Cicero, Locke, and the American Founding

In his seminal work The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu stated, “It is impossible to be tired of so agreeable a subject as ancient Rome.” From a very young age, I have agreed with this sentiment wholeheartedly. I first began reading about ancient Rome at the age of seven, learning about Rome through children’s books, video games, hammy documentaries, and some light early internet browsing. At the time, my interest in Rome was mainly centered around charismatic and manly generals, military equipment, and feats of engineering.

This began to change as I hit my late teens and began to read philosophy. It was very obvious what the Greeks had bequeathed the western world: the Socratic method, the idea of democracy, and the underpinnings of modern science. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are, for all intents and purposes, what one might refer to as the patron saints of philosophy. And, although It became obvious to me that both the Greek and Roman worlds’ intellectual heritage formed an indispensable core of western thought, for better or for worse, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me what the Romans have actually done for us, to paraphrase Monty Python.

This question can be answered in part by focusing on the contemporary influence and later historical reception of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman statesman, lawyer, orator, and philosopher. Despite not being lumped in with Plato and Aristotle, Cicero has exerted a tremendous influence on the course of western political thought. Unlike many ancient figures, we have a wealth of his writings still intact, including fifty-two speeches, a host of philosophical and rhetorical works, and a voluminous amount of personal correspondence with his fellow Romans. In contrast with Aristotle and Plato, today it can sometimes be hard to eulogize Cicero because of what we know of his personal failings, hypocrisies, and, of course, his vanity.

Nevertheless, despite his flaws, Cicero was a significant source of moral and political ideas among a staggering variety of thinkers, Early Church Fathers, medieval theologians, Renaissance Humanists, Italian and English Republicans, and more, all of whom grappled with and borrowed from the ideas of Cicero.

Not everyone agrees. Twentieth-century scholars such as Theodor Mommsen and Moses Finley have argued that Cicero was primarily a plagiarist of better Greek philosophers and that he sorely lacked originality. Regardless of the validity of this assessment of Cicero’s writings (which I vehemently reject), this is at odds with how pre-nineteenth century thinkers viewed Cicero’s writing.

I believe the zenith of admiration for and engagement with Cicero is eighteenth-century America, where his writing played an often understated role in shaping the Founding principles of the United States of America. In his book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn argued that the American intellectual milieu was shaped by five traditions: Puritanism, English Common Law, Enlightenment philosophers, the English Opposition tradition, and classical political thought. Bailyn argued that the English opposition tradition held preeminence among Americans. According to Bailyn, works such as Algernon Sidney’s Discourses on Government and Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard’s Cato’s Letters played a formative role in American thought during the Revolutionary period. The classical political thinkers were less critical for Bailyn, who argued that while they can be continuously found throughout the Revolution’s literature, their role was illustrative, not determinative of indispensable political ideas. Bailyn even went so far as to argue that American’s knowledge of the classics, while a useful authority to call upon for the odd rhetorical flourish here or there, was ultimately shallow. Even in this harsh assessment, Bailyn recognizes a notable exception to the superficiality of classical knowledge of early Americans, the turbulent history of the late Roman Republic covered by Plutarch, Sallust, and Cicero.

Why this particular period above others? Eighteenth-century Americans viewed the classics as one historical chunk that included both Greece and Rome, although Americans had an apparent preference for the Romans over the Greeks. This can, in part, be explained by Medieval Europe’s curriculum focusing on Latin, which was both the language of the Church and the language of educated elites. But besides these historical reasons, eighteenth-century America’s preference for Rome can be understood through a political lens. Democracy, the Athenians’ premier system, was considered little better than mob rule. Athens’ fate was not a blueprint for a political model but instead a cautionary tale of unfettered democracy. Rome in its prime, on the other hand, had a well-functioning system that avoided mob rule and tyranny through a government that was a mixture of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, a complex system of checks and balances that rested atop a fundamental separation of powers. But Rome’s place in the American imagination was even more than a collection of institutions; it was an aspirational model of living that established the enduring attributes of the republican man, who possessed a love of liberty, a hatred of tyranny, and an unyielding sense of civic virtue.

