From Royal to Republican, by Caroline Winterer

Teaching the Article

How did Americans' imagination of the classical past shape their understanding of the present? My article in this issue of the Journal examines that question during the colonial and revolutionary periods of American history, when the Greco-Roman past had a particularly strong hold on Americans' political, literary, and pictorial imagination. It shows how colonial books depicted Greece and Rome in a way subjects of a monarchy would have understood. The article then compares those images to ones generated during and after the American Revolution, showing how Greece and Rome were again recruited for modern purposes, purposes that republicanism had utterly changed.

One stumbling block for historians trying to understand earlier Americans' infatuation with antiquity is that we live in a world that no longer looks to Greece and Rome as sources of political or moral authority. Students approaching an examination of American classicism might well be intimidated and might ask, "What do I know about classicism?" That question is a good way to begin probing what we mean when we talk about classicism and classical education . Students often hear that such central revolutionary figures as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were classically educated, and that such education undergirded their determination to make the new nation into a new Rome, Athens, or Sparta. But as the article shows, classicism stretched far beyond the realm of Greek and Latin texts and translations to include a lively trade in classical pictures and material objects that were accessible to those who had no college education, even those unable to read at all.

Teachers can begin by asking students what makes something classical. If we narrow our idea of what is classical to texts and artifacts from ancient Greece and Rome, then the category becomes vanishingly small, especially for a remote outpost such as eighteenth-century British North America. A more useful term is classicized , which emphasizes that historical actors actively construct texts, images, and objects to evoke certain aspects of the Greek and Roman past for their audiences. Then the category of the classical in America widens, and the meanings of texts and objects grow more numerous and interesting. Making an object look Greek or Roman can suggest that the object has desirable qualities: nobility, timelessness, or stability. Such qualities would be particularly important amid the political and social upheaval of late eighteenth-century America. Classicizing something forges a link between present and past for distinct purposes, be they political, educational, or artistic, even if those purposes are veiled. In short, people in eighteenth-century America classicized objects and texts in order to achieve their contemporary objectives.

There is no one thing that everyone everywhere at every time has agreed makes something classical. Different eras have used different strategies and conventions to classicize something. (Even the ancient Romans had conventions for making something look Greek.) In eighteenth-century America, classicizing something often entailed the addition of visual clues such as Roman armor, urns, temples with columns, certain kinds of furniture (sofas for example), nudity, simplicity, postures (such as contrapposto, in which a figure twists at the torso, so that the action of the shoulders contrasts with that of the hips and legs).

Sometimes a motif that has its origins in ancient Greece and Rome has lost its explicit connection to pagan antiquity, so that we no longer read it as classical. Such genuinely Greco-Roman motifs no longer make us think of classical antiquity: the link in the associative chain has been broken by time and custom. The flowing robes worn by Christian religious figures in art from the Middle Ages onward are a case in point. Jesus usually appears in flowing robes, clothing we read as a sign of Christian piety. But when we pause to consider, we realize that the drapery is classical: it marks Jesus as a resident of the Roman Empire. He wears the same robes as a pagan Roman, but we have been taught by our culture to read essentially identical garments very differently. If shown an American coin bearing an image of Liberty from the year 1800, even a student who purports to know nothing of classical antiquity knows that the figure is classical and not the Virgin Mary or Eve. The question then becomes, how does the student know this? And why does it matter? What if we cannot tell the difference? How can it be useful for artists to convey ambiguity, for example, by making it difficult to tell if a figure is Mary or Liberty?