January 2021

One of the most important influences on the American founding era was the legacy of ancient Greek and Roman thought. The Founders were well-educated, which in that era meant knowing the classics much better than we usually know them today. We can tell that this intellectual heritage was important to them because they peppered their writings with classical allusions and imagery, and when they wrote persuasively, they leaned heavily into classical philosophy and rhetoric.

The classics of the western canon are a big and diverse group of texts, though; what within them spoke to the Founders? How did they deploy these old ideas in new contexts? What did they modify or reject? What, we might ask, was classical about the Founders’ classical liberalism? 

This month’s lead essay is by Paul Meany, the editor for intellectual history at libertarianism.org; he opens the discussion with an appreciation of the influence of Cicero on the political thought of the Founders, though the importance of the classics doesn’t end there, and we have invited Clemson University Prof. C. Bradley Thompson and Prof. Roderick T. Long of Auburn University to respond. We also welcome readers’ comments through the month.

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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.