In early 1976, the Department of Art at Brown University sponsored an exhibition, entitled "The Classical Spirit in American Portraiture." One of the oil paintings in this exhibition was Erastus Salisbury Field's very modest portrait, A Girl in Blue (see illustration), a title which gives no hint of any association with Antiquity! The painting was completed about 1840 and it is so bland and unexceptional that the viewer would not be inclined to give it a second glance, even though the painting is rather large, measuring 5 feet by 3.5 feet. In the center of this painting, there stands quite erect, a young teenaged girl, formally attired in a full length blue gown, hence the title of the painting. The gown has a frilly white collar and the girl also is attired in elbow length, evening gloves. She is of serious countenance, and quite homely. Behind her right elbow is a plain, four-legged table with only an untitled book upon it, and with a reclining house cat under it. To the side of the young girl's left elbow is a curved, padded chair, but it is obscured by shadows. The rug at her feet is embroidered with a circle and star design, but it also does not captivate the eye of the viewer. The background of the painting is likewise plain. If there ever was held a competition for the most modest, nondescript painting of a young girl in early American art, Field's A Girl in Blue would capture the first prize. The portrait simply has no eye-catching feature, no sharply contrasted color scheme, and no truly identifiable details, with one exception. In the absolute dead center of the portrait, the young girl holds a book, with its title clearly and deliberately visible. The book is A Juvenile Plutarch.1
To a certain extent, Field's A Girl in Blue speaks volumes about Plutarch in early America. For his otherwise anonymous young woman dressed in blue, Field identifies Plutarch as her badge of literacy. The portrait presents Plutarch as if he were an assertion of the girl's claim to literary respectability and as if Plutarch were a symbolical shield to ward off the numerous violent attacks which were being made upon the efficacy of the classical curriculum or the reading of classical authors in the early nineteenth century.2 The prominence given to the name of Plutarch in Field's A Girl in Blue is certainly, on the one hand, a fitting symbol in any discussion of Plutarch, but, on the other hand, this portrait is unfortunately, a distortion of the truth. It displays Plutarch in a stage center position whereas, in truth, for the nearly two hundred years of American literary history preceding Field's painting, Plutarch was one of the classical authors who stood only on the periphery of direct influence. Plutarch was simply not in the same league with a Cicero, or Tully, as he was known in the 18th century, or with a Virgil, or a Livy, or a Horace, or an Ovid, or a Homer, or a Sallust, since all of these classical authors were studied in the early American Latin grammar school or college. Plutarch's name is simply not found among the list of authors studied in the final two years of the Latin grammar school, when the study of Greek was begun, nor do we find him mentioned in the private and personal letters of those 18th century Americans who recommended specific classical authors to the attention of ambitious young grammar school students. John Adams, for example, was quite explicit in his recommendation of a select group of classical authors, other than Plutarch, when he wrote to his son John Quincy on May 18, 1781:
In Company with Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, you will learn Wisdom
and Virtue. You will see
them represented, with all the Charms which Language and Imagination can exhibit, and Vice and
Folly painted in all their Deformity and Horror.3
In my own research of the classical curriculum of the early American Latin grammar school I have yet to find one reference to the study of Plutarch's Greek text at that level. Furthermore, although Homer, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates and Demosthenes were the mainstays of the Greek authors studied at the collegiate level in early America, neither Plutarch' s "Moralia" nor his "Lives" cracked the starting lineup of Greek authors studied at that level, even at King's College, today's Columbia, which had, perhaps, the most ambitious classical curriculum of all American colleges in the 18th century.5
If Plutarch's Greek text was not one of the staples of early American classical education, the question might be asked, "how then did the early American population become familiar with Plutarch?" The answer to our question can be found in the writings of one of America's most famous founding fathers, namely Benjamin Franklin, who had one or, at most, two years of formal education at the Boston Latin Grammar school. He did not have the extensive formal classical education of a Jefferson, Adams or Madison. Consequently, he should be looked upon, especially in his youth, as representative of the average, non-formally educated, early American. However, even in his household of narrow means, there was available a copy of the omni-present Plutarch's Lives," as Franklin himself tells us in his Autobiography:
The long and the short of the matter is that in the 18th century in America, Plutarch, especially his "Lives," was a commonly read classical author, but an author known almost exclusively in English translation. Certainly, knowledge of Plutarch acquired in such a way might be disconcerting to classical language "purists," but two hundred years ago our forefathers were more concerned with the merit of the message than with the purity of the text source. For the sake of completing the record we should add that as late as the first half of the nineteenth century, the Greek text of Plutarch's "Lives" was apparently the exclusive property of classical language buffs or of language professors, as, for example, of a George Long, Professor of Ancient Languages at the University of Virginia from 1825 to 1828, who translated the Greek text of Plutarch and published select lives.9
Two hundred years ago Plutarch was truly an author or guide for ordinary men, but the total extent to which he was read in English translation cannot be accurately determined. Furthermore, apparently not every life told by Plutarch was well known, or, at least, not well documented in early America. There were a few lives, however, that were cited with remarkable regularity and perhaps none moreso than the life of Cato the Younger.
