A panel of experts dives into what the founders—including Abigail and John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Mercy Otis Warren, and Phyllis Wheatley—learned from the Greeks and Romans, from their early education through adulthood, and how that knowledge came to influence founding documents such as the Constitution as well as the American idea. They also explore the founders’ philosophical understanding of passion versus reason, the meaning of “happiness,” and more. Historians and authors Caroline Winterer and Carl Richard and Pultizer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Ricks joined National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen.
Carl Richard is professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is the author of several books, including: The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American and Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers.
Thomas Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a #1 New York Times bestselling author. He covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008 and was on the staff of the Wall Street Journal for 17 years before that. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is, First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.
Caroline Winterer is William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and the chair of the History Department at Stanford University. Winterer has also curated two exhibits of rare books and artifacts: Ancient Rome & America at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (2010) and The American Enlightenment at the Stanford Library (2011). She is the author of several books, including The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910.
Jeffrey Rosen is the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization devoted to educating the public about the U.S. Constitution. Rosen is also professor of law at The George Washington University Law School and a contributing editor of The Atlantic.
This episode was engineered by the David Stotz and Greg Scheckler and produced by Jackie McDermott, Tanaya Tauber, John Guerra, and Lana Ulrich.
- Carl Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American and Greeks
- Carl Richard, The Battle for the American Mind: A Brief History of a Nation's Thought
- Carl Richard, Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers
- Carl Richard, The Founders and the Bible
- Thomas Ricks, First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country
- Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910
- Caroline Winterer, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason
- Caroline Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750–1900
- Aristotle, Politics
- "Epicurus," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Epicurus Reader
- "Cincinnatus," National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mt. Vernon
- "Cicero," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Cicero, Political Speeches
- "Porcia," Chaucer Name Dictionary
- Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy
- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
- Sophocles, Antigone
- Homer, The Iliad
- Homer, The Odyssey
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This transcript may not be in its final form, accuracy may vary, and it may be updated or revised in the future.
Jackie McDermott: [00:00:00] Welcome to Live at the National Constitution Center. I'm Jackie McDermott, the show's producer. Philosophers like Homer, Aristotle, and Cicero greatly influenced the American Founders and some of their most crucial decisions at the time birth of our country and beyond. Last week, NCC President Jeffrey Rosen was joined by a panel of experts to discuss the influence of the ancient Greeks and Romans on early America. Here's Jeff to get the conversation started.
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:00:28] Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Constitution Center and to today's convening of America's Town Hall. I am Jeffrey Rosen, the President and CEO of this wonderful institution. And we're going to begin as always by reciting together our mission statements to inspire ourselves for the learning ahead.
The National Constitution Center is the only institution in America, chartered by Congress to increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people on a nonpartisan basis. Friends, I have been looking forward to ths program for many months. The topic is so centrally important to our understanding of our founding principles and the American idea. And we're honored to have not only three of America's greatest scholars on this topic, but the three great American scholars on this topic. So, what isn't known about what the founders learned from the Greeks and Romans, if these guys don't know it, then no one does, and I'm so excited to introduce them to you now and to have a discussion with you and to learn from them.
Carl Richard is professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He's the author of many books on intellectual history and I've read them and I have them by my side. I won't hold them up, but I want, I want them recommending them to you right now, "The Founders and the classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment," "Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers," "12 Greeks and Romans who changed the world," and most recently, just as illuminating and I've just finished it on Kindl, "the Founders and the Bible."
Thomas Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and a number one New York times bestselling author. He has covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post. He was on the staff of the Wall Street Journal and is the author of several pathbreaking books, including most recently the one which we're so excited to discuss today, "First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and how that Shaped our Country."
And Caroline Winterer is the Williams Robertson Coe professor of History and American Studies and the chair of the Department of History at Stanford. She's the author of several books on the history of ideas, including three that are centrally relevant to today's discussion: "the Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American intellectual life," "The mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750 to 1900" and most recently, "American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason."
Thank you so much for joining and welcome Carl Richard, Thomas Ricks, and Caroline Winterer. Well, let us begin with the central question, what did the founders learn from the Greeks and Romans? Thomas Ricks, you describe how it was after the 2016 election that you decided to read the classical sources that inspired the founders. You teach us so much about what they learned and much of it comes down to virtue. You have Thomas Jefferson quoting Epicurus, "happiness, the aim of life, virtue, the foundation of happiness." Tell us what the founders learned from the ancient Greeks and Romans about the connection between public happiness and public virtue and how did different philosophers influence different founders in different ways?
Thomas Ricks: [00:03:52] Honestly, I differ on most of that question to the two other panelists. I'm going to say that their books were major illuminating works for me, as I went through my, my research. They did the foundational work, along with Myra Reynolds and a couple of other people. But I learned so much from them. It really is just an honor to be on the same platform with them. And I probably would be happy just to sit and listen to them. But, what struck me as I began my research, I actually began by taking down Aristotle's "Politics" off the shelf on the day after the 2016 presidential election. I had been taught in college, when you don't understand something, go back to the basics. Go back to first principles. And I did, and that led me through a lot of Greek philosophy, and Greek history, literature and into Roman history and literature.
And what I took away with most was the political vocabulary of the revolutionary generation comes out of the ancient world and especially the decline of the Roman Republic. For them, the decline of the Roman Republic with Cato, with Cicero, With Julius Caesar, ultimately seizing power. All this had the urgency of front page news to them.
Virtue is the other bright thread that runs through this whole era. The question of whether public virtue or what we, what they call virtue, what we call public spiritedness or public mindedness, whether a nation could get by on that. And I think by the end of the revolution, it was pretty clear to George Washington and to many others that that was insufficient, but the rhetoric of virtue continues on for a few decades until it basically just give it lip service in the 19th century.
Rosen: [00:05:44] Caroline, as Thomas said, where you've written so definitively about this. So, I'll ask you the same question: what did the founders learn from the Greeks and Romans about public virtue? And then you just have the stunning book on what American women who were classically educated from Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren to Phyllis Wheatley, the first African-American poet, learned from the same classical sources. So give us a sense of what the founding fathers and mothers, men, and women learned from the Greeks and Romans about public virtue.
Caroline Winterer: [00:06:19] Yeah, of course. So, you know, the first thing to remember as we go back to look at what the founding generation wanted from the Greeks and Romans is, you know, we have to remember how extraordinary what they were trying to do was. You know, there had been about 2000 years of monarchies and empires that subsisted on a totally different conception of what it was that human beings owed to the polity. They owed obedience, they owed honor and they owed deference. And the American Revolution was a fundamental overturning of that. It was the first long lasting, although they didn't know it was going to be long lasting, only we know that, but they hoped it would be the first long lasting, King-less Republic for the last 2000 years. So this was, you know, a really bold, and in some senses, foolhardy experiment and it required them to completely overturned 2000 years of thinking about political science. And that's actually a term that they invented in the Federalist Papers.
The term science of politics appears there because they think that they're kind of doing an autopsy, a scientific study of the failures of the last 2000 years of monarchy. So, when they look to the founders to think about what it means to have a Republic, they find this idea of civic virtue. And for them, that is the very foundation of Republican government that distinguishes it from the kind of honor-hierarchy of mentality on which monarchies rest.
So, when they say virtue, they don't mean what the Victorians later would mean and what we tend to mean, which is kind of sexual virtue or personal restraint. They had a totally public sense of the interconnectedness between private behavior, self-abnegation in a pursuit of public ends that and the good of the Republic.
So I think that, you know, for our listeners today, the place in which we see that overlap most clearly between private virtue and public virtue isn't the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson says "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And we tend to read that and think, well, he must mean private happiness, like, I'm going to buy a BMW and I'm going to be really happy. But in fact, there's total slippage in his use of the word happiness between private happiness and public happiness. So he does mean life, liberty, and the pursuit of public happiness, which means, kind of suppressing your own individual desires in order to pursue public virtue. Which Kennedy reiterates in the 1960s, when he says, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." You know, that sticks in our minds today because it's resurrecting this, the founders' classical ideals of the Romans and the Greeks and that slippage between private virtue and public virtue.
Rosen: [00:09:54] Thank you so much for that. Carl, in your book, "the Founders and the Classics," you have a remarkable, chapter or part of a chapter, on the intellectual sources of Jefferson's understanding of the pursuit of happiness. And you begin with Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia and you take it through, the Stoics and Cicero, and then you introduce Epicurus--it's a complicated and fascinating story. Can you dis-aggregate exactly how Jefferson understood the pursuit of happiness and precisely how those Greek and Roman philosophers influenced him?
Carl Richard: [00:10:24] Yes. I mean, there, there, there are different things going on here. In the case of Jefferson, he was so philosophically inclined, not all of the founders were, but he was, and so he studied the Greek philosophers, especially, and the Roman ones as well. And he was especially fond of Epicurus. But it's a complicated thing because there's a part of Jefferson that's Epicurean, there's a part, especially in Ethics, where he's Christian. And so there are many different influences that went into that. And he's such a complicated person. In terms of the other founders, one of the things I wanted to add, so that it may be it's so obvious that we might look over it, but it's the education of the founders. This was something they started as young children, most of them, the study of Greek and Latin. We say Greek and Latin, but it was mostly Latin. And so from childhood years, they're very much impacted by these examples, especially Roman examples of civic virtue, and they come to associate themselves-- I mean these are their childhood heroes, the way a child today might worship an actor, a sports figure or someone like that. And so we find even with Washington who is not classically educated, that he associates himself and other people associate him with Cincinnatus, this person who defended the Republic and then completely resigned his dictatorial power. And, Washington more and more comes to associate himself with that in and to try to advance that and to reinforce it.
And in case of John Adams, Cicero. You know, he was a law student, Cicero was a lawyer. Adams, along with Patrick Henry, was one of the greatest orrators of the Revolution and he admired Cicero's writings of the orrator, his speeches, and so on. He studied, he memorized and he, you know, he had... once, there was a family argument when he was a young man and he got all upset and he said, I quitted the room and took up my Cicero and he started reading the speeches out loud to comfort himself. I mean, this is how closely attached they were to these figures . And in the case of Cicero, Adams, seeing himself as a latter-day Cicero wrote grows more and more powerful as time goes on. And he writes this self-pitying letter to his friend, Benjamin Rush, after he's lost the re-election bid a few years later saying, I'm just like Cicero, you know, all the parties rejected Cicero, and now all the parties are rejecting me.
And for the same reason, because we're virtuous. Where, you know, we don't bend to the faction. We don't bend to the party. We don't promote the party about the common interests. And that's why we're persecuted.
Rosen: [00:13:21] Thank you for that. And thank you for emphasizing how Cincinnatus for Washington, Cicero for Adams, Epicurious for Jefferson, each of the founders had differen inspirations, Thomas, you know, there's so many vivid stories in your books. Give us a sense of particular moments when the founding fathers that you write about turn to the classics to influence their own conduct. You have Washington famously containing his temper. Was he thinking of keto when he did that? Were there moments in Adam's or Jefferson's public life when they drew on their classical education to moderate their own passions and to try to be virtuous? Share some of your favorite stories.
Ricks: [00:14:00] Washington is so striking because, as we said, he is essentially an uneducated man. One of my favorite moments is when Thomas Pickering and John Adams have drinks one night in Philadelphia to discuss. And they discuss whether George Washington actually is illiterate.
And John Adams said, no, he wrote great letters during the war, when he was leading the army. Those were very well-written letters. And Pickering kind of laughs and says, no, they were written by that kid, Alexander Hamilton. Washington can barely write. But Washington, like a lot of bright people who did not have a formal education, I think was very good at learning through experience, through observation and reflection about experience, and I think really by the Revolution becomes a genuine critical thinker. So, well, early on, he's trying to imitate Cato, the stoic politician with the qualities of prudence, frugality, wisdom, caution. That's partly because he does have this volcanic temper and he knows he needs to learn how to contain it.
And so I think Cato becomes his model, but then he has a second model foisted on him, which is that of the Roman general Fabius, who defeats Hannibal through indirection, through maneuver, through not giving battle. This is not a natural thing for Washington as a general to do. He begins the war as a fairly conventional offensive thinker, pretty much like his British opponents. But, through the force of circumstance, he adopts a Fabian approach to war. He tries to keep his army together, but he tries to avoid major battles except when he has to give battle for a political reason or another reason that battles around Philadelphia, really, he had to show he was willing to try to protect the American capitol at Germantown and so on.
Adams, as Professor Richard said, so much models himself on Cicero, Trollope who was a good historian as well as a novelist, Trollope has a comment about Cicero that he loved to talk about his nation and he loved to talk about himself, and he did both equally as much. I think Cicero and Adams go together like that.
Adams, I think has kind of had a bit of a bubble in reputation, partly because of the David McCullough biography, followed by the HBO series. He's not this little cuddly Teddy bear that Paul Giamatti depicted. I mean, I'm really struck at one moment in a letter, Adams exults about the fact that a newspaper editor who has been critical of him is killed along with his family in a house fire.
And Adam says, basically, that's exactly what he deserved. The tremendous vanity of the man. He's the Woody Allen of the Revolutionary Generation, constantly wearing his feelings on his sleeve. And then you mentioned Jefferson, and I'm not sure that Jefferson was moderated by Epicurus, as much as given permission by Epicurious.
I think of all the founders, what strikes me about Jefferson is you have the greatest gap between his words and his actions. He talks good game about slavery, especially when he's in Paris. When he comes home, he never does anything about it. And Epicurious gives him a kind of romantic, like the romanticism, permission to privilege the heart above the head, to put passionate and feelings above reason.
Epicrious also allows him to keep his distance. Emotional distance. Part of the way to achieve happiness is to avoid pain. And I think this is actually one reason that Jefferson spent so much of his life pursuing married women. Because of all the prospects of a fun romance without any risk of becoming permanently entangled.
And dealing with Jefferson reminds me a little bit of dealing with the giant marshmallow man in Ghostbusters, the marshmallow giant. You can never really get your arms around him and he always seems to recede when you reach out to him. He's the most elusive of the founders, I think. Madison finally, of the four people I focus on in my book, I don't see any one Greek or Roman that really seems to inspire Madison.
And at the same time, Madison strikes me also as one of the first nationalists, along with Hamilton. The whole pattern of Madison's life is that he's not a man of the state. He doesn't go to William Mary, even though he's a Virginian. He goes off to Princeton. For him, the North, and the first college in America explicitly founded as a national institution, seeking to draw students from the entire seaboard and even from overseas. The first college, actually, to have a president who came from overseas, John Weatherspoon, a Scott and a political radical, who himself becomes one of the only clergymen to be much involved in the politics of the Revolution.
So four very different models. Four different approaches. I just want to add one last thing, which is one thing that really struck me, the more research I did, was how different their ancient world was from our ancient world. Our Rome and Greece are not their Rome and Greece. To them the best dramatist of the ancient world was Terrence, the Roman comic playwright that nobody reads these days, I found unreadable. Jefferson loved the Greek's Greek literature, but you don't know, see a whole... aside from a couple of examples, so like Xenophon, you don't really see a whole lot of Greek dramatists in literature in their works. They're really much more focused on Rome. So it was just a different Rome and Greece. And part of the fun for me was learning what their Rome and Greece was, as compared to ours.
Rosen: [00:20:08] Thank you so much for that. All of that. Just, completely illuminating discussion. I completely agree with you about Terrence. I saw him quoted in Jefferson's Commonplace book and tried to read his comedies and they are indeed unreadable, but Jefferson had some, he had fortitude in his reading tastes. Caroline Winterer, first of all, we have some readings from Terry Wildman who says, "Hi, Professor Winterer, just finished the American Enlightenment class with Pace University. Loved it. Thank you for your work, so important at this time." I want to ask you more about the reason-passion distinction. Abigail Adams writing to her son, John Quincy Adams, says, "ungoverned passions have been aptly compared to the boisterous ocean, which is known to produce the most terrible effect. Passions are the elements of life," she says quoting Pope's essay on reason, "but elements which are subject to the control of reason, and then who will ever candidly examine themselves and find some degree of passion and peevishness or obstinancy in their natural tempers." She's exhorting Quincy Adams to use his reason to govern his passions, to be temperate, moderate, prudent in the classical way.
And then John Quincy Adams takes her up on it and he's always in his diaries struggling with the same reason-passionate distinction. Was this something that the founders, and I'll ask you about Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren and Phillis Wheatley in particular because you write about them so well, did they self-consciously struggle with this in their moral lives and attempt to basically engage in emotional self-governance and to obtain their unreasonable passions to achieve tranquility and prudence?
Winterer: [00:21:40] Well, so the short answer to your question is yes, they did. So, you know, off to Carl. You know, the 18th century, the age of the Enlightenment is the first time when, you know, the term human nature is invented in the 18th century. And they're trying to-- as is homosapiens-- and people are really trying to understand the great question of what makes us human. And, they can't decide. They're torn between humans as these calculating machines, the rational people of the enlightenment, and yet they sense that that also driving us are these passions, that are on the one hand inspiring, because they make us, you know, take up arms in defense of things that we really feel passionate about, but they also frighten us. Because they lead to exactly what Tom was talking about, which is these frightening outbursts of anger and actually, you know, John Adams is so afraid of his own anger that he imagines that the history of Greece is a French boudoir made--this is when he comes back from France--a French boudoir with mirrors on all sides and also on the ceiling, he says, I mean, I'm just like trying to kind of picture John Adams in this crazy mirror, almost lik--but he says specifically, and he tells this to his four kids: when you are angry, you should look at yourself in that mirror and you will see your face so disfigured by anger that you will moderate your passions as a result. So, this is this really extraordinary image and the use of the history of Greece for an entirely nonpolitical purpose, right, really, a purpose of self-government. So, one of the things to go to Phyllis Wheatley, who writes, who is, just in case your listeners don't know, she's a slave in Massachusetts, her master, John Wheatley, teaches her Greek and Latin, and she writes this kind of Latinate poetry, that drives Jefferson crazy.
He singles it out for ridicule in the notes on the state of Virginia in query 14, but slavery frightens the founders because it excites their passions. And, they wrestle with the results of a post-emancipation society. They begin to imagine, what would it be like if we freed all of these slaves that excite our passion so much that engender fear in us, as Jefferson says, you know, we have the wolf by the ears.
And so, someone like Phyllis Wheatley is providing this opposite model of a slave who is utterly in control of her passions, even though for white masters, slavery and slaves themselves, excite all of these passions that frighten them. And I'll just sort of finish off here with Abigail Adams.
So, classicism provides for American women of this era, the first political language. So it's not until the 20th century that we get, you know, the definitive women having the vote in federal elections kind of political participation, but women like Abigail Adams who are not allowed to publish, you know, this is where we are in the 18th century.
We have to really imagine a very different world. Women, elite women, are learning to read and write, but they're not allowed to publish their writing. So they have a totally private civic identity. And what classicism does for them through this figure that they call the Roman matron, which is, you know, pick your favorite classical female of virtue, so they're not talking Cleopatra, you know, none of that stuff. They're talking virtuous women , the wife of Brutus, for example, named Portia. This allows them to say, okay, it's true that we can't vote because we are women. We are overly passionate, so we shouldn't have that kind of civic participation, but we can educate our sons for service to the Republic. And this is the grounds on which we will claim our civic identity. So it's through that identity that someone like Abigail Adams teaches all four of the Adams children, especially John Quincy, to learn Greek and Latin, to learn Greek and Roman history in order to become future leaders of the Republic.
Now this just, you know, Tom was talking about how unkindly John Adams was. His wife is also non-cuddly. One of my colleagues said, you know, it would have been really tough to have Abigail Adams as your mom. And I agree. The figure of the Roman matron is a pretty, kind of helicopter parent figure, but it is one that a lot of women begin to claim at this time, including, you know, Abigail signs, a bunch of letters to John Adams, as Portia--as I always tell my students, not the car--the wife of Brutus. So she signs as Portia, the wife of Brutus, in order to claim this civic identity. And that's how she sort of says to herself, I'm going to educate my kids for self-government. So when, you know, when we think just one more thing before I hand it off to Carl, when we think of the American Revolution, we think of it as a revolution of self-government, that it is, Americans governing themselves, rather than being governed by the British, but it is also a revolution in the government of the self. In and to kind of finish with your opening question, to govern the reason and the passions at the same time into this beautiful, new meld of the enlightened person who can deploy Greek and Roman history for the benefit of the new Republic.