Eighteenth-century Americans were no strangers to the classical world. Their continental counterparts in Europe had a similar reverence for the ancient world, which they had inherited. The curriculum used by grammar schools and private tutors in America imitated England and Scotland’s heavy focus on classical texts and the study of Greek and Latin, though, as Meyer Reinhold has noted, the role of Greek was greatly overshadowed by Latin. Classical languages took up the majority of a child’s time in grammar school; on the extreme end of the spectrum, as a youth Thomas Jefferson spent ten hours a day studying classical languages. Despite the difficulty of learning Latin and Greek at a young age, which was coupled with corporal punishment for those who could not memorize their declinations, Noah Webster observed, “The minds of youth are perpetually led to the history of Greece and Rome or to Great Britain; boys are constantly repeating the declamations of Demosthenes and Cicero or debates upon some political question in the British Parliament.”

College curricula did not abandon classical learning by any means. By 1776 there were nine colleges in America, all with near-identical entry requirements: the ability to read Cicero and Virgil in Latin and the New Testament in Greek. When George Downing applied to Harvard in the seventeenth century, he was required to translate a passage of Cicero. A century later, John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton had to translate passages of Cicero and other classical authors in their entrance exams to Harvard, the College of New Jersey, and King’s College, respectively. For two centuries, the entry requirements for college remained largely unchanged, reflecting their prioritization of classicism. Even outside the classroom, student societies held debates in Latin and Greek and maintained libraries brimming with ancient texts. Student societies have been referred to by James Lachlan as “colleges within colleges.”

It is important to note that the study of figures such as Cicero was not merely an abstract, scholarly exercise. The Puritan ethos of the time denied the idea of learning for learning’s sake. Instead, education was to be of an applied nature. By reading about great Romans like Cicero, students were meant to internalize the past’s moral lessons. The purpose of education was twofold: to equip students with useful knowledge and to sharpen their character and make them morally virtuous citizens. John Adams, writing to his son, explained that “the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.”

Every educated American knew who Cicero was and had read his works. However, college-educated elites only made up a small portion of the population. Still, thanks to a remarkable rise in the importation of books, the proliferation of bookstores, and a busy scene of printers producing an ever-increasing number of local newspapers, even those who could not afford a traditional education could learn about the ancient world. With an increasing number of vernacular translations, authors like Plutarch became national bestsellers. If one were to pick a random newspaper after 1770, they would find classical quotations, pseudonyms, parables, and histories throughout. By 1750, this fascination with the classical past, once the preserve of a few elites, had become almost a cult of antiquity. Though this audience was predominantly male and white, it is important to note that elite white women such as Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren immersed themselves in classicism. The pervasive culture of classicism was attested to by Jefferson when he proudly wrote, “Ours are the only farmers who can read Homer.” Observers such as the arch-Tory Jonathan Boucher saw the Americans as “an abundance of men” who read “only classics.”

Within this culture of classicism, Cicero stood out as a model of oratorical ability and moral conduct. A widespread perception existed that America’s Revolution was both a military endeavor and an ideological battle. Moses Coit Tyler wrote, “Our epoch of revolutionary strife was a strife of ideas: a long warfare of political logic; a succession of annual campaigns in which the marshalling of arguments not only preceded the marshalling of armies, but often exceeded them in impression upon the final result.” In a similar vein, Adams famously wrote that “the Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was, in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations …This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.” In this ideological battle for the hearts and minds of readers, eloquence was the weapon of choice for writers and orators, and there was no better arsenal to find it in than the writings of Cicero, who had long been deemed the gold standard of eloquence.

Cicero had long held a reputation for his oratory. The Roman writer Quintillian said that “the name of Cicero has come to be regarded not as the name of a man but of eloquence.” Even during the medieval era, which was not distinctly republican in attitude, Cicero was a role model for rhetoric, and authors such as Aquinas paid their respect to his intellect. Through the development of what is now called Civic Humanism and its push towards the gentlemanly ideal of a republic of letters, Cicero became the gold standard for both oratory and writing. America in the eighteenth century, on the cusp of a revolution, did not differ in opinion from previous eras. If anything, Americans were more engaged than ever with the question of what it meant to be a republican citizen and statesman.

The most popular writers of rhetorical handbooks in eighteenth-century America were indebted to Cicero’s oratorical example and his theories of oratory’s place in society. The most popular texts on practical eloquence in America during the second half of the eighteenth century were John Ward’s System of Oratory and Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. While Ward relied more on Quintilian for principles, he illustrated by the example of Cicero. His fundamental definition of oratory is also in harmony with Cicero’s definition within De Oratore. Ward’s work is so heavily indebted to classical principles and examples that at times it can resemble a compendium more than a handbook. Blair admired Cicero so much that he stated, Cicero’s name “alone suggests everything that is splendid in Oratory.” According to Blair, classical orations were the ultimate benchmark by which to compare all other eloquence. John Witherspoon, who has been described as the first complete American rhetorician, relied heavily upon the writings of Cicero and deemed them to be of great value. Witherspoon’s devotion to Cicero was evidenced in how he named his own home: Tusculum, after Cicero’s villa.

Cicero was not merely a man with a silver tongue but also a heroic figure who represented an undying love for liberty and a selfless patriotism. He was described by Josiah Quincy as “the best of men and the first of patriots.” Widespread assumptions of Cicero’s moral character were exploited to make political points. When Alexander Hamilton wrote a series of pamphlets condemning the Whiskey Rebellion, he used the pseudonym “Tully,” a nickname derived from Cicero’s full name Marcus Tullius Cicero. By adopting it, he gestured towards the infamous Catilinarian Conspiracy portraying the rebels as demagogues and populists who were attempting to overturn Republican government. When Samuel Adams wrote against the presence of standing armies, he did so under the Latin pseudonym cedant arma togae, which is in English, “let the arms yield to the toga,” a phrase adopted from Cicero’s De Officiis. When Joseph Warren delivered a Boston Massacre oration, he donned what was dubbed a Ciceronian toga by observers. The use of Cicero in the public sphere was a tactic to bolster one’s republican credentials.

Some admired Cicero because of his humble origins and subsequent rise in society. Unlike many Roman senators, Cicero’s familial origins were surprisingly inauspicious. His family had wealth but not status. Despite his humble origins in Arpinum, he rose to the top of the cursus honorum rapidly. For the newly emerging middle-class American, Cicero represented the model of a man who could rise above his circumstance of birth on the grounds of merit and through education, dedication, and his talent. Ministers, merchants, and especially lawyers were enamored with Cicero’s bourgeois virtues. John Adams consciously styled himself along the lines of Cicero, a kindred novus homo. In a letter in 1758, he discussed his excitement for his career as a lawyer, writing, “I find myself entering an unlimited Field. A Field in which Demosthenes, Cicero, and others of immortal Fame have exulted before me.” Patriots acted out Cicero’s role in the public sphere through their oratorical practices, pseudonyms on pamphlets, and conduct.

However, Cicero was not solely a role model; his political writings were greatly admired as well. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Declaration of Independence’s authority rested upon the elementary books of public right, among which he included the writings of Aristotle, Locke, Sidney, and of course Cicero. Jefferson would also compliment Cicero as “the father of eloquence and philosophy.” John Adams—who might have been history’s greatest admirer of Cicero—wrote, “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united in the same character, his authority should have great weight.” Thinkers listed in common by Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and J. G. A. Pocock, such as Algernon Sidney, John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and Montesquieu, all share an intimate familiarity with both the life and writings of Cicero. Even if Cicero had no direct influence on a particular Founder, many of the authorities who did had themselves derived much from him.

As well as a directly attributable influence evidenced by documented comments and writings, there is ample evidence of what might be considered indirect influence and a significant level thereof. Even if one could mount a case that the Founders did not directly engage with Cicero, his influence echoes through one of the most cited philosophers, John Locke. Secondly, John Adams and James Wilson, who were foremost authorities on political ideas, applied Ciceronian principles to their republicanism.

Locke is often considered the foremost influence on American Revolutionary political thought, and with good reason; his writings are ubiquitously cited by the Founders. However, at times the focus on Locke has obscured the influence of Cicero and the substantive intellectual debt that Locke owed to Cicero, from whom he borrowed extensively. Though Locke was not merely copying Cicero, he was developing what is fundamentally a Ciceronian philosophy.

Locke first encountered Cicero while he was attending Westminster as a boy and was quickly enamored with his style. He began quoting Cicero’s works in his letters to add a sense of style and wit. This habit of quoting Cicero followed him into his later writings; Locke used quotes from De Legibus and De Natura Deorum in both the epigraph of the Second Treatise and on the original cover of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. This love of Cicero lasted for the remainder of Locke’s life. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of his admiration was his attempt to establish a chronology of Cicero’s life, an endeavor he undertook for only one other figure, Jesus Christ. By the time Locke had died, there were nine editions of Cicero’s De Officiis in his personal library; the only book that he owned more copies of was the Bible. In 1693 when he wrote Some Thoughts Concerning Education, which was intended to be a treatise on the education of gentlemen, he recommended that for children to learn moral conduct, they ought to be given two books, the Bible and Cicero’s De Officiis. Van A. Mobley has gone as far as to say that “Locke had something of a Cicero fetish.”

