In our schools over the past century or so, we’ve learned, and quickly forgotten after the test, a little about some of the great philosophers who lived thousands of years ago, the ancient Greek and Roman empires, the Kings of medieval Europe, the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown in the 17th century, and the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Since the early 19th century, academic attention has increasingly shifted to a focus on more utilitarian subjects, particularly STEM over the past half century since the first rockets left the earth’s atmosphere to circle the earth in outer space.
All our Founding Fathers were educated in the early-to-middle 18th century. Some were able to attend the colleges of the day, but most were not so able and were self-taught or homeschooled. Primary and secondary education for all included study of the Bible. Libraries were few until Benjamin Franklin and his Junto Club members started the first public library in the early 18th century. Soon thereafter they started the American Philosophical Society to “promote useful knowledge.”
With so few books and libraries, no internet to provide instantaneous acquisition of virtually any information or knowledge one would like to acquire, no email to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world, no Zoom to interact with experts on any topic, it’s natural to wonder how America’s Founding Fathers could have acquired the knowledge required to write the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and later, the United States Constitution. How were they able to create a Constitution, admired around the world, in only three months meeting in the humid city of Philadelphia in a building with no air conditioning?
Whether in a formal school or not, colonial children had to acquire a broad body of knowledge to survive in the largely agrarian, merchant, and shopkeeper society of that time; knowledge of religion, science, literature, art, rhetoric, human nature, and politics were necessary to solve the problems each would encounter in daily life, both individually and in their spiritual and political communities. Few could afford specialization in one body of knowledge as is more common today. We call those few among us today with such a wide-ranging body of knowledge Renaissance Men (and Women).
The Colonies’ most influential authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison.
Thomas Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary where he studied science, philosophy and law. He learned the law from the leading Virginia legal scholar, George Wythe. Acknowledging the importance of education, he later founded the University of Virginia. Jefferson, well-educated in the classics, “argued that the Declaration of Independence rested on the authority of Cicero and Aristotle as well as that of Locke. This is most evidently seen by Jefferson’s altering of Locke’s natural rights formulation of ‘life, liberty and property’ into the famous American creed: ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration’s preamble.”
John Adams attended Harvard College, which expressed as its primary purpose “to educate future members of a learned ministry and an effective civil government.” At Harvard, all students took the exact same curriculum with no electives, which included courses in theology, mathematics, and natural science. Adams then studied law with a Massachusetts lawyer, which was how preparation for a career in law was conducted in Colonial America.
“It was upon John Adams that Cicero had the greatest influence among early Americans. The Harvard curriculum had at its core in the colonial grammar schools and colleges the study of the Latin and Greek languages, literatures and antiquities, what some called the “Sacred Classics.” The aims of this learning were to expose students to classical authors from whom they could derive “useful knowledge.” And among these selected Classics in early America Cicero took pride of place in the admiration of many liberally educated men as model authority for diction and style, as orator, lawyer, political theorist, letter writer, and guide to “private and public virtue.”
James Madison, considered the “Father of the Constitution,” attended the College of New Jersey (Princeton). His primary and secondary education included mathematics, geography, modern and classical languages, particularly Latin, and ancient philosophy. At college, he studied classical languages, mathematics, rhetoric, geography, philosophy, Hebrew, and political philosophy under university president John Witherspoon, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Because of their education, focused on the “sacred classics,” as described more fully by Professor Joerg Knipprath in Essay #7, our political authors were well-educated in alternate political philosophies and structures. Even those not-highly-educated citizens of Colonial America, in what might be called the Middle Class today, were reasonably familiar with the political thoughts of the day from their pastors, town-hall meetings, and widely distributed pamphlet writings of the more highly educated Colonists.
All our Founding Fathers accepted the Stoic’s fundamental concept of a universal moral order based on reason and nature, but they rejected the Stoic’s concept of an individual moral order being unrelated to the laws of the political community. They understood the importance of religious faith, which at that time was almost exclusively Protestant Christianity, in the development of moral and civic virtue, the necessary ingredients of good government. They recognized the impossible Stoic vision that man could control his passions, prejudices, and pride by perfecting his reason, ethics, and morality. Civic virtue, not perfection, was expected by the founders. As Madison states in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” and in Federalist 55, Madison says that, “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.”
In Federalist 6, Alexander Hamilton notes that a basic assumption about people is that “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” If that is a valid assumption, then expecting that a divided nation would continually live in harmony is pure folly. It would “disregard the uniform course of human events, and set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”
Our Founding Fathers, including those whose debates on the issues, some of which became known through their writings and discussions as Federalists and Antifederalists, were amazingly well-educated in the political philosophies of ancient governments. They were therefore able to identify those components of governmental structure that worked and those components that didn’t work as they met in Philadelphia to construct a new government and provide that government a structure that might survive longer than the Republics of the past. Yet they still recognized that it was to be an experiment, not a proven solution.
Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List.
(1) formed to “discuss queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy [physics])” Franklin’s Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society (ushistory.org)