Andrew George, '99
James Madison
The Classical Tradition 
in the 
Federalist Papers

    A thoughtful consideration of the impact of classical antiquity upon the founding of the American Republic reveals that a complex synthesis of classical, modern, philosophical, and rational thought was applied to form the basis for a system of government which reflected the combined political wisdom of thousands of years of human experience. That republican government, the most deliberately and purposefully designed in the history of mankind, was brought to fruition through a degree of contemplation and reflection which defies simplistic theories of interpretation, and which belies the assertions of those who would seek to ascribe its creation to any one factor. In order to ascertain an accurate understanding of those influences which culminated in the United States Constitution, one must move beyond the superficial and weigh carefully the words of those primarily responsible for its design. In so doing, one will be led to apprehend the direct linkage between classical antiquity and the American political system; this, however, cannot be explained accurately in terms of simple imitation, but rather as a synthesis of classical thought and modern political philosophy applied to the exigencies of a modern democratic republic.

    The methodology to be employed here will be to focus on the person of James Madison, traditionally afforded the accolade "Father of the American Constitution," who would later become the fourth President of the United States. Madison serves as an excellent prism through which the aforementioned synthesis of thought can be understood. More than any other individual, Madison is the very personification of the intellectual forces which converged in American politics at the end of the eighteenth-century. While writers such as Bernard Bailyn have posited that the classics in colonial America were "illustrative, not determinative of thought," an examination of Madison’s life and educational background will do much both to challenge this notion, and to explain Madison’s unique ability to act as the primary architect of a system of government which successfully amalgamates the best political and philosophical thought of the ages. 1 Moreover, despite George Kennedy’s admonition that "it is easy for the classicist to fall victim to his own enthusiasm and … proclaim the classics as the essential seminal factor in the birth of the American Republic," Madison’s own writings indicate that the classics were, indeed, an integral factor in the creation of the new republic. 2

    Born in Virginia on March 16, 1751, James Madison was the first of twelve children.3 Although an Anglican, Madison in 1769 would attend the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), founded twenty three years earlier by Scottish Presbyterians.4 After passing exams in English, Latin, Greek, and mathematics in his freshman year, the young Madison completed his four-year degree in two years.5 During this crucial period in Madison’s development, he became the favorite student of the College’s president, The Reverend John Witherspoon.6 Utilizing a curriculum that was at once both classical and Christian, Witherspoon instructed Madison in a moral philosophy which would profoundly affect him for the remainder of his life: "Madison read the Scottish luminaries—Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Lord Kames, and others—who affirmed the natural reasonableness and benevolence of mankind. The persistent Scottish strain in Madison’s education, curiously mixing Calvinistic Presbyterianism with Enlightenment liberalism, shaped a mental outlook in which the recognition of man’s potentiality for virtuous freedom never lost sight of his potentiality for evil."7 A thorough understanding of this outlook will equip the student of Madison’s works to appreciate why he, perhaps uniquely, possessed the accouterments requisite to "Father" the American Constitution.

Calvinist Influence

    It will be helpful to begin by considering some of the essential tenets of those forces which molded Madison’s thought. As indicated previously, Madison was a member of the Church of England who, nonetheless, elected to attain his letters at the staunchly Calvinist College of New Jersey. While any attempt to ascribe Madison’s intellectual development to any one factor to the exclusion of all others would be an inaccurate over-simplification, certain influences with which he came into contact warrant specific consideration. Because Calvinist theology animated both Presbyterian higher education in general, and Princeton’s academic philosophy as reflected in its curriculum in particular during Madison’s formative years, a familiarity with Calvinism is necessary in order to fully understand his scholarly formation. As Calvinism seeks to meld theology and political philosophy, it may be reasonably extrapolated that Madison, while not himself a Calvinist, nonetheless acquired during his undergraduate years the training, influenced by Calvinism, that would later enable him to glean and hybridize the best political thought of the ages. Madison’s ability to read classical and modern political philosophy with what might be termed a quasi-Calvinist cognizance of the need to check the evils inherent in human nature finds tangible manifestation in the Federalist Papers, wherein he describes and advocates the plan for a fractured government, based on a separation of powers, which seeks to preclude usurpation of that governing power by any individual person or entity. A brief overview of the rudiments of Calvinism will provide a framework of reference for understanding the environment in which Madison received his formal education, and the political ramifications this training would subsequently have.

    In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, his magnum opus completed in 1559, John Calvin delineates what has been described by H. Henry Meeter, an authority on Calvin, as "an all-comprehensive system of thought, including views on politics, society, and art as well as theology."8 Beginning with the fundamental principle of "God’s self-existence (aseitas)," Calvin’s system is predicated, according to Meeter, upon "the absolute sovereignty of God in the natural order and the moral spheres."9 Furthermore, Meeter maintains, man is by nature sinful, "totally depraved, unable to do any good, and inclined to all wickedness. Either through external compulsion as of governments, or of fear of punishment or public opinion, or selfish considerations … sinful man is led by God’s common grace to do things which his evil-inclined heart would not otherwise do. These restraints and the promptings to do good things for the good of human society are not due to any good in natural man but to the common grace of God."10 Moreover, God chooses out of humanity, by his sovereign grace alone, those to whom he will grant salvation. This doctrinal system allows for no righteousness whatsoever on the part of man, other than that conferred upon him by God. Calvinism is often summarized by the acronym T.U.L.I.P., denoting Total Depravity (the absolute, unequivocal evil of human nature), Unconditional Election (the elect being those whom God has chosen), Limited Atonement (atonement limited to efficacy only for the elect), Irresistible Grace (God chooses whom he will, man does not choose God; therefore, the actions of man are not efficacious in any way in determining whether one is, or is not, among the elect), and Perseverance (salvation, once conferred by God by his eternal, solemn decree, can never be lost for any reason).

    It follows logically, and for the purposes of this paper it is important to note, that this theological system of belief manifests itself in a concrete political philosophy as well. In Calvinist political thought, "all authority is by the grace of God."11 Hence, "when the relation between rulers and citizens is as it ought to be, both authority and liberty receive their due rights … unbridled authority on the part of rulers leads to autocracy, despotism, and tyranny; unbridled liberty on the part of citizens generates into license, revolution, and anarchy."12 Government, properly constituted according to Calvinist principles, consists in rulers operating as God’s stewards, never regnum gratia dei or droit divin," and in citizens fully obeying their rulers "out of the highest motives, for God’s sake."13

    In contemplating how this belief system contributed to Madison’s development, one also needs to recognize that the figure of his mentor, John Witherspoon, looms large. Witherspoon—at once a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, Calvinist, and strong proponent of the classics—provides a paradigm for discerning how Madison developed the political, philosophical, and classical gestalt he would employ in the debates surrounding the creation of the American Constitution.14 Witherspoon’s eclectic approach to education provides an important key to understanding Madison’s ability to successfully amalgamate classical and modern political theory into a practicable plan for a stable democratic republic. Stated another way, Witherspoon, the very embodiment of Calvinist thought, nevertheless maintained a broad intellectual focus by which he blended seemingly discordant philosophical and theological concepts into a coherent, effective educational program. The enormous impact that this approach had on Madison places Witherspoon among the most critical influences in Madison’s intellectual life; for this reason, an examination of Witherspoon will be instrumental in discerning the foundations of Madison’s extraordinary abilities.

Witherspoon’s Influence

    After attending Edinburgh, where he studied "Greek, Latin, Euclid, logic, rhetoric, …     Aristotle, … Longinus, … plus moral and natural philosophy, John Witherspoon took his degree in 1739 with a Latin thesis [entitled] De Mentis Immortalitate … After a series of parish promotions and some hot arguments with ‘moderates’ of the Scottish Church, he accepted the Princeton Presidency."15 During his tenure as president from 1768 to 1794, Witherspoon, "more than any other American educator, … made Greek and Latin a functional part of the nation’s literary style, as well as a vital element of training for both pulpit and public service."16 At his first commencement address, Witherspoon declared that "the remains of the ancients are the standard of taste," and writing under the pseudonym ‘Epaminondas’ asserted that "a man is not, even at this time, called or considered a scholar unless he is acquainted in some degree with the ancient languages, particularly Greek and Latin."17 Making it clear that the classics were not, in his judgment, esoteric, but practical by nature, Witherspoon deemed classical learning "useful not only for purposes of literature and oratory, but also ‘to fit young men for serving their country in public stations.’"18 Thus, Witherspoon the theologian expounded a pragmatic prescription for education which was both Christian and secular in its benefits.

    Given Witherspoon’s Calvinistic theological beliefs, the question immediately arises as to how he managed to reconcile those beliefs with the study of secular philosophy. In answering this question, one can gain insight into how Witherspoon’s methodology might have influenced the formation of James Madison’s thought processes. In Witherspoon’s view, a comprehensive liberal education was not only not contrary to his religious convictions, but invaluable in terms of the Christian’s ability to defend Christianity from secular forces. Thus, "Witherspoon agreed with such New England Puritans as Cotton Mather … that ‘since the gospel’s enemies make their attack by means of human learning, it is necessary that some should be ready to meet them and unravel the subtilty [sic] with which they lie in wait.’"19 Accordingly, Witherspoon lavishes praise on "Cicero, Plato, and others as helpful corollaries of the Scriptures," and openly laments that Cicero’s De natura deorum is not of divine inspiration."20 Witherspoon’s methodology, and the success with which he employed it in the practical sphere, are summed up well in the following paragraph by Richard Gummere, worth quoting at length:

"What he desired was the spoudaiotes (earnestness) of classical thinkers, studied and then applied to contemporary life. He so directed the minds of his undergraduates: ‘Some states are formed to subsist by sobriety and parsimony, as the Lacedaemonians … Public spirit in others, as in Greeece, ancient Rome, and Britain.’ His discussions touch on all the issues of the day—divine rights, natural rights, compact, and other cardinal principles. He aims at a national standard which would prevent the fate of the Amphictyons and the Greek city-states. For all of Witherspoon’s theological emphasis, it is interesting to note that, from 1769 to 1794, political theses prevailed and that the majority of Princeton alumni took part in public service … besides Madison … his graduates, with considerable duplication of office holding, numbered ten cabinet officers, thirty-nine congressmen, twenty-one senators, twelve governors, thirty judges (three on the Supreme Court), and fifty members of state legislatures. In this case, the classical tradition was outstandingly effective … in lasting influence, Witherspoon was exceptional."21
Madison’s Political Objective

    Armed with the august educational background described above, Witherspoon’s protégé Madison was more than adequately prepared to assume his role as chief architect of the new nation’s Constitution. Madison’s immediate tasks were clear: first, to construct a blueprint for a democratic republican form of government that would be acceptable to the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, and, second, to secure ratification of the ensuing proposed Constitution by the states. The broader project envisioned by Madison, however, was to produce at the same time a definitive treatise on the American system of government which would serve to edify future generations about democratic republicanism. The very fact that Madison was able to achieve both of these objectives via the same medium—The Federalist Papers—provides a key to understanding how widespread knowledge of the classics was presupposed by Madison and his fellow authors. Given the reverence with which The Federalist is viewed today, it is almost difficult to believe that that work, termed by Thomas Jefferson "the best commentary on the principles of government, which was ever written," made its debut as a collection of essays scattered in the New York press as political propaganda.22 That The Federalist accomplished its dual purpose of persuading both common public opinion, and the minds of the more educated classes, indicates the largely homogeneous nature of learning on the part of an otherwise diverse audience. Moreover, that The Federalist is replete with references to the classics leads to the logical conclusion that knowledge of classical antiquity was widespread.

Classical Influences in The Federalist Papers

    While The Federalist Papers were written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, for the purposes of this paper an examination limited to the sections of the work undertaken by Madison will be adequate to provide one with a firm grasp of the degree to which Madison’s knowledge of ancient history impacted the creation of the American Republic. In Federalist XIV, Madison sets forth, in language worth quoting at length, a question which serves as a good synopsis of his mindset regarding the matter of the importance of the classics to the American people:

"Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the objections of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their experience?"23     The point to be discerned from this and similar quotes is that Madison, realizing the tremendous value of ancient history, nonetheless refuses to succumb to the temptation to seize upon any one ancient form of government as a model; he seeks, rather, to glean the best of the wisdom of the ancients as worthy objects for emulation while, at the same time, applying reason in order not to repeat the errors of the past. This mindset is apparent throughout The Federalist, as Madison repeatedly makes reference to the ancients, in relation both to their strengths and their weaknesses. Armed with copies "of Polybius and sets of ancient authors" shipped to him from Paris by Thomas Jefferson, Madison grapples with the thorny issues of the proposed government, employing ancient sources as both positive and negative paradigms, as the occasions required.24 Madison thus counters the objections of those who point to the example of Ancient Greece as an indication of the unworkability of an enduring republic, explaining in Federalist XIV why such an argument is fallacious. Because Greece was a democracy that was often confused with a republic, Madison explains that while a democracy such as that in Greece required that the people be in assembly in order to conduct the business of the state, a republic required only the assembly of representatives to function adequately. Madison thus incorporates both democratic and republican principles into his government formula. Using this concept as a point of departure, Madison launches a brilliant defense of the envisioned federal structure, with its attendant benefits, which, he maintains, is aptly suited to both the geographical and political exigencies of America.25 The issue of republics existing in large geographical areas would become the subject of heated debate, as will become clear later, when Madison’s interpretation of Montesquieu will be examined in detail.

