Ancient America: The Influences of Greece and Rome on the Political and Ideological Development of the United States

A Need for Informed and Careful Analysis

U.S. National Archives


In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton writes: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” It is here that Hamilton, under the pseudonym Publius, rhetorically questions whether he and his fellow revolutionaries are able to create and build a unified, energetic, and moderate government, one that will be able to endure a variety of challenges by means of careful deliberation of both history and their own experiences.

The American revolutionaries set out to build a new nation, one with a government that was to be radically different from the rule that they were denouncing. In his 1939 article, “Classical Influences on the American Revolution,” Charles F. Mullett argues that the colonists needed to seek historical exempla in order to support the necessity of their decision to separate from Great Britain and establish their own independence. This required that they scour “two thousand years of history; and as a result Greek and Roman elements were found which contributed to the formulation of the ideology by which the colonists justified their opposition to British policy and their claim to greater freedom” (Mullett 92). Not only did these ancient sources provide models of government to both replicate and use as a cautionary tale, but Mullett claims that they also served the purpose of “window-dressing” one’s letter, speech, or newspaper publication; for these references to the classical past bolstered one’s argument. According to Richard M. Gummere in his 1962 article, “The Classical Ancestry of the United States Constitution,” classical Greek and Roman sources were never more frequently used “than during the preliminary discussions, the debates on the Constitution, the ratifying conventions, the Federalist papers and such publications as John Dickinson’s Fabius Letters” (Gummere 3). However, in opposition to Mullett’s claim, it appears that these ancient texts were not simply “window-dressings” but instead provided a necessary basis which enabled the Americans to begin developing not only a new form of government, but also a new unique identity. Hamilton, his fellow federalist writers, and revolutionaries knew that this new government, this new identity, could be successfully crafted only if they, as a unified body, performed careful and thorough study of the historical past.

John Jay, in Federalist No. 3, seems to answer Hamilton’s previous question in Federalist No. 1 by characterizing the Americans as people who do, in fact, carefully deliberate and reflect upon the past in order to make proper decisions. He opens his paper with the following statement: “It is not a new observation that the people of any country (if, like the Americans, intelligent and well-informed) seldom adopt and steadily persevere for many years an erroneous opinion respecting their interests. That consideration naturally tends to create great respect for the high opinion which the people of America have so long and uniformly entertained of the importance of their continuing firmly united under one federal government, vested with sufficient powers for all general and national purposes. The more attentively I consider and investigate the reasons which appear to have given birth to this opinion, the more I become convinced that they are cogent and conclusive.”

Jay and his fellow citizens are both “intelligent and well-informed.” Therefore, they do not have to “depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Instead, they are able to utilize their education and the intelligence that it has cultivated in order to make the correct decision in ratifying the Constitution of the United States.

It must also be noted that it was not solely the supporters of the Constitution who called for careful and thoughtful deliberation on the historical past. The anti-Federalists continually urged the American people to perform a close examination of the proposed Constitution and past historical examples of government in order to make a well-informed decision on whether to ratify the document. An individual under the pseudonym of “John DeWitt” asked in an essay that was first published on October 22, 1787, “Are we to adopt this Government, without an examination?” According to DeWitt, the Federalists were encouraging the people to hastily vote in favor of the Constitution without fully understanding what the document said or the consequences that might follow if this new form of government were to be put into place. It was imperative that the Constitution “undergo a candid and strict examination.” At the forefront of a second essay published on October 27, 1787, DeWitt proclaimed: “In my last address upon the proceedings of the Federal Convention, I endeavored to convince you of the importance of the subject, that it required a cool, dispassionate examination, and a thorough investigation, previous to its adoption—that it was not a mere revision and amendment of our first Confederation, but a compleat System for the future government of the United States, and I may now add in preference to, and in exclusion of, all other heretofore adopted.—It is not TEMPORARY, but in its nature, PERPETUAL.”

Patrick Henry, in his speech to the Virginia Convention of 1788 (first published on June 7 of the same year), states that, on the surface, the Constitution looks beautiful; however, when one is able to examine it closely, when one is able to fully understand its contents, its features are actually quite ugly: “This constitution is said to have beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, Sir, they appear to me horridly frightful: Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints towards monarchy: And does not this raise indignation in the breast of every American?”

Throughout this website it is shown that both the Federalists and the anti-Federalists repeatedly called for a close and careful examination of both the historical past and their present in order to make well-informed decisions. The speeches, pamphlets, and letters of the American founders provide detailed examples from the classical past for their listeners and readers, requiring them to partake in the careful study necessary for them to make the proper decision. The revolutionaries—both those who supported the Constitution and those who opposed its ratification—knew that the decision that was to be made at the Constitutional Convention would impact not only the current citizens of the United States, but its future generations. They actively utilized the past in order to plan for the future.