This love of Cicero bled into Locke’s political thought, from which we can discern three areas where Locke clearly borrows from and develops further the political thought of Cicero: natural law, the origins of civil society, and private property.

Cicero was a firm adherent of the natural law tradition. According to him, there was a divine creator of the world who imbued rational beings with an objective set of laws by which to abide; these were not a set of written, physical laws but rather a sort of code etched into the mind. To Cicero, natural law provides the standard by which to measure human-made laws, which, he assures us, can never trump natural law. For Cicero, the widespread approval or acceptance of an act does not make it just. Nor is natural law contextually dependent on different nations or peoples; it is fixed and immutable. Cicero writes that “there will not be one such law in Rome and another in Athens, one now and another in the future, but all peoples at all times will be embraced by a single and eternal unchangeable law.” The first and foremost principle of Cicero’s natural law is that “no man should harm another unless he has been provoked by injustice.”

Locke’s foundational principle of natural law closely resembles Cicero’s, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Both believed that by their created nature humans bear certain rights that cannot be overridden. These laws, for both Locke and Cicero, are inherent in the nature of humanity. Even if no state ever existed to codify these laws, they would still exist. Even the government itself is judged by how it conforms to natural law’s dictates.

Locke believed that humans have a moral code that is knowable by all beings. If morality can be known and understood by all people, why should a state ever form to enforce laws? In answering this question, Locke yet again exposed his Ciceronian roots. Cicero believed that we leave the state of nature and form governments for three reasons: cooperation, inconvenience, and, most importantly, the protection of property. Locke shared Cicero’s belief in all of these reasons for the state’s existence. According to Cicero, the first people roved the wild, holding onto whatever meager property they could defend. Cicero believed men of virtue and wisdom convinced these primitive beings that it was advantageous to combine their collective abilities. Cicero argued for a proto‐​division of labor, listing the benefits of cooperating such as bread, buildings, seafaring travel, irrigation, and trade. Not coincidentally, Locke generated a similar list of goods.

Both Locke and Cicero believed that through a system of stable laws, which allow for peaceful cooperation, we can all achieve a great deal more material comfort than we would if we lived in the state of nature without cooperating. Secondly, there is no justice system in the state of nature, and every man operates as their own judge, jury, and executioner. This can lead to complications; as Cicero explained, “We do tend to notice and feel our own good and bad fortune more than that of others.” We are biased towards our own interests, which may cause us to overstep our boundaries when resolving conflict. Locke explained that in a state of nature, when one impinges upon another’s rights the aggrieved party has the moral right to exact justice. However, this justice is not without limits and only stretches as far as “calm reason and conscience dictate.” Locke agreed that without a system of laws, we would be likely to overreact in our pursuit of justice. This would provoke a cycle of revenge and lead to escalating violence. In order to avoid the confusion and disarray, “all private judgment of every particular member being excluded, the community comes to be umpire, by settled standing rules, indifference, and the same to all parties.” Unlike his contemporary Hobbes, who believed that we surrendered all of our natural rights when entering into a state, Locke believed we only surrendered one, our right to execute the law of nature. We yield this right over to the community at large in order to create equitable and suitable laws that punish wrongdoers within reasonable bounds.

Cicero believed “political communities and commonwealths were established particularly so that people could hold on to their property.” He advised that the first and foremost duty of those who administer public affairs is to “see that everyone holds on to what is his, and that private men are never deprived of their goods by public acts.” Cicero accepts that no property is private by nature; however, “everything produced on the earth is created for the use of mankind.” Despite explaining the importance of the state’s protection of private property at great length, a glaring fault in Cicero’s writings is that he did not adequately explain how one can initially appropriate property justly. At best, he reasoned that convention, tradition, and harmony are adequate reasons for us to respect private property.

Locke placed a similar emphasis on the state’s role in protecting private property. He explained, “Government has no other end but the preservation of property.” Like Cicero, Locke believed that no property is private by nature; as he wrote, “God, who hath given the world to men in common.” However, unlike Cicero, Locke explained that what makes property justly acquired is mixing one’s labor with the land. Every person owns themselves, and “every man has a property in his own person.” When a person applies their labor to something in nature, it is no longer held in common but held privately by that person.