Rosen: [00:27:35] Wow. So beautifully stated. That crucial distinction between self-government for politics and the government of the self. There's amazing stories about Abigail Adams, who did indeed sign her very stern letters, Portia. And that story about the boudoir is one that I know we will all remember. Carl, I have so much to ask you, and I think I'm going to ask you because several of our friends in the Q and A do, about the relation between the Greek and Roman influence and the influence of the Bible on the founder's conception of virtue. You've just written your new book on the founders and the Bible, and you described how Aquinas and Augustine filtered the classical virtues into the Christian ones.
And it's a big topic, of course, which you treat so definitively, the founders had different relationships with the Christian Bible and different degrees of, doctrinal observance, but talk about the similarities, the consonances that came from the classical Greeks and Romans through the Aquinas and Augustine. And then up to the 17th century thinkers like Locke and Hutchison and the Scotts who were so central to influencing the founders.
Richard: [00:28:46] Well, there's a love-hate relationship between the Christian tradition and the Classical tradition that goes all the way back to the beginning, really. And throughout every generation almost there's been this struggle of Christians, should we be studying the classics? Or are they, you know, these pagan things that we should stay away from? And most of the generations, the decision was, yes, we should study. Even though there are problems with them, some of them are a bit too lascivious from for our taste. Some of them, you know, some of the stories of the gods and goddesses of polytheism, we don't really care for.
But there's a lot of wisdom there and there's also a lot of correspondence. There's some differences, but there's a lot of correspondence between classical virtue and Christian virtue. You know, we talked about self-discipline, self-restraint. Obviously that's something that would fit with both ethical systems.
And I find it interesting that even Jefferson, who is probably more attached to classical philosophy than any of the others, then when it came to ethics, even, he said, Christianity is superior to the classical tradition. He was very emphatic about that. In fact, when he called himself a Christian, I think what he really meant was I'm a follower of Christian ethics.
You know, he, he had some real problems with the biblical doctrines, but he was very much a believer in the ethics of Christianity. And what are the differences? Well, I think one of the main differences is the doctrine of humility. Humility is not a classical virtue. Then you go back and read the Odyssey, Odysseus is always boasting about his prowess, and so on, Achilles and the Iliad boasting, you know, Cicero was charged with vanity because he was constantly boasting and it was funny that Adams tried to defend Cicero on the charges vanity, when no Roman would have even thought it was a fault. You know, that's the Christian side of Adam's trying to defend Cicero from the charge of vanity. So humility is a big Christian virtue that is not part of the classical tradition and, benevolence. You know, classical virtue was about not harming yourself and not harming others. But Christianity went beyond that and said, you actually have a duty to help others.
It's a positive thing. Positive benevolence. And Jefferson has this famous debate between his head and his heart in a letter to one of those married women he was after, Tom. I don't know why in that letter, I guess, because he was having this relationship with this woman, but when he includes this interesting, dialogue between his head and his heart, and it turns out that his head is Epicruean and his heart is Christian. And it's the heart who actually wins the argument. The Christian heart wins, saying, you know, basically, if I listen to you, head, I would never do anything benevolent. I would never help anybody. And so the Christian heart wins the argument.
Rosen: [00:31:55] Thank you for all of that. And that helps answer a question from our Q and A box about addressing the Jefferson Bible. You stress that he was Christian in his ethics. He did indeed say that Christianity was superior to the classics when it came to ethics. And in that letter, I recall being distressed to find he also said that Christianity was superior to the Jewish morals, which were kind of woefully inadequate and not accounting for benevolence, which seems unfair to me, given the injunction "love thy neighbor" as the New Testament says comes, in fact, from the Old. But thanks very much for stressing that, for him, Christianity was the most perfect source of ethics and as he considered Jesus to be one of the greatest of moral exemplars, as you say.
Ricks: [00:32:40] But he approaches the Bible with the scissors.
Rosen: [00:32:43] Just say one more word about what, because one of our attendees asked, what about the Jefferson Bible?
Bobby Dunham asks, what did Jefferson do to the Bible and what was the Jefferson Bible?
Ricks: [00:32:53] I'll defer to Carl on this.
Richard: [00:32:56] What was the question again?
Rosen: [00:32:58] Oh, just a brief-- I'll just sum it up. Bobby Dunham was asking what was the Jefferson Bible? And as Tom said, it's a attempt to take a scissors to the actual Bible, leave out the parts that Jefferson considered mystic or are based on a superstition and to focus on the ethics.
Richard: [00:33:16] Yes. He, basically, what he cut out was was actually most of the Bible. The Old Testament because he said, it's not rational for God to choose one people over others, choose the Hebrews, and he didn't like some of the eye for an eye stuff and all of that. So he threw out the whole Old Testament, he left it with just the New Testament and from the New Testament, he extracted the miracles.
