The Founding Fathers and classical education

Martin Cheek

One of my pet peeves is how people often call forth the condemnation of the Founding Fathers upon modern-day America, as if the men who founded our nation were demigods, filled with a divine moral soundness and evangelical wisdom formed by the deeply puritanical society of colonial times. The leaders who shaped our nation’s path would shrink in shock at our modern political idolatry. They would insist we take them out of the temple of worship and instead see them as human beings, as people with flaws and prejudices shaped by the culture of their time.
Although the Founding Fathers had egos that would be pleased to have us see them as sages filled with insight and acumen, the more honest of them would be adamant that any wisdom they possessed was wrought by the lessons taken from the scholars of the past.
First of all, they would remind us, we in the 21st century might be wise to remember that the idea of America was conceived in the womb of the Age of the Enlightenment. That historic period of intellectual fervor brought forth a time of revolution, when philosophical and political thoughts sprung from the premise that men and women were blessed with minds that could use reason to discover truths in the natural world as well as the world of human society. The Enlightenment was a period of secularism, where people began to question the dogma that church authority figures have all the answers. This spread to the idea that kings, as political authority, also had no “divine right,” and, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, when a monarchial government becomes despotic, it is the right and duty of the people “to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Secondly, to the shock of many in America today, the men who founded our nation were also deeply influenced by the philosophical thoughts of thinkers and historians who had a “pagan” outlook. Many of the Founding Fathers benefited from a classical education that stressed the liberal arts – Latin, logic, rhetoric, arithmetical, geometry, astronomy and music.
Many of them read, in the original language, the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides and the Latin historians Tacitus and Livy, as well as translated the poetry of Roman writers Virgil and Horace.
John Adams was influenced by the Roman historian Sallust. Thomas Jefferson had an intensive classical education at an academy run by the Rev. James Maury, as well as at the College of William and Mary. George Washington had no college education but admired classical thinkers such as Cicero.
As the ideas in the U.S. Constitution were being forged in the hearts and minds of the Founding Fathers, the words of pagan thinkers from the Greco-Roman world influenced the arguments supporting this revolutionary document.
The writers of the Federalist Papers took pseudonyms from writers of classical times. And in the Federalist Papers, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton cite the example of the Lycian League as a prototype for a proportional representative democracy that functioned well in antiquity. The Lycian League was a federation that created a union of 23 Greek city-states in the southwestern portion of Anatolia (now Turkey). It functioned under a system of representative government that provided the Founding Fathers with a model for what would become the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Founding Fathers of America also learned from the warnings of history of tyrants and the peril that despots might bring to the people. They understood that power in the hands of personalities who are not checked in the balance of their ruling authority can lead to hard times for everyone.
The problems of the despotic tyrants of Rome and Greece provided a note of caution to the framers of the Constitution that led to the checks and balances of our legislative, executive and judicial branches of federal government.
Let’s be clear that the Founding Fathers did not emerge out of a vacuum and neither did the Constitution. Many of these men studied the pages of Rome and Greece’s literary canon, familiarizing themselves with the advice of long-dead voices, applying classical thought to unite 13 divided states into a nation that grew into a superpower.
They contemplated the words of ancient pagan scholars and writers, and the wisdom they derived from a classical education led Americans down the road to the betterment of human life for future generations – including our own.

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