Part two of the research into the Greek influence on the Constitution. Enjoy.
Coming out of the colonial educational system, the Founders were so well versed in the classics that they often used the ancient example to illustrate their fears or their beliefs; as they assumed that those listening were equal versed, they often mentioned their example without ever telling the background story. The heroes and villains of ancient Greece became the foundation for the identity of the new nation. The heroism and cunning of Odysseus in the Odyssey, the patriotism of the Spartans and the great Spartan king Leonidas, and the triumph of the small Greek states over the giant empire of Persia were all stories that the impressionable American youth would have taken to heart. An example is a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, written March 3, 1818. In the letter, Jefferson is trying to decide when exactly the revolution first started; his discussion took into account colonial reaction to the Stamp Act, and mentioned that the actions of the citizens of Massachusetts preceded those of the other colonies, among other revolution sparking incidents. He finally decides that “This question of priority is as the inquiry would be, who first of the three hundred Spartans offered his name to Leonidas.”# No explanation is made of who Leonidas is, but it is obvious that President Jefferson expects Dr. Waterhouse to understand the reference.
To Jefferson, the comparison of the American colonialists rising up against the tyrant of England was equivalent to the actions of the Greek King Leonidas and his 300. Leonidas was a Spartan King who led about 7,000 Greeks, against several hundred thousand Persians#, in defense of their homeland at a small pass called Thermopylae. The Greek forces held the Persians for 3 days, till they were finally flanked. The story tells of Leonidas sending all but 300 of the Spartan warriors and 400 other Greek soldiers away, leaving the small force to stand against the might of the Persian army. Leonidas chooses to stay and fight, believing that his sacrifice would bring honor to his people, and that his death would save Sparta from falling to the Persians. Jefferson, therefore, is connecting the colonial choice to stand and fight along side Massachusetts as the same heroic choice the Spartans made, sacrificing their lives for the safety and security of their homes.
The education of the Founders that gave them heroes like Leonidas also gave them a sense of the continuity of the human experience. What has happened before will happen again, and knowing the past was a weapon for changing the future. The Founders looked to the ancient republics as “laboratory specimens to be analyzed and dissected…in order to determine the problems that had to be faced and overcome in establishing a federal republic.”# In that light, the Founders sought out the historians of the ancients, to learn the lessons from the past, and to put their conclusions to the test.
James Madison used these lessons from the past in both his writing of the Federalist Papers and in his speeches during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. “Madison knew that he would have to be well-prepared with his ancient history. Given the classical predilections of he colleagues at Philadelphia, he understood that historical knowledge informed the kind of analogical and deductive reasoning his supporters and opponents, alike, would respect.”# During the Convention he kept copious notes that were, after his death, published into book form. Time and again different members of the Convention used the Greek example to illustrate their point. From slave insurrections, to the ancient confederacies and the “tendency of the parts to encroach on the authority of the whole,”# the framers actively used their understanding of the ancient examples to prove their points in argument. Again, the men at the convention were so well versed with the stories that oftentimes the simply act of mentioning the story was all the was needed.
Madison himself took the ancient experiences seriously, and used them as both lessons and warnings. In the Federalist Paper #38 he wrote that “It is not a little remarkable that in every case reported by ancient history, in which government has been established with deliberation and consent, the task of framing it has not been committed to an assembly of men, but has been performed by some individual citizen of preeminent wisdom and approved integrity…” He then posits the oddity that the Athenian people, so dedicated to their democracy, would choose to give the power of their destiny to only one man, even a man of such eminence as Solon. He make sure to note that the successes and failures of the ancient models “admonish us of the hazards and difficulties incident to such experiments, and of the great imprudence of unnecessarily multiplying them.”# For Madison, the examples of the past told of the pitfalls of the republican system, and only a fool would not listen to the wisdom of the ancient historians and philosophers.
#Note, I'm not adding the sources; however, if you are interested in them, let me know and I'll pass them on. I just don't want to clutter the reading when most people don't really care where the quote came from.