Book Review

Book Review: Varad Mehta on Shalev’s *Rome Reborn on Western Shores*

Review of Eran Shalev’s Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009). ISBN 0-8139-2833-3. Pp. xiii, 311. $45.00.

Reviewed by Varad Mehta
Independent Scholar

Scratch an American of the Revolutionary era and underneath you’ll find a Roman. That impression has been long conveyed by a robust scholarship exploring the myriad influences of classical culture on eighteenth-century British North America and the Revolution of its inhabitants against their colonial mother.[1] Especially successful in scholarly circles has been the argument that the primary ideology of the Revolution was a strand of republicanism whose genealogy can be traced back to classical Greece and Rome by way of Machiavelli.[2] Eran Shalev unites the histories of the classics and republicanism in the revolutionary era in order to argue that classical antiquity “played a crucial role in articulating the revolutionaries’ quarrel and their coming to terms with history and time” (3). While Shalev does an excellent job explicating the influence of classical conceptions of time and history in this period, he is less successful in demonstrating that these were the primary, let alone the only, inspirations for the revolutionary generation’s understanding of them. The result is a book which, typical of those in the so-called republican paradigm, must make its case by ignoring the most important aspects of the Revolution, in particular the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Shalev divides his study into six chapters, each exploring a specific aspect of his theme. The first introduces the pervasiveness of the classics and the various rhetorical uses to which each book or author was put. The second analyzes representations of Britain in the colonists’ rhetoric. Shalev shows how Britain, initially perceived as recreating the glory of republican Rome, underwent a process of “Nerofication.” Angry Americans, believing Britain was embarking upon a corrupt campaign to destroy their liberties, began to depict Britain as embodying all the worst excesses and tyranny of a decadent, imperial Rome. The third chapter was to me the most revealing and interesting. Shalev makes a provocative argument, compelling but not entirely convincing, that two conceptions of time and history prevailed in eighteenth-century America, one above and one below the Mason-Dixon Line. Southern conceptions of history were dominated by the cyclical mode of history. Southern patriots saw an America imperiled by the same forces of declension and disintegration to which all previous republics had succumbed. A product of history, America could not escape history’s pattern of youth, maturity, and decline in old age. Shalev does not say so, but this Southern version of history offers an apparent exception to American exceptionalism. North of the Mason-Dixon Line, however, cycles did not factor into the historical imagination. Here a mode of historical typology (i.e., progress) triumphed, with modern American exemplars being regarded as the fulfillment of classical archetypes. This kind of historical thinking was heavily influenced by Christian millennialism, which beholds history not as cyclical but as progressing unceasingly forward to the end of time. America would “escape the cycle that had plagued human societies through recorded time” by transcending it. This Northern mode of history was “exceptional” (87).

Chapter 4 focuses on what Shalev calls Americans’ “performance” of classical antiquity. A main issue is whether Joseph Warren wore a toga when delivering the annual memorial oration on the Boston Massacre in 1775. Warren’s wife, Mercy Otis Warren, wrote several closet dramas about the imperial tensions inflaming Boston in which the setting and the characters are all given classical names, some thinly disguised ones, that indicate what she thought of them. Boston becomes “Servia” and Governor Thomas Hutchinson is renamed “Rapatio.” Shalev argues that by re-imaging the conflict as taking place on a classical stage, Warren transformed it into an episode in classical history. By “taking the toga” (the chapter’s title), revolutionary Americans collapsed the distance between classical times and their own and re-enacted their history as part of Rome’s.

In the fifth chapter, Shalev investigates the uses of classical pseudonyms during the ratification debate on the Constitution. Such pseudonyms allowed authors to adopt classical personae to indicate their views of the Constitution and to claim history for their side. Thus “Cato” once more opposed “Caesar” and “Brutus” emerged again to thwart tyranny. In chapter 6, Shalev analyzes classical themes in histories of the Revolution written in its immediate aftermath. He concludes that compared to the Roman drama of the Revolution, with its great heroes and battles, the post-revolutionary period felt like a disappointment. Being once more submerged in history, the Revolution felt as far away as Roman times, a distancing which historians such as David Ramsay, David Humphreys, and Mercy Warren perpetuated at the very moment they tried to explain the Revolution. In the epilogue, Shalev traces two classical tropes through the rest of American history, those of the Roman patriot Cincinnatus and the tyrant Caesar.

Shalev’s study makes several valuable contributions to the scholarship on the classics’ influence on the American Revolution, and his colleagues will likely be answering his contention that they shaped Americans’ conceptions of time and history for some time to come. It is intriguing and provocative. But it is not persuasive. It is unpersuasive not because it claims Americans had a particular historical consciousness, which is undoubtedly true.[3] It is unpersuasive because we must believe that it was mostly an ahistorical one, that literate Americans of this age thought not only that they could emulate Brutus, but that the “American Brutus” would actually be the Brutus, resurrected 1,800 years later. Moreover, this ahistorical consciousness requires the Americans to have no sense of their own place in time, and to be utterly unaware of “[t]he inventions in mechanic arts, the discoveries in natural philosophy, navigation, and commerce, and the advancement of civilization and humanity,” which John Adams, in the prologue of Defence of the Constitutions of the United States (1787), posits have completely changed the world since ancient times.[4] We might number among these such epochal transformations as the rise of Christianity, the Reformation, the discovery of the Americas, and the invention of printing, events of which the Americans were surely cognizant. Shalev also ignores basic philosophical issues about how and why people think about and use the past as they do.[5] The lack of a theoretical perspective is a significant shortcoming, one which if rectified would have placed the book on a more solid foundation. The numerous typos (“Canae” becomes “Cane” [95], Benedict Arnold crosses “Canadia’s Alpnie hills” [101], etc.) are also quite irritating, but do not compromise Shalev’s interpretive framework.

Shalev operates according to the rules of what John Pocock, in defending his controversial work on republicanism, described as “tunnel history.” Shalev, that is, tunnels through one particular issue or problem to the ignorance of all others.[6] In other words, for us to believe him we must assume that no other ways of looking at the past were available to Americans in this period. It is true that classical pseudonyms were plentiful in the ratification debate. To make that claim and stop, however, is to ignore the fact that the debate was about ratifying a Constitution whose authors had spent their four months in Philadelphia deciding that history had very little to tell them and that if they were going to get anywhere the first thing they’d have to do was go their own way. The most famous classical pseudonym of them all deals a severe blow to Shalev. So we find “Publius” (aka James Madison) declaring in The Federalist No. 14 that the source of the American people’s greatness is their not having “suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience.” Indeed, if they had taken no steps for which no precedent could be found, they would still be stuck in the miserable situation from which they had spilled so much blood and treasure to escape. Classical pseudonyms abounded, but they did so in a debate about a Constitution antithetical to the wisdom of the ancients. There is no turning this into a fulfillment of antiquity however hard one tries.

Shalev’s scheme has no place in it for Thomas Jefferson, that great optimist and evangelist of America. Jefferson can never be considered a pessimistic Southerner fearful of America’s eventual decline.[7] Not the Jefferson who avowed that the Earth belongs to the living, or that laws should be rewritten every nineteen years,[8] or that he preferred the dreams of the future to the history of the past,[9] or that his epoch was a new one.[10] No classical historical paradigm can make room for such anomalies. Shalev, therefore, mostly ignores Jefferson.[11] Just as he ignores the other historical sources to which the revolutionaries could turn, not least the history of their mother country, Britain.[12]

What Shalev really misses, then, is any real sense of the Americans’ understanding of themselves. That they looked to the past is indubitable. But they looked to it not to recreate or relive it, but to understand their present and, especially, to shape their future. No reader would have believed, as Shalev implies, that the essays issued over the name of “Publius” had actually “been written by the founder of the Roman republic.” Even to suggest that is to make fools and dupes out of the Americans, who knew perfectly well that such a possibility was nonsense. Of course that prospect was a “false pretense,” and it also makes Hamilton, Madison, and Jay look like fools for believing they could trick their readers into believing it (177). The Americans knew perfectly well what they were, and that was not neo-Romans. This reality was expressed by John Stephens. In taking the name “Americanus” for his essays, he adopted the classical form to convey a substance beyond the ancients’ imagination. His message was one that ultimately all his countrymen heeded: “it is principally from our own experience that we can derive just notions” of the foundations of liberty.[13] Their own experience, and none other.

The Americans called their achievement a novus ordo seclorum because that is what they believed it was. There is no reconciling that conviction with the notion that they were the second coming of Rome. Rome was not reborn on Western shores. What was born there was something new under the sun.

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[1] The classic study remains Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (Detroit, 1984). More recent works include Carl J. Richard The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass., 1994); idem, The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, Mass., 2009); Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore, 2002).

[2] Fittingly, the republican interpretation is dominated by a triumvirate: Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967; Cambridge, Mass, 1992); Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969; Chapel Hill, 1998); J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975; Princeton, 2003). All three discuss the influence of the classics on republican thought. A recent overview of the debate about the place of classical republicanism in the American Revolution is Alan Gibson, Understanding the Founding: The Crucial Questions (Lawrence, KS, 2007), 130-64.

[3] The subject has not received all the attention it warrants, but those who have noticed its importance include Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (1965; Indianapolis, 1998); Ruth H. Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (Cambridge, 1988); Michael Lienesch, New Order of the Ages: Time, the Constitution, and the Making of Modern American Political Thought (Princeton, 1988). For the nineteenth century see Dorothy Ross, “Historical Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century America,” American Historical Review 89 (1984): 909-28; Thomas M. Allen, A Republic in Time: Temporality and Social Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 2007).

[4] John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 3 vols. (London, 1787), vol. 1., Preface. Online here.

[5] Issues like those David Lowenthal plumbs in The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985)

[6] J. G. A. Pocock, “The Machiavellian Moment Revisited: A Study in History and Ideology,” Journal of Modern History 53 (1981): 53.

[7] “It is this rejection of the past as a repository of wisdom that constitutes the most important element in the ideology of the victorious Jeffersonian Republicans.” Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (New York and London, 1984), 79. See also eadem, “What is Still American in Jefferson’s Political Philosophy?,” in Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 291-319.

[8] He makes both assertions in a letter to James Madison dated 6 September 1789, which can be found in Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill Peterson (New York, 1984), 959-64.

[9] Jefferson to John Adams, 1 August 1816, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill, 1959), 485.

[10] Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 12 March 1801, in Writings, 1086.

[11] What is true of this book is not necessarily true of Shalev himself. In an essay published only this month (and which I consequently have yet to read), Shalev perhaps fills this lacuna. See “Jefferson’s Classical Silence, 1774-76: Historical Consciousness and Roman History in the Revolutionary South,” in Peter Onuf and Nicholas Cole, eds., Thomas Jefferson and the Classics (Charlottesville, 2011). Jefferson always evinced a pronounced skepticism about the (mis)application of classical exempla to America, notably in Query XIII of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), where he lambastes attempts by the Virginia legislature to institue a Roman-style dictatorship during the Revolution.

[12] This dimension of the Americans’ historical outlook is discussed in Colbourn, Lamp of Experience, 3-68.

[13] [John Stephens, Jr.], “Americanus” VI, Daily Advertiser (New York), 12 January 1788, in Bernard Bailyn, ed., The Debate on the Constitution, 2 vols. (New York, 1993), 1:788.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s there on my shelf. I’ve leafed through it a bit, but no more. My impression, though, is that while they ostensibly cover a similar subject, Allen does so in a very different way from Shalev and reaches rather different conclusions. But as I said, that’s just based on a few minutes with the book. Allen also covered a later period, about five decades or so after the period Shalev looked at.

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