles of piety, of justice, of honor, of benevolence, with which from his earliest infancy he had hitherto walked through life, in the presence of all his brethren; a spear, studded with the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence; a sword, the same with which he had led the armies of his country through the war of freedom to the summit of the triumphal arch of independence; a corselet…of long experience and habitual intercourse in peace and war with the world of mankind, his contemporaries of the human race, in all their stages of civilization; and, last of all, the Constitution of the United States, a shield, embossed by heavenly hands with the future history of his country?

St. Paul, it seems, also borrowed from the Aeneid:

Finally, brethren, be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of his power. Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Therefore take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect. Stand therefore having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace: in all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.

And, here is the original (as translated by Robert Fagels):

But the goddess Venus

Lustrous among the cloudbanks, bearing her gifts,

Approached and when she spotted her son alone,

Off in a glade’s recess by the frigid stream,

She hailed him, suddenly there before him: ‘Look,

Just forged to perfection by all my husband’s skill;

The gifts I promised! There’s no need now, my son,

To flinch from fighting swaggering Latin ranks

Or challenging savage Turnus to a duel!’

 

With that, Venus reached to embrace her son

And set the brilliant armor down before him

Under a nearby oak.

 

Aeneas takes delight

In the goddess’ gifts and the honor of it all

As he runs his eyes across them piece by piece.

He cannot get enough of them, filled with wonder,

Turning them over, now with his hands, now his arms,

The terrible crested helmet plumed and shooting fire,

The sword-blade honed to kill, the breastplate, solid bronze,

Blood-red and immense, like a dark blue cloud enflamed

By the sun’s rays and gleaming through the heavens.

Then the burnished greaves of electrum, smelted gold,

The spear and the shield, the workmanship of the shield,

No words can tell the power….

 

There is the story of Italy,

Rome in all her triumphs. There the fire-god forged them,

Well aware of the seers and schooled in times to come,

All in order the generations born of Ascanius’ stock

And all the wages they waged.

Whether it is Virgil, St. Paul, James Fenimore Cooper, or John Quincy Adams writing, it is a great story, the story of the Men of the West.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: