About this Issue

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.

Lead Essay

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.

Response Essays

The Benefits and Hazards of the Classical Legacy

Paul Meany rightly points out the dependence of the classical liberal tradition generally, and the American founders in particular, on thinkers of classical antiquity such as Cicero. But the story is more complicated, the relationship a complex mixture of appreciation and rejection.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, admired the ancients, and even called himself an Epicurean.[1] But he also wrote:

Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sects of antt. [= ancient] philosophy, or of their individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus [= Marcus Aurelius] ….

1. Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquility of mind. In this branch of Philosophy they were really great. …

2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They embraced indeed the circles of kindred & friends; and inculcated patriotism, or the love of our country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation: towards our neighbors & countrymen, they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity, & love to our fellow men, or embraced, with benevolence, the whole family of mankind.[2]

By contrast, Jefferson credits Jesus—whom he regards more as a moral philosopher and teacher than as any sort of supernatural figure—with improving on the Greeks and Romans by, inter alia, “inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants, and common aids.”[3] Or as he put it elsewhere: “Epictetus & Epicurus give us laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties & charities we owe to others.”[4] (J. S. Mill and Harriet Taylor, in On Liberty, would similarly call for a balance between “pagan self-assertion” and “Christian self-denial.”)[5]

This might seem unfair to thinkers like Cicero, who—drawing on the Stoic idea of the cosmopolis—explicitly taught the universality of the duties of justice and benevolence throughout the community of humankind. And in his De Officiis, Cicero even says that “there are two ways of contending, one by discussion, the other by force, the former belonging properly to man, the latter to beasts,” and that the way of force must be chosen only when the way of persuasion is not available[6]—about as libertarian a thesis as one could desire.

But however liberal and universalist Cicero’s principles may sound, given his generally approving attitude toward Roman foreign policy throughout the republican period, including the capture of both territory and slaves through conquest, Cicero can fairly be charged with failing to apply those principles in practice. And Cicero’s vision of the political order as properly and primarily devoted to the protection of property rights arguably loses whatever lustre it might have had once we recall that the property to be protected consisted largely of stolen land and enslaved human beings. One can fairly see these failures of Cicero, and of the regime he championed, as rooted in an inadequate recognition of the equal claims of those outside the Roman elite to be objects of moral concern, however eloquently Cicero may have made lip service to moral universalism. (Though on the other hand, neither Jesus nor the early Christians condemn imperialism or slavery in any straightforward and unambiguous way either. And in any case, Jefferson himself—eloquent defender of liberty in theory, yet, in practice, both slaveowner and trans-continental expansionist—is perhaps in no strong position to criticize Cicero here.)

Later in the century, many admirers of the American republic and individual liberty took a still more jaundiced view of classical antiquity, though in a way that developed some of the concerns that worried Jefferson. Benjamin Constant, in his celebrated 1819 essay The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns (1819), contrasted the “modern” conception of liberty, understood as including

the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings …. to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims ….

with the “ancient” conception of liberty, which Constant saw as a matter of a purely “collective freedom” entailing “the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community” (while making a partial exception for Athens—but not for Rome, even republican Rome):

All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one’s own religious affiliation, a right which we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege. In the domains which seem to us the most useful, the authority of the social body interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals. Among the Spartans, Therpandrus [i.e. Terpander] could not add a string to his lyre without causing offense to the ephors. In the most domestic of relations the public authority again intervened. The young Lacedaemonian could not visit his new bride freely. In Rome, the censors cast a searching eye over family life. The laws regulated customs, and as customs touch on everything, there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate.[7]

(I shall incidentally be arguing that Constant’s preference for democratic Athens over republican Rome is actually more defensible than the reverse preference held by most of the American founders.)

The classical liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat was still more hostile to the Roman legacy in particular, pillorying Rome in his 1850 “Academic Degrees and Socialism” as

a nation that, because it hates and despises work, has based its entire means of existence on the successive pillage of all the neighboring tribes and on slavery. This nation has established a policy, a moral code, a religion, and public opinion in line with the cruel purpose that is sustaining and developing it. …

We, for our part, say: “Men are the owners of themselves and consequently of their faculties and, following this, of the products of their faculties.” But could the Romans conceive of such a notion? As the owners of slaves, were they able to say: “Man belongs to himself”? As they despised work, were they able to say: “Man is the owner of the product of his faculties”?

Bastiat accordingly laments the tendency of traditional education to, in effect,

send all French young people to visit this [Roman] nation, to live its way of life, be inspired by its sentiments, share its enthusiasms, and breathe its ideas as their own air …. to become imbued and permeated with and saturated in the sentiments and opinions of a nation of brigands and slaves …. [8]

and Bastiat sees the popularity of militarism and collectivism as the inevitable result of such classical education.

From my own perspective, Constant’s and Bastiat’s condemnations of classical antiquity are accurate as far as they go, but one-sided; and the admiring vision that many of the American founders held of (republican) Rome and of Cicero is also accurate as far as it goes, but again one-sided. Sifting the wheat from the tares is a delicate operation.