Even if Cicero were never to be read by a single Founder, his principles and ideas would still find their expression partially through Locke’s philosophy. But the Founders did read Cicero. In fact, two leading intellectual authorities were heavily reliant on Cicero in constructing their ideal political systems, John Adams and James Wilson. Though there were only two of many writers at a time when political pamphlets were published at a dizzying rate, Adams’ A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which was published hastily in 1787, and James Wilson’s Lectures on Law, delivered from 1790 to 1792, represent possibly the most extensive discussion of republican attitudes at the time. Both works have an additional advantage in that their approach was more scholarly than polemical.

Adams was a major player in the Second Continental Congress’s decision to declare independence; he was on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, and he penned the Massachusetts state constitution, which served as a model for other state constitutions as well as for the U.S. Constitution. Benjamin Rush praised Adams, saying that he “possessed more learning, probably, both ancient and modern, than any man who subscribed to the Declaration of Independence,” which is quite the compliment when one considers the erudition of Adam’s peers.

On the other hand, Wilson is one of the six Founders to sign both the Declaration and the Constitution. He served both in Congress and the Supreme Court. In 1790 he took up a position as a professor of law at the College of Philadelphia, where he delivered a series of lectures on law intending to codify a uniquely American system of law and thus establish himself as an American version of the common law giant William Blackstone. This was no idle boast as his lectures were attended by both President Washington and Vice President Adams and members of Congress.

Adams and Wilson were highly esteemed authorities; however, they viewed themselves in following in Cicero’s footsteps. They applauded Cicero as a great authority on the nature of republicanism, natural law, private property, and mixed government.

Adams’s Defence opens with the question of what a republic is. Adams answers that a republic is “a government, in which the property of the public, or people, and of every one of them, was secured and protected by law.” This definition of a republic is entirely in line with Cicero’s ideas of res publica within De Legibus, where Cicero makes use of “res” as implying property. In this manner, res publica means something along the lines of public property or commonwealth. It is interesting to note that Adams insisted on calling Massachusetts a commonwealth instead of a state. Similarly, when defining what a republic is, Wilson quotes directly from Cicero’s De Re Publica, “a body of free persons, united together for common benefit, to enjoy peaceably what is their own, and to do justice to others.”

Adams, like both Locke and Cicero, believed there to be a natural law which governs both our ethics and our politics. Using the rational faculties that distinguishes humans from animals, Adams believed we could deduce the laws of nature, which entail our obligations to preserve ourselves and our obligations to respect others’ rights. These rights are made apparent by a system of naturally deducible rewards and punishments. The right to liberty, resistance to tyranny, and property are all derived from natural law. Adams’s reasoning on natural law was very close to Locke’s, but, as we have seen, the line between what is Locke and what is Cicero can become blurred. Some aspects of Adams’s thought points towards a preference for the Ciceronian account of human nature and natural law over the Lockean alternative. Cicero wrote that humans are not designed to live in solitude, “for our species is not made up of solitary individuals or lonely wanderers.” Similarly, Adams points towards humans being “gregarious” in their nature. Furthermore, echoing Cicero, Adams did not locate human equality in ability but instead in our mutual obligation to natural law.

Wilson’s doctrine of natural law is unambiguously Ciceronian, with him quoting at length from De Re Publica on the eternal and unchangeable content of natural law. Even when adhering to Locke’s account of natural law, Wilson used Cicero to bolster Locke’s arguments. An interesting example of this is when discussing the importance of consent in establishing political legitimacy, an intimately Lockean idea, Wilson quotes an extract from Cicero’s speech Pro Balbo which reads, “The power of retaining and of renouncing our rights of citizenship, is the most stable foundation of our liberties.”

For Cicero, private property played a vital role in the origins of the state as “the men who administer public affairs must first of all see that everyone hold on to what is his, and that private men are never deprived of their goods by public acts.” Thus private property is crucial for two things, security and mutual benefit. Therefore, even though Cicero did not endorse a natural rights account of property, security of ownership is both a moral and political imperative.

When defining what a republic is, John Adams quoted Cicero with his own translation of the definition of a republic: “The very name of a republic implies that the property of the people should be represented in the legislature, and decide the rule of justice.” After explaining the etymology of the word “republic,” Adams concluded that res publica should be properly interpreted as “properties of the people,” meaning the property of all people. To clarify what Adams meant by the property of all people conforming to the classical political theory of the mixed constitution, Adams viewed republican society as a balance between the one, the few, and the many. Property cannot be appropriated in order to appease or aid the masses, for, as Adams stated, “It must be remembered, that the rich are people as well as the poor; that they have rights as well as others’ and that oppressing the wealthy few is as wicked as to others.” For Adams, property rights were an essential function of government, leading him to conclude that “property must be secured or liberty cannot exist.” For both Cicero and Adams, the protection of property was a necessary qualification for political legitimacy.

