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

Classical Education in the Early American Republic

Education in the early American Republic was deeply rooted in antiquity. Based on the traditional model of the European curriculum, the study of ancient Greek and Latin grammar and the reading of primary texts occupied a good portion of the days of white males who were fortunate enough to receive an education (Bederman 4). As Meyer Reinhold states, “The dominance of classical education was preserved by the force of tradition, the influence of clergymen in the governance of schools and colleges, and the social status attaching to classical education” (Reinhold 221). Because the learning of Greek and Latin was—and continues to be—a time consuming feat, it was only those individuals whose family could afford for their child to spend their time studying the ancient languages that received an education. Therefore, because of its elitist nature, with the classical education naturally came a higher social status. Of the fifty-six men who debated the Declaration of Independence at the Continental Congress, twenty-seven had received some amount of higher education, and out of the thirty-nine men who signed the Constitution, twenty-three had earned a college degree (Bederman 7).

While Classics constituted a large portion of the educational system employed throughout the American colonies, there were limitations to the classical scholarship that could be carried out. On the one hand, Richard M. Gummere makes the argument that the classical sources that were available in the colonies were not read in translation but in the original Latin or Greek. He states, “Most of the Convention delegates were at home in Latin, and some in Greek” (Gummere 4). Because of their proficiency, they did not have to rely on English translations. In contrast, David J. Bederman argues that the colonists did, in fact, have to rely on English translations, not because of a lack of necessary philological knowledge but because the available editions were often corrupt (Bederman 13). Alongside textual corruption, the available editions of the Greek and Latin texts often omitted those passages that were seen by members of the colonies to be morally corrupting or to be promoting a polytheistic religious ideology and subsequently going against the monotheistic religion practiced by most colonists.1 The colonists’ understanding of the classical world was not complete due to the corruption of the editions and the sources having been purposefully edited to adhere to their religious beliefs and practices. Bederman describes the classical sources and their relationship with the colonists in the following manner: “The classics were what they were: a common body of material, commonly used, or misused, by educated men for their own purposes” (Bederman 14).

As previously stated, the classical curriculum employed in the primary and secondary schools, and in the colleges and universities established throughout the colonies, was adopted from the traditional European curriculum. It was not originally conceived by the colonists, but it was utilized by them due to its being a point of familiarity, and in order to show their former oppressors that they too were educated, elite, sophisticated, and—most importantly—they were not inferior. However, not everyone in the colonies used the classical model for their educational purposes. For example, the Quaker communities opted for an education that taught “practical subjects” and focused on the grammar of the English language, as opposed to languages which were no longer spoken (Reinhold 222). The Puritans, also, feared that a classical education would diminish the superiority of their own religious teachings and would result in the moral decline of the people (Reinhold 221).

As was previously touched upon, there did exist an air of elitism that was attached to the classical education that the colonists of the upper classes received. One had to be able not only to afford the cost of schooling, but also to devote substantial amounts of time to the learning of ancient Greek and Latin, time which could have been utilized for more financially profitable endeavors. Even when a student reached the university, their education continued to be rooted in the study of antiquity. Questioning the necessity of learning the grammar of dead languages, during the early eighteenth century and post-American Revolution there were those colonists who began to argue that the laborious learning of both Greek and Latin was no longer pragmatic, and that this curriculum did not allow education for all. Instead, they advocated for vocational training and the study of subjects that were deemed useful, such as the English language. Reinhold argues, “Despite the continuity and strength of the classical tradition in colonial America, the widespread faith in education among all classes of the population raised questions about the value of a classical education for all students” (Reinhold 222). The life of every individual did not lie on the same trajectory, nor did everyone reside in the upper social classes that allowed them the luxury to learn Greek and Latin. As a result, there existed a growing concern for those students who needed an education but would not profit from the learning of the classical languages. Therefore, many began calling for the complete elimination of Classics’ prominent role at the head of the school curriculum and its replacement with useful subjects.

To replace the classical education, some colonists supported one that was more utilitarian. As Reinhold claims, in 1749 Benjamin Franklin called for the “liberalization of the curriculum,” and promoted the usefulness of the study of modern foreign languages as opposed to those which were no longer spoken (Reinhold 224). At this time, many of the classical texts were available in English translation; therefore, there no longer seemed to be a need for the study of Greek and Latin. However, Franklin promoted the discontinuing of the classical education model despite having taught himself and his son Latin. Stanley M. Burstein argues that Franklin “read classical literature in translation, formed his own literary style on classical models, drew on the works of moralists such as Xenophon, Seneca and Plutarch for his ethical theories, and wrongly boasted that his 1744 edition of James Logan’s translation of Cicero’s De Senecute (On Old Age) was the first classical translation produced in the new world” (Burstein 31). The fact that many classical texts were widely available in English translation served as a basis for the argument that it would be more useful to study the English language before one studied Latin and Greek. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson— despite his own classical education and affinity for the classics—decided to eliminate the study of Greek and Latin from the curriculum at the College of William and Mary. According to Reinhold, this discontinuing of classical language study was not because Jefferson did not approve of the classical education, but because “the essentials of the classical languages were expected to be taught in the grammar schools of Virginia, and because the income was needed to provide instructors of scientific and other subjects” (Reinhold 226). In seeming contradiction to his removal of Greek and Latin study at the College of William of Mary, in 1826, Jefferson required proficiency exams in both Latin and Greek for admission to the University of Virginia, examinations that became one of the determining factors for one’s admission to the universities and colleges in the colonies.

Benjamin Rush

Of all those who disapproved of the classical curriculum, Benjamin Rush proved to be most outspoken concerning the need for a more utilitarian and inclusive approach to education. Rush argued that the grueling study of Greek and Latin caused many boys to drop out of school, causing them to engage in behavior that tarnished their status in society and morality; he also took up the argument rooted in religion, namely that the polytheism and the nature of the classical divinities were morally degenerating forces to which students should not be exposed (Reinhold 229-230). However—like Franklin—Rush himself was well educated in the classics and did not seem to disapprove of their study in its entirety.

While the boisterous arguments of those who opposed an education rooted in the classical tradition failed at first to effect change, it is clear that this desire for a change in the curriculum coincided with the development of a new American identity. The classical education model served as a link between the American colonies and the English from whom they were trying to separate. The establishing of a new method and approach to education would only assist the colonists in their development of a unique identity that was separate from their English oppressors. Furthermore, the classical education was not for every student, and in response to a call for the education of all, there were some colonists who insisted on more vocational training and education in the sciences. However, it would not be until the 1820s, when “population growth, industrialization, and the upsurge of a strong middle class” resulted in the establishment of “free, utilitarian public high schools,” that the traditional classical model of education would meet its first effective challenge (Reinhold 234). The classical model persisted despite the constant attacks and questioning of its place in the education system, and it continued to serve as a social identity for the American colonists. The acquiring of a classical education identified the white American male as sophisticated and civilized, and it served as a means of separation between the American colonists and the Native Americans whom the colonists, with the bias of their time, saw as their antithesis—crude and savage (Burstein 32-33). It also projected to their European neighbors a message saying that the American colonists were not inferior.

1 See Bederman pp. 13.