I’ve argued elsewhere[9] that anticipations of libertarian and classical liberal themes are to be found as deep-seated threads throughout both the ideas and the practice of classical antiquity. For example, one can even see a proto-Hayekian moment in Cicero when he writes, in his Republic:

[Cato] used to say that the government of Rome was superior to that of other states; because in them the great men were mere isolated individuals, who regulated their constitutions according to their own ipse dixits, their own laws, and their own ordinances. … Our Roman constitution, on the contrary, did not spring from the genius of an individual, but of many; and it was established, not in the lifetime of a man, but in the course of ages and centuries. For … there never yet existed a genius so vast and comprehensive as to allow nothing to escape its attention, and all the geniuses in the world united in a single mind, could never, within the limits of a single life, exert a foresight sufficiently extensive to embrace and harmonize all, without the aid of experience and practice.[10]

Or again, Aristotle’s claim that we cherish the products of our labor because “the work is, in a way, the producer in activity”[11] can be seen as a forerunner of Locke’s labor-mixing theory of property (an element that Meany rightly notes as missing in Cicero’s account).

But the extent to which themes of a tendency precisely the opposite of liberal or libertarian are likewise to be found in the ideas and practice of classical antiquity should not be lost sight of. This is a context in which sweeping generalizations in either direction are perilous.

The American Founders and Athenian Democracy

As Meany notes, the American Founders tended to reserve their admiration for republican Rome and not for democratic Athens, dismissing the latter as “little better than mob rule,” and thus “not a blueprint for a political model but instead a cautionary tale of unfettered democracy” (unlike Constant, who, as we’ve seen, looked more favorably on Athens than on Rome, despite regarding the two as all too similar).

James Madison, for example, charges in Federalist 10 that “a pure democracy … can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” and that “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.”[12] In Federalist 55, Madison adds that “[h]ad every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”[13]

In their breezy dismissal of Athenian democracy as inferior to republican Rome, the American founders arguably show excessive servility to the caricatures perpetrated by anti-democratic writers like Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides. Democratic Athens, far from being a site of mob rule, featured a complex system of legal checks and balances designed to prevent abuse of power by either minorities or majorities (including judicial review of measures passed by the democratic assembly); and while far from satisfying contemporary liberal or libertarian criteria of liberty even for its free adult male citizens—let alone for, e.g., women and slaves—Athens seems to have provided a level of both economic freedom and freedom of expression that had few rivals in the ancient world.[14]

As for being short in life and violent in death, the Athenian democratic system in its classical form lasted, roughly, from 507-338 BCE—thus, a century and three quarters—with short-lived interruptions in 411 and 404-3; and its final overthrow was due to Macedonian imperialism (which saw the downfall of all the Greek city-states, of whatever constitutional form) more than to domestic infighting. Given that the American republic was to survive only a century or so before being hit by a devastating civil war, it’s not clear that Athens is such an inferior model in comparison with the United States.

The American Founders and Ancient Anarchism

Some classical thinkers were inclined toward views that would nowadays be identified as anarchist. For example, Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism, set out a vision of an ideal community of the wise, without law courts, government coinage, or prescribed gender roles; while the Epicurean Diogenes of Oenoanda looked forward to an era when the world will be filled with friendship, and there will be no further need for “walls or laws and all the things we contrive on account of one another.”[15] Even Plato, in the second book of his Republic, suggests that his ideal state is only second-best to the anarchistic “city of pigs.”

One feature of these anarchistic utopias is that they are designed only for the wise and virtuous, which might suggest that government is necessary for social order so long as the majority of people are morally and intellectually imperfect. But Protagoras (in the Platonic dialogue of that name) argues that such social order as we enjoy would be impossible unless the average person possessed an adequate minimum of wisdom and virtue, while Glaucon (in the second book of Plato’s Republic) maintains that the need to retain a reputation as a cooperator is enough to make social cooperation in most people’s interest, most of the time. Both Protagoras and Glaucon portray the reinforcing knowledge (Protagoras) or incentives (Glaucon) for cooperation primarily in terms of horizontal inputs from one’s peers than vertical sanctions from state authority; thus their version of social cooperation opens the door to anarchism, even if they don’t walk through it. (And Aristophanes, in his play Acharnians presents—albeit with tongue in cheek—the attractions of a quasi-anarchistic policy of individual secession, with private citizens being able to formulate their own foreign policy in matters of war and trade, a policy of a more peaceful sort than that preferred by the Athenian state.)

Thomas Paine, whether consciously or not, follows the lead of some of these anarchistic or quasi-anarchistic ancient thinkers when he declares, in his Rights of Man:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. … In fine society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government. … Government is no farther necessary than to supply the few cases to which society and civilisation are not conveniently competent; and instances are not wanting to show, that everything which government can usefully add thereto, has been performed by the common consent of society, without government. … Formal government makes but a small part of civilised life …. The more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself ….[16]

In explaining what makes social order possible, Paine appeals, like Glaucon, to self-interest: “The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. … Common interest regulates their concerns ….” But like Protagoras, he also appeals to widespread moral propensities that go beyond merely strategic concerns: “[Nature] has not only forced man into society by a diversity of wants which the reciprocal aid of each other can supply, but she has implanted in him a system of social affections, which, though not necessary to his existence, are essential to his happiness.”

