14 September 2006 - Thursday

The wisdom of the ancients

One of the more obvious tendencies of the American revolutionary generation was a penchant for classical references. Of course, the republican vibe worked well with allusions to Greece and Rome, and American writers resorted frequently to ancient history for evidence in favor of their positions.

Every once in a while, I find myself sympathizing with one Martin Howard, Jr., a loyalist who in 1765 chastised another American pamphleteer:

But there is something extremely weak and inconclusive in recurring to the Grecian and Roman history for examples to illustrate any particular favorite opinion: If a deference to the ancients should direct the practice of the moderns, we might sell our children to pay our debts, and justify it by the practice of the Athenians. We might lend our wives to our friends, and justify it from the Example of Cato, among the Romans. In a word, my dear Sir, the belly of a sow, pickled, was a high dish in ancient Rome; and I imagine, as you advance in the refinements of luxury, this will become a capital part of a Rhode Island feast, so fond you seem of ancient customs and laws.

Instead of wandering in the labyrinth of ancient colonies, I would advise his honour to read the debates in parliament in the year one thousand seven hundred and thirty-three, when Mr. Partridge, your agent, petitioned the commons against the then sugar-bill; he will there find more satisfaction upon the subject of colonies, than in Thucydides's history of the Pelopennesian war.

"A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax," in Tracts of the American Revolution 1763-1776, ed. Merrill Jensen (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966; reprint by Hackett Publishing, 2003)

| Posted by Wilson at 18:58 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk