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Classicism and the American Revolution

The symbols, slogans, ideas and architecture of the Founding Fathers were saturated in the world of Ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1778, the year of Saratoga, the grammar school in Norwich, England, received a new set of ordinances containing this requirement: 'That no Language he taught in the said School but Latin and Greek'. A generation later, in the Leeds Grammar case of 1805, Lord Eldon ruled that the headmaster of an endowed grammar school could not legally be compelled to teach anything but Greek and Latin. It is not always remembered that the American Founding Fathers, though educated on colonial soil, were similarly grounded in the classics.

The curriculum at eighteenth-century Harvard required freshmen to 'review the classic authors learned at school', while the first-year course at Princeton was described by its President, John Witherspoon, in 1770 as 'Latin, Greek, classical antiquities and rhetoric'. Five years earlier, Dr John Morgan, in his inaugural address at the University of Pennsylvania, commended the study of 'Greek, in which were the original treasures of medical science, Latin as the common language of physicians and scholars, and French, as needed for current professional literature'. The influence of France on Revolutionary America is well known; the influence of Greek and Roman traditions on the shaping of the new republic deserves to be more carefully documented.

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