Which I find very interesting because he does, he's not a complete diast in the sense that the word is often used, which is to mean that God does not intervene in the universe. He often wrote that God was behind the American Revolution, but I think the difference is he did not believe God ever worked through miracles. There was always natural causes. And so he didn't like the miracles. So he took the miracles out. And, then of course, a lot of Paul's letters because Paul is using this theology where Jesus is God. You know, he's the Trinity. Jefferson did not believe in the Trinity, he thought it was irrational. How could three be one and one, three?
And so really what he's left with and what he actually sometimes called it was the life and teachings of Jesus. So that's what he distilled it to, a narrative of Jesus's life and his ethical teachings.
Rosen: [00:34:36] Thank you. Thank you very much for that. Tom. First of all, Michael Yells says, wow, this is incredible. And he wants to, he says, if there's a Q and A, he would like Thomas Ricks to tell the story of Hamilton's challenge to Morris about greeting Washington. It's great. And then Thomas, Michael asks you to, and the other scholars, to address the effects of the enlightenment on the founders. And that picks up on a question from Dan Berger, who asks whether the American model of self-government and democracy directly or originate in classical or 18th century enlightenment thoughts. So, Tom, if you could tell that Hamilton story and then give us a sense of the distinction between the Enlightenment and the classical influences.
Ricks: [00:35:11] Well, with Professor Winterer on the screen, there is no way I'm going to answer that question. I'm going to leave it entirely to her. The story of Gouverneur Morris, as I understand his first name is pronounced, as he and Hamilton were having an argument one day about Washington, they talked about Washington a lot and Hamilton said he's not really close to anybody. He doesn't like physical closeness or emotional closeness to people and Morris said, no, no. I think, you know, he could be as social as anybody else. I've had a few drinks with him and had a grand time and Hamilton, always a manipulator and a conspirator and a stirrer up of things, Hamilton says, okay, tell you what. Next time you see Washington go up and clap him on the shoulder, in greeting, and see what happens. And Morris says, okay. And Hamilton says, if you do that, I will buy a dinner for you and me and 10 people you pick filled with good wines.
So Morris does it. He sees Washington walks up, claps him on the shoulder. Washington lifts the hand off his shoulder, steps back and stares at Morris for a full minute, and then leaves the room. And Morris says at that wine-filled dinner with Hamilton, this is not worth it. I will never do that again, even for another dinner. I think it shows the way in which Washington was so focused on the presentation of himself. Nathaniel Hawthorne famously wrote a note to himself about how Washington seems to have been born with a powdered wig on and making a bow for the world. And that goes to the point that Washington spent a life creating this public figure, this statue, that he was modeling on Cato and other Romans. By the way, the play Cato, written by Joseph Addison, was very popular in the 18th century. And supposedly was George Washington's favorite play. And there was evidence, not definitive, that Washington had it put on one night at Valley Forge. I do want to just make one note before I turn the mic over to Caroline, which is, we do need to talk about slavery a bit at some point, and especially about ancient slavery versus American slavery. Professor Winterer.
Rosen: [00:37:39] Well, thank you for introducing that important topic. And, as you generously and rightly did, I will ask Caroline to answer this question about the influence of the Enlightenment in particular on the founding and how it was distinctive from that of the classics. And then the question, Tom introduces is, of course, crucial. How does slavery fit into both the Enlightenment and the classical tradition?
Winterer: [00:38:03] Yeah. This, you know, these are wonderful questions and this is where we feel like we're sort of moving huge conceptual blocks around, because we're at a high level of abstraction, so I'll try to bring it down to kind of more manageable pieces to digest. But basically, the way to think about classicism and the Enlightenment in the 18th century is that they're mutually enabling discourses. In order to be enlightened, you have to study the classics, and in order to study the classics properly, you have to be enlightened. So what does it mean to be enlightened in the 18th century?
Now, today we use enlightened as just a, an all-purpose compliment to people. You are enlightened. But they actually had a really specific definition in the 18th century, which is helpful. The first is that, everything is getting better all the time. They invent the modern idea of progress that today is so widely believed in American society, that if you were to stand in the middle of the street and say, progress is a myth that was invented in the 18th century, people would actually become angry at you. But I'm here to tell you, progress was a myth invented in the 18th century. It displaced--and don't get mad at the Constitution Center, get mad at me--it displaced two other models of history. One is the Christian declension model of the fall from Eden in which we are all sinful human beings because of Adam and especially Eve. And the second one was the classical model of cyclical history, that there's never anything new, we always just repeat these typologies.
And the 18th century is the first time in human history that large numbers of people emancipate themselves from those two schemes. And they say, actually, no. The plot of human history is to always get better all the time. And furthermore, the second thing is that it is human reason that is going to help us to get better all the time. It's not that God has determined our sinful nature and set everything up from the get-go, before he even created the earth, it's that we as human beings have been given reason, and we can use that to create a better society for everybody. And that means learning about the other people who had a lot of reason, the Greeks and Romans, therefore we need to learn about the Greeks and Romans.
