Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired

"The English Bible was -- and is -- the most influential book ever published. The most famous of all English Bibles, the King James Version, was the culmination of centuries of work by various translators, from John Wycliffe, the fourteenth-century catalyst of English Bible translation, to the committee of scholars who collaborated on the King James translation. Benson Bobrick's Wide as the Waters examines the life and work of Wycliffe and recounts the tribulations of his successors, including William Tyndale, who was martyred, Miles Coverdale, and others who came to bitter ends. It traces the story of the English Bible through the tumultuous reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I, a time of fierce contest between Catholics and Protestants in England, as the struggle to establish a vernacular Bible was fought among competing factions. In the course of that struggle, Sir Thomas More, later made a Catholic saint, helped orchestrate the assault on the English Bible, only to find his own true faith the plaything of his king.

In 1604, a committee of fifty-four scholars, the flower of Oxford and Cambridge, collaborated on the new translation for King James. Their collective expertise in biblical languages and related fields has probably never been matched, and the translation they produced -- substantially based on the earlier work of Wycliffe, Tyndale, and others -- would shape English literature and speech for centuries. As the great English historian Macaulay wrote of their version, "If everything else in our language should perish, it alone would suffice to show the extent of its beauty and power"...

The impact of the English Bible on law and society was profound. It gave every literate person access to the sacred text, which helped to foster the spirit of inquiry through reading and reflection. This, in turn, accelerated the growth of commercial printing and the proliferation of books. Once people were free to interpret the word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of their inherited institutions, both religious and secular. This led to reformation within the Church, and to the rise of constitutional government in England and the end of the divine right of kings. England fought a Civil War in the light (and shadow) of such concepts, and by them confirmed the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In time, the new world of ideas that the English Bible helped inspire spread across the Atlantic [to the thirteen British colonies and served as a major catalyst in the American revolution], and eventually, like Wycliffe's sea-borne scattered ashes, all the world over, "as wide as the waters be." Wide as the Waters is a story about a crucial epoch in the history of Christianity, about the English language and society, and about a book that changed the course of human events.”

Review from, where the book is available in paperback or hardcover. See:

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Thomas Jefferson and the Teaching of the Constitution

Part II to "James Madison and the Teaching of the Constitution." (See:

Thomas Jefferson’s last great dream was to found a public university in Virginia.  Beginning with his first concept in 1800, and after the investment of much of his personal time, money and labor, and lobbying to the state legislature with the valuable assistance of several influential friends, the University of Virginia was chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia on January 25, 1819, and opened for classes in March 1825. Thomas Jefferson's long-time friend and collaborator, James Madison, wrote to a mutual friend concerning Jefferson, the University, and the diffusion of knowledge: 

"Your old friend, Mr. Jefferson, still lives, and will close his illustrious career by bequeathing to his Country a magnificent Institute for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge; which is the only guardian of true liberty, the great cause to which his life has been devoted."[1] 

In preparation for the opening of classes, Jefferson corresponded with Madison regarding the teaching of the Constitution at the new University. Their concern was that students be instructed in the true "principles of government" upon which the Constitutions of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia "were genuinely based." The results of that mutual correspondence and collaboration were brought forth in a meeting of the Board of Visitors on March 4, 1825.  Pursuant to Madison's advice in his letter to Jefferson dated February 8, 1825, and his sketch (outline) for the recommended curriculum, the Board agreed to a resolution.  Adopted by Jefferson, Madison, and the other three men on the Board of Visitors (trustees), the following sets forth the authentic sources of our American principles of government and of the Constitution: 

"A resolution was moved and agreed to in the following words: Whereas, it is the duty of this Board to the government under which it lives, and especially to that of which this University is the immediate creation, to pay especial attention to the principles of government which shall be inculcated therein, and to provide that none shall be inculcated which are incompatible with those on which the Constitutions of this State, and of the United States were genuinely based, in the common opinion; and for this purpose it may be necessary to point out specially where these principles are to be found legitimately developed: 

Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Board that as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke, in his "Essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government," and of Sidney in his "Discourses on government," may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and the United States, and that on the distinctive principles of the government of our State, and of that of the United States, the best guides are to be found in:

1. The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental act of union of these States. 
2. The book known by the title of "The Federalist," being an authority to which appeal is habitually made by all, and rarely declined or denied by any as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed, and of those who accepted the Constitution of the United States, on questions as to its genuine meaning. 
3. The Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1799 on the subject of the alien and sedition laws, which appeared to accord with the predominant sense of the people of the United States. 
4. The Valedictory [farewell] Address of President Washington, as conveying political lessons of peculiar value. …"[2] 

It is significant that Jefferson and Madison determined that these specific "founding" documents and books constitute the "best guides" to teaching and understanding the Constitution and our republican form of government. It is also enlightening that out of all of the numerous books that Jefferson and Madison had read and studied on politics and government (including Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hobbes, Bolingbroke), they elevated Locke and Sidney's writings as the two works containing the "general principles of liberty and rights of man, in nature and in society." 

We also learn from Jefferson and Madison's list of "best guides," that the Constitution is based upon certain principles. These principles formed the basis for the raising up and establishment of our democratic, constitutional republic, which was designed to "secure the Blessings of Liberty" to us and our posterity. True principles, of course, are timeless and unchanging, and their applications are universal. As Algernon Sidney wrote, "…truth is comprehended by examining principles."[3]

May we as citizens, students, parents, and teachers endeavor to study, learn, and teach these documents and the principles of Constitution in the tradition of Jefferson, Madison, and our other founding fathers.

Download a free copy of "Thomas Jefferson & James Madison's Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Constitution," published by WJMI, at:
[1] James Madison to George Thomson, June 30, 1825, The Writings of James Madison, 4 Volumes (J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1865) 3:492.
[2] Minutes of the Board of Visitors, March 4, 1825, ME 19:460-61 (cited as “Minutes”).
[3] Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (London: A. Millar, London, 1751), I:3:8 (cited as “Discourses”).

Sunday, February 11, 2018

James Madison and the Teaching of the Constitution

On February 8th, 1825, James Madison replied to Thomas Jefferson from Montpelier regarding the teaching of the Constitution at the newly established University of Virginia.  Madison sat on its Board of Visitors along with  Thomas Jefferson, the university's founder and Rector. Jefferson had previously written to ask his long time friend and political collaborator to advise concerning the proposed constitutional curriculum. In this letter Madison sets forth his thoughts on the best sources of the principles or "true doctrines of liberty" exemplified by the Constitution. In the end, he recommends using the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Resolutions and Washington's Inaugural and Farewell Addresses as the "best guides" to the "distinctive principles" of the Government of the United States.  His recommendations were largely adopted by the Board of Visitors of the University by a resolution on March 4, 1825. See:
Following is the primary text of Madison's letter, and his sketch for the teaching of the Constitution, which should be instructive to all citizens of the republic and students of the Constitution -- from the "father" of this, our great charter of freedom and self-government:

Dear Sir: 
…I have looked with attention over your intended proposal of a text book for the Law School. It is certainly very material that the true doctrines of liberty, as exemplified in our Political System, should be inculcated on those who are to sustain and may administer it. It is, at the same time, not easy to find Standard books that will be both guides & guards for the purpose. Sydney & Locke are admirably calculated to impress on young minds the right of Nations to establish their own Governments, and to inspire a love of free ones; but afford no aid in guarding our Republican Charters against constructive violations. The Declaration of Independence, tho’ rich in fundamental principles, and saying every thing that could be said in the same number of words, falls nearly under a like observation. The “Federalist” may fairly enough be regarded as the most authentic exposition of the text of the federal Constitution, as understood by the Body which prepared & the Authorities which accepted it. Yet it did not foresee all the misconstructions which have occurred; nor prevent some that it did foresee. And what equally deserves remark, neither of the great rival parties have acquiesced in all its Comments. It may nevertheless be admissible as a School book, if any will be that goes so much into detail. It has been actually admitted into two Universities, if not more, those of Harvard & Rhode Island; but probably at the choice of the Professors, without an injunction from the superior authority. With respect to the Virginia Document of 1799, there may be more room for hesitation. Tho’ corresponding with the predominant sense of the Nation; being of local origin & having reference to a state of parties not yet extinct, an absolute prescription of it, might excite prejudices against the University as under Party Banners, and induce the more bigoted to withhold from it their sons, even when destined for other than the studies of the Law School. It may be added that the Document is not, on every point, satisfactory to all who belong to the same party. Are we sure that to our brethren of the Board it is so? In framing a political Creed, a like difficulty occurs as in the case of religion though the public right be very different in the two cases. If the Articles be in very general terms, they do not answer the purpose: if in very particular terms, they divide & exclude where meant to unite & fortify. The best that can be done in our case seems to be, to avoid the two extremes, by referring to selected Standards without requiring an unqualified conformity to them, which indeed might not in every instance be possible. The selection would give them authority with the Students, and might control or counteract deviations of the Professor. I have, for your consideration, sketched a modification of the operative passage in your draught, with a view to relax the absoluteness of its injunction, and added to your list of Documents, the Inaugural Speech and the Farewell Address of President Washington. They may help down what might be less readily swallowed, and contain nothing which is not good; unless it be the laudatory reference in the Address to the Treaty of 1795 with G. B. which ought not to weigh against the sound sentiments characterizing it. 

After all, the most effectual safeguard against heretical intrusions into the School of politics, will be an Able & Orthodox Professor, whose course of instruction will be an example to his Successors, and may carry with it a sanction from the Visitors. 
Affectionately yours, 
James Madison 

[Enclosure] Sketch: And on the distinctive principles of the Government of our own State, and of that of the United States, the best guides are to be found in: 1. The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental Act of Union of these States. 2. The book known by the title of the “Federalist,” being an Authority to which appeal is habitually made by all & rarely declined or denied by any, as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed & those who accepted the Constitution of the U. States, on questions as to its genuine meaning. 3. The Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1799 on the subject of the Alien & Sedition laws, which appeared to accord with the predominant sense of the people of the U. S. 4 The Inaugural Speech and Farewell Address of President Washington, as conveying political lessons of peculiar value; and that in the branch of the School of law which is to treat on the subject of Government these shall be used as the text & documents of the School.[1]

For a free copy of "Thomas Jefferson & James Madison's Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Constitution," published by WJMI, visit:
[1](Rives Collection, Madison Papers, University of Virginia)[some spelling modernized; emphasis added]

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Favorite Quotes from Ronald Reagan

Ronald Wilson Reagan (February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004) was an American politician who served as the 40th President of the United States from 1981 to 1989. Prior to the presidency, he was a Hollywood actor and union leader before serving as the 33rd Governor of California from 1967 to 1975. As President of the United States he inspired a generation and his term saw a restoration of prosperity at home, with the goal of achieving “peace through strength” abroad. Notably, through his convictions and moral force as a leader, he led an end to the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and he is credited with helping bring down the Berlin Wall, with his famous words spoken on June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In 2011, anti-communist leader Lech Walesa unveiled a statue of Ronald Reagan in Warsaw, honoring the late U.S. president for inspiring Poland's own overthrow of communism. Here are a few of my favorite Reagan quotes: 

“The American dream is not that every man must be level with every other man. The American dream is that every man must be free to become whatever God intends he should become.” 

“We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” 

“Government's first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.” 

“The ultimate determinate in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas - a trial of spiritual resolve; the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish and the ideas to which we are dedicated.” 

“I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: as government expands, liberty contracts.” 

“I believe we can embark on a new age of reform in this country and an era of national renewal. An era that will reorder the relationship between citizen and government, that will make government again responsive to people, that will revitalize the values of family, work, and neighborhood and that will restore our private and independent social institutions. These institutions always have served as both buffer and bridge between the individual and the state—and these institutions, not government, are the real sources of our economic and social progress as a people.”