The popularity of this particular life was a most natural choice in America - especially as the 18th century progressed, since it was during the second half of the 1700s that Great Britain, at least in the eyes of her subjects on the shores of America, acted more and more as a tyrant and military strongman. From the early 1760s on, England was commonly referred to as "Caesar" by her American colonists. It was only natural, then, that Caesar's traditional "foil," namely Cato, be warmly adopted by Americans as a symbol of resistance against what they perceived as a contemporary version of "Caesarism." Cato's name, for example, became an extremely popular pseudonym in the newspapers and political pamphlets of early America, especially in the second half of the 18th century. The use of such a pseudonym immediately identified the author as a staunch patriot, as a courageous resistor of tyranny, as a lover of liberty and equality under law, and as a conscientious and dedicated citizen or public official. All of these connotations would have been immediately recognizable to the general reading public because of its long-standing familiarity with Plutarch's "Life of Cato the Younger." From his reading of the Dryden translation of Plutarch's "Cato," the American colonist would have formed a picture of Cato as the ultimate patriot - i.e., of an individual, not born into a family of affluence and its accompanying power, but into modest circumstances. Cato would have symbolized an individual who held the respect of both the high and mighty as well as of the low and downtrodden in society because he was blessed with an extraordinary sense of justice and commitment to liberty under constitutional law. Futhermore, in Cato the American colonist witnessed a political officeholder uncorrupted by the lure of illicit wealth, as well as a common citizen, courageous enough, perhaps fanatically so, to resist the illegal encroachments upon the constitutional rights and privileges of his fellow common citizens, as exercised by some of the most famous, and most powerful, figures of Roman history. In the eyes of the 18th century American, Cato was the moral conscience of a politically degenerate society and to resist tyranny, to right wrong, and to preserve his own prized sense of personal liberty, he willingly paid the ultimate price, death. The appeal of Cato the Younger to an 18th century American is all the more understandable if we recall that one of the fundamental objectives of the earliest years of the grammar school education at that time was the mastery of Latin grammar, through the study of numerous moral maxims. Consequently, the 18th century American would have read the following moral maxim from Plutarch's Life of Cato with great relish: "For there is no virtue, the honor and credit for which procures a man more odium than that of justice; and this, because more than any other, it acquires a man power and authority among the common people."10 Furthermore, in the second half of an early American's grammar school education, one of the curricular objectives was to instill in the young student the concept of devotion to church and to state, and Cicero's de officiis naturally was a text universally studied to reinforce these concepts. For any student who had been so carefully introduced to the responsibilities of both a citizen and a magistrate in a republic, surely the following assessment by Plutarch of Cato's service, as a Roman magistrate would have been most warmly received:
When writing this play, Addison took deliberate pains to remove any dedicatory remarks or individual lines which could be interpreted as politically motivated. In fact, Addison's sole intention in writing his "Cato" was to present a play which would delight and instruct in the realm of manners and character building.13 Certainly, Addison would have been flattered to know that by 1776 his "Cato" had been presented 226 times in London alone and that it had been translated into French, Italian, Spanish and even Latin during the 18th century, but he also would have been horrified to learn that his "Cato" had elicited the most heated political sentiments of both Whigs and Tories whose outbursts often interrupted performances of the play itself.14
