By Kimiko Adler
Today, the “Lincoln Project,” a group of Republicans dedicated to opposing Donald Trump, hints at its purpose by evoking Abraham Lincoln, a figure with whom many Americans are familiar. The pseudonyms that Federalist and Anti-Federalist writers used, “Publius” and “Brutus,” worked in a similar way during the Constitutional ratification debates. Since knowledge about the ancient world was widespread, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists used classical pseudonyms in order to communicate political messages.
The effectiveness behind classical pseudonyms lay in the fact that knowledge about Ancient Rome was already ingrained in English and colonial culture. Much of the fascination with Ancient Rome stemmed from the Enlightenment, when thinkers looked to classical sources for ideas about government. The idea that the Roman Republic survived for nearly five hundred years was admirable for Enlightenment thinkers, as they were able to successfully operate a system without a monarchy.
In addition to this Enlightenment fascination, classics were also deeply ingrained within the seventeenth and eighteenth century educational system, especially at the collegiate level. Latin was the lingua franca of higher educational institutions, meaning that professors generally communicated and wrote their works in Latin. Thus, translating Roman authors like Virgil and Horace1 was a necessity for the educated elite. However, the upper class was not the only class that engaged with antiquity. Ordinary people, especially in eighteenth century American colonies, were able to engage with ancient materials through translations and historical surveys.
The printing press gave the general American audience access to ancient material, especially in translation. Due to the rise of commercial printing and public education beginning 1 in the 1750s, the Revolutionary generation developed an awareness of ancient history. Even if one did not know Latin or Greek, translations made texts from many ancient authors accessible. They especially valued Plutarch, an Ancient Greek historian writing under the Roman Empire. As Richard Gummere explains, “From the middle of the century Americans read Plutarch’s Lives with an eye not only to moral instruction but to political enlightenment and historical models as well.” (252) Since Plutarch wrote forty-eight biographies of famous individuals, he covered much of classical history. Plutarch highlighted prominent ancient figures, like Cato, Caesar, Cicero, and Brutus. His work was widely read and popular across different classes of colonial society. Even Alexander Hamilton, who had a very limited classics education, considered Plutarch one of his favorite authors.
Because many people were familiar with the ancient world and the figures who governed it, seventeenth and eighteenth century writers began to use classical pseudonyms and imagery. Ancient pseudonyms could stand on their own as an argument within themselves. An early example was John Milton’s 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, in which he argues for the right to a free press. The title, Areopagitica, referenced a 4th century BCE speech of a similar name made by Isocrates, an influential ancient Greek orator. In the Areopagitica, Milton compared the English Parliament’s Licensing Order of 1643 to the Areopagiticus, an elite Athenian tribunal that held substantial power. Under the Licensing Order, the English government gave itself the power to approve and license books before their publication (also known as “prior restraint”), allowing for very effective censorship.
Another clearly political, but ancient, commentary was “Cato’s Letters,” used by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon for their 1720 – 1723 articles.2 Trenchard and Gordon were referencing Cato the Younger, a senator famous for decrying the downfall of the Roman Republic. When Julius Caesar began to consolidate power, Cato resisted him, ultimately committing suicide after being defeated.
The colonists began to adopt the use of classical pseudonyms after the French and Indian War. In response to the taxation laws enacted upon the colonies in the 1760s, classical pseudonyms came into frequent use. As Eran Shalev observes, a Britannus Americanus “provocatively called on Americans to tax their fellow subjects in England”3 in 1766. In that same year, the words of “The Tribune” appeared in Charleston, espousing that freedom was only safe in public virtue. In ancient Rome, the tribune on the plebs was a major governmental position that represented the ordinary people of Rome. So, by signing as “The Tribune,” the anonymous author claimed to be the ordinary people’s representative, expressing their grievances. It was under these circumstances for classical allusions that the Constitutional ratification pseudonyms arose.
By the time of the Constitutional ratification debates, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were participating in an established tradition of political dissent and classical allusion. Their pseudonyms, “Publius” and “Brutus,” were symbols, representative of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist perspectives. Due to the proliferation of classics in eighteenth century culture and education, the Roman pseudonyms of the Constitutional ratification debates were effective and impactful to their audience.
In my next blog posts, I will cover the pseudonyms “Publius” and “Brutus” themselves: who they were, what they accomplished, and how they were remembered by subsequent generations.
1 Burstein, Stanley M. “The Classics and the American Republic.” The History Teacher 30, no. 1 (1996): 30.
2 Shalev, Eran. “Cato Americanus: Classical Pseudonyms and the Ratification of the Federal Constitution.” In Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic, 155. University of Virginia Press, 2009.
3 Shalev, 157.