Book Review: Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America


Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America, edited by Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole is a collection of essays from various classical scholars that attempts to flesh out the degree of influence classicism had on Jefferson, both personally and politically. This is no easy task, as the architect of Monticello, one of the most famous examples of neo-classical buildings in early America, and the scholar who was fluent in both Greek and Latin, in a letter to John Adams, “ridiculed Plato’s Republic; and in other correspondence, he dismissed the importance and refused to bemoan the loss of major portions of Aristotle’s Politics,” (56). Evidently, Thomas Jefferson’s views on the relevance  and importance of classicism was at best conflicted.



This collection contains ten essays broken down into two parts: Jefferson’s Classical World and Classical Influences. By keeping the focus broad the editors have done an excellent job of allowing the authors to present a vivid picture of the intellectual world of the Revolutionary period. Because of this, we are able to place Jefferson’s worldview within the context of his peers, and what emerges is a Jefferson who is not inline with many of his contemporaries in terms of classical thought.

Giving a thoughtful review of a collection of essays which cover such a scope as this, which ranges from such topics as classical moral theory, to childrearing and education, to an analysis of George Washington as Cincinnatus, to Aristotle and King Alfred, and to Pericles in America is challenging to say the least. However, the editors have again done an excellent job at collating these diverse essays into an insightful whole, which generally paints a cohesive picture of a Jefferson who, while personally enamoured with classical language, writings and architecture, none the less views ancient political theory with suspicion. While the individual authors in this book may disagree about whether the classics were foundational or illustrative for Jefferson, the overall books allows for a more open-ended dualistic answer.

The first essay, Ancients, Moderns and the Progress of Mankind, is by the editor, Peter Onuf, and it seeks out a kind of middle ground between those who see classics as foundational and those who see it merely as window dressing that the Founders put up to justify their ideas and actions. As such this is an apt beginning to this volume which lets each side of the argument have its say. Onuf rightly points out that Jefferson held a deep affection for the classical languages and read from them deeply and regularly, but he also cautioned his fellow revolutionaries not to look to the past as prescriptive of the future, “the circumstances of the world are too much changed for that,” (38). For Jefferson, a reading of Locke or Descarte was more beneficial, for the concept of rights was conspicuously absent from classical political philosophy. So while the idea of equality and individual rights drew Jefferson away from the classics in his public life, his private joy from the language never left him.

Michael Zuckert in his essay, Thomas Jefferson and Natural Morality, presents a Jefferson with a stronger break from the classical past. In this historian’s view his subject was influenced by and mostly  in agreement with such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke and Mandeville in advocating for a “selfish system” of public morality. The idea that one acted ethically for essentially selfish reasons of course flies in the face of the classical concept of public virtue for its own sake. However, Jefferson is somewhat conflicted here because while on the whole he agrees with the “selfish system” he also is sympathetic towards the view that “ [m]an was endowed with a sense of right and wrong…This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, or feeling; it is the true foundation of morality,” (64). So, again we see a Jefferson who is in conflict, though here it is not with the past, but with the present.

While Jefferson was adamant about the desirability of a classical education, he was a creature of his time and meant that education to be for males alone. “Classicism was one of the barriers keeping men in one sphere and women in another, part of the natural order of things,” (81). Though Caroline Winterer in her essay shows how this view was changing and in fact evolved over the course of Jefferson’s life and he in fact becomes a cipher of the educated public at large as he encourages his daughter some, and his granddaughters more to study the classics. One of the most interesting components of this essay are the detailed reading lists that Jefferson gave those under his tutelage. These would make for a useful personal study in and of themselves.

One can hardly compile a book about Jefferson and antiquity without devoting some space to architecture, and Richard Wilson’s contribution fills that void here. According to Wilson “[a]n understanding of Jefferson’s employment of classical architecture can be approached by an examination of three issues: the sources of his knowledge and training; his usage of classicism; and the meanings the buildings convey,” (102). The end result is that Jefferson wanted to create a lasting architectural sense for the new nation and he did that through a combination of ancient and modern. So we see even in Jefferson’s aesthetics he was a blend of classical and modern theory.

