Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America

Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America

PETER S. ONUF
NICHOLAS P. COLE
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 328
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wrr2s
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America
    Book Description:

    Thomas Jefferson read Latin and Greek authors throughout his life and wrote movingly about his love of the ancient texts, which he thought should be at the core of America's curriculum. Yet at the same time, Jefferson warned his countrymen not to look to the ancient world for modern lessons and deplored many of the ways his peers used classical authors to address contemporary questions. As a result, the contribution of the ancient world to the thought of America's most classically educated Founding Father remains difficult to assess.

    This volume brings together historians of political thought with classicists and historians of art and culture to find new approaches to the difficult questions raised by America's classical heritage. The essays explore the classical contribution to different aspects of Jefferson's thought and taste, as well as examining the significance of the ancient world to America in a broader historical context. The diverse interests and methodologies of the contributors suggest new ways of approaching one of the most prominent and contested of the traditions that helped create America's revolutionary republicanism.

    Contributors:Gordon S. Wood, Brown University * Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia * Michael P. Zuckert, University of Notre Dame * Caroline Winterer, Stanford University * Richard Guy Wilson, University of Virginia * Maurie D. McInnis, University of Virginia * Nicholas P. Cole, University of Oxford * Peter Thompson, University of Oxford * Eran Shalev, Haifa University * Paul A. Rahe, Hillsdale College * Jennifer T. Roberts, City University of New York, Graduate Center * Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, University of Virginia

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3182-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

    This volume comprises a selection of essays presented at a conference held at the American Academy in Rome on October 13–14, 2008, at the Villa Aurelia, with its sweeping views of the city. The conference aimed to be both interdisciplinary in approach and also to be international in the composition of the speakers. The papers were circulated in advance to allow more time for discussion, which essentially began the editorial process, resulting in a sharply focused result.

    However, although the essays cohere well, they offer competing views rather than a consensus. They are a far cry from the wishes...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    It is no accident that that the first conference in many years to bring to group of scholars working on American interest in the classical world at the beginning of American Independence should focus on Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s own views on the value of classical learning were complex. Scholars have long recognized that the classics were important to Jefferson in very many ways, even as he proclaimed their utter irrelevance in others. The same might be said for the broader interest of his generation in the texts of ancient authors and the history of the ancient states. Characterizing the significance...

  5. Prologue: The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution
    (pp. 11-32)
    GORDON S. WOOD

    The late eighteenth century in the Atlantic world has been called “the age of the democratic revolution.” It might better be called “the age of the republican revolution.” For it was republicanism and republicanism principles, not democracy, that brought down the ancient monarchies.¹

    It was an astonishing moment in Western history, and we are living with its effects still. Monarchies that had existed for centuries were suddenly over-thrown and replaced by new republican governments. Since republican governments have become so natural and normal for most of the world in the early twentieth-first century, it is hard to recover the surprisingly...

  6. Ancients, Moderns, and the Progress of Mankind: Thomas Jefferson’s Classical World
    (pp. 35-55)
    PETER S. ONUF

    Thomas jefferson’s lifelong love of the ancient languages was extraordinary, even by the standards of a self-consciously neoclassical age that linked genteel social status to classical learning. Reading “the Latin & Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury,” Jefferson wrote Joseph Priestley in 1800, the year in which a great electoral “revolution” would redeem the new republic and make him president.¹ One of the great joys of his retirement years was to return to the classics. The philosophers—particularly Epicurus and the Stoic Epictetus—provided “delights” and “consolations” for an old man whose “business” it was “to beguile...

  7. Thomas Jefferson and Natural Morality: Classical Moral Theory, Moral Sense, and Rights
    (pp. 56-77)
    MICHAEL P. ZUCKERT

    Thomas jefferson’s ambivalence toward the classical world and its legacy is well known. He admired and imitated (Renaissance versions of) classical architecture. He frequently expressed admiration for classical moral theory. And in his invocation of the moral sense, he endorsed an understanding of morality that traced its roots back to antiquity. Frances Hutcheson’sAn Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue,the opening statement of moral sense philosophy, described itself in its subtitle as a work “in which . . . the Ideas of Moral Good and Evil are establish’d, according to the Sentiments of the...

  8. Classical Taste at Monticello: The Case of Thomas Jefferson’s Daughter and Granddaughters
    (pp. 78-98)
    CAROLINE WINTERER

    A visitor to Monticello after 1805 could be forgiven for bypassing the mastodon bones and Indian artifacts in the entry hall and heading straight for the fireplace. For there lay a white marble statue of Ariadne, sleeping the way Venus bathes: that is, for the viewer’s pleasure. Stretched out as though in the middle of a dream, she has thrown a lovely arm over her head; her clinging robes have fallen away to reveal a perfect left breast.¹ Monticello was practically a museum of classical artifacts—“I would call it Olympus, and Jove its occupant,” wrote one visitor—but even...