    In Federalist XXXVIII, Madison again deftly counters the objections of Anti-Federalists seeking to employ a fallacious interpretation of ancient history in order to assail the proposed Constitution. Asserting that of those ancient governments, which were formed by a process of deliberation, all, without exception, undertaken by single individuals such as Lycurgus, Romulus, and Achaeus, Madison actually appeals to an absence of classical precedent to advance his argument.26 Although the ancient governments created by these individuals did, indeed, make egregious errors which should serve as admonitions to the Constitutional Convention, Madison dissects objections to the plan based on these mistakes by indicating that there was no historical precedent for a government deliberately designed by a convention of men to which one could look for experience. Such objections are invalid because they are unproved by "actual trial" and were based on prospective errors stemming from a lack of "antecedent experience."27 Whereas Anti-Federalists sought to essentially manufacture a negative precedent from antiquity, Madison routs their position through use of his superior knowledge of ancient history, and his greater abilities of interpretation

    Shifting to a positive utilization of ancient history, Madison cites, in Federalist XLI, the Achaean League and the Lycian Confederacy as proofs that, with the amount of sovereignty retained by the states under the proposed Constitution, the likelihood was far greater that the union might devolve into faction or disunity than into "one consolidated government."28 The federal government, after all, depended upon the state governments regarding the election of both the president and senators, whereas states were not likewise dependent upon the national government.29 Further, "the powers delegated … to the federal government are few and defined. Those … to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite."30 Moreover, where the federal government was conceived of as being primarily occupied with external concerns, state governments would be free to deal with internal matters."31

    In attempting to allay the concerns of those who feared the proposed Constitution’s plan for a strong senate, Madison employs both a negative and positive appeal to examples from antiquity to further his proposal. In Federalist LXIII, Madison maintains that had the Athenians had a stable senate, it would have acted as "a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions," and spared them much grief.32 In addition, Carthage had, by the beginning of the second Punic War, found that its senate had lost almost all of its power; this should reassure Americans, as the people, united with the House of Representatives, could effectively thwart any attempted usurpation of power by the senate.33 On the positive side, Madison holds that a well-ordered senate blends "stability with liberty."34 Furthermore, citing the examples of Rome, Sparta, and again Carthage, he asserts that history indicates "no long-lived republic which had not a senate."35 Significantly, Madison punctuates this discussion with an acknowledgment that ancient governments were defective in terms of representation, but then qualifies this admission by positing that this is not true to the degree commonly supposed. In an indication of the carefully balanced, informed approach which he is taking in making use of ancient history, Madison follows this discussion with another telling quote:

I am not unaware of the circumstances which distinguish the American from other popular governments, as well ancient as modern; and which render extreme circumspection from the one case to the other. But after allowing due weight to this consideration, it may still be maintained, that there are many points of similitude which render these examples as not unworthy of our attention.36     This review of those portions of the Federalist Papers which were both written by Madison, and which contain major references to classical antiquity, illustrates the significance of the classics in the founding of the American Republic.37 As has been shown, Madison repeatedly resorted to the classical tradition as a means by which to communicate his political message. And yet, as noted previously, Madison often turned to antiquity as a negative paradigm for political society. In order to understand this clever, eclectic approach, one must consider how Madison made use of disparate philosophies to arrive at a coherent whole. At the Constitutional Convention, for example, both Federalists and Anti-Federalists sought to make use of the works of Montesquieu in support of their respective cases; he was, in fact, the most often-quoted philosopher at the Convention. Montesquieu provides another key to understanding Madison’s political thought, as he, like Madison, made use of the classical tradition while at once seeking to modify, or in some cases even undermine, some of its basic tenets. An examination of Montesquieu’s political philosophy will demonstrate his relevance both to Madison’s development and to the republic he would largely design.
Madison, Montesquieu, and Political Philosophy

    Montesquieu’s most famous work, The Spirit of the Laws, printed in 1748, was preceded by a lesser-known book entitled Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline.38 As translator David Lowenthal notes in his introduction, this work: "may have been the first (and certainly was one of the first) of all efforts to comprehend the whole span of Roman history, and among such efforts it still has few if any peers—even after a century and a half of the scientific historiography Montesquieu’s own writings did so much to engender, and which has now grown disdainful of its philosophic forbears."39 Unlike Machiavelli, who believed "that the moral virtue of classical philosophy had no basis in human nature, … Montesquieu seems intent on preserving the dignity of moral virtue even while refusing to follow the classics in making it the direct object of political life."40 In this regard, Montesquieu serves to correct Machiavelli by attempting to preserve the best aspects of the ancient conception of virtue within the context of the modern philosophical era.41 Montesquieu’s dual approach to modern political philosophy, and use of the classics, make him a forerunner of Madison’s own unique approach to philosophy.