“If we lose freedom here [in America], there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth”

“We celebrated our 200th anniversary as a nation a short time ago. Fireworks exploded over Boston harbor, Arthur Fiedler conducted, thousands cheered and waved Old Glory. These were not just images of a bicentennial; they were reminders of our birthright of freedom—and of generous, fervent patriotism that burns in America. A patriotism that shows itself sometimes in very unexpected places. Remember "baseball's designated patriot"—Rick Monday—an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs who on April 25, 1976, at Dodger Stadium grabbed our flag from two demonstrators who were trying to burn it in center field—and as he came off the field to the dugout, carrying the flag, thousands stood and cheered and then found themselves singing “God Bless America.”

“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.”

“The men of Normandy [on D-Day June 6, 1944] had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or the next. It was the deep knowledge -- and pray to God we have not lost it -- that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.” 

“Since her beginning America has held fast to this hope of divine providence, this vision of "man with God." It is true that world peace is jeopardized by those who view man—not as a noble being—but as an accident of nature, without soul, and important only to the extent he can serve an all powerful state. But it is our spiritual commitment—more than all the military might in the world—that will win our struggle for peace. It is ... belief and resolve—it is humility before God that is ultimately the source of America's strength as a nation.” 

“I've spoken of [America as] the shining city [on a hill] all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still.” 

“At this very moment, some young American, coming up along the Virginia or Maryland shores of the Potomac is seeing for the first time the lights that glow on the great halls of our government and the monuments to the memory of our great men. Let us resolve tonight that young Americans will always see those Potomac lights; that they will always find there a city of hope in a country that is free. And let us resolve they will say of our day and our generation that we did keep faith with our God, that we did act "worthy of ourselves;" that we did protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.”

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Obstruction of the Laws

“All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.” -- George Washington (Farewell Address, 1796)

As our first President clearly stated, obstruction of the laws under any character are of fatal tendency to our republic. Our nation was founded on the principle that no man, king or commoner, senator or governor, mayor or citizen, is above the law. As John Adams wrote in his Thoughts on Government (1776), "There is no good government but what is republican...[T]he true idea of a republic is 'an empire of laws, and not of men.' That, as a republic is the best of governments, so that particular arrangement of the powers of society, or in other words, that form of government which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the law, is the best of republics." And, as John Locke simply stated, “…where there is no law, there is no freedom.” (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 6, sec. 57).

Our Constitutional republic was designed as a “compound” or dual republic -- there is a federal republic and each State is also a republic. Thus, the United States of America is a federal republic comprised of a union of 50 republics. This principle, and the balance of power shared between the federal government and the States is called “federalism.” As James Madison said in Federalist Papers No. 51, “In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America [federal and state], the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.” As with its other aspects, this balance of power and law under the Constitution is designed to protect our individual and mutual liberty.

When the manners and morals of the people degenerate, their respect for the law likewise diminishes. We may observe this in various forms both in our society and in the political arena. Samuel Adams wrote concerning this: “A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy... [this spirit] established the Independence of America; and nothing but opposite principles and manners can overthrow it.” --Letter to James Warren (February 12, 1779).

Another factor in the degeneration of respect for law is the “spirit of party,” or unmitigated partisanship. When party loyalties take precedence over principle, and lead men to ignore the application of the law and justice to their situation because of their passion for a cause (or their own self-interests), no matter how right they may seem or how convenient, respectively, anarchy lies ahead and the possible “ruin of Public Liberty” forewarned by George Washington.

Washington purposefully addressed this theme in his Farewell Address:

"Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension… is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually… [lead to] the ruins of Public Liberty."

