By Rob Natelson – December 6, 2022
As explained in the second installment, 18th-century schoolboys weren’t expected to be as proficient in Greek as in Latin. However, they learned to read relatively easy Greek texts, including the New Testament and the writings of Xenophon. Schoolboys also were introduced to excerpts from more difficult material, including Plato’s writings about Socrates.
Members of the founding generation who attended college—James Madison, for one—did acquire proficiency in Greek. They became very familiar with the views of Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato.
Although most 18th-century Americans didn’t attend college or even get very far in their grammar school Hellenic studies, Greek ideas trickled down through the general population. A delegate to a state convention called to ratify the Constitution probably had a pretty good idea of who Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato were, even if the delegate had never studied Greek. The records of the Constitution’s ratification show participants in the constitutional debates repeatedly referring to Socrates and Plato and, more rarely, to Xenophon.
In truth, the influence of these three pioneers was greater than the number of references suggests, because participants commonly relied on the works of later writers, such as Polybius and Montesquieu, who had, in turn, built on the ideas of Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato.
John Adams may serve as an example of a leading Founder who relied on Plato.
During the Confederation period, the French philosophe Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (the name is masculine) claimed that the separation of powers in the new American state constitutions was a useless imitation of the British structure. Turgot contended that it would have been better to center all authority in democratically elected legislatures.
In 1786, Adams was serving the Confederation Congress as a diplomat in Europe. He had been the principal author of the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution, so Turgot’s attack on that document was, in a sense, an attack on him. Adams responded with a three-volume work, the “Defence of the Constitutions of the United States.”
Adams’s underlying theme was that power should be split among legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. However, he went far beyond the theme to create a veritable encyclopedia of republican governments.
Adams first volume hit the Philadelphia bookstores shortly before the Constitutional Convention met, and the book circulated freely at the convention itself. It outlined the political systems of several contemporaneous republics, including Venice, the Netherlands (then a federal republic), and the Swiss cantons. It also examined ancient republics, such as Athens, Corinth, Carthage, and Rome, and it discussed the views of several ancient scholars.
Adams summarized Plato’s treatment of how political structures change and deteriorate: Monarchy mutates into aristocracy, aristocracy into oligarchy, oligarchy into democracy, and democracy into tyranny. (Some of Plato’s reasons why democracies degenerate into tyrannies were licentiousness, disregard for the rule of law, and rendering “Strangers [i.e., foreigners] equal to citizens.”)
Adams derived two central lessons from Plato and from later writers who relied on Plato. The first was that any national constitution shouldn’t be purely democratic, but should feature monarchical and aristocratic elements as well. It should include a chief executive with some monarchical powers, a Senate to serve as an aristocratic branch, and a democratic House of Representatives. The other lesson was that the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic branches should be balanced against each other.
As explained in the initial essay in this series, after the framers wrote the Constitution, the Confederation Congress sent it to the states for ratification. We now have available a virtually complete record of the ratification process—thanks to a team of scholars who worked for nearly 50 years to create the “Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.”
The “Documentary History” enables us to track references to Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato among participants in the constitutional debates. Those participants included delegates to the ratifying conventions and members of the wider public. They also included advocates of the Constitution (“Federalists”) and its opponents (“Antifederalists”).
One example was an Antifederalist who wrote under the pen name “A Farmer” (probably John Francis Mercer of Maryland). The “Farmer” praised “Socrates, Plato and Plutarch for those moral lessons which form the human heart to virtue.”
Another prominent Antifederalist was Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. In a letter to a physician who favored ratification, Lee gently suggested that the physician was “better acquainted with Hippocrates than with Plato.”
On the Federalist side, Hugh Brackenridge, a Pennsylvania lawyer who later served on the state supreme court, acknowledged the foundational contributions of ancient scholars such as Plato. And Edmund Pendleton, who chaired the Virginia state ratifying convention, argued that the Constitution’s opponents were seeking perfection. Relying (somewhat backhandedly) on Plato’s views of how governments deteriorate, Pendleton wrote:
“An Absolute Monarchy ruins the People; one limited injures the Prince: An Aristocracy creates intrigues amongst the great & oppressions of the Poor, & a Democracy produces tumults & convulsions … Nay the Speculative Ideas of it, have met the same Fate, since the Republic of Plato … so that the search for that Perfection is as vain as that for the Universal.”
Still another Federalist, Charles Carroll of Maryland, wrote of the degeneration of republics by recalling the degeneration of the Athenians: “They were better pleased with the coarse buffooneries of a comic poet, & his illiberal abuse of the godlike Socrates …” so “him they doomed to die, because his precepts & practice were a constant reproach to their doctrines, & vices.”
Disputants sometimes took advantage of public familiarity with Plato and “Socrates the Wise” (as one author called him) to teach specific lessons.
Thus, the Antifederalist “Farmer” warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing: “Thus we often see a living Catiline [impersonating] a dead Cicero and a modern Thersites [a villain from Homer’s “Iliad“] assuming the ancient name of the sage Socrates or divine Plato.” On the Federalist side, Madison invoked Socrates as a measure of goodness and warned about the dangers of mob rule: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
Other participants criticized Socrates—and especially Plato—because their conclusions rested heavily on theory rather than on practical experience. The pro-Constitution author calling himself “Americanus” claimed that political science hadn’t been perfected until after the Glorious Revolution in England (1688–89). Prior to that, he wrote, “Plato [and others] amused themselves with forming visionary schemes of perfect Governments, but, for want of experimental knowledge, their plans are no better than romances, the extravagant sallies of an exuberant imagination.”
An Antifederalist author presented a more measured critique: “Amicus Plato, Amicus Socrates, sed major Amicus Veritas” (“Plato is a friend, Socrates is a friend, but a greater friend is Truth”). Another Antifederalist lamented the speed with which the first seven states had ratified the Constitution:
“For though it may, like Plato’s republic, please our fancy by exhibiting to our views delightful scenes and flattering prospects; but experience, the great mother of knowledge, only can evince us whether its effects will meet with our approbation, or whether they will be consistent with our welfare, or the contrary?”
On the other hand, some Federalists expressed pride precisely because they considered the proposed Constitution more reality-based than Plato’s “Republic.” Madison wrote that in an ideal government, “A reverence for the laws, would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.”
We’ll leave the last word to John Adams: After most states had ratified, he asked, “What would Aristotle and Plato have said if any one had talked to them, of a foederative Republick of thirteen states, inhabiting a Country of five hundred Leagues in extent?”
And that forms a good segue to Aristotle, the subject of the next installment.
Robert G. Natelson, a former constitutional law professor who is senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver, authored “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015). He is a contributor to the Heritage Foundation’s “Heritage Guide to the Constitution.”