The American Constitution: the Journey from Ancient Greece to the Convention of 1787
The real revolution of the American Revolution was not the political break from England, as that, historically speaking, was almost inevitable. The stories of the Greeks and Romans, the lessons from the ancient historians and of the European enlightenment, along with the shift in the American view of hierarchy that followed the American religious Awakenings, all influenced the strength and direction of the new American identity, and the American desire for an independent nation. The American cultural background as British citizens also educated them, as the political journey of England itself was one from subservience to representation. The new political entity the Americans created, though unique for its time, was not totally unique in the history of the world. However, for all the strength of the historical background for the Constitution, its acceptance and the creation of a strong American nation was never a foregone conclusion.
The British, and therefore colonial, background in constitutional practice began with the battle of Hastings in 1066. Hastings brought a French king to England, and with him came the Latin ideals. Pushing out the tribalism that dominated the Germanic background, the new system of laws brought Greek and Latin ideals to the nation. The English were now intimately involved with a history that had supported democracy, and introduced them to the concept of constitutions. In 1215, the nobles of England forced a weak king to sign the Magna Charta; this was the first time in English history where the rights of the people (the English nobles) were written down, and where an English king gave up part of his traditional hierarchical power. This proto constitution would have a lasting impact on the expectations of the following generations, and especially to the American colonists. For them, the very act of starting a colony followed this historical model, with a constitution written to lay out the laws of each colony. The colonies witnessed the Glorious revolution of 1688 in Britain, and the transition of traditional hierarchical rule in England to a constitutional monarchy. This transition would be a stepping stone in the colonial path to a representative republic.
Most of the Founders were well educated, and the colonial educational system was focused on the ancient civilizations. The ancient lessons were so important to the educators of the colonial era that the entrance requirements of the universities included being able to translate Greek and Latin texts. James Madison was so well educated by his primary education that when he got to the College of New Jersey he passed the freshman year courses, by examination rather then by attendance, which included reading Xenophon’s Cyropaedia.# Since the entrance requirement was so specific, the grammar schools of the age drilled their pupils in the languages that would allow further progression.# This high level of preparation would have started at about 12, giving the Founders years to learn the stories of antiquity. The basic form of learning was recitation and translation; after years of reading, speaking, and translating these ancient stories they became a part of the identity of the well educated man.
To be continued...