    A thoughtful consideration of The Spirit of the Laws makes plain the author’s intention to educate the thoughtful reader as to how political life might be improved within the parameters of a given society’s political, social, and philosophical history. Montesquieu delineates a political philosophy in which he maintains that the chief objective of government is not, as the ancients held, the inculcation of virtue, but the maintenance of peace, freedom, and security based on a sober recognition of man’s tendency toward greed and self-interest. Moreover, Montesquieu seizes upon these very vices as the bases for a prescription for government in which self-interest and the interests of society are conflated to the benefit of all. Accordingly, a central tenet of Montesquieu’s political philosophy is the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial functions.42 This concept, which was contrived in order to check the potential for the usurpation of power by any one branch, found tangible manifestation in the United States Constitution.

    Another area in which Montesquieu’s political philosophy coincides with Madison’s strategy is with respect to the issue of religion. In Montesquieu’s discussion of religion, he at once criticizes it and acknowledges that it has a proper role. After decrying religion’s historical intolerance and interference with trade, he nonetheless notes that "when the state is satisfied with the established religion, [it ought] not to allow the establishment of another."43 The framers of the Constitution, indeed, proscribed any establishment of a state religion, relying on the competition among a multiplicity of sects to check dominance by any single denomination. Montesquieu gives a glimpse of his true religious beliefs when he writes that "a more certain way to attack religion is by favor, by the comforts of life, by the hope of fortune, not by what reminds one of it, but by what leads one to indifference … General rule: in the matter of changing religion, invitations are stronger than penalties."44 In this seemingly impious observation, Montesquieu is making the point that the fruits of trade, i.e. wealth and its attendant benefits, are useful for mollifying the tendency toward religious extremism. Madison, always a proponent of religious freedom and toleration, essentially employed this Montesquieuian attitude with respect to the new nation’s political stance toward religion.

    The propensity of philosophers to ostensibly communicate one message while obscuring their true intention is manifested in Montesquieu as well. Given the volatile relationship between philosophy and the political community, the mission of the political philosopher is to write in such a way that important political truths are communicated to the few perspicacious individuals able to apply them wisely, while at the same time concealing them from the many, for whom they would be harmful. Madison, as student of Montesquieu, was well aware of this concept, and was adept at making use of Montesquieu in furthering his project of reconciling classical and modern political philosophy. In this sense, Montesquieu served Madison as a crucial link in the chain of thought starting with the Greeks and Romans, moving through the modern political philosophers, and ultimately reaching the American Founders. An excellent example of Madison’s keen understanding of Montesquieu’s political philosophy is apparent when the crucial issue of republics in large geographical areas is considered. While "conventional political theory from Aristotle to Montesquieu had contended that republics could operate only in small geographical areas" according to James Smith, the editor of the correspondence between Jefferson and Madison, Smith asserts that "Madison turned the traditional theory upside down."45 Smith’s understanding of Montesquieu regarding this issue reflects the generally-held view of contemporary scholarship. A careful examination of the actual text of The Spirit of the Laws, however, suggests that Madison had a more accurate understanding of Montesquieu’s true intention than either his own contemporaries, or subsequent interpretations. Montesquieu does, indeed, initially indicate in Book IX of The Spirit of the Laws that small geographical areas are requisite to republics.46 What is easily overlooked, however, is the fact that sets this notion aside in the remainder of the book.47 Hence, in Book XI, Montesquieu notes that:

In a free state, every man, considered to have a free soul, should be governed by himself, the people as a body should have legislative power; but, as this is impossible in large states and is subject to many drawbacks in small ones, the people must have their representatives do all that they themselves cannot do. One knows the needs of one’s town better than those of other towns, and one judges the abilities of one’s neighbors better than that of one’s other compatriots. Therefore, members of the legislative body must not be drawn from the body of the nation at large; it is proper for the inhabitants of each principle town to choose a representative from it. the great advantage of representatives is that they are able to discuss public business. The people are not at all appropriate for such discussions; this forms one of the great drawbacks of democracy.48     In this description, Montesquieu displays that he, even before Madison, possessed an extraordinary ability to balance and synthesize classical and modern political thought into a practicable formula for an enduring republic. That Madison rightly perceived Montesquieu’s intention testifies both to Madison’s abilities of discernment, and to the Constitution’s indebtedness to both men’s outstanding use of classical knowledge in relation to politics. As suggested earlier, Madison, influenced by a thorough classical education obtained in the atmosphere of the staunchly Calvinist Princeton, brought together diverse strands of thought to design what is probably the most purposefully and deliberately planned government in the history of mankind. Having now examined in some detail the forces in Madison’s life which enabled him to make unique use of the classics in the philosophical arena, the question logically arises as to how the profound writings of this gifted man were so widely understood by the masses, as well as by the formally-educated classes.
The Classics and the Masses in Colonial America