What led Paine to pass from declaring government a “necessary evil” in his 1776 Common Sense,[17] to downgrading it as unnecessary, or only barely necessary, 16 years later in his 1792 Rights of Man? Paine himself points to his own experience during the Revolutionary War:

For upwards of two years from the commencement of the American War, and to a longer period in several of the American States, there were no established forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and the country was too much occupied in defence to employ its attention in establishing new governments; yet during this interval order and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe.[18]

Ironically enough, Paine’s soon-to-be-archenemy Edmund Burke had made precisely the same observation in his 1775 speech on Conciliation with the Colonies.[19] Another possible influence is that of Adam Smith’s demonstration of the spontaneously self-regulating nature of economic order in his Wealth of Nations (1776), a work which Paine admired.

Nor was Paine the only founder with anarchistic sympathies. Alexander Hamilton famously accused Aaron Burr of preaching “perfect Godwinism,”[20] a reference to the theories of the English anarchist William Godwin (himself a friend of Paine); and while Hamilton may not be the most reliable of sources on the topic of Burr’s views, it’s undisputed that Burr was a friend and admirer of William Godwin and his family.[21] Jefferson, moreover, acknowledged the temptations of anarchism in a letter to Madison:

Societies exist under three forms sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one. 3. Under governments of force: as is the case in all other monarchies and in most of the other republics. … It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that the 1st. condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population.[22]

To the extent that anarchism has its roots in Greco-Roman antiquity, it’s clear that the founders’ inheritance of the classical legacy was not confined to Roman-style republicanism.


[1] “I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece & Rome have left us.” (Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 31 Oct 1819.

[2] Jefferson, Doctrines of Jesus Compared With Others (21 Apr 1803).

[3] Jefferson, Doctrines of Jesus, op. cit.

[4] Jefferson to William Short, op. cit.

[5] John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill, On Liberty III. (J. S. Mill identified Taylor as a co-author of several of the works published under his sole name, including On Liberty; I take there to be a presumption in favour of accepting his claim in the absence of adequate evidence to the contrary.)

[6] Cicero, On Moral Duties I.11.

[7] Benjamin Constant, The Liberty of the Ancients Compared With That of the Moderns (1819).

[8] Frédéric Bastiat, “Baccalaureate and Socialism” (1850).

[9] I explore proto-liberal, proto-libertarian, and proto-anarchistic themes in Greek and Roman philosophy in the following works:

The Classical Roots of Radical Individualism” (Social Philosophy and Policy 24, no. 2 (Summer 2007), pp. 262-297; reprinted in David Keyt and Fred D. Miller, Jr., eds., Freedom, Reason, and the Polis: Essays in Ancient Greek Political Philosophy (Cambridge 2007), pp. 262-297);

Socrates and Early Socratic Philosophers of Law” (with R. F Stalley; in Fred D. Miller, Jr., and Carrie-Ann Biondi, eds., A Treatise of Legal Philosophy and General Jurisprudence, Volume 6: A History of the Philosophy of Law from the Ancient Greeks to the Scholastics (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007), pp. 35-56);

Aristotle’s Conception of Freedom” (Review of Metaphysics 49 (June 1996), pp. 775-802);

Aristotle’s Egalitarian Utopia: The Polis kat’ euchen” (in Mogens Herman Hansen, ed. The Imaginary Polis: Symposium, January 7-10, 2004. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre 7 (Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2005), pp. 164-196);

and “Hellenistic Philosophers of Law” (in Miller and Biondi, op. cit., pp. 111-131). (And see this as well.)

I also discuss proto-libertarian ideas in the Greek poets and playwrights in my Libertarianism.org series “Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty” (27 parts at present writing, though I hope to continue it in the future), beginning here; see especially Parts 1-6 and 12-27.

[10] Cicero, On the Commonwealth II.

[11] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1167b31-1168a15.

[12] James Madison, Federalist §10.

[13] Madison, Federalist §55.

[14] I discuss the libertarian aspects of the Athenian legal system in:

The Athenian Constitution: Government by Jury and ReferendumFormulations IV.1 (Autumn 1996), pp. 7-18, 21-23, 35);

Civil Society in Ancient Greece: The Case of Athens” (Conference on Civil Society, Liberty Fund, Arlington VA, 29 May 1998);

and in Parts 7-11 of my “Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty” series (op. cit.), beginning here

(See also chapter 16, “Athenian Law: The Work of a Mad Economist,” of David Friedman’s book Legal Systems very Different From Ours (2019). A draft of the chapter is available on Friedman’s website here.)

[15] Long, “Hellenistic Philosphers of Law,” op. cit. Note that this Zeno and Diogenes are not to be confused with the better-known Zeno of Elea (famous for his paradoxes of motion) or Diogenes of Sinope (the barrel-dwelling Cynic).

[16] Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, II.1 (1792).

[17] “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one ….” Common Sense (1776).

[18] Paine, Rights of Man II.1, op. cit.

[19] “Pursuing the same plan of punishing by the denial of the exercise of Government to still greater lengths, we wholly abrogated the ancient Government of Massachusetts. We were confident that the first feeling, if not the very prospect of anarchy, would instantly enforce a complete submission. The experiment was tried. A new, strange, unexpected face of things appeared. Anarchy is found tolerable. A vast province has now subsisted, and subsisted in a considerable degree of health and vigour, for near a twelvemonth, without Governor, without public council, without judges, without executive magistrates. How long it will continue in this state, or what may arise out of this unheard-of situation, how can the wisest of us conjecture?” Edmund Burke, For Conciliation with the Colonies (1775).