  9. Thomas Jefferson’s Classical Architecture: An American Agenda
    (pp. 99-127)
    RICHARD GUY WILSON

    Thomas jefferson’s employment of classical forms and details was part of his agenda to reform American architecture. He stated the problem inNotes on the State of Virginia:“The genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions over this land. . . . The first principles of the art are unknown, and there exists scarcely a model among us sufficiently chaste to give an idea of them.” Writing in the early 1780s just as Independence had been achieved, Jefferson bemoaned that “a workman could scarcely be found here capable of drawing an order.”¹ A few years later, Jefferson explained...

  10. George Washington: Cincinnatus or Marcus Aurelius?
    (pp. 128-168)
    MAURIE D. MCINNIS

    In richmond, Virginia, there are two monuments to George Washington: the marble sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon commissioned in the 1780s (fig. 1), and the bronze equestrian monument by Thomas Crawford commissioned in the 1850s (fig. 2). Both are intimately associated with Thomas Jefferson’s state capitol building; the Houdon stands inside the building’s Rotunda, and Crawford’s monument rises to a height of sixty feet just outside. Both sculptural projects were obviously intended to memorialize George Washington, but both do so by drawing upon entirely different classical precedents, and thus serve to immortalize distinct messages. During the years immediately following the American...

  11. America and Ancient and Modern Europe
    (pp. 171-192)
    NICHOLAS P. COLE

    Both thomas jefferson and his political rival John Adams passed much of their political retirement reading and reflecting on the classics. In his first letter to Adams after many years, Jefferson wrote that he had taken his leave of politics. “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid, and I find myself much happier.”¹ Their correspondence did not long shy away from politics, however, and in June 1813 Jefferson wrote a long letter reflecting on the controversies of their active political careers. The letter was as conciliatory as any that Jefferson wrote, and...

  12. Aristotle and King Alfred in America
    (pp. 193-218)
    PETER THOMPSON

    In an age and in a country whose political thinkers were haunted by cyclical theories of history, Jefferson is remarkable for his belief in a stadial view of human development. Prompted in large part by their understanding of the classical tradition, most of Jefferson’s contemporaries believed that human creations, such as republics, possessed a life cycle in which they rose, declined, and eventually fell.¹ When positing the impossibility of maintaining slavery within the United States and the inevitability of a race war if freed slaves remained in America, Jefferson conjured the most apocalyptic of falls. But in respect of America’s...

  13. Thomas Jefferson’s Classical Silence, 1774–1776: Historical Consciousness and Roman History in the Revolutionary South
    (pp. 219-247)
    ERAN SHALEV

    The ruling class of eighteenth-century Virginia was immersed in the culture and history of ancient Greece and Rome. Gentlemen planters, at ease in the world of classical erudition, gathered in their libraries impressive collections of the works of the ancient world, read—often in the original—the standard works of the classical canon, and typically presented a broad, often deep, familiarity with things classical.¹ Thomas Jefferson, educated at the College of William and Mary in a strict classical curriculum, could arguably be seen as the quintessential exemplar of late colonial Virginia’s classical tradition. As a schoolboy, reading in the original...

  14. Cicero and the Classical Republican Legacy in America
    (pp. 248-264)
    PAUL A. R AHE

    If, in part, our aim is to trace the influence of classical republicanism on the American founding,¹ it might serve a useful purpose for us to examine in detail a single, telling case—that of Marcus Tullius Cicero. He was, after all, the most prolific of the ancient Roman writers. He was, moreover, the most prominent and principled defender of Roman republicanism and the Roman author most often read and cited in Europe and America in and before the eighteenth century, and his writings were the chief conduit for the debates concerning the nature and purpose of self-government that had...

  15. Pericles in America: The Founding Era and Beyond
    (pp. 265-300)
    JENNIFER T. ROBERTS

    In plato’sRepublic,Socrates, seeking a definition of justice, suggested that it might help in the search for justice in the individual to seek it in a larger organism, the state. An odd rhetorical conceit, perhaps, but my contribution to this volume actually involves an inverted version of the same strategy: to explore the interaction of American political thought and Greek history by looking at it through the prism of attitudes toward a single individual, the fifth-century Athenian statesman Pericles. My essay traces images of Pericles from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries as they changed to suit circumstances. Why...

  16. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 301-304)
  17. Index
    (pp. 305-314)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 315-316)