In the American colonies we first find mention of Addison's "Cato" in Williamsburg, where on September 10, 1736 the young men of the college there presented the "Cato" and advertised it as a "most ponderous tragedy, with a succession of declamatory scenes, elegantly written, perfectly moral, and correctly in nature."15 It is quite obvious from this description that the young men of the College of William and Mary had not yet been politically tainted in 1736 with the revolutionary spirit and that they looked upon the "Cato" as Addison had intended it to be interpreted. By the middle of the 18th century, Addison's "Cato" was one perhaps the most popular of all dramas being performed in colonial America, especially in Philadelphia where theater going was a social event. Professional acting companies, some native and some on tour from Europe, also began to appear at this time in the colonies, especially in Philadelphia. Several of these companies selected Addison's "Cato" as the sole drama in its repertoire, others, especially those on tour from Europe, where forced to immediately add this play to its inventory when they learned of its widespread popularity in the colonies.16
By the late 1760s the "Cato" had assumed significant political proportions in the American colonies, although some might argue that the politicizing process had already begun in the late 1750s on some of the college campuses, where, for example, the fiery Boston patriot, Dr. Joseph Warren, was responsible for a clandestine presentation of the "Cato" at Harvard. How ominous that presentation was since Dr. Warren, like Cato, lost his life in the cause of liberty at the battle of Bunker Hill!
The applicability of the central theme of Addison's "Cato" to the patriotic fervor in America and the inspirational attractiveness of many of its lines were not lost sight of by early American newspaper and Almanac publishers. They generously quoted from the play in their respective media - especially from the 1750s on. But the actual seed of politically interpreting this play, I believe, can be traced to a much earlier date and to a much different literary source. That source was a collection of weekly essays written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in London from late 1720 through September of 1722. These essays were shortly afterwards serialized and they became immediately popular in the American colonies, as early as the mid 1720s. The most frequent themes of these essays were public corruption, tyranny, the evils of dictatorial government, public morality, societal privilege, freedom of speech, and, finally, personal liberty. With themes like these, it is not be surprising to learn that Trenchard and Gordon labeled their essays "Cato's Letters."17
Since most of the historical references alluded to in these "Letters" came from Tacitus and Sallust, we would be justified in saying that their label of "Cato" was a deliberate misuse of a classical pseudonym. What the use of this pseudonym did do, however, was to propel the name of Cato into the arena of controversial political arguments. Also, because of the popularity of Trenchard and Gordon's strongly politicized "Cato's Letters" in America for fifty years prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, it was only natural that Addison's play "Cato" would eventually assume a similar level of political interpretation - especially so from 1760 on, when the political crisis heated up. The play bubbled with political and moral maxims that undoubtedly rallied the hearts and souls of its American audiences, as, for example, Cato's exhortation in the second act:
That Addison's "Cato" was performed explicitly for the purpose of rousing patriotic fervor among Americans in the midst of their revolutionary crisis with England is not just the wild speculation of modern scholarship. Rather, that exactly this purpose was intended is clearly stated by a Jonathan Sewall who wrote an epilogue for a 1778 performance of Addison's "Cato" at the Bow Street Theater in Portsmouth, New Hampshire:20
*A lecture presented by Prof. William J. Ziobro, Holy Cross College, Worcester, MA
1. See Catalogue of The Classical Spirit in American Portraiture, an Exhibition sponsored by the Department of Art, Brown University, 1976, p.60.
2 For an excellent discussion of those factors which were undermining the influence of the classical tradition, and especially societal confidence in a classical education, in the first half of the nineteenth century in America, see Edwin Miles, "The Young American Nation and the Classical World," Journal of the History of Ideas 35 (1 974 ) 2 5 9 -2 74 .