[20] Alexander Hamilton to James A. Bayard, 16 Jan 1801.

[21] Bart Schultz, The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians (Princeton U. P., 2017), pp. 38-39.

[22] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 30 Jan 1787.

It Usually Begins with Plato (or Cicero)!

Paul Meany should be thanked for his interesting, informative, and insightful essay on “Cicero, Locke, and the American Founding.” For the last two generations, scholars of the American founding have largely divided between those who interpret the broader revolutionary era either through the lens of the classical-republican tradition or the Lockean-liberal tradition, and never the twain shall meet.[1] Mr. Meany seems to suggest that these two traditions can in fact be reconciled by demonstrating the philosophic relationship between Cicero and Locke and both on America’s founding generation.

I think Meany is onto something important. He is right to draw our attention to the important role played by the ancient Greek and Roman classics in the formation of America’s revolutionary mind, particularly that of the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero. In order to make both the general and the particular claim, however, some important distinctions must be made.

If Mr. Meany intends to turn his essay into something more ambitious (e.g., a book), he might consider expanding it to address the following questions:

  1. Was America’s revolutionary generation influenced more by ancient Greek or Roman thought and practice?
  2. Were the founders’ more influenced by the ancient philosophers, historians, poets, or rhetoricians?
  3. Which particular ancient Greek and Roman authors most influenced America’s founding fathers?
  4. Which ancient principles and institutions did America’ eighteenth-century liberals explicitly accept and reject?
  5. What were the different contexts (e.g., moral, cultural, political, constitutional) in which the founding generation used various classical authors?
  6. Can the views of the ancient moralists and political philosophers be reconciled with the modern principles of classical liberalism, and, more particularly, with the principles and institutions of the American founding? Specifically, can the ancient view of natural right be reconciled the modern doctrine of natural rights?

I have no intention myself of addressing all of these questions here, but I do think they are important enough to help Mr. Meany broaden and deepen his worthy project.

The Founders and Ancient Political Thought

This much we know with certainty. America’s revolutionary generation, particularly its leading thinkers and statesmen (e.g., James Otis, John Adams, John Dickinson, James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton) was steeped in classical Greek and Roman thought. To be educated in America’s eighteenth-century colleges meant an education in the texts of classical antiquity and in their original languages. The founding generation was intimately familiar with the works of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, Polybius, Plutarch, Seneca, Epictetus, Tacitus, Sallust, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and many others.

During their retirement years, for instance, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson loved nothing more than to relive their college days by reading and translating the ancient authors and then discussing them with each other. One amusing exchange on Plato’s political philosophy between the north and south poles of the American Revolution (as Daniel Webster referred to Adams and Jefferson) demonstrates just how invested they were in studying classical political philosophy. More to the point, the exchange illuminates some of the issues raised by Mr. Meany.

On July 5, 1814, Jefferson wrote to Adams to tell him that that he had recently invested a significant amount of his time in reading Plato’s Republic, which he described as “the heaviest task-work I ever went through.” Jefferson was particularly peeved with Plato’s mysticism and its corrupting effect on Christianity, but he was also appalled by what we might call Plato’s communist republicanism, where property, wives, and children were shared in common (at least amongst the guardian order):

while wading thro’ the whimsies, the puerilities, & unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? … it is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like the beasts of the field or forest… . Socrates had reason indeed to complain of the misrepresentations of Plato; for in truth his dialogues are libels on Socrates.

Adams’s response to Jefferson is representative of the founders’ view of Platonic republicanism:

I am very glad you have Seriously read Plato: and Still more rejoiced to find that your reflections upon him, So perfectly harmonize with mine… . Some Parts of Some of his Dialogues are entertaining, like the Writings of Rousseau: but his Laws and his Republick from which I expected most, disappointed me most. I could Scarcely exclude the Suspicion that he intended the latter as a bitter Satyre upon all Republican Government, as Xenophon undoubtedly designed by his Essay on Democracy, to ridicule that Species of Republick.

Adams goes on to recount the hilarious story of how he once told John Taylor of Caroline that if he were a young man again, he would write a novel

in which The Hero Should be Sent upon his travels through Plato’s Republick, and all his Adventures, with his Observations on the principles and opinions, the Arts and Sciences, the manners Customs and habits of the Citizens Should be recorded. Nothing can be conceived more destructive of human happiness; more infallibly contrived to transform Men and Women into Brutes, Yahoos, or Dæmons than a Community of Wives and Property… .

Jefferson and Adams would have nothing to do with Platonic republicanism, which they regarded as anathema to the individualistic principles of the American founding. Hence they were both somewhat mystified that Cicero, whom they both deeply admired and whose ideas they frequently drew upon, seemed to have been a Platonist of some kind and whose two major works in political philosophy, De Republica and De Legibus, were written in imitation of Plato’s two major works by the same titles.

Jefferson was particularly mystified by Cicero’s praise for Plato: “[H]ow,” he asked, “could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato?” Jefferson clearly seemed to think that Cicero’s political philosophy was anathema to Plato’s. Adams, who may have been eighteenth-century America’s greatest Ciceronian, responded by suggesting that the Roman statesman’s political philosophy was not as Platonic as it might first seem:

Cicero was educated in the Groves of Academus where the Name and Memory of Plato, were idolized to such a degree, that if he had wholly renounced the Prejudices of his Education his Reputation would have been lessened, if not injured and ruined. In his two Volumes of Discourses on government We may presume, that he fully examined Plato’s Laws and Republick as well as Aristotles Writings on Government. But these have been carefully destroyed; not improbably, with the general Consent of Philosophers, Politicians and Priests. The Loss is as much to be regretted as that of any Production of Antiquity… .

Cicero’s De Republica and De Legibus were not available to eighteenth-century Americans except as excerpts in the works of mostly Christian theologians such as St. Augustine’s The City of God. Adams was, I think, suggesting that Cicero’s two main political works were much less Platonic than was thought by some at the time. In fact, Adams’s use and interpretation of Cicero political thought in his magnum opus, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (3 vols., 1787-88) is clearly non-Platonic in nature. Adams’s understanding of what a republic is was clearly formed by his reading of Cicero, whom he quotes frequently in his Defense when defining what republicanism is. Adams there defined a republic as

a government in which the property of the people predominated and governed; and it had more relation to property than liberty. It signified a government, in which the property of the public, or people, and of every one of them, was secured and protected by law. This idea, indeed, implies liberty; because property cannot be secure unless the man be at liberty to acquire, use, or part with it, at his discretion, and unless he have his personal liberty of life and limb, motion and rest, for that purpose. It implies, moreover, that the property and liberty of all men, not merely of a majority, should be safe; for the people, or public, comprehends more than a majority, it comprehends all and every individual; and the property of every citizen is a part of the public property, as each citizen is a part of the public, people, or community. The property, therefore, of every man has a share in government, and is more powerful than any citizen, or party of citizens; it is governed only by the law.

America’s Ciceronian republicanism was grounded in the fundamental rights to liberty and private property as secured and protected by the rule of law. Here we clearly see a link between ancient and modern republicanism, between Cicero and Locke. Ciceronian and Lockean republicanism very much share a common respect for liberty, property, and the rule of law, which form the cornerstone principles of the classical liberal tradition.

In addition to the founders’ acceptance of Ciceronian republicanism, the founding generation also borrowed two related concepts from ancient Greek and Roman authors, namely, the idea of a mixed and balanced republic and the cycle theory of regime change. They learned the former primarily from Aristotle’s Politics and the latter primarily from Polybius’s The Histories. (Many years ago, I had the great thrill to read John Adams’s personal copy of Aristotle’s Politics along with his marginalia in the rare books reading room at the Boston Public Library.)

With the exception of these three political principles learned from ancient Greek and Roman authors, America’s founding generation really were the proponents of what Alexander Hamilton referred to in the ninth essay of The Federalist as the modern science of politics, the principles and institutions of which were: 1) “The regular distribution of power into distinct departments”; 2) “the introduction of legislative balances and checks”; 3) “the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior”; 4) “the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election”; and, 5) “the ENLARGEMENT of the ORBIT within which such systems are to revolve, either in respect to the dimensions of a single State or to the consolidation of several smaller States into one great Confederacy.” Such principles, Hamilton wrote, were “either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients.”

In sum, American revolutionaries learned some political principles from the ancients but by no means all of their principles. Their new science of politics owed much more to Locke, Montesquieu, and Hume than it did to the ancient republican authors. On balance, their political views were more modern than ancient.

The Founders and Ancient Moral Thought

But there is, I think, a more important connection between the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and America’s revolutionary generation, and that concerns the ancients’ moral thought and practice. This is the field where the ancient authors exerted their greatest influence on classical liberal theory and practice, and it is a subject that has gone largely unexamined in the scholarly literature. Much can be written on this under-studied but important subject, but I have already greatly exceeded my assigned word limit and so I shall indicate the connection only briefly.

The historical record is clear that Greek and Roman moralists exerted a profound influence on many of America’s leading founders (e.g., John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Wilson). This influence can be seen most clearly in two ways: first, in how the founders read and used the ancient moralists to improve their own moral characters, and, second, in the advice they gave to the young people in their charge. As proponents of a free society, America’s revolutionary statesmen understood that political self-government must be propped up by individual moral virtue, particularly the virtue of self-government. On that subject they most often turned to Cicero’s book on moral obligations, De Officiis.

Allow me to illustrate this claim with a double-barreled example from the Adams family.

In 1759, when John Adams was 24 years old and studying the law, he recorded in his diary an extraordinary mental exercise that he had engaged in during a period in which he was studying Cicero’s moral advice. In Book I of De Officiis, Cicero recounts the famous story of “The Choice of Hercules” first told in Xenonphon’s Memorabilia (2.1.21-34) and then captured artistically in Annabale Carracci’s 1596 painting and in G. F. Handel’s 1750 Oratorio. “The other night,” Adams wrote to himself, “the Choice of Hercules came into my mind, and left impressions there which I hope will never be effaced nor long unheeded.” In the same way that Adams would decades later suggest that he write a novel about a young man’s journey through Plato’s best city in speech, he “thought of writing a Fable” adapted to his own life on the “same Plan” as that of Hercules.

