How The Study Of History Played A Role In Building America


I was once sitting in a history class listening to the professor speak about the classics. I began thinking about the immense impact they had on America’s founding fathers. This just cannot be understated. I remember also hearing about schools increasingly striking history from their curriculum’s. As a history buff, this outrages me. So I decided to make a case for history. A case that it is in fact useful, as useful, if not more useful, than science and mathematics. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line we sat this tool down, and have not picked it back up.

You probably remember from grade school music class applying labels to different eras of history. Your teacher probably once said something to the nature of, “the Renaissance paved the way for ‘classical’ performers like Beethoven and Mozart.” Well, the truth is, the renaissance paved the way for “neoclassical” performers. Outside of music, the word “classical” era refers to ancient literature. Historians place their own — sometimes different, sometimes the same — labels on eras of time. The rock stars of the “classical” music era, specifically Beethoven and Mozart, were contemporaries of the founders fighting the American Revolution. All these great men were a part of what historian’s call “the Age of Enlightenment” and/or the “Age of Reason” (1650s-1780s). The great philosophers, and intellectual men of this time, worked diligently to push reason over emotion.[1] During the Renaissance the scientific method was invented and perfected. Taking advantage of and spreading the scientific method to the masses were defining characteristics of the “Age of Enlightenment.”

“Neoclassicism” is a compounded word, it combines “neo” which means “new” and “classical” which refers to the “classical” era or “Greco-Roman” history. This term come about because people living at the time attempted to recreate the classical era at every opportunity possible. They loved and admired history so much, neoclassicism is also a defining characteristic of their age. They recreated the era in art, architecture, literature, furniture, technology, and yes, because of the founders, through their government. At the very least, they were trying to emulate the leaders and thinkers of these ancient times, at the most, they were infatuated with them. The rise of the scientific method, and the Protestant Reformation, are defining characteristics of the “Renaissance” (1300s-1600s) and though just a few centuries before the Revolution, this history, also had an impact on the founding of America. It is important to note, that the “dark ages” were and are still often thought of as human progress gone backwards. That the advancements gained by the Roman Empire in technology, philosophy, just civilization in general, are considered loss up until the Renaissance and subsequently the Age of Enlightenment. [2]

Athens and Rome: Classic Icons


Benjamin Franklin is Widely Known as America’s Most Influential Philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment

Thinkers from the Age of Reason had an infatuation, bordering obsession with the ancient classical period. A period which ran from about 800 B.C.E to 400 A.D. and included the rise and fall of Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the emergence of Christianity.[3] They could not study enough about the philosophers, the leaders, and the arts of these ancient people. So, let me introduce you to the major classical icons and then show you how they influenced the icons we call the founding fathers. It’s also important to note, at its simplest form a “republic”— a Roman invention — is a system of government where leaders and representatives are either appointed or elected to power. A “democracy” — a Greek invention — at its purest form, is a system in which every issue is voted upon by the people and there are no representatives. Thus, the United States in this sense is a republic. However, the foundation of a “republican” government is a citizen’s right to vote in the process, and thus “democracy” was and is still often thought of as an essential element of a “republican” system.

Socrates (469 – 399 B.C.E,) is often called the “father of all western philosophy.” Mainly because his students, carried on and built upon what he taught them and they are responsible for many major advancements in education and intellectual thought across nearly all disciplines. For some reason when I look at images of Socrates, he does not strike me as a man who looks like he enjoys writing much. Despite being responsible for kick-starting the way our society thinks, despite being very influential and respected by his students, he was apparently too busy thinking to actually write anything down. So, Plato (437-347 B.C.E.) a prized student of Socrates took on the task himself. I am just guessing, but I think Plato, unlike his teacher, may have seen some value in writing things down. Plato is famed for his publications on philosophy, and though influenced by many ancient teachers, Socrates, is credited as being his primary influence.[4] Aristotle, (384-322 B.C.E.) was a brilliant student of Plato, I think a trend is evolving here? Of the three, Aristotle is thought of as having the biggest impact on human knowledge. To Plato, and Socrates credit, he benefited from the fruits of their intellectual labor. Aristotle, is considered a mathematician and scientist as much as he is a philosopher.[5] Plato, and Aristotle actually both built upon the work of Socrates. Precisely, I suspect why Socrates was given that really cool nickname “the father of western philosophy.” You may remember from school, Socrates was infamously killed for unorthodox teachings in 399 B.C.E.