3L.H. Butterfield and M. Friedlander,
eds., Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 4 (The Belknap Press of
University Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts 1973) p. 117.
4Merrill D. Peterson, The Portable Thomas Jefferson (The Viking Press; New York 1975) pp. 380-83.
5William J. Ziobro, Latin in
Early America, unpublished monograph, Introduction to Part II, "Latin
in the Early American
College," pp. 7-13.
6L. Jessie Lemisch, Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (New American Library; New York 1961) p.26.
7Samuel Eliot Morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, 2nd ed. (Cornell University Press; Ithaca, New York 1961) pp.129, 138, 146.
8Marcus McCorison (ed.), The 1764 Catalogue of the Redwood Library Company at Newport, Rhode Island (Yale University Press; New Haven, Connecticut 1965) p. 80.
9Herbert B. Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, (U.S.Bureau of education Circular of Information NO. 1, 1888; Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1888) p. 218.
10John Dryden (trans.), Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (The Modern Library; New York) p.94.3.
11Dryden, Plutarch, p.928.
12See Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Most Prominent English Poets; with Critical Observations on Their Works, Vol. II (London, 1781) pp.348-70.
13Frederic M. Litto, "Addison's Cato in the Colonies," William and Mary Quarterly," 23 (1966) p. 433.
14See Ahmad Gunny, "Some Eighteenth-Century
Reactions to Plays on the Life of Cato," British Journal for Eighteenth-Century
Studies 4 (1981) 54-65 for examples of criticism, literary and dramatic,
of Addison's "Cato" in
England and on the European continent, and for mention of the numerous translations of this play.
15Hugh F. Rankin, The Theater in Colonial America (The University of North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill 1965) p.19.
16See Rankin, p.31, and Litto, p. 438.
17For an excellent discussion of
"Cato's Letters," see Jacobson (ed.) , The English Libertarian Heritage,
Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.; New York 1965) , especially the Introduction, pp. xvii-lxvii.
18See H.C. Montgomery, "Washington the Stoic," Classical Journal 31 (1936) 271-73 and "Addison's Cato and George Washington," Classical Journal 55 (1960) 210-12.
19See Paul Leicester Ford, Washington and the Theatre (The Dunlap Society; New York 1899) p.26 for the description of Addison's "Cato" at Valley Forge. Colonel William Bradford writes to his sister Rachel on May 14, 1778: "Besides these, the Theatre is opened - Last Monday Cato was performed before a very numerous and Spendid audience. His Excellency & Lady, Lord Sterling, The Countess & Kitty, & Mrs. Green were part of the Assembly. The Scenery was in Taste - & the performance admirable. Col. George did his part to admiration - he made an excellent die (as they say) - Pray, heaven, he dont die in earnest - for yesterday he was seized with the pleurisy & lies extremely ill - If the enemy does not retire from Philadelphia soon, our Theatrical amusement will continue."
20Laurence Hutton and William Carey
(eds.) , Occasional Addresses (The Dunlap Society; New York 1890)
of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.
21For an excellent discussion of Jefferson's classical architecture, see William H. Pierson, Jr., American Buildings and Their Architects: The Colonial and Neoclassical Styles (Anchor Books; Garden City, New York 1976) pp. 286-334. Also, Fiske Kimball, "Thomas Jefferson and the First Monument of the Classical Revival in America," Journal of American Institute of Architects, Vol. 3, (1915) pp.371-81, 421-33, 473-91.
22For Jefferson's reference to Wythe as Cato, see Dumas Malone, Jefferson the, Virginian (Little, Brown and Company; Boston 1948) pp.68-9; for some of Warren's eulogies, see Richard Frothingham, Life and Times of Joseph Warren (Little, Brown and Company; Boston 1865) pp.536-42.
23See Moses Coit Tyler, Patrick
Henry (Houghton Mifflin Company; The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts