Saturday, July 02, 2005

American Independence Day

First, I'd like to apologise for neglecting Canadian Independence Day yesterday, but I know very little about Canadian history.

Secondly, yes, I'm going to talk about American Independence on July 2nd in a Classics blog.

John Adams wrote, on July 3rd (the whole of which can be found on The Massachusetts Historical Society's webpage:

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.—

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not.—I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.—Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

He believed July 2nd, the day the 2nd Continental Congress voted for the Declaration of Independence, would be celebrated as the day of American Independence. He got everything else right, so I like to be contrary to the rest of the country and celebrate American Independence on July 2nd.

Of course, what does this have to do with Classics? In my opinion? Everything. The Founders were so steeped in the Classical tradition that they lived, ate, and breathed it. Abigail Adams often signed her letters to John as "Portia," Brutus' wife. Practically all the Founders strove to be Cicero. John Dickinson, contrary to his portrayal in the musical 1776, fought for American rights (although, he was opposed to actually declaring independence) and wrote in 1768:

I would beg Leave to ask whether any People in any Age or Country ever defended and preserved their Liberty from the Encroachment of Power without suffering present Inconveniences. The Roman People suffered themselves to be defeated by their Enemies, rather than submit to the Tyranny of the Nobles.

That is just one of many quotations I could pull from various Founders in which they looked back to the Romans and the Greeks for inspiration and support.

It has become my observation that writing about the Founders almost inevitably leads you to the Classics. Most of the books I've read on them are so heavily influenced by the Classics, whether or not the author intends it as such. The Classics were so much a part of the world of Revolutionary America, that modern authors cannot help but address the Classics. A good example of this is David McCullough (particularly, his book John Adams), who said in an interview found on NEH:

One of the regrets of my life is that I did not study Latin. I'm absolutely convinced, the more I understand these eighteenth-century people, that it was that grounding in Greek and Latin that gave them their sense of the classic virtues: the classic ideals of honor, virtue, the good society, and their historic examples of what they could try to live up to.

Mind you, he said this without any prompting. The Founders' lives really were steeped in the Classical tradition.

Anyway, for good books on this subject, I recommend The Founders and the Classics by Carl J. Richard, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn (not as explicitly focused on the Classics, obviously, but it probably gives a less biased sense of its impact), and almost any biography of a Founder--particularly McCullough's, John Adams. Joseph Ellis' books are a wonderful read also.

The Adams/Jefferson/Franklin information is easy to find. If anyone, by any chance, is looking for information on John Dickinson, I've actually written a paper on him and the Classics and have a decent list of sources.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always like to read the Federalist Papers in my ancient history and politics courses to demonstrate to students how imprtant understanding Athenian democracy is to understanding our own society.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Glaukôpis said...


8:54 PM  

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