So you can see how they're kind of mutually constituted discourses, which is why Carl and I spent a lot of time in all of our books, sort of smooshing those two concepts together. But then this raises this question of slavery. So, one in every four people living in the new United States was enslaved. There were approximately 1 million slaves in 1790. There would be 4 million slaves on the eve of the American Civil War. Now, not all of our population numbers are perfect for the 18th century. So you could dispute that first number around the edges, some people would say 700,000, some people would say a little more. But suffice it to say that they were living in what the classical scholar, Moses Finley, has called a slave society, which is that slavery is the major labor force, in large portions of the country, which it was in the American South. Now, in order to understand what it meant to be a slave society, the founders turned to the other two slave societies in human history, the Greeks and the Romans.
And there, they found Aristotle who said, some people are naturally slaves, and in order to free ourselves as slave owners, for good and wise government, we have to free ourselves from toil and drudgery. And therefore slave societies create these beautiful masterclasses of great thinkers.
As the pro-slavery argument gets going in the antebellum South, they seize on Aristotle as the great defender of pro-slavery politics. Even as a counter-trend is emerging in the North, by the antebellum period, which is around 1820 to 1860, in which they begin to turn to Greece and Athens, as the first free civilizations in human history. To say, this is the root of Western democracy, this is the root of human history.
So you have people like George Bancroft in the North saying this, even as Southern white slave holders are saying, Aristotle tells us that slavery is good. So, one of the fascinating things that happens with the classical tradition by the pre-Civil War era is that, you know, it gets recruited for a holy new cause in U.S. history, which is as kind of battering rammed in the great national struggle over slavery. So just as the Romans were recruited to defend what it meant to be a good Republic in 1776, the Greeks are used as the measure for what makes a good democracy, in the antebellum period.
Rosen: [00:43:07] Fascinating, masterful summary of those important concepts of how the enlightenment filtered the Greeks and Romans and how both sides used the Greek and Roman tradition for and against slavery. Thank you so much for that. Carl, you also address the slavery question. Maybe give us some specific examples of people invoking the classical heritage to oppose slavery. And then tell us, how did it all work out? How did the framers think that the people were doing in mastering their passions and achieving self-governance and how did they think that the public officials were doing and achieving classical virtue? In other words, did they think, did the system operate as they hoped? Or were they judging it, and finding that it fell short of the classical models?
Richard: [00:43:59] Along the question of slavery, it's interesting because you go back to Aristotle. He's not talking about races. He's saying some people are superior to others. They were intellectually superior and therefore, perhaps they should be masters and the others should be slaves. This is not a racial thing at all. And of course, modern slavery was racial and, Jefferson in notes on the state of Virginia, that's when he attacks Phillis Wheatley and others, he's trying to prove that whites are intellectually superior to Blacks, but the interesting thing is that, even then he doesn't think that that really justified slavery. There's a famous letter where he, because he got some pushback from that, from notes in the state of Virginia on the that very score. A free Black person wrote to him saying, you're wrong. We're not actually inferior.
And Jefferson drew back and he said, well, it was only a hypothesis. I'm not really certain about it, but he goes on to say something very interesting. He says, even if it were true, it would not justify slavery. You said because Isaac Newton is superior to me in the intellectually doesn't mean that Isaac Newton has a right to own me.
So, Jefferson that, you know, as Tom mentioned it, has a very complex relationship with slavery. Ideologically he's opposed to it. And he doesn't even, he doesn't think that intellectual superiority, even if it's true, justifies it. On the other hand, of course, he didn't free his own slaves until his will, and then they couldn't be freed because he was in such debt that they had be sold off to, to pay that. Unlike Washington, by the way, who was so holy, you might even call him a penny pincher, that his estate was in such good shape, that he freed his slaves in his will and they were free. They didn't have to sell them off. So, I mean, the whole slavery thing is just very interesting. In terms of, Caroline mentioned the antebellum period that the abolitionists then, I think the primary resource in attacking slavery as far as a classical resource, was the natural law.
And they use that very powerfully in the modern concept of natural rights, which came from natural law. The play Antigone, which really addresses that whole issue of natural law was very popular in the antebellum period, and was studied in colleges, and so on in the original Greek because Greek became more popular to study at that in antebellum period.
But what's interesting to me about that is all the Greek and Roman philosophers who talked about natural law, none of them were abolitionists. They were not saying we should get rid of slavery in our society. And yet, what they wrote about natural law could be used very powerfully by abolitionists to support abolition.
And the other question was about restraint in whether the founders thought that that this was happening in their own society in general? No. I mean, they're all writing about this as what we should be doing. This is how we should be, but look around, you know. Adams especially was such a pessimist. He was constantly saying everything's going to hell in a hand basket, especially since I lost my reelection, then it really started going back.
Rosen: [00:47:18] Thank you for all that. Thank you for calling our attention to the centrality of Antigone, which Caroline writes abou t so powerfully in her book, which influenced the founders and mentioning Phillis Wheatley again, and I'll recommend, Henry Louis Gates' book on Phyllis Wheatley, which describes how the city of Boston actually held a trial about whether she could have written her own plays. John Hancock presided. They concluded that she did indeed write her own brilliant, verses and tongues. And as you said, racist, I think is the only word that he insisted in the notes of Virginia that they couldn't be good poems.