Of course some laws may not be just or fair, or they may be outdated and inapplicable. But if we face or encounter unjust laws, we must be patient and diligent in our cause, allowing “the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests” to overturn, change or modify such laws. Simple or blatant obstruction of the law is not the solution, and is of “fatal tendency.” The Constitution was established to provide the necessary checks and balances on elected leaders, departments of government, and citizens themselves. Our loyalty should ever be to the Constitution first, not to lesser laws or issues. Both principles of federalism and the tenth amendment should be upheld, but not ill-conceived and out-dated notions of ignoring federal law while enforcing state law (or vise versa), or of “nullification.” We would be wise if in our day we would give heed to the warnings of Washington and Adams, etc. by reversing the gradual decline of manners and morals, avoiding extreme partisanship, and recognizing the supreme importance of honoring, sustaining and obeying the laws of the land, both state and federal -- in order to maintain a “more perfect Union.”
Also see: Tony Williams' Essay "The Federalist, Human Nature, and Forms of Government"

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Winston Churchill Quotes

I recently saw the motion picture “Darkest Hour” about the early days of World War II, when the fall of France was imminent and Britain was facing its darkest hour as the threat of a Nazi invasion loomed. As the seemingly unstoppable German Panzer forces advanced, and with the Allied army of over 300,000 soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe seemingly rested on the shoulders of the newly-appointed, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. While maneuvering his political rivals, and cajoling a reluctant War Cabinet and Parliament, Churchill confronts a fateful choice: negotiate with Hitler and potentially save the British people at an unimaginable cost, or rally the courage his country to fight against tyranny and incredible odds. Trailer:
I highly recommend this film and agree with this review: “Some movies are so good they make us feel grateful.” -- San Francisco Chronicle. Whether or not you have seen the movie or choose to, here are a few memorable quotes from this great statesman, historian, and leader:

“It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

“To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.”

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

“In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.”

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

“When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber.”

“If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.”

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

“Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.”

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened.”

“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile—hoping it will eat him last.”

“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.”

“If you are going through hell, keep going.”

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

World War II Quotes:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“You ask, What is our policy? I will say; ‘It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.’ You ask, What is our aim? I can answer with one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

“If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fall, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour!’”
Quote Source:

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Founding Fathers and the Classics

"I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past." 
--Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775

"Patrick Henry’s view of the value of history was not unique. The men who framed our constitutional republic agreed with French author Charles Pinot Duclos, who observed:

'We see on the theater of the world a certain number of scenes which succeed each other in endless repetitionwhere we see the same faults followed regularly by the same misfortunes, we may reasonably think that if we could have known the first we might have avoided the others.The past should enlighten us on the futureknowledge of history is no more than an anticipated experience.'

All our Founding Fathers believed that history was a precursor of the future. In the annals of history — particularly that of the Greek and Roman republics of antiquity — they believed they could find the key to inoculating America against the diseases that infected and destroyed past societies. Indeed, it has been said that the Founders were coroners examining the lifeless bodies of the republics and democracies of the past, in order to avoid succumbing to the maladies that shortened their lives.

The Founders learned very early in life to venerate the illuminating stories of ancient Greece and Rome. They learned these stories, not from secondary sources, but from the classics themselves. And from these stories they drew knowledge and inspiration that helped them found a republic far greater than anything created in antiquity.

Early Education
Classical training usually began at age eight, whether in a school or at home under the guidance of a private tutor. One remarkable teacher who inculcated his students with a love of the classics was Scotsman Donald RobertsonMany future luminaries were enrolled in his school: James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John Tyler and George Rogers Clark, among others. Robertson and teachers like him nourished their charges with a healthy diet of Greek and Latin, and required that they learn to master Virgil, Horace, Justinian, Tacitus, Herodotus, Plutarch, Lucretius and ThucydidesFurther along in their education, students were required to translate Cicero’s Orations and Virgil’s Aeneid. They were expected to translate Greek and Latin passages aloud, write out the translations in English, and then re-translate the passages back into the original language using a different tense.

The standards were no less rigorous for those taught at homeGeorge Wythe, the renowned Virginian who would come to be known as the “Teacher of Liberty,” was himself taught to appreciate the writings of the ancients at home by his motherTragically, Wythe’s mother died when he was very young, but she lived long enough to anchor her son’s education on very firm moorings. Before she died she taught Wythe to read and translate both the fundamental languages of antiquity, Greek and Latin. According to one early biographer, Wythe “had a perfect knowledge of the Greek language taught to him by his mother in the backwoods.”

Whether at home or in a schoolhouse, the goal of education in the early days of our nation was to instill virtue in the students. The Founders were taught that free societies were sustained by a virtuous populace, and that, if a society were to abandon a study of the classics, that same society would eventually abandon the virtues championed by the classical authors.

There was a more pragmatic side to the Founders’ classical education as wellTwenty-seven of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were college educated. Moreover, of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, 30 were college graduates. That is an impressive feat given the challenging entrance requirements of 18th-century universities. Fortunately for the young Founding Fathers, the teachers of the day exercised their students in Greek and Latin, so that their pupils could meet the rigorous entrance requirements of colonial collegesThose colleges stipulated that entering freshmen be able to read, translate and expound the Greco-Roman classical works.

Such requirements were nearly universal in America and remained unchanged for generations. Teachers concentrated their lessons on the works of those classical authors on which students would be tested prior to admission to college. A brief survey of the entrance requirements for colonial colleges will testify to the enlightenment of our Founding Fathers — as well as to the astounding decline in the educational standards of our day.

In 1750, Harvard demanded that applicants be able to extemporaneously “read, construe, and parse Cicero, Virgil, or such like classical authors and to write Latin in prose, and to be skilled in making Latin verse, or at least to know the rules of Prosodia, and to read, construe, and parse ordinary Greek as in the New testament, Isocrates, or such like and decline the paradigms of Greek nouns and verbs.” Of note is the fact that John Trumball, the illustrious artist, passed Harvard’s exacting entrance exam at only 12 years of age.

Alexander Hamilton’s alma mater, King’s College (now Columbia), had similarly stringent prerequisites for prospective students. Applicants were required to “give a rational account of the Greek and Latin grammars, read three orations of Cicero and three books of Virgil’s Aeneid, and translate the first 10 chapters of John from Greek into Latin.”

James Madison had it no easier when he applied for entrance to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1769. Madison and his fellow applicants were obliged to demonstrate “the ability to write Latin prose, translate Virgil, Cicero, and the Greek gospels and a commensurate knowledge of Latin and Greek grammar.”

College lessons were as demanding as the entrance exams. American colonial curricula were based on the Latin “trivium” of rhetoric, logic, and grammar, as well as the “quadrivium” of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Unlike modern universities, where elective courses are innumerable and often inane, the colleges attended by our Founding Fathers offered very few elective courses and coursework focused chiefly on the study of classical worksAnd those works were in the languages in which they were originally written! Students were taught lessons in virtue and liberty from the works of Herodotus, Xenophon, Plutarch, Livy, Sallust, Tacitus and PolybiusThomas Jefferson’s classmates recalled that he studied at least 15 hours a day and carried his Greek grammar book with him wherever he went.

Because of the formidable classical curricula at colonial colleges, the classics became a well from which the Founders drank deeply. In the classics, the Founding Fathers found their heroes and villains, and they also detected warning signs along the road of statecraft on which they would tread.

Heroes and Villains
Ancient history provided the Founders with examples of behavior and circumstances that they could apply to their own circumstancesTheir heroes were Roman and Greek republicans and defenders of liberty. All of the Founders’ Roman heroes lived at a time when the Roman republic was being threatened by power-hungry demagogues, bloodthirsty dictators and shadowy conspirators. The Founders’ principal Greco-Roman heroes were Roman statesmenCato the Younger, Brutus, Cassius and Cicero — all of whom sacrificed their lives in unsuccessful attempts to save the republic — as well as the celebrated Greek lawgivers Lycurgus and Solon.

Cato the Younger was a Roman of sterling reputation who lived from approximately 95 B.C. to 46 B.C. He is described as being “unmoved by passion and firm in everything,” even from his youth. He was renowned for finishing whatever he started and for hating flattery. He embraced every Roman virtue, and he was especially appreciated for his sense of justice and his even temperament. As a senator, Cato was always in attendance when the Senate was in session. A no-nonsense legislator, Cato was hated by Pompey and Caesar for his integrity and for his refusal to aid them in their corrupt plans to usurp power. Although they imprisoned him, the public clamored for his release and Caesar reluctantly complied.

