Bringing the Revolution into Focus

Siege of Yorktown. By: John Trumbull.

To fully understand the magnitude and impact of the American Revolution, context is crucial. While the Enlightenment was the process of society learning “the sources of a flourishing society and human happiness,” the Revolution was the process of finding the best form of government perhaps the world has ever known. See Gordon Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, 59.

The context of the American Revolution is what makes it extraordinary. It became an exploration of the past, selecting the elements that best would be adopted in a new system of government. As Gordon Wood explained in The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, “the history of antiquity inevitably became a kind of laboratory in which autopsies of the dead republics, especially Rome, would lead to a science of political sickness and health.” Id.

The systems and principles that characterized Ancient Rome became an inspiration for what republicanism truly meant for Americans. It also became clear that republicanism principles could even penetrate the most ardent of monarchies: the English crown. See id. at 63. Thus, the early Americans must have known that their principles and beliefs could form a foundation for a stable government.

Many of the Founding Fathers, including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, saw America as a reincarnation of sorts of the Ancient Roman republic. See id. at 72. The Founding Fathers, when constructing the American system of government incorporated the ideas of mixed government and open citizenship. Id. As John Adams said, Rome had “the noblest people and [was] the greatest power that has ever existed.” Id. quoting Reinhold, Classica Americana, 98.

Comparisons to Ancient Rome were abound as well, with Samuel Adams being “one of Plutarch’s men” and George Washington being analogized to an American Cincinnatus. Gordon Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, 73. Even geographic locations were named after Ancient Rome, including a tributary river that fed into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., called Goose Creek, which early Americans renamed the Tiber, after the river running through Rome. Id. at 72.

While by the 1820s America would shift from an imitative country to more of a pioneering country, perhaps believing itself to be more exceptional then, the structures were already in place. See id. at 76. Since those early days of the Republic, there are still innumerable similarities to Ancient Rome in present-day America, whether it be architecture, government systems, public opinion, or otherwise.

Some would view America as the present torch bearer for the highest of ideals for government and society. That torch can first be traced to Ancient Egypt, then to Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, through the European countries during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, to America during the Industrial Revolution and some would argue to the present day.

Certainly, Europe and America carry pieces of the Ancient Roman ideals to the present day. Merely a cursory review of the history of Ancient Rome reveals this and more. This is no accident. The Founding Fathers looked to the most successful societies as they foresaw America’s future, and the Founding Fathers ensured that the American Revolution would put America on a path toward sustainability and prosperity, hoping that America could match the prolonged success of Rome.

While it is too early to know whether America can match Rome in those respects, the Founding Fathers’ actions have served America quite well.

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