Here is an excerpt from the introduction to CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY AND THE POLITICS OF AMERICA: FROM GEORGE WASHINGTON TO GEORGE W. BUSH (published by Baylor University Press). My thanks to Michael Meckler for permission to post this excerpt.
Although retired from public office after leaving the presidency in 1809, Thomas Jefferson continued keenly to follow political news that reached his home at Monticello. In December 1819, Jefferson was increasingly troubled by the conflict in Congress over whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a state where slavery was permitted. The 76-year-old statesman had long since resumed a regular correspondence with his predecessor and one-time rival, John Adams. Now in the crisis over the Missouri question, Jefferson wrote to Adams of his concerns that the issue of slavery would tear the still young nation asunder.
Jefferson’s letter also contained musings over the correspondence of the Roman orator Cicero. Cicero, too, had lived in tumultuous times, witnessing the collapse of the Roman republic, Julius Caesar’s rise to absolute power, and the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s own assassination. Yet Jefferson was hesitant to draw too many similarities between the Roman and American republics.
“When the enthusiasm however kindled by Cicero’s pen and principles,” wrote Jefferson, “subsides into cool reflection, I ask myself What was that government which the virtues of Cicero were so zealous to restore, and the ambition of Caesar to subvert? And if Caesar had been as virtuous as he was daring and sagacious, what could he, even in the plenitude of his usurped power have done to lead his fellow citizens into good government? I do not say restore it, because they never had it, from the rape of the Sabines to the ravages of the Caesars.”
The 84-year-old Adams agreed with Jefferson about the nature of the Roman republic. Concerning the Romans, Adams wrote in reply, “I never could discover that they possessed much Virtue, or real Liberty there. Patricians were in general griping Usurers and Tyrannical Creditors in all ages. Pride, Strength and Courage were all the Virtues that composed their National Characters. A few of their Nobles, effecting simplicity frugality and Piety, perhaps really possessing them, acquired Popularity amongst the Plebeians and extended the power and Dominions of the Republic and advanced in Glory till Riches and Luxury came in, sat like an incubus on the Republic, victamque ulcissitur orbem.”
The Latin phrase with which Adams ended this section of his letter was taken, with not the best memory of grammar and syntax, from a line in the sixth satire of the Roman poet Juvenal, luxuria incubuit victumque ulciscitur orbem (“Luxury has rested upon and avenged a conquered world.”). Throughout this letter Adams expressed a dark concern that the hard work that resulted in prosperity in turn created luxury and moral decay. This pessimism extended even to the American republic’s own future.
“I am sometimes Cassandra enough to dream,” Adams wrote in the paragraph preceding his just described judgment on the Romans, “that another Hamilton, another Burr might rend this mighty Fabric in twain, or perhaps into a leash, and few more choice Spirits of the same Stamp, might produce as many Nations in North America as there are in Europe.”
The joining in a single sentence of Cassandra, the unheeded Trojan prophetess of doom from ancient literature, with the names of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr demonstrates how integral classical antiquity was to the foundation and interpretation of the governing principles of the United States. The concerns over tensions tearing at the United States in 1819 naturally evoked contemplation of the tensions that destroyed the polities — both real and mythic — of the ancient Mediterranean.