Unable to squelch Cato’s attacks on their corrupt policies, Caesar and Pompey sent him to Cyprus. Finally, Cato aligned himself with Brutus against Caesar, a decision that would eventually cost him his life. George Washington admired Cato so greatly that he had Joseph Addison’s play about Cato performed in Valley Forge to boost the troops’ morale.

Roman heroes very dear to the hearts of the Founders also included Brutus and Cassius. Brutus was admired by his contemporaries for his pleasant disposition and virtuous temper. Even those who opposed his attack on Caesar believed that Brutus was motivated by a genuine concern for the republic and not by personal animosity toward CaesarMarc Antony himself said that Brutus was “the only man that conspired against Caesar out of a sense of the glory and justice of the action; but all the rest rose up against the man, and not the tyrant …” America’s Founders looked to Brutus and Cassius as role models because their only aim in overthrowing Caesar was to restore the constitutional Roman government and republican liberties.

The most popular Roman hero of the Founding Fathers was Cicero, the silver-tongued Roman orator. Cicero lived from approximately 106 B.C. to 43 B.C. John Adams, in his Defense of the Constitution, said of Cicero: “All of the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero…” First as a lawyer, then as a consul and senator, Cicero boldly defended the republic against the rise of dictators. Cicero delivered his greatest speeches in defense of the republic against the Catilinarian Conspiracy.

The Catilinarian Conspiracy was a plot to overthrow the republic, hatched by aristocrat Lucius Sergius Catiline with the help of a cabal of aristocrats and disaffected veterans. In 63 B.C., Cicero exposed and thwarted the plot, and Catiline was forced to flee from Rome. For his service in saving Rome, Cicero was given the title “Father of his Country” [Pater Patriae] by his countrymen. Like Brutus and Cassius, Cicero’s courageous defense of republican liberty in the face of designing conspirators made him a logical model for emulation by our Founding Fathers.

Regarding the Greek classics, the American Founding Fathers greatly admired Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta. Lycurgus lived in the 9th century B.C. and reformed the entire Spartan commonwealth. His most important reform was the establishment of a senate equal in authority with the monarchy in matters of great importance. Prior to Lycurgus’ innovation, the Spartan government swayed between monarchy and democracy, depending on whether the king or the people had the upper hand. The senate served as a check on the excesses of both king and subjects. The biographer Plutarch called Lycurgus’ institutions “one of the greatest blessings which heaven can send down.”

Another Greek famed for his reform of the law was Solon. Born in Athens about 638 B.C., Solon achieved glory as one of the “Seven Sages of Greece.” Around 590 B.C., he was given the task of reforming the Athenian constitution. Solon’s improvements included the right of trial by jury and the division of society into several bodies that would balance and check each other in governing Athens. After finishing his constitutional reforms, Solon left Athens for 10 years. While he was away, Pisistratus, his former friend, usurped control of the government and fastened tyrannical controls on Athens. Both Lycurgus and Solon appreciated the need for incorporating checks and balances into government, a need that the American Founders understood just as acutely.

Detecting Conspiracy
As the Founders read the histories of the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman republics recorded by Herodotus, Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, Plutarch Polybius and others, they learned that the liberties enjoyed by the citizens of those commonwealths were quite often targeted by conspiracies of men determined to enslave the people and establish themselves as tyrants. The founders recognized that the conspiratorial view of history was not a theory — it was a fact.

Ancient historians were straightforward in their reports of the secret plots. Surveying the litany of British monarchical abuses, our Founders rightly perceived that the shrouded hand of an evil conspiracy was at work in America and England, just as it had been in the Roman republic they so admired. Famed patriot Charles Carroll of Carrollton invoked the record of Roman historian Tacitus when he wrote that the conspiracy of his own time had led America and England to “that degree of liberty and servitude which [Servius Sulpicius] Galba ascribes to the Roman people in the speech to [Gaius Calpurnius] Piso: those same Romans, a few years after that period, deified the horse of Caligula.”

The equally eminent and historically minded John Adams also applied analogies from the Roman republic to the increasingly open threat to the foundations of English liberty by corrupt legislators. The government of England, he said (quoting Roman historian Sallust), had descended to the level where “the Roman republic was when Jugurtha left it, having pronounced it a ‘venal city, ripe for destruction if it can only find a purchaser.‘ ”  Sallust was a valuable and oft-cited source of warnings as to the consequences of government corruption and intrigue.

Our Founders heeded these warnings about power elites who used corruption, intrigue, and personal immorality to neutralize public concern and dampen zeal for the protection of liberty. From the 18th to the 21st century, it would seem times have changed very little.

James Madison insightfully noted that most of the tyrants of history masqueraded as democrats, and over time revealed themselves to be power hungry dictators and shameless demagogues. Alexander Hamilton, an astute student of classical history, devoted his first contribution to The Federalist Papers to a warning against tyrants or “men who have over-turned the liberties of republics, commencing as demagogues and ending as tyrants.”

From such statements, it is evident that Adams, Madison, Hamilton and other Founders understood that, throughout the history of the Greek and Roman republics, tyrants were more likely than not to begin their political careers as populists and democrats and to end them as despots. Such demagogues were men of prominence who used their popular support to force their will upon an unsuspecting and trusting populace. As Greek historian Thucydides remarked, “You may rule over anyone whom you can dominate.”

Madison’s study of the ancient Greek confederacies revealed to him that almost every one of these republics came to an end as a result of conspiracy among domestic demagogues and foreign allies. Hamilton called these insidious cabals the “Grecian Horse to a republic.” Both men worried that the same scheme would eventually destroy the American union. This fear, coupled with a thorough understanding of history, made the Founders vigilant guardians against the rise of such combinations in their own nascent republic.

Madison, James Wilson and others who systematically studied the ancient republics and confederacies noted that conspiracies were rampant among them. Those who were successful in carrying out such evil designs would expose and vehemently rail against similar acts on the part of others, thus painting themselves as guardians of liberty. The source of all this evil was an unquenchable thirst for powerPower was the end, and conspiracy was the means commonly used to satisfy the rapacious appetite for dominion.

From Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Jefferson, Adams, Dickinson, Madison, Hamilton and other diligent patriot-scholars learned of a particularly pernicious deception practiced by tyrannically minded conspirators. These instigators would place their fellow conspirators in leadership positions on both sides of a controversy, constantly inciting the “opposing” factions against one another until the innocent citizens didn’t know what to believe. Our American republic in the 21st century is little different, as Democrats and Republicans adamantly “oppose” one another, while between their rival policies lurks not a dime’s worth of difference.

A companion evil to the conspiracies that contaminated and eventually annihilated the ancient commonwealths was the gradual erosion of liberty by seemingly harmless and legal acts. In Demosthenes’ writings, the Founders read of how Philip of Macedon — by slow and nearly imperceptible means — dismantled Athenian freedom. Philip was an enemy even to those who fancied themselves his allies. He used “legal” means to subvert the constitution and rob Athens of her liberty. His favorite tactic was to create frivolous diversions and provide luxuries to lull the Athenians into a false sense of security and distract them from noticing Philip’s usurpations.

Unfortunately, Philip succeeded in gaining control of Athens and in making her formerly freedom-loving citizens slaves to his will. Jefferson described such gradual and planned usurpations this way:  “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day, but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.” Will we prove wiser and more zealous protectors of our sacred liberties?

One of the best ways of demonstrating our respect for our Founding Fathers, and our dedication to the principles of liberty they bequeathed to us, is to study the books they studied. By so doing, we will come to appreciate, as they did, that republics are as fragile as they are glorious. We will also more fully recognize that unassailable personal virtue and vigilant loyalty to constitutional principals are the only hope for perpetuation of the freedom that our forebears bought with their blood. May we learn from the successes and failures of the ancients and not allow the “lamp of experience” to be extinguished in our lives."

Wolverton, The New American. 20 September 2004. pp. 35 – 39.