Socrates, “the father of Western philosophy”

During the course of their lives, a popular system of government had emerged in Greece, Democracy. Approximately the same time (at the turn of the 6th and 5th Century B.C.E.) another popular system emerged in Rome, a Republic. These governments, especially the Athenian Democracy, gave a voice to citizens. This voice in turn inspired debate, and intellectual thought. It encouraged their society to develop education and stimulate creative thinking. Living within this society and having inherited all its benefits, Plato, decided to weigh in on this government thing by writing a dialogue he had with Socrates. In this dialogue he theorizes and defines justice and the relationship between a just government and just men.  He calls this theory… Are you ready? “The Republic” (from Latin res publica). “The Republic” is Plato’s idea of a Utopian society.plato-socrates-aristotle

Interestingly, despite growing up in the world’s first “Democracy,” and receiving all of its great benefits, Plato theorized a Utopian society as one that crowned a “philosopher king.”[6] He thought the most knowledgeable and intelligent men in society should govern for the good of everyone. I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a little bias of Plato? Easy for him to say, being one of the cornerstones of all human thought. Anyways, this idea, that government knows better for the people than the people know for themselves, is an idea that’s still debated today, just on different terms.[7] These three men: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have been studied and revered by men in history since they died. They lived in the golden years of the period known as the “classics.” It is not just these men, but both the Roman and Athenian societies that a lot of the founding fathers attempted to recreate. The evidence of this is everywhere, in nearly everything they left behind.


A Photo of Roman soldiers urging Cincinnatus to leave his farm and lead the Roman Army

Of the Roman icons, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 – 430 B.C.E.) was the most profound for our forefathers. He was an iconic figure in the eyes of the military brass of the Continental Army. Cincinnatus was a farmer, called from his private life to lead the Roman Army after they had been beaten badly in a series of battles against other ancient Italian societies. The Roman government was in a state of emergency, aware that it’s very existence was endanger. Much like we declare “martial law” in time of emergency here, Rome did something similar when they nominated Cincinnatus to take on the role of, Dictator of Rome — remember this was a republic, so this would have been a big deal — where he was able to fight off the invasion and defeat the enemies.[8] He was celebrated greatly by the Roman people and was even offered the continued role of “Dictator of Rome.” However, in an act of great civic virtue, Cincinnatus declined this presitgous title and chose to retire to his farm and live out his life powerless, idle, and content. This allowed the Roman Government to return to its republican ways. Sound familiar? Of course, it does.

The Founding Fathers

In addition to the city of Cincinnati (among the first wave of major settlements following the Revolutionary war) being named in honor of the great Roman leader, Major General Henry Knox — one of George Washington’s most intimate personal friends — created the “Society of Cincinnati” for Revolutionary War Officers. With the war over, and the soldiers going home to their farms, officers, who had served the lengthiest enrollments possible in the Continental Army, agreed to keep in touch through this fraternity. George Washington accepted the title as the first President General of the Society.[9]

The Society was exclusive to those who served in the military, and it also instituted a hereditary policy for descendants, very much like the “Daughters of the Revolution.” This harmless fact led to paranoid attacks from politicians who didn’t serve; claiming the Society was targeted to establish an aristocracy.[10] And it was for this reason, Washington — at one point —  begun to subtly distance himself from the Society when he pondered the idea of stepping down as President General and chose to make public his plan to abstain from a Society meeting in Philadelphia during the Summer of 1787. Having denied arraignments to attend this meeting with Henry Knox, Washington — possibly unaware of the gravity of this decision given the increasingly ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation — felt it improper to accept other invitations from James Madison to the Constitutional Convention. Which was ironically, also being held in Philadelphia in the Summer of 1787. Washington wrote to Madison,

“Under the circumstances, it will readily be perceived that I could not appear at the same time and place on any other occasion, without giving offense to a very worthy and respectable part of the community, the late officers of the American Army.”

As it would turn out, Washington did the right thing. He chose to attend both meetings in Philadelphia, and he did not allow paranoid politicians to drive a wedge between him and his military brothers. He again accepted the position of President General of the Society of Cincinnatus. It would also seem those paranoid politicians (mainly Adams and Jefferson) were just that, in fact paranoid. The “people” seemed to admire men from this fraternity as 23 members of the Society of Cincinnatus, were also framers and signers of the new Constitution.[11] This now paradoxical debate: whether military men should establish a hereditary fraternity that celebrates their release of power and return to private life, is meaningless. However, it does act as evidence to my point, that these icons of our past had a profound education on Western history, and they very much preferred to think of themselves in the same light as the great Roman and Greek leaders of the ancient world. George Washington and his great Continental Army brothers like to champion themselves as modern day versions of Cincinnatus. The old Roman farmer proved a good model for the nation’s first President, as everything he did was subject to become a precedent in one form or another.