The soliloquy began this way: “Let Virtue address me”—

Which, dear youth, will you prefer, a life of effeminacy, indolence and obscurity, or a life of industry, temperance and honor? … let no trifling diversion, or amusement, or company, decoy you from your book; that is, let no girl, no gun, no cards, no flutes, no violins, no dress, no tobacco, no laziness, decoy you from your books… . But keep your law book or some point of law in your mind, at least, six hours in a day… . Labor to get distinct ideas of law, right, wrong, justice, equity; search for them in your own mind, in Roman, Grecian, French, English treatises of natural, civil, common, statute law; aim at an exact knowledge of the nature, end, and means of government; compare the different forms of it with each other, and each of them with their effects on public and private happiness.

The young man ended his homily be admonishing himself to “Study Seneca, Cicero, and all other good moral writers.”

Twenty-one years later, when John’s Adams’s first son, John Quincy, was 13 years old and attending a boarding school in France, the boy received a series of letters from his mother and father on virtue and moral self-government. Both parents held up Cicero as a model of moral virtue and the “Character of the Hero and the Statesman.” Abigail implored her son to remember that he had certain moral obligations to himself, that

due Government of the passions has been considered in all ages as a most valuable acquisition, … and learn betimes from your own observation and experience to govern and controul yourself. Having once obtained this self government you will find a foundation laid for happiness to yourself and usefulness to Mankind. ‘Virtue alone is happiness below,’ and consists in cultivating and improveing every good inclination and in checking and subduing every propensity to Evil.

John Adams reinforced his wife’s admonition by telling their young son that his “Books of Morals” should be his “most constant Companions” throughout his “Hours of Relaxation” and, indeed, “through the whole Course of your Life.” He later told his son, “Morals, my Boy, Morals should be as they are eternal in their nature, the everlasting object of your Pursuit.” To that end, Adams senior never failed to tell his son to read Cicero, Seneca, Tacitus, and Livy in order to “learn Wisdom and Virtue.” (Interestingly, among the modern moralists, Adams recommended that his son read Jean Barbeyrac’s “An Historical and Critical Account of the Science of Morality,” which appeared as a preface to Samuel Pufendorf’s Of the Law of Nature and Nations [1729]). Father Adams well knew that a free society made up of moral reprobates cannot last.

I conclude with one final suggestion for Mr. Meany: you will find much to think about in studying the relationship between Cicero’s discussion of the moral laws of nature in De Officiis with that of Locke’s discussion of the same topic in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Here you will find the secret link between ancient and modern liberalism.


[1] For scholars who interpret the founding through the lens of classical republicanism, see Gordon Wood, Creation of the American Republic (1969); J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (1975); and M. N. S. Sellers, American Republicanism: Roman Ideology in the United States Constitution (1994). For scholars who interpret the founding through the lens of Lockean or Enlightenment liberalism, see Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (1988); Michael Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (1996); and C. Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It (2019).

The Conversation

Reply to Long on Cicero, Democracy, and Bastiat’s Critique of the Ancients

Roderick Long’s response to my essay is an excellent counterbalance for the Founding Fathers’ enthusiasm for Rome. Cicero was not the only influence who made an impression on the Founders, nor is he the lone ancient thinker classical liberals ought to consult.

This response consists of three main parts. First, I will reply to Long’s assessment of Cicero. Second, I want to point towards two examples of ancient Greek influence on the Founding Fathers. And lastly, I will be briefly discussing how Bastiat repudiated classical sources and attempt to answer how classical liberals ought to react to his condemnations.

Long aptly notes that both Jefferson and Bastiat saw that the flaw in classical thinking was a lack of a universal ethical approach. One’s allegiance to their tribe or nation always outranked abstract notions of humanity. Saint Paul, when accosted by Roman soldiers, did not protest by referencing his natural rights as a person deserving of dignity regardless of status, he said “Civis romanus sum,” “I am a Roman citizen.” This phrase, whether Paul was aware or not, originated from Cicero’s speeches against the corrupt governor Verres.

Cicero was not a perfect person by any stretch. He readily accepted the brutal imperialism of Rome and had no great qualms with slavery. And while Cicero deserves credit as one of the first theorists to ground human equality in natural law, Long points out the obvious issue that the theoretical equality found in Cicero’s writings is nowhere to be seen in the social order of Rome he praised so often.

On the topic of slavery, Long is correct; Cicero did not produce any substantial arguments against slavery even though he described a world order in which all rational beings deserve dignity. This does not sully his legacy entirely. After all, the majority of Founders are guilty of the same charge. Where Cicero does deserve credit is for his attempt to rework Roman imperialism. Cicero is one of the first thinkers to extensively discuss just war theory, and his ideas were adopted by thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo, Vattel, and Hugo Grotius.

For classical liberals, libertarians, anarchists (whatever label floats your boat), war, especially any form of aggressive warfare, is a moral catastrophe that must be avoided. Regardless of our disgust, war at times is inevitable, and thus we must think about how we act within our limits to defend ourselves while avoiding excessive cruelty to our opponents. Cicero wrote that “Wars, then, ought to be undertaken for this purpose, that we may live in peace, without injustice; and once victory has been secured, those who were not cruel or savage in warfare should be spared.”

