4 May, 2009Issue 9.2HistoryNorth America

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Rome, Athens, and Antebellum America

Clem Wood

golden ageCarl J. Richard
The Golden Age of the Classics in America
Harvard University Press, 2009
272 pages
ISBN 978-0674032644

Many students of American history know that the Latin motto sic semper tyrannis (“thus always for tyrants”) is what John Wilkes Booth allegedly yelled after shooting President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. But few, perhaps, realise the extent to which he was living out classical history. Booth was the son and brother of men named Junius Brutus, after the ancestor of Julius Caesar’s murderer who had expelled the last king from Rome. Art and life imitated each other: Booth (as Mark Antony) and two of his brothers had appeared in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York City only months before the assassination at Ford’s Theatre.

Carl J. Richard highlights those sorts of stories to illuminate broader cultural trends in The Golden Age of the Classics in America, the first book-length study of the reception of Greece and Rome in antebellum America (defined as 1800 to 1861). Richard, whose previous work includes The Founders and the Classics (1994), controversially identifies the antebellum period, rather than the late 18th century under the founding fathers, as the “golden age” of the classics in the US, because it was then that they exploded beyond the realm of the Eastern aristocratic élite. The classics earned a place in daily life through schools, political rhetoric, literature, art, popular fiction, drama and—most disturbingly—the institution of slavery. Richard’s study accentuates how fiercely antebellum Americans struggled over Greece and Rome as sites of contested meaning. Like many others before them, they showed no qualms about using the classics both paradoxically and pedantically to support whatever cause they favoured at the time.

The US was “unique among Western nations in offering girls classical instruction on a large scale”, and a few schools in northern cities taught Virgil, Horace, Xenophon and the like to African-Americans. But while the classics enjoyed a growing accessibility, classical literature continued to function as a currency of the elite: Thomas Bulfinch wrote his popular compendium of myths (1855) as a key to understanding allusions in literature, politics and “polite conversation”. More popular manifestations of the heritage included the profusion of classicising town names, such as Rome, New York and Athens, Georgia, and the spread of Greek Revival architecture, which represented the Hellenic spirit without demanding specialised linguistic expertise.

Since the classics had become such common knowledge, politicians could draw on Greek and Roman examples not only to debate amongst themselves, but also to curry favour with the people. Speakers led a “double rhetorical life” by combining “studied plainness” with classical allusions, a feat most famously achieved by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address (1863). As Garry Wills has shown, that paragon of simplicity echoes the Funeral Oration Thucydides puts in the mouth of Pericles in Book Two of his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Lincoln’s invocation of that bloody conflict fought by Greeks against Greeks was tragically appropriate for the American Civil War. Lincoln was not the only American to coopt the Greeks in interpreting the conflict; others did so for less laudable aims. Many southerners used the example of Athens and the testimony of Aristotle to justify the glaring inequality of slavery. Moreover, secessionists pointed to the proliferation of city-states in ancient Greece to justify devolved national power. In prescient words, Thomas Dew, a president of the College of William and Mary, credited the city-state system with inspiring “that ardent patriotism which can sacrifice self upon the altar of our country’s happiness”.

As the population of the North ballooned and its representative majority grew, the democratic model began to fall apart. John C. Calhoun, the fiery South Carolinian politician, hoped to preserve the Union, but also to protect the South’s interests by proposing a theory of mixed government based on the writings of Aristotle, Polybius and James Madison. Whereas pure democracy granted the majority North the power to oppress the minority South, Calhoun’s classically-derived theory proposed a return to the Roman constitution, which would stymie majoritarian abuse. But Calhoun’s appeal was contradictory. As Richard rightly points out, if there was any one group in antebellum America that abused its rights as a majority, it was the very slave-owning Southern whites Calhoun represented.

Throughout the antebellum period, the classics confronted and overcame the double threats of what Richard Hofstadter famously identified as dominant forces in American history: anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism. Like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine before them, educators in the early 19th century attacked the place of Greek and Latin in standard curricula to advance a broader and more relevant course of study. But the classics had taken such deep root in society that their defenders managed to succeed precisely by arguing for their relevance. In an 1828 report in response to a Connecticut state senator’s request that Yale abolish its Greek and Latin entrance requirement, Jeremiah Day, the University’s president, explained how ancient literature was “peculiarly adapted to the American youth”.

Day’s response was typical of the age in that it rebuffed critics by relating their priorities to the classics themselves. Most obviously, Rome provided a model of expansionism for the concept of Manifest Destiny. In his series of popular American readers, Noah Webster included a scene from Cato, the 1712 tragedy by the British dramatist Joseph Addison, which alluded to the prophecy of Anchises from Virgil’s Aeneid: “A Roman soul is bent on higher views; | To civilize the rude unpolished world, | And lay it under the restraint of laws”. Although Richard fails to note the Virgilian allusion, he does stress the irony that the US exalted the very same doctrine the British had used to justify their imperialism in the American colonies only decades before.

Similar contradictory tendencies reigned supreme in the romanticism of America’s emerging national literature. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson idolised the ancients’ pastoral simplicity, but simultaneously called upon their readers to “Reverence Man & not Plato and Caesar”. Emerson, Richard writes, “saw no irony” in basing his presentist views on a verse from Ovid’s Art of Love: “Let the ancient times delight other folk: I congratulate myself that I was not born till now.”

While Emerson tailored the classics to his own vision, others aimed to reject them altogether. During the Second Great Awakening, many Christians objected to the dubious morals of the pagan texts, which in the words of critic Thomas Grimké, were “inferior to a literature descended from Heaven”. Editors bowdlerised the ancient authors: in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (1853), Pluto abducts Proserpina not because he is attempting to rape her, but because he wants them to be “very good friends”. Most college galleries added fig leaves to their classical sculptures. But the moralisers still set the classics as their touchstone: Grimké concluded that the US could become “the Greece of the Modern World” if it looked to the Bible for influences.

The Civil War changed the perception of the classics in America. Literature passed from romanticism to realism, as reflected in the prominence of antiheroes in Herman Melville’s post-war fiction. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice who had fought for the Union, lost faith in the supposedly ironclad classical doctrine of natural law and rejected absolute rules, writing: “Instead of saying that they ought to be, I merely say they are part of the kind of world that I like.”

In the end, the utilitarians “won”. By 1912, a survey of 155 American colleges found that two-thirds of them required neither Greek nor Latin, and the industrialist Andrew Carnegie disparaged the languages as subjects better suited to “life on another planet”. The final paradox, Richard suggests, is that by the time the classics had begun to lose their place in American culture, they had already pervaded all levels of society. They had become so democratised that during the Reconstruction period, Booker T. Washington commented on the “craze for Greek and Latin learning” among the new freedmen. On the other hand, the intellectual élite, the long-time proponents of the classics, no longer saw them as a viable marker of social status. Even the traditional bulwarks of the classical tradition had succumbed to the utilitarianism they had once briefly defeated.

Clem Wood is a graduate student at New College, Oxford, studying Greek and Latin languages and literature. He is the Deputy Writers Editor of the Oxonian Review.