Ben Franklin’s Famous 13 Virtues

It wasn’t just the military that held these ancients in high regard. Ben Franklin famously devised an experiment to reach a “perfect character.” According to Franklin this idea was at least partially inspired by a daily list from Ancient Greece urging citizens to exercise good behavior, “Conceiving then, that, agreeably to the advice of Pythagoras in his Golden Verses, daily examination would be necessary,.”[12] Originally Franklin started with 12 virtues. It wasn’t until a Quaker friend of his pointed out he sometimes seemed a little “overbearing and rather insolent” that he added a 13th virtue to his list, “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates he wrote.[13] Franklin also states in his autobiography, that as a young man he often got together with his buddies and they debated each other for nothing more than the fun of it, sometimes taking views they didn’t agree with just to prove they could be more persuasive than one another. He claims he had read and practiced the Socratic method which calls for you to question your opponents in debate while simultaneously directing them to your point. After mastering this skill, he applied this in his arguments against his friends, often confusing, aggravating, and humiliating them as they found themselves making Franklin’s point for him:

While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s), of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method; and soon after I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive augmentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter.

Franklin continues:

I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used; therefor I took a delight in it, practis’d it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entanling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved. [14]


(Left) Monticello, (Center) The University of Virginia, (Right) The Virginia State Capitol Building. All three buildings were the work of Thomas Jefferson and examples of “Neoclassical” architecture.


The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond was the first public building in the New World to be built in the Classical Revival style of architecture.

In art history books Thomas Jefferson’s mansion “Monticello” is a common example of a neoclassical building. When Jefferson was selected to design the State Capitol Building for Virginia, he is quoted as saying it is “a favorable opportunity of introducing into the state an example of architecture in the classic style of antiquity.”[15] His work on Monticello, the Virginia State Capitol building and his most prominent work in the discipline of architecture, the University of Virginia, are collectively credited for starting a “Classical Revival” across America and Europe both.[16] James Madison conducted a comprehensive study on governments — ancient and modern — in preparation for his role in the Constitutional Convention.[17] This research included Rome, Greece, and about any confederacy of nations joined together for defense up to the point. It proved invaluable, as it was apparent to the men inside the Pennsylvania State House, despite his fragile appearance, Madison, was the most dominating intellectual in the room. William Pierce, a delegate from Georgia, gives us a sketch of Madison at the Convention in 1787:

“Mr. Maddison is a character who has long been in public life; and what is very remarkable every Person seems to acknowledge his greatness. He blends together the profound politician, with the Scholar. In the management of every great question he evidently took the lead in the Convention, and tho’ he cannot be called an Orator, he is a most agreeable, eloquent, and convincing Speaker.”[18]

It is true, the more research you do on the founding fathers, the more you find about their obsession with the ancient classical societies.

Parthenon, the adornment of the city Athens.

There are a lot of parallels between Ancient Greece, Rome, and the beginning of the United States of America. They emerged from periods of time which a proliferation of scientific thought, philosophy and intellectual ideas were at the center of their societies elite. Despite having developed governments that were run by “the people” — like Athens and Rome — the United States elite relied on slaves to do their labor. Like their ancient role models this freed up their time for scientific thought, philosophy, and intellectually vigorous ideas. Voting was at the core of Greco-Roman culture. However, only free men retained this right, suppressing their woman to nothing more than servants to their husbands, something the founding fathers — with the exception of a few men like John Adams — did as well. Both the ancients and the founders found themselves amid a clash of classes in their respective societies. The plebeian vs. patrician battles of Rome were not unlike where the nation appeared to be under the Articles of Confederation. Shays Rebellion and, even the Whiskey Rebellion, are both examples of lower-class folks in early America being very suspicious of their new government. Many of them refused to cooperate with it, ultimately saying they felt they were trading one elite class for another.[19] These parallels are not all by coincidence or even accident. As I said before, the men of the enlightenment fancied themselves as the revival of classical ideas and the return of human progress.