In Rome, a highly militaristic society, war was a way for the elite of society to distinguish themselves through victory, conquest, and plunder. Many of the great Roman names are accomplished generals and tacticians. Cicero stands out amongst other Romans in Plutarch’s Lives alongside Cato the Younger, not as a man who distinguished himself through military might, but through good conduct. An important aspect of Cicero’s moral work De Officiis is his deflation of military glory; Cicero argued glory could be attained not just in war but through just conduct and keeping one’s promises. In De Re Publica Cicero wrote, “unless I am mistaken, it is argued [there] that no war is undertaken by a good state except on behalf of good faith or for safety.” While not perfect by any means, Cicero can be commended not only for his pivotal role and influence in theorizing about the reasoning and conduct of a just war, but also for his attempt at shifting the focus away from military glory and towards other more peaceful and moderate virtues.

I argue that overall, of all the ancient thinkers evoked as great authorities during the American Founding, Cicero outranks the rest in terms of the impression he left on his readers in both a moral and political sense. Cicero was a moral role model, a respected political thinker, and a symbol of a republican man alongside esteemed figures such as Cinncinatus, Cato, and Brutus. Cicero was a major player in the drama that is the fall of the Roman Republic. Republics were often commended by political thinkers for their commitment to the rule of law and equality, but often the record of republicanism was fraught. Few republics stood the test of time, and by the Founders’ day, few functioning republics existed, and these only on a small scale. The Roman Republic however lasted nearly five hundred years. In this context the musings and advice of Rome’s foremost representative of the republic became an increasingly important source.

The example of Rome and the writings of Cicero provided positive advice for the budding republicanism of the revolution. Though deemed the cradle of western civilization today, Athens did not fare so well. While today democracy seems to be a term used with almost universal adulation in the western world, this was not always the case. Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle gave damning accounts of Athenian democracy and its supposed excess. These less than stellar assessments of stuck, and for almost two millennia democracy was feared for its erratic and unstable nature. Thus, for the Americans, as Long has already noted, democracy was a dirty word for quite some time. Democracy was blamed for the disastrous consequences of the Peloponnesian War, and most shockingly, the execution of Socrates, who has been crystallized in history as the martyr of freethinking and philosophy, killed by a democratic jury.

Despite the negative connotations of democracy, by no means was classical Greece wholly ignored by the Founders. The Persian Wars, in which a small alliance of Greeks opposed the largest empire on the planet, illustrated the value of liberty for nervous Americans who saw themselves in the same situation against Britain. The Greek triumph over the Persians affirmed to the Americans Herodotus’s observation that “Free men fight better than slaves.” The moral example of Greece was not relegated solely to the Persian Wars. Historians such as Plutarch also pointed toward moral exemplars such as Aristides and Phocion, both of whom were held in high esteem by American readers with many often using their names as pseudonyms in political pamphlets. To a lesser extent than Romans such as Cicero, Cato, and Brutus, the Greeks still produced their fair share of disinterested and patriotic statesmen.

Through Plutarch, Polybius, and Demosthenes, Americans learned of Philip of Macedon and his conquest of Greece. American readers inferred from these accounts that the autocratic Philip quickly subdued the Greek powers because they lacked the unity of a sufficiently strong central government. Federalists argued that Greece had been conquered due to an excessive amount of decentralization. Founders such as James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison researched the Greek world’s federations in an attempt to find a system that would secure liberty and fend off foreign threats. James Madison extensively studied the ancient confederacies of the Greeks while formulating his vision of federalism.

Lastly, we have the issue of Bastiat’s disdain for the classical world and his contemporaries fawning over what he saw as brutal societies based upon war and slavery. In his wonderfully polemical essay “The Law,” Bastiat condemned socialists for dividing humanity into two parts, the legislator and the rest. He believed that socialists viewed themselves as separate from humanity. Socialist leaders might think of themselves as gardeners, while the people at large are shrubs, plants, and flowers that have to be taken care of and cultivated by the benevolent gardener. Bastiat’s revulsion at this idea comes from the fact that the hypothetical legislators place themselves above the population and believe that they can perfectly shape and mold every aspect of human life. In their vision, humans are inert unless someone comes along and organizes their lives. Bastiat located this pernicious tendency to fantasize about being an omnipotent legislator over a mostly passive population in the nature of classical sources. Bastiat dubs this tendency “the child of classical studies and the mother of socialism.”

Athens and Sparta both had semi-mythical lawgiver figures, Solon and Lycurgus, who in times of crisis were given near-unlimited power to rewrite the laws of their society radically. But as Long has noted, Cicero briefly resembles a sort of proto-Hayekian by arguing that Rome’s laws were made not by a single man from a bygone age, but that they developed over time through collective wisdom. Bastiat’s disdain can apply to societies such as Sparta, which rigidly stuck to their laws, but Athens and Rome developed and changed over time. Any who believed one great man was behind the glory of either society is sorely misreading history.

Bastiat is right to condemn the idea of a benevolent, omnipotent legislator in “The Law” and to attack the violent virtues of classical societies in his speech entitled “Academic Degrees and Socialism.” However, this does not mean we should abandon the classics. Bastiat attended a prestigious high school at Sorèze dedicated to educational reforms such as studying modern languages and implementing collaborative work. Instead of reading Latin and Greek, Bastiat learned German, English, and Spanish; instead of reading Tacitus, Cicero, or Seneca, Bastiat studied mathematics, science, and economics. His hostility to classical education can be explained by holding his much more holistic and applied education in preference to the traditional curricula, which emphasized the hallowed classical past to the detriment of more modern subjects.

In the medieval ages, John of Salisbury recounted the words of his teacher Bernard of Chartres, who “used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.” While figures like Bastiat are right to point out the flaws of classical thought, they were wrong to abandon it as a whole. The thinkers of classical Greece and Rome, for better or worse, have had a colossal impact on our understanding of politics, whether we like it or not. The ancients asked many of the same questions we wrestle with today. Their writings echo throughout history and affect the predispositions and ideals of thinkers over a thousand years later. For anyone who wishes to uncover the intellectual roots of our most hallowed principles, institutions, and ideas, they have no choice but to engage with the ancients who set the stage for us moderns.

Observations and Quibbles

Both on the historical issue of the extent of the American founders’ indebtedness to classical antiquity, and on the normative issue of the value of the classical legacy, I think we’re all agreed that it’s a complicated mix. So what I have to offer in this comment is not really a bold salvo of any sort, but just a few observations and quibbles.

C. Bradley Thompson rightly points to Jefferson’s and Adams’s skeptical attitude toward the merits of Plato as a political thinker; but I don’t think we should infer from this that the influence of the ancients upon the founders lay mainly in the ethical rather than in the political sphere. For most of the criticisms that Jefferson and Adams make of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle had made before them – as they surely knew. Jefferson, after all, explicitly lists Aristotle (though not Plato) among the “elementary books of public right” upon which he relied in drafting the Declaration of Independence.[1]

So if we’re interested in ancient influences on the founders’ political ideas, Aristotle is probably a better place to look than Plato, particularly in the sections of the Politics that are more concerned with the problems of second-best and third-best constitutions, such as managing the effects of faction.

Thompson does note that the founders were influenced by Aristotle’s (and, I would add, Thucydides’) ideal of a “mixed and balanced republic”; but here we should really also pay due credit to Polybius, who developed the Aristotelean mixed-constitution idea into a much fuller account of checks and balances, particularly in Book 6 of his Histories. Notably, Polybius shows up on Jefferson’s list of recommended books;[2] and the other founders were of course familiar with him as well.

It’s true, as Paul Meany observes, that both Athens and Sparta had had, or took themselves to have had, “semi-mythical lawgiver figures” in the persons of Solon and Lycurgus (with Solon perhaps being a bit more historically grounded than Lycurgus), and that this tradition stands opposed to the more Hayekian conception to which I pointed in Cicero.[3] However, there’s one qualification to this picture of “an omnipotent legislator over a mostly passive population” – namely, that both Solon and Lycurgus are traditionally described as having removed themselves from their respective cities once their legislation had been completed, rather than seeking to hold a position of political power within the polity thus established.

This puts the Solon and Lycurgus legends a bit closer to Madison’s observation that political institutions must be designed on the assumption that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm”[4] – and thus aligns them with the American constitutional hope for a “machine that would go of itself,” to cite the phrase originated by James Russell Lowell and popularized in recent times by Michael Kammen’s book of the same name.[5] (Rousseau in The Social Contract likewise insists that his ideal legislator, having completed his legislative efforts, should not seek or expect to rule over the polity he has worked to design.) And one of the first ancient thinkers to clearly state the need for a political system to be able to function well in the absence of wise legislators is Plato – not in the Republic, with its elite cadre of philosopher-kings, but in the Statesman. And there is a traceable thread on the virtues of the rule of law, running from Plato’s Statesman through Aristotle’s Politics to Locke’s Two Treatises and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws.

Of course there is a tension – though not necessarily a contradiction – between the idea of a constitutional machine that runs itself in the absence of enlightened statesmen, and the idea of a legislative order’s being flexible and open to ongoing change in the way that Meany calls for. (Again, Plato’s Statesman is devoted to exploring precisely that tension.) I would suggest, however, that a competitive market order is likely to negotiate that tension more successfully than can a monopolistic state system.

Meany adds that unlike Athens and Rome, whose laws “developed and changed over time,” the Spartans “rigidly stuck to their laws.” But not all contemporary observers were convinced that legal continuity in Sparta was as strong as that description would seem to suggest. Xenophon, for example, declares: “Should anyone ask me whether I think that the laws of Lycurgus still remain unchanged at this day, I certainly could not say that”[6] – though he takes the alteration in Spartan laws to be a matter of reproach rather than of praise. Lip service to a founding and immutable law is often quite compatible with enormous real-world changes in its interpretation and application – as witness the United States’ own constitutional history.


[1] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Henry Lee, 8 May 1825:


[2] Thomas Jefferson, “List of Recommended Books,” ca. 4 October 1809:


[3] On this general topic, see Geoffrey Allan Plauché, “On the Myth of the Founder-Legislator in Political Philosophy: Synthesizing Some Ideas of Arendt, Aristotle, Ferguson, Hayek, and Locke That Have Anarchist Implications”: https://gaplauche.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/foundermyth.pdf ; and Charles W. Johnson, “Remarks on Geoffrey Plauché’s ‘On the Myth of the Founder-Legislator in Political Philosophy,’ Rad Geek People’s Daily (13 January 2007): http://radgeek.com/gt/2007/01/13/remarks_on/

[4] James Madison, Federalist §10: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-10-02-0178

[5] Michael Kammen, A Machine That Would Go of Itself, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2006).

[6] Xenophon,Constitution of the Lacedaemonians 14.1; in Xenophon, Scripta Minora, trans. E. C. Marchant, G. W. Bowersock (Harvard U. Press, 1925):