The next essay veers a bit from straightforward Jeffersonian scholarship to consider whether George Washington should be considered a new version of Cincinnatus or Marcus Aurelius. Author Maurie McInnis relates how in fact both are accurate. In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution the image of Cincinnatus, the Roman leader who stepped away from power and returned to his fields, was appealing to a new nation fearful of establishing a new aristocracy. Washington did nothing to dissuade people of the comparison and may have even gone out of his way to foster it. Jefferson, as should be no surprise at this point, was both supportive and suspicious of the image of Cincinnatus. While on the one hand the agricultural ideal it represented was much in line with Jefferson’s feelings, on the other hand the society of Cincinnatus which sprung up around Washington’s former officers felt too much like a new burgeoning aristocracy for Jefferson’s tastes. However, his fears were unfounded and as time went on and the South needed to assert its own strength and military heritage in the face of an ever encroaching North, the image of Washington as Marcus Aurelius prevailed. In keeping with what many other historians have claimed, George Washington’s image has been fairly malleable over time.

Part Two begins with an essay by co-editor Nicholas Cole entitled, America and Ancient and Modern Europe. Here Cole makes the case that many in the Revolutionary period held beliefs like Jefferson in that they admired classicism and used its vocabulary, but were more influenced by modern political theory and the likes of Machiavelli for their current situation.  According to Jefferson the ancients “had just ideas of the value of personal liberty, but not at all…the structure of government best calculated to preserve it,” (173). He claims that intellectuals of the time were immersed in classical works so that the language of the ancients was often used to justify current actions; they “legitimized resistance and revolution in america,” (180). One has a hard time not seeing the irony in 21st century movements like the Tea Party using the writings of The Founding Fathers in much the same manner.

Peter Thompson brings Jefferson’s ideas surrounding demography to the fore in his piece, Aristotle and King Alfred in America. Common among the revolutionary set of the time was the idea of creating some kind of utopia, however as history showed many newly formed colonies simply could not support their ideals for demographic reasons. The problem was how to set up a society where an aristocracy was prohibited from occurring. In looking for solutions they more often turned to older Anglo-Saxon models (King Alfred) than to Greek city-states (Aristotle). Jefferson supported this view as a way of breaking the cycle many thinkers thought inevitable; namely that nations went through predetermined life cycles that always ended in dissolution.

Eran Shalev tries to make sense of the fact that while many of Jefferson’s contemporaries were citing classical sources at breakneck speed during the Revolutionary period he is virtually silent in this area. His argument is that the ancients were irrelevant to Jefferson because the ancients did not solve their inherent problems. Greece was conquered; Rome fell. While many saw decline as an unavoidable end for all systems of government once they enter the phase of luxury, Jefferson saw time not as cyclical, but linear. He was much more a man of the Enlightenment who saw mankind progressing ever upward, hence his lack of emphasis on the classics at this time.

The next to last essay discusses the influence of a single classical author as an example for the whole. Cicero, while often cited and read in the Revolutionary period was not foundational to it, according to Paul Rahe. The classics gave inspiration to the revolutionaries of the 18th century, but their solutions could not be prescriptive as the problems they faced were different. The Enlightenment caused the 18th century to be much more aligned with pragmatism than the classical concept of public virtue. In fact, “they denied that pride, strength and courage were virtues at all …[and]… in the end prove inseparable from corruption, vice, and the venality which ultimately destroyed even the pretense of liberty at Rome,” (255).

Classical Greece and Rome “played a significant role in the thought of the founding era, but they did not put the founders in a straightjacket that cut off all freedom of movement,” (265). The final essay, Pericles in America, by Jennifer Roberts, shows, through the evaluation of one man’s image, America’s relation to the classics. The subject of this essay went through periods of adulation and repudiation in large part due to the quality of the sources about him and the tendency of moderns to shoehorn the past into a guise that best illustrates the modern’s needs. This fact leads Roberts to devalue classicism’s importance as a foundational piece of American politics. “The fluidity of Pericles’ image strongly discourages placing too much emphasis on classical influence in American political rhetoric,” (293).

In the end this book does an excellent job at showing the complexity of the issue discussed therein. Thomas Jefferson was very much a man of his time, and the competing influences of 18th century America and Europe lead him to both revere and recoil from the wisdom of the ancients. This balanced approach is of course almost a requisite for any people engaged in creating societies. The past can inform and inspire, but imagination and creativity in the face of new obstacles requires us to invent.