How History Played A Role In Making America

As common people become more and more literate, learning to read the Bible on their own rather than have a Priest read it to them. They began to interpret the Bible how they wanted and when they start realizing their interpretation didn’t match the one being fed to them by the Catholic Church or the Church of England; they began to rebel, demanding the right to start their own churches and worship how they interpreted the Bible. Aided by the invention of the printing press, new bibles were churned out on a massive scale. This is known as the Protestant Reformation and it was a defining movement of the Renaissance era: it’s famous for liberating common and high-class men alike. It is seen as one of the most important, if not the most important progressive movement in Western culture history; it paved the way for other movements where people fought for the right to be individuals, who live and act on their own ideas rather than conform to orthodox ideas of those in power.[20]

Being in the 1500 and 1600’s, it would have hardly been ancient to the founding fathers. However, the Protestant Reformation would not just be an inspiration to the founders, it too was a fight between those who ruled and those who were being ruled. In a different way, it would be a precursor to their own struggles. Many wars throughout the centuries were fought over differing interpretations of text that influenced government (we know this text as the Bible.) Subsequently, ships filled with people crossed the Atlantic Ocean to America. No physical war was fought between the founding fathers, but they were not immune to wars of intellect. I think it is their differing opinions, or I should say, their differing imaginations and interpretations of the ancient classical societies and their new constitution, that would divide them most and aid in the creation of party politics. One group favored Roman history and would emerge pushing for a strong centralized government that kept the power out of the hands of the “ignorant” common man. This group became known as the federalist. While another group, led by Jefferson, were inspired to replicate the Athenian Democracy as their imagination seen it. A society of free, educated men, that all had an equal say in their government making them vehemently against the idea of a king or emperor.

History can give us lessons in political philosophy. When studying the history of the classics, a debate can emerge about the golden age. Some historians would call the “golden age” the periods at which Democracy and Republicanism were at their height, between 500 and 400 B.C.E. It’s in this time, that we see Democracy emerge in Athens and the Republic is born in Rome. This is the age of the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and even Confucius in the East. Other historians would argue, that the golden age of the classics emerges centuries later, when Julius Caesar is betrayed and assassinated leaving Caesar Augustus as the leader of the Roman government. Giving birth to a new more powerful form of government in Rome, that has representative bodies alongside a strong powerful–almost king-like leader known as the Emperor.


The Federalist argued for the new republic to reach its full potential, it must at least play with this idea of empire under a powerful intelligent leader in the executive branch. This form of government allowed for Rome to go from a small republican society to the greatest, most influential empire the world has ever seen. It’s also known as the age of “bread and circuses”[21] because Augustus gave the poor Roman citizens free food and put on many spectacles to keep their votes. They also argued, Democracy led to lawlessness, and this — in their opinion — was proven by history. The Federalist believed in a strong central government, a government that had the ability to create empire like Caesar Augustus. While the Democrat-Republicans believed in giving the power to freemen of the nation and admired the times of the Athenian Democracy as the height of individual intellect and human progress. They believed in an egalitarian society made up of common men, who could educate themselves on history to mold current events and philosophy through their votes.

John Adams is known for his belief that complete democracy is a disaster that leads to anarchy.[22] He believed the evils of human nature called for strong central government. He thought it necessary to keep the–often barbarous–instincts of men in check. Alexander Hamilton is notorious for his belief that the United States needed to replicate the Monarch model of the British Government.[23] The Federalist very much believed that only the educated elite men of society should have an influence over it, very much like Plato’s “philosopher kings” theory. The “Federalist Papers” were written to persuade the public towards adopting the new Constitution. If you read these publications you are quickly thrown back by the number references made to ancient governments, though, the vast majority of these references were “Greco-Roman.”[24] At the Constitutional Convention, men repeated these arguments so much — Franklin, becoming bored with hearing about the ancient models — told the members they needed to think outside the box, look for inspiration in other places, like in a higher power. He started this call for prayer by saying:

The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own wont of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.[25]

Jefferson spent five years in Paris, seeing firsthand the poverty a selfish Monarch imposes on its citizens, he was passionately against this style of government and all the pomp that went with it. The beauty is that they compromised and they come up with an amazing model of government. The subsequent pass of power from one party to the next with no bloodshed, was unlike anything the world had seen in their age. Their nation survived a Civil War, and went on to become, arguably the greatest nation the world has ever seen, today boasting the claim, “the richest nation in the world.”[26]

Increasingly we are hearing of education administrators having to make tough budget decisions. First they put physical education on the chopping block. However, with the rise of childhood obesity, this could not have come at a worse moment in American history. So now history classes are being cut from curriculum’s, the justification of which is: it is not a practical, useful discipline for students. This, to me, is insane. There is no doubt that history, or even better, the studying of history, had a major impact on the founders psyche, not only through the course of their lives, but especially while they were writing and signing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for their “new republic.” They were fighting a war for the subjective–abstract–idea of liberty, and history provided them a road map to find it. The writing the Constitution of the United States of America, maybe the best form of government ever put on paper, and it could not have been done without the use of history.  It turns out history can help build a future and the founding fathers of the United States used it more than anyone to do just that. We are simply teaching history the wrong way.

Imagine, a world where history is used to form our opinions on current matters. Imagine if our politicians today, scoured history like the founders to inform the decisions they make, you know, to make sure they don’t repeat mistakes of the past. Imagine, a world where we taught history as a discipline to children as a useful tool to build our future, no different than we do science and mathematics. Imagine, how many mistakes we would have avoided, and how much brighter our future might be if we taught history as an application rather than a set of facts. What if we applied a “historic method” before making a decision, in which we did a relevant search of our past to inform decisions we make in the present. We should also never underestimate the power of inspiration either. I have found invaluable inspiration through reading about great people in our history. Not only can we learn what not to do through the application of history, we can also learn the right thing to do through the application of history.


Works Cited

[1] Outram, Dorinda . Panorama of the Enlightenment. s.l. : Getty Publications, 2006. p. 29.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary. Dark Ages. 2nd. s.l. : Oxford University Press, 1986.

[3] Badian, Ernst, et al. Ancient Rome: Ancient State, Europe, Africa, Asia. Encyclopedia Britannica. [Online] March 22, 2018.

[4] Brickhouse, Thomas and Smith, Nicholas D. . Plato (427—347 B.C.E.). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource. [Online]

[5] Boere, Dr. Cornelis George. The Ancient Greeks, Part Two: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. [Online] 2009.

[6] Good, Harry G. and Teller, James D. A History of Western Education. Ancient Greece: The Early West. London : The Macmillan Company, 1969, p. 33.

[7] Matassa , Giulia . What is Plato’s Argument for the Conclusion That Philosophers Should Rule? Is it Persuasive? . E-International Relations Students: the world’s leading open access website for students and scholars of international politics. [Online] April 17, 2013.

[8] Forsythe, Gary. A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2006.

[9] The Society of The Cincinnati. The Founding of the Society: 1783-1784. The Society of The Cincinnati. [Online]

[10] —. The Society and its Critics: 1784-1800. The Society of Cincinnati. [Online]

[11] The Role of the Society of the Cincinnati in the Birth of the Constitution of the United States. Hume, Lieutenant-Colonel Edgar Erskine. 2, April 1938, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 5, pp. 101-107.

[12] Edited By George Rice Carpenter. Longmans English Classics. [book auth.] Benjamin Franklin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York : Longmans, Green, And Co, 1919, p. 90.

[13] Essig, Mark. Inventing America: The Life of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphian. Nashville : Rutledge Hill Press, 2006, p. 11.

[14] Edited by George Rice Carpenter. Longmans English Classics. [book auth.] Benjamin Franklin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York : Longmans, Green, And Co, 1919, p. 17.

[15] Monticello. “Architecture is My Delight”. [Online]

[16] McLanathan, Richard. The American Tradition in the Arts. The New Republic: The Classical and the Federal Transition. New York : Harcourt, Bruce, & World, Inc, 1968, pp. 126-129.

[17] Madison, James. Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies. National Archives. [Online] April-June 1787.

[18] Pierce, William. Character Sketches of Delegates to the Federal Convention. Constitutional Sources Project. [Online] 1787.

[19] Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

[20] Good, Harry G. and Teller, James D. A History of Western Education. School And Church at the Noth. 3rd. London : The Macmillan Company, 1969, p. 141.

[21] Toner, J.P. Leisure and Ancient Rome. s.l. : John Wiley & Sons, 1995, p. 69.

[22] Adams, John. An Essay on Mans Lust For Power. s.l. : Phamplet, 1763.

[23] Hamilton, Alexander. Alexander Hamilton’s Notes. National Archives. [Online] June 18, 1787.

[24] Broschart, Christopher M. “The Federalist” and the Classical Foundations of the American Republic. Rutgers. [Online] May 2013.

[25] Franklin, Benjamin, [perf.]. Constitutional Convention Address on Prayer. Pennsylvania Statehouse, Philadelphia : s.n., June 28, 1787.

[26] Global wealth databook 2017. Shorrocks, Anthony , Davies, Jim and Lluberas, Rodrigo . 2017, Credit Suisse.



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