Within his Federalist Papers, James Madison praised Montesquieu as the leading thinker who popularized the theories of mixed government and the separation of powers. Montesquieu undoubtedly relied upon the accounts and assessments of Polybius and Cicero when arguing in favor of the separation of powers. Adams did not primarily cite Montesquieu but instead relied upon the authority of Cicero’s De Re Publica to prove that the ideal republic will be a mixture of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy coupled with the separation of powers to stop any one section of society dominating the rest.

Wilson considered Cicero as the first theorist to adequately explain the concept of mixed government, arguing that fellow ancients limited their horizons to simple forms of government or, at best, to governments that would predominantly adopt one of the three orders above the rest and throw off the harmonious balance of power. Wilson attributed the fall of the Roman Republic to the concentration of power in a single individual throwing off the delicate balance.

Adams and Wilson agreed that the skepticism expressed by later Romans, like Tacitus, about an inherent limit on a republics’ lifespan expressed had been debunked by the successes of England and America’s mixed governments. For Adams and Wilson, the harmonious government Cicero imagined was no longer a theory but a fully realized institution in their day.

The Founders undertook an experiment without precedent as they saw it, that of establishing a government based not on historical accident, tradition, or custom, but upon firm moral principles. This sentiment was shared by many at the time and was symbolically entrenched in the 1782 seal of the United States, which read Novus ordo seclorum, “a new order for the ages.” This new order was not a repudiation of preceding thinkers by any means. Instead, it was understood as a realization of what the most extraordinary political minds had once only imagined. Men like Adams relished the opportunity to undertake what few had ever experienced, “an opportunity of beginning government anew from the foundation and building as they choose.” Acknowledging this, the Founders were not abandoning the great political traditions of the ancient world; they were actualizing their full potential. Americans did not view themselves as great original political thinkers; instead, their pride emanated from the unique historical position that allowed them to carve out a world that had only been dreamt of by great minds like Cicero.

Though his reputation once rivaled the likes of Plato and Aristotle, Cicero is today a name acknowledged only by only a small cadre of scholars and classicists. Thankfully, he has been retrieved from the damning assessments of Mommsen and Finley as both an original and an authoritative thinker through the works of scholars such as Meyer Reinhold, Carl Richards, Jed Atkins, and Michael C. Hawley.

For almost two millennia, Cicero was the inspiration for those who subscribed to what would later become liberal principles such as natural rights, constitutional government bound by a higher law, and a separation of powers. A whole host of classical liberal thinkers such as Etienne De La Boétie, David Hume, Algernon Sidney, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire, all grappled with and attempted to synthesize Ciceronian principles into their writings in an attempt to express moral and political philosophies centered around securing liberty by limiting the scope of the state.

During the latter half of the eighteenth century, the period in which the United States of America came to exist, Americans saw Cicero as a role model of republican virtue, an esteemed teacher of eloquence, and the visionary architect of the ideal republican government. Unlike many philosophers, Cicero was both a politician and a philosopher, a mixture that has rarely been replicated. Thus his authority not only came from his intellect but from how his real-life experiences bolstered his credibility as one of the greatest republicans to have ever lived. Though Cicero ultimately failed to protect the republic he so dearly cherished, his example would inspire others to do their part in ensuring that a similar fate would not befall their own. Today, when the American republic faces an existential challenge, perhaps greater than at any other time in its recent history, surely there is no better thinker to revisit.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Paul Meany begins the discussion with an appreciation of Cicero, the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher whose works were central to the western intellectual canon as the American Founders understood it. Though Cicero is rarely read today, he exerted a strong influence both on the Founders directly and on John Locke, another of their key influences.

Response Essays

  • Roderick T. Long argues that the American Founders’ classical influences were not limited to Roman republicanism. He faults them, however, for too readily dismissing Athenian democracy, which, contrary to its reputation, was surprisingly stable. Certain Founders also explored ancient ideas of a stateless society, in part prompted by their own experience of state disruption during the Revolutionary War.

  • C. Bradley Thompson notes several threads in the Founders’ understanding of the classics, including a deep mistrust of Plato and an admiration for Cicero’s idea of the republic, in which preserving the property of the people was taken as the main business of government. The ancients’ moral ideas, however, were perhaps the most important. It is here, he suggests, that the truest link between the ancient and the modern idea of liberty is to be found.