    Thomas Jefferson, in a letter written in 1785, admonished Peter Carr to read Greek history "in the original, and not in translations."49 Some forty years later, Jefferson remarked that "in all cases I prefer original authors to compilers," and listed several ancient works which should "be read in their originals if understood, and in translations if not."50 Although, as Meyer Reinhold observes, "this was an ideal program of reading in ancient history, accomplished by relatively few," knowledge of the classics was nonetheless widespread.51 Reinhold continues:

The ancient historical works most frequently read by the adult population were Plutarch’s Lives, Tacitus, Sallust, Polybius, Thucydides, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Diodorus Sicilus. We also know today what were the best-sellers of the eighteenth century in ancient history, from the works most frequently recurring in American college libraries, and public and private book collections.52     Again, historian Gordon S. Wood observes that: For Americans the mid-eighteenth century was truly a neoclassical age—the high point of their classical period. At one time or another almost every Whig patriot took or was given the name of an ancient republican hero, and classical references and allusions run through much of the colonists’ writings, both public and private. It was a rare newspaper essayist who did not use a Greek or Latin phrase to enhance an argument or embellish a point and who did not employ a classical signature. John Dickinson lived up to his reputation for ‘Attic eloquence and Roman spirit’ by ending each of his Farmers Letters with an appropriate classical quotation. Such classicism was not only a scholarly ornament of educated Americans; it helped to shape their values and their ideals of behavior.53     It is thus evident that Madison’s popular audience was saturated in the classics, a fact that he used to his advantage in The Federalist Papers. It is also worthy to note that, in addition to the sections of The Federalist composed by Madison and described earlier, "six out of eighty-five of [The Federalist Papers] contain what might be called major reference to classical antiquity, and twenty-three contain passing reference, the use of a Latin phrase, or clear sign of specific indebtedness to a classical source without explicit reference."54 This is a further indication of the degree to which widespread knowledge of classical antiquity was presupposed by the Founders, and Madison in particular.

    In light of these facts, the direct linkage between classical antiquity and the founding of the American Republic seems to defy serious question. As Mark Diamond bluntly observes, "The Federalist was the most immediate kind of political work, a piece of campaign propaganda, it spoke also to thoughtful men, then and now, with a view to the permanence of its argument."55 Further, it "was at once addressed to the widest electorate but also to those able and educated men who actually would determine the fate of the Constitution."56 The truth of these statements has, of course, been borne out by history; The Federalist did achieve its short-term goal of persuading popular public opinion, in addition to bequeathing to posterity one of the best—again, Jefferson thought the best—explanatory works extant concerning the American political system.

    Given that the American democratic-republican form of government was created by individuals steeped in the classical tradition, and "sold" to a general public which was also well-versed in the ancients, it is reasonable to extrapolate that, in order for a profound work like The Federalist Papers to remain intelligible and, therefore, relevant to present-day Americans, at least some degree of classical knowledge is requisite. In the earlier section of this paper, wherein Montesquieu’s impact on Madison, and hence on the American Republic itself is treated, it was demonstrated how the Founding Fathers altered the conception of classic republicanism by replacing virtue as the chief purpose of political society with the peace and security engendered by commercial republicanism. While the inculcation of virtue was no longer to be regarded as the first concern of government, virtue was regarded, nonetheless, as an integral part of a successful political community. David Schaefer makes this point clear in a monograph entitled Polis and Res Publica: Classical Political Theory and the U.S. Constitution:

Yet the Founders appreciated that popular government, even in this modified form, still presupposed a considerable degree of moral character, or ‘virtue,’ among the general populace, as well as among those elected to represent them. This appreciation is evident, for instance, in James Madison’s remark before the Virginia ratifying convention that it would be ‘chimerical’ to ‘suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people,’ and by John Marshall’s observation in the same assembly that ‘a free people ought never to depart’ from the maxim of ‘a steady adherence to virtue.’ It is in their recognition of the dependence of republican government on popular virtue, as well as in their choice of the republican form itself, that the Founders most closely approach the thought of the classical writers on politics.57     To sum the matter up, if a durable political community is predicated upon virtuous citizens, and modern commercial republicanism, by design, largely avoids concerning itself with the inculcation of morality, the question arises as to what would occur in a moral vacuum. In the American colonial period, the Founding Founders relied, as has been shown, on widespread knowledge of ancient history as a standard by which the American populace could measure the quality and legitimacy of their government. Stated another way, given that knowledge of the classics provided a common framework of reference for political discussion, and given that an accurate understanding of the American Constitution presupposes such knowledge, at least a basic familiarity with the classical tradition seems requisite, not optional, to any intelligent discourse concerning American politics.
The Classics and the Future of American Politics
    If there is a flaw in the American Constitution, it would seem to be the lack of a contingency plan for a future society largely ignorant of its own political and philosophical history. The men and women of the colonial period in America had the benefit of an intimate familiarity with classical political philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, who "broaden our horizons by teaching us to recognize not only the variety of possible political reforms, and their characteristic strengths and defects, but also to appreciate the permanent political problems, which are rooted in the continuity of human nature itself."58 Moreover, "such an appreciation is an invaluable counterpoise to the utopian spirit characteristic of out times, which sometimes inspires thoughtless denunciations of the Constitutional system itself on account of its failure to engender a ‘solution’ to all problems."59 It is indeed ironic that the very classical knowledge which animated the debates surrounding the creation of the American Constitution, providing a common frame of reference, and a cohesion of thought which ultimately culminated in the document’s ratification by the states, would decline and then become largely extinct among even the so-called educated classes in the nation that Constitution produced. In other words, whereas the average farmer in eighteenth-century America possessed at least a basic understanding of classical thought, even most "educated" twentieth-century Americans are essentially oblivious to the classical historical foundation of the political system under which they live.60

    The ramifications of this contemporary ignorance are grave to ponder. Madison, with his keen sense of ancient history and human nature, took pains to implement a separation of powers based on the Montesquieuian model. Madison and Montesquieu recognized, for instance, the necessity for a strong executive and an independent legislature because, according to the latter, "the part of the government which almost always needs immediate action is better administered by one than by many, whereas what depends on legislative power is often better ordered by many than by one."61 A perfect example of how this separation of powers concept has been violated is the issue of the authority to wage war. While the Constitution clearly designates the president as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, it also clearly reserves for Congress the power to declare war. In the decades since the advent of nuclear weapons, however, these two grave powers have effectively been consolidated into the hands of the president alone. While the speed and destructiveness of modern weaponry preclude lengthy debate in a national emergency, this transference of power represents a severe departure from the separation of powers scheme envisioned by the Founders, especially when one considers the fact that one man—the president—can unilaterally undertake action that could literally destroy the human race.

    Another way in which the separation of powers doctrine has been compromised is with regard to appropriate role of the judiciary. Conceived of as a counterbalance to the legislative branch, the judicial branch, especially in the wake of the New Deal, has increasingly encroached upon areas which exceed its proper Constitutional jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has become something of a Supreme Legislature as it has usurped the authority to reinvent the Constitution at its will and pleasure. Space does not permit an even cursory review of the plethora of decisions in which the court has manufactured, rather than interpreted, the law.

    In a similar vein, the admonition that "it is never in the public good for an individual to be deprived of his goods, or even for the least part of them to be taken from him by a political law or regulation" has contemporary application.62 With respect to this issue, both the courts and federal and state agencies have undertaken actions which transgress the inviolability of the right to private property. In various areas of the United States today, for example, private landowners have been subjected to measures like environmental laws and regulations which either preclude them from using their land in some way, or which diminish its value, or both. While things such as environmental laws may be useful, and in some cases even necessary, some of these measures blatantly undermine a fundamental Constitutional principle.

    Again, concerning the issue of religion, the courts have exceeded their proper role. When, in 1947, the Supreme Court applied the term "separation of church and state" to the issue of religion in America—a term conspicuously absent from the Constitution—it began a chain of events which have had increasing ramifications down to the present day. Children are no longer permitted to pray in public schools; Menorah and Cross symbols are banned in public places; and courts continually attempt to eradicate any trace of spiritual content in education. It would seemingly behoove American politics, even from a strictly secular standpoint, to return to the attitude toward religion embodied in the Constitution. This departure from the Founders’ intent is particularly illustrative of the consequences of widespread ignorance of the philosophical basis of the Constitution, as the separation of powers, envisioned by Madison, is increasingly undermined.

    While it would be naively simplistic to suggest that a reemergence of widespread knowledge of the classics would be a panacea for the myriad problems of modern political society it would, however, enable the citizens of this country to appreciate the precariousness of the freedoms we enjoy and take for granted. Were the average citizen cognizant of the lessons offered by the ancients, it would at least give one pause at the erosion of adherence to the political principles held by the Founders. James Madison, I believe aptly designated "Father of the American Constitution," possessed a unique ability and perspicacity which enabled him to design a republican government, derived from a synthesis of the best thought of the ages, that has endured for over two centuries.

