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An 1823 print, drawn by George Cruikshank and published by T. Hughes, shows actor John Kemble portraying Cato at Covent Garden in 1816.
An 1823 print, drawn by George Cruikshank and published by T. Hughes, shows actor John Kemble portraying Cato at Covent Garden in 1816.
Thirteen centuries after the Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D., the compendium of Roman classics served as an ideological guidebook for the American founders. Classical Roman concepts and figures exerted a formative influence on the founders’ governmental theories and principles of virtue. The founders considered the Roman Republic a prototype for their new nation and the Roman Empire a cautionary lesson of potential failure. Classical depictions of Roman civil wars produced the archetypal republican heroes and power hungry villains that became common references in American political rhetoric in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The founders used classical symbols in their rhetoric to implicitly compare themselves to Roman leaders. By associating themselves with these classical symbols, the founders imbued the wisdom and virtue of Roman heroes into their own messages and built a foundation rooted in history for the fledgling American nation. The most common classical symbol was the pseudonym. American leaders used Roman pseudonyms from the most popular classical stories so that the American public would understand their symbolism.

Early American pseudonyms frequently referenced the Roman hero Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was an ancient Roman statesman and lawyer who, in the eyes of American patriots, dedicated himself to preserving the sanctity of the Roman Republic. The founders used Cicero as a symbol in their writings to comment on contemporary civic and personal virtue. In 1768, Samuel Adams signed an essay that protested the British maintenance of a standing army with the pseudonym “Cedant Arma Togae” (“Let arms yield to the toga”).1 This was a famous phrase of Cicero, who demanded tight civilian control of the Roman Army. Alexander Hamilton adopted the pseudonym “Tully” (a popular nickname for Cicero) for a series of essays condemning the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.2 Hamilton’s reproach of the Whiskey rebels emulated Cicero’s critical speeches against Roman demagogue Catiline.

The founders more explicitly compared the United States to ancient Rome through rhetorical models of Roman government and society. From the purpose of republican virtue to mixed government theory, classical Rome provided the founders with models for developing the nation. George Washington partially modeled his sense of courage and purpose on the character of Cato the Younger, as presented in Joseph Addison’s 1713 tragedy Cato. Cato was a politician during the Roman Republic whose moral integrity inspired all of the founders. In May 1778, General Washington had a production of Addison’s Cato staged at Valley Forge.3 He did this to reinforce the importance of self-sacrificing republican virtue in his men after a brutal winter at war.  

In addition to Cato, Washington also invited comparison to the Roman leader Cincinnatus. As described in ancient historian Livy’s History of Rome, Cincinnatus was a general who was called out of retirement to lead the Roman army, but willingly resigned after winning the war.4 After leaving his own retirement to lead the Continental Army, Washington also willingly relinquished his power at the end of the war.  Following the actions of Cincinnatus, Washington set a precedent for placing republican virtue over personal power.

The classical model of mixed government theory influenced political discourse in the Constitutional Era. John Adams was inspired by the writings of ancient Greek historian Polybius on Roman mixed government, which was a system that combined elements of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. Adams, a vocal advocate of mixed government, summarized Polybius in letters XXX and XXXI of his 1787 governmental thesis, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States.5 Adams’ Defence helped to launch the American debate over government structures that continued at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and beyond.

While the founders adopted positive models from antiquity, “antimodels” were also employed to illustrate ancient institutions that the founders feared and condemned. Antimodels extracted lessons of tyranny from classical Roman antiquity. The most common antimodels were the Roman emperors, whom Americans compared to the British monarch. Emperor Julius Caesar was the founders’ most villainous antimodel. In Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act Speech of 1765, Henry associated George III with Caesar, proclaiming: “Caesar has his Brutus, Charles the first his Cromwell, and George III may profit by their example.”6          

Through models, antimodels, and symbolism, the Roman classics exerted a formative influence on the American founding era.  “How strangely is antiquity treated!” wrote Thomas Paine in 1792, remarking on references to classical history in early American political rhetoric. “To answer some purposes,” he wrote, “it is spoken of as the times of darkness and ignorance, and to answer others, it is put for the light of the world.”7


Hope Grossman

George Washington Universtiy



1. Adams quoted in William H.F. Altman, Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Cicero (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 129.

2. “Tully No. I, [23 August 1794],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 17, August 1794?–?December 1794, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972, pp. 132–135.]

3. “Selections from the Wallace Papers” (letter from William Bradford to his sister, Rachel, May 14, 1778), Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 40, no. 3 (1916): 342-43,

4. Livy, History of Rome, trans. Rev. Canon Roberts (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1912), book 3 chapter 26.

5. John Adams, “Letters XXX and XXXI,” in A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States Unabridged Republication (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), 169-183.

6. Henry quoted in Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 91.

7. Paine quoted in Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 94.