Ancient America: Classical Influences on the Political and Ideological Development of the United States

Classical Pseudonyms and the Founding Generation

It is clear that the founding generation utilized ancient exempla throughout their speeches, pamphlets, letters, and debates advocating either the ratification or rejection of the proposed United States Constitution. Pulling their material primarily from historical writers and moralists, the colonists looked to the past in order to plan for the future and to receive guidance on the best form of government to employ. Not only did the founding generation utilize and learn from the examples provided by ancient Greece and Rome, but classical influences are also able to be found in the pseudonyms used by the writers of the pamphlets and letters published throughout the colonial period. These pseudonyms provided the writer not only with anonymity, but also a way by which to characterize the specific argument that was being made.

According to Livy in his history of Rome, Lucius Junius Brutus was named one of the first consuls after freeing Rome from the tyrannical, monarchial rule of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Duo consules inde comitiis centuriatis a praefecto urbis ex commentariis Ser. Tulli creati, L. Iunius Brutus et L. Tarquinius Collatinus, 1.60). Livy characterizes Brutus as the liberator, the one responsible for freeing Rome from her tyrannical oppressors and paving the way for the birth of the Roman Republic. With the publication of his first essay on October 18, 1787, “Brutus” was representing himself to his fellow citizens as the individual who was going to free them from the tyrannical rule that was proposed by the Constitution. In his essays, Brutus advocated against the ratification of the Constitution and a single unified government. One government could not effectively rule over the vast territory of the United States, and one central polity would naturally become king-like. When Robert Yates chose the pseudonym of “Brutus,” he purposefully characterized himself as the one who was going to protect the American people from the threat posed by the Constitution.

John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison published their Federalist papers under the pseudonymPublius,” identifying themselves as Publius Valerius (Publicola), whom Plutarch claims Lucius Brutus approached first for help in the revolution against Tarquin Superbus (καὶ Λεύκιος Βροῦτος ἁπτόμενος τῶν πραγμάτων τῆς μεταβολῆς ἐπὶ πρῶτον ἦλθε τὸν Οὐαλλέριον καὶ χρησάμενος αὐτῷ προθυμοτάτω συνεξέβαλε τοὺς βασιλεῖς, Publ., 1.3-4). In contrast to the arguments that Brutus made in his essays, Publius argued for the ratification of the proposed Constitution and the need for a strong central government.

Robert Yates and the writers of the Federalist used the names of historical Romans who both fought to expel the kings from Rome and vowed to always protect their citizens from tyrannical, monarchial rule. However, Publius and Brutus found themselves on opposing sides in an America that had, also, just defeated the monarchial government of Britain. In their writings, both vowed to do the same thing—protect the American people from the rule of kings. For Publius, the only way to ensure that America would never again be under the rule of a monarchy was to develop and establish a unified, central government and no longer allow the Articles of Confederation to be in effect. Brutus, on the other hand, argued that the government proposed by the new Constitution was the new king whom the colonists needed to fear.

Despite resting on opposite sides during the debates of the Constitution, the figures of both Brutus and Publius were used not only in order to characterize their respective arguments, but also to characterize the overall situation in which the colonists found themselves. Like the Romans, they were oppressed by a monarchy and fought successfully to expel it from the American colonies. Like Brutus and Publius, the founding generation was given the task of developing a new republic, one that would forever denounce the rule of the king and fight against tyranny.

John Dickinson, in a series of letters that were published in 1788, signed his writings as “Fabius,” employing the identity of Fabius Maximus. During the war with Hannibal, Plutarch tells us, Fabius was calm, rational, and was not intimidated by the Carthaginian nor his army. Instead, he employed well-thought-out tactics that allowed him to ultimately defeat Hannibal. Plutarch states (Fab., II.4-5):

Φάβιον δὲ τὰ μὲν σημεῖα, καίπερ ἁπτόμενα πολλῶν, ἧττον ὑπέθραττε διὰ τὴν ἀλογίαν· τὴν δ᾽ὀλιγότητα τῶν πολεμίων καὶ τὴν ἀχρηματίαν πυνθανόμενος καρτερεῖν παρεκάλει τοὺς Ῥωμαίους καὶ μὴ μάχεσθαι πρὸς ἄνθρωπον ἐπ᾽αὐτῷ τούτῳ διὰ πολλῶν ἀγώνον ἠσκημένῃ στρατιᾷ χρώμενον.

“But Fabius also was less troubled by the omens, which took hold of many because of irrationality; having learned that there were few enemies and that they lacked resources, he ordered the Romans to be patient and not to fight against a man who was supplied with an army that had been trained on account of many contests for this very circumstance”.

Fabius was rational and thought carefully about his course of action against Hannibal. By signing his letters as Fabius, Dickinson characterizes himself as sensible and his argument in support of the ratification of the Constitution as one that is well thought out. Similar to the use of the pseudonyms of “Publius” and “Brutus,” Dickinson’s pseudonym works to characterize the situation in which he and his fellow supporters of the Constitution find themselves. They are confronted with an enemy, the anti-Federalists, who object to a strong central government. However, the anti-Federalists are few in number compared to those who support the Constitution’s ratification and their resources are limited. By way of his letters, Fabius indirectly informs his fellow defenders that they must be patient and not readily engage in confrontation with the opposers of the Constitution. Instead, with their continued use of rational deliberation and argumentation, they will ultimately conquer their enemy.

Eran Shalev claims, “After the Revolution, antiquity was helpful in the process of constructing viable republican identities and as a means of envisioning the infant republic on a continuum of a republican tradition” (Shalev 163). The use of classical pseudonyms allowed the founding generation to use a familiar history as a means by which to speak about their current situation; it provided them a manner by which to conceptualize their own reality. Furthermore, the careful selection of pseudonyms made by the founding generation illustrated those virtues and characteristics that were to be desired and striven for by every citizen of the new American republic.