Samples Research The Influence of the Ancients on the Founding Fathers

The Influence of the Ancients on the Founding Fathers

1000 words 4 page(s)

One only needs to look at the architecture of Washington D.C. to recognize that the Founding Fathers drew great inspiration from the ancient wisdom of Rome and Greece. However, the influence of the ancients on the Founding Fathers extended much further than mere architecture. This influence was significantly seen in the government. This paper will examine the lessons that the colonial Americans learned from the ancients. These lessons were then used to help build a new nation.

An article in the Greek-American Review form 2002 discussed the dilemma that the Founding Fathers were faced with in the 18th Century. They obviously needed to construct a new form of government to govern the nation. In the article, it discusses how the Founding Fathers discussed the various types of governments that they could create while at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia. The different types of government included those of the ancient Romans and the ancient Greeks. According to the author, the choices were “an Athenian type of direct democracy or Roman republicanism? Carthaginian aristocracy or Spartan-mixed democracy?” (Constantelos, 2002, p. 7).

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Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was highly influenced by the classical world. His famed library, which formed the not-quite-humble beginnings of the Library of Congress, mostly contained works of Classical Antiquity. “The third president read both Latin and Greek. He wrote repeatedly of his fondness of classical literature and died, on 4 July 1826, with Seneca’s work open on his bedside table” (Valsania, 2011). However, Jefferson questioned whether or not the governments of the ancients would form the best government for the new country in what was then a modern world. This created a “dualistic” belief in the mind of Jefferson, and indeed, the other founding fathers. One of these reasons was because the ancient worlds did not live in the modern world. At this time, the modern world consisted of one of revolutions. The American Revolution just occurred. Furthermore, the French people were growing increasingly angry with their aristocratic way of way and they made this known. Their revolution was only a few years away. This era was not the same as the one of the ancients. However, there were some similarities. The Colonial Americans decided to overthrow their king; they decided that they would not live under the reign of a king. This was, of course, similar to how the Ancient Roman Senators decided to assassinate Julius Caesar rather than risk his growing power. The Americans also feared that one person might become too powerful in their government (Valsania, 2011).

Washington attempted to teach the American people that their leaders must not become too powerful. Washington’s ethics came from the ancients. According to an article in the Cato Institute, Washington was not the most intellectual of the Founding Fathers. However, Washington did strive to cultivate his character in the way Aristotle did; Washington adhered to the idea that character was the result of habit. This included a habit of not seeking power, unlike many other leaders of the past (Boaz, 2006).

This is probably one of the most important lessons from the Ancient Romans for the Early Americans: not to seek power. They feared that one person also might become too powerful in their new country. They had just lived under a king who was not only too powerful, but also mentally unstable. Caesar was assassinated rather than be allowed to become king. A few decades later, the Roman Empire was formed under one person. Various emperors, such as Caligula and Nero, throughout its history were known for their excesses and eccentricities. However, unfortunately for the Ancient Romans, they now lived under one person’s control. The problems associated with this was an important one for George Washington. Many wanted Washington to become the king after the Revolution. Washington, however, refused this title. He also refused to seek a third term; he believed this would lead to something similar to a monarchy (PBS, 2002).

Another lesson was discussed by Washington in his farewell address. Rome fell for a number of reasons. However, one of the reasons that Rome fell was due to constant overspending, as well as the constant wars in which she engaged (Andrews, 2014). In his farewell address, Washington warned against these two specific areas. He also warned about how these areas also intersect with each other to create significant problems for a country. If a country does not have wars, the country likely will not have debt. The area of public debt was most certainly one that the Founding Fathers considered during their times. Washington cautioned that the public credit must remain impeccable. He also gave advice as to how to retain the public credit and not go into massive public debt. As Washington (1796) wrote in his farewell, “One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace.” Obviously, this is not advice that has been adhered to in the past century. This also helps to explain the massive debt that Americans struggle with today. Washington, however, had learned this lesson from the Ancient Romans.

The Founding Fathers and Early Americans were clearly influenced by the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans. They learned several things from the ancient history lessons. This included that one person should not become too powerful. It also included that excessive debt was not good for a country. Furthermore, wars should be avoided if possible because they often led to excessive debt. With these lessons in mind, they forged a new type of government. Unfortunately, these lessons have not been maintained.

  • Andrews, E. (2014, January 2). Eight reasons why Rome fell. History Channel. Retrieved from:
  • Boaz, D. (2006). The man who would not be king. Cato Institute. Retrieved from:
  • Constantelos, D. (2002). American Philhellinism. Greek-American Review, 7-21.
    PBS. (2002). Rediscovering Washington. Retrieved from:
  • Valsania, M. (2011). Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World and Early America. Retrieved from:
  • Washington, G. (1796, September 19). Farewell Address. Retrieved from:

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