    Madison left for posterity a list of 307 books he deemed necessary to accurately understanding the American political system.63 Among the titles included are Gibbon’s On the Decline of the Roman Empire, Kennet’s Roman Antiquities, Plutarch’s Lives, Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s A Treatise on Government.64 Alexis de Tocqueville, himself impeccably classically trained, wrote in his classic volume Democracy in America: " All who have ambitions to literary excellence in democratic nations should ever refresh themselves at classical springs; that is the most wholesome medicine for the mind. Not that I hold the classics beyond criticism, but I think that they have special merits well calculated to counterbalance our peculiar defects. They provide a prop just where we are most likely to fall."65

    Thus, the matter comes full-circle. This great Republic, which has been graciously handed down to us by men like James Madison, is the product of the eclectic and selective application of the best political thought of the ages. Madison, with a keen awareness of the potential for both human evil, and human good, designed a political system of checks and balances which would effectively suppress the former tendency, even while encouraging the latter.66 In order to ensure that government’s survival, and peace and freedom along with it, a thorough understanding of the nation’s foundations on the part of the citizenry seems necessary. Thanks to Madison, and the other Founding Fathers, we are as much the heirs of the Greeks and Romans as we are of the modern political philosophers. Thus, the classics should assume their rightful place as an intellectual cornerstone for the American People.

   1. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.(Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1967) 26.
 2. George Kennedy, Classical Traditions in Early America ed. John W. Eadie (AnnArbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, 1976) 120.

 3. Merrill D. Peterson, ed. James Madison, A Biography in His Own Words. (New York: Newsweek Book Division, 1974) 14.

 4. Ibid., 17.

 5. Ibid., 18.

        6. Richard M. Gummere, The American Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition.(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963) 75.

 7. Peterson, 20.

 8. H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990) 16.

 9 Ibid., 18.

 10. Ibid., 44.

 11. Ibid., 113.

 12. Ibid., 109.

 13. Ibid., 113, 116.

 14. Howard Miller, The Revolutionary College: American Presbyterian Higher Education 1707-1837. (New York: New York University Press, 1976) 164-167.

 15. Gummere, 72.

 16. Ibid.

 17. Ibid.

 18. Ibid.

 19. Ibid., 74.

 20. Ibid.

 21. Ibid-, 74-75.

 22. David F. Epstein, The Political Theory of the Federalist. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984) 1.

 23. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist, A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States. (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1937) 90.

 24. Gummere, 175.

 25. Hamilton, 90-93.

 26. Ibid., 246.

 27. Ibid., 248.

 28. Ibid., 316.

 29. Ibid., 317.

 30. Ibid., 319.

 31. Ibid.

 32. Ibid., 34.

 33. Ibid., 9.

 34. Ibid., 4-5.

 35. Ibid., 4.

 36. Ibid., 5.

 37. George Kennedy, Classical Traditions in Early America. ed. John W. Eadie. (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan, 1976) 120.

38. Montesquieu, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. Trans. David Lowenthal. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965) 1.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., 9.

41. Ibid., I 1.

42. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws. Trans. and ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 157.

 43. Ibid., 488.

 44. Ibid., 489.

 45. James Morton Smith, ed. The Republic of Letters; the Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison 1776-1826. 3 vols. (New York:
W.W. Norton and Co., 1995) 448.

 46. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws. 13 1.

 47. David L. Schaefer, Classroom Lecture. (Worcester, MA: College of the Holy Cross, March 2, 1999)

 48. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws. 159.

 49. Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana; The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States. (Detroit: Wayne State Umversity Press, 1984) 39.

 50. Ibid.

 51. Ibid.

 52. Ibid.

 53. Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. ( Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1969) 49.

 54. Kennedy, 120.

 55. Mark Diamond, History of Political Philosophy. ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987) 659.

 56. Ibid.

 57. David L. Schaefer, Polis and Res Publica: Classical Political Theory and the U.S. Constitutiom (A booklet issued by NEH Institute Directors Marie Cleary and David
L. Schaefer, 1992) 3.

 58. Ibid., 6.

 59. Ibid., 6-7.

 60. Williatn J. Ziobro, Classical America, classroom lecture, College of the Holy Cross, 16, 21 Oct., 1997.

 61. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws. 160.

 62. Ibid., 510.

 63.Robert A. Rutland, Well Acquainted with Books. (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1987) 7.

64. Ibid.,45, 54.

65. Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America. ed. J.P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence. (New York: Harper and Row, 1969) 477.

 66. Peterson, 20.
May 10, 1999