Ricks: [00:47:53] Can I just add here--
Rosen: [00:47:55] Please, please do. And I'll just say, noting the time, because we always, in the spirit of Seneca, keep to it, at Constitution Center formus. This is going to be the last round. So Tom, please do respond on that score as you will. And then I think I'll ask you for your closing thoughts about what do you want to leave our wrapt audience?
And then the chat box is just exploding with appreciation for all of your light and insights. What do you want to leave our audience with about what the founders can teach us about American democracy today?
Ricks: [00:48:25] Just on race-based slavery, I think it's so important to emphasize the difference between ancient slavery and American race-based slavery.
Not only was ancient slavery not race-based, there's good arguments to be made that it was a benign form of slavery. That slaves could petition the emperor over abuse in the Roman system. And also that the children are freed slaves could hold public office, which really doesn't happen in America until about the late 1960s, that the children of freed slaves actually are holding public office. By contrast in America, the Dred Scott decision, not long before the Civil War, says that Black people have no rights that the white person is bound to respect.
So it's a far different form of slavery. My final thought would be just what the founders would take away if they came back today. If you go back to what they wrote and thought, one thing that I keep on thinking about is the phrase, "the general welfare." In the Constitution, it appears twice. I think we've lost hold on the general welfare, the sense of the public good. Somehow we've let the market, I think, dominate our thinking, much more than it did that of the founders. I think they'd be shocked to see how parts of the public good, the environment, public health, education. The things that are supposed to be good for all people that we invest in, how much of that has been auctioned off or sold off to the highest bidder? So a corporation could damage the environment, at a price. And I think especially they would be shocked that corruption, as the term they would use, for the role of money in politics. I think they would find our system of politics today of campaign finance, the role of corporate donations profoundly shocking, and would say that's not at all what they intended.
Rosen: [00:50:17] Thank you so much for that Thomas Ricks. Caroline Winterer, your closing thoughts about what the Greeks and Romans can teach us about American democracy today.
Winterer: [00:50:28] Well, it's hard to talk what Tom said, so three cheers for those sentiments. You know, I spend a lot of time with the founders and looking over their shoulder, as they read the Greeks and Romans. Which, by the way, they did a lot in the original Greek and Latin, which is already kind of astonishing. What always strikes me is two qualities of mind that I think we need more today. One is a generosity of spir--that I will listen to you because I am interested in what you have to tell me. And it may be different from what I think, but I'm going to listen to you because what you are telling me is new and I can profit, in the non- market sense of that, but I can profit from learning that. And the second thing that they take is nuance. You know, they didn't follow what the Greeks and Romans did like machines. You know, we either do this or we do that, et cetera. They thought about the models and anti-models and the complexity.
And they were often very unsure of what to do. And, watching them treat these civilizations with nuance is really extraordinary to behold. So I'll leave it at that.
Rosen: [00:51:47] Wonderful. Generosity of spirit and nuance are two crucial lessons to take from the Greeks and Romans and our audience appreciates it. They're all praising each of your brilliance and says it would be wonderful if the Constitution Center could host a course on this topic and indeed, Theresa Obringer, I think will think of doing exactly that. The last world word, Carl Richard, in this superb discussion is to you. What can the Greeks and Romans teach us about American democracy today?
Richard: [00:52:18] Well, it's hard for me to top what it's just been said. I guess I would say that I think we all need models. We all need wrongly anti-models, things to avoid. We all need to learn lessons from what we've read. And I think the founders did, as Caroline said, a very good job of weaving through all that. It was always very well considered. It was not, we reject it all, we accept it all. It was, what can we learn? What can we accept? What can we reject, given the conditions that we have today? And that's the challenge for us as well. Not only in looking at the Greeks and Romans, but also in looking at the founders. You know, what can we learn from them?
What did they do that we should avoid, as well? Because they were not, as they were long thought to be, gods, they were human beings just like us. And they had to deal with problems and sometimes they did it successfully. Sometimes they were unsuccessful. And so their challenge is the same as our challenge. And our challenge is not just dealing with Greeks and Romans, but dealing with the founders and dealing with our collective past.
Rosen: [00:53:31] Thank you so much, Thomas Ricks, Caroline Winterer, and Carl Richard, for an exhilarating and light-filled discussion. These founders were inspired by the Greeks and Romans injunction to all of us, to use our powers of reason to explore the truth and achieve the wisdom that only setting aside our selfish passengers can achieve. And that's exactly what we've done in this wonderful discussion. Thanks to all of our thousand plus listeners who have taken an hour in the middle of their busy days, because they are hungry to grow in wisdom and to reason together. And it is so moving to all of us at the Constitution Center to be able to host these meaningful discussions, so that all of us can grow in wisdom together.
I do hope we'll convene on this topic, and I'm so grateful to our panelists, Thomas, Caroline and Carl. Thank you again, for joining. Thanks friends in the audience, and we'll look forward to seeing you again soon. Thank you.
McDermott: [00:54:34] This episode was produced by me, Jackie McDermott, along with Jon Guerra and Lana Ulrich. It was engineered by David Stotts and Greg Sheckler. Please rate, review, and subscribe to Live at the National Constitution Center on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen and join us back here next week.
On behalf of the National Constitution Center. I'm Jackie McDermott. .