Joseph Addison’s Cato: Liberty on the Stage

Arts & Literature

November 2, 2016
by Eric Sterner Also by this Author


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The study of ancient Greece and Rome was a significant part of upper class education in Colonial and Revolutionary America.  The founders were familiar with spread of Greek democracy, the fall of the Roman Republic, concepts of citizenship, and the rise of tyrants and dictators.  They drew cautionary lessons, particularly about the vulnerabilities of democracies and republics to demagogues, dictators, and mob rule.  Those lessons did not merely come from reading ancient histories, but were also frequent subjects of discussion, in which events in the classical word were mutually understood touchpoints for events in the early eighteenth century.  Contemporary letters and essays make frequent references to events in Pericles’ Athens, Cicero’s commentaries, the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Julius Caesar.  Indeed, questions of governance, citizenship, duty, and liberty entered popular culture.  One vehicle was Joseph Addison’s drama Cato: A Tragedy.

First performed on the London stage in 1713, Addison’s play made its way to the colonies in 1732.[1]  Addison, a Whiggish essayist and co-founder of the Spectator, was already widely read in the colonies. His play was performed, among other places, in Charleston in 1736, New York in 1750, Philadelphia in 1759, Providence in 1762, and Boston and Portsmouth in 1778.  (Earlier attempts to perform the play in Boston had been quashed; Joseph Warren and his fellow students put on a private production at Harvard in 1758.[2])  Some consider it to have been Washington’s favorite play.[3]  (In his biography of Washington, Ron Chernow notes Cato’s importance, but believes a comedy, The School for Scandal, was Washington’s favorite play.[4])

Two famous, or possibly infamous, quotes from American history allegedly trace their roots to CatoPatrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” cry during the Second Virginia Convention may owe its heritage to a scene in Act II, in which Cato declares, “It is not now a time to talk of aught / But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”[5]  Similarly, Nathan Hale’s ubiquitous quote during his execution, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” may have bene inspired by Act IV, when Cato glorifies his son’s death, “-How beautiful is death when earned by virtue? / Who would not be that youth? What pity is it / That we can die but once to serve our country!”[6]  In truth, Henry often spoke extemporaneously from notes and no complete text of the speech has survived.  Instead, it was re-constructed decades later by a Henry biographer, who Ray Raphael concludes likely wrote the speech.[7]  Similarly, few were present at Hale’s execution and his quote comes through the memoir of a classmate, who claimed to be repeating the story told him by John Montressor, the British chief engineer stationed nearby.[8]  In either case, a certain class of Americans were already familiar with the ideas and sentiments attributed to Henry (liberty or death) and Hale (martyrdom for cause and country), thanks in no small part, to the play.  It was only natural for those recreating Henry’s and Hale’s words to borrow from a well-understood source, just as today’s writers often refer to contemporary memes as a way of connecting with their readers.

Cato (the play) may have resonated in early eighteenth century America because of the themes it touches upon and the dilemmas which confront its individuals living in an increasingly dictatorial system, as the colonists believed themselves to be facing.   Cato the Younger (95 BC – 46 BC), was a Roman aristocrat and statesman best known as a leader of the opposition to the centralization of power in the Roman Republic.  A confirmed republican, Cato commanded a legion, embraced a stoic philosophy and lifestyle, was elected to a government position where he rooted corruption out of public institutions, and eventually became the tribune elected by the plebian (lower) classes.  Fearing the rise of Caesar and Pompey after their military successes, he opposed their political maneuvering to reward their soldiers at the expense of the public good.  When the political alliance among Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus broke down, Cato led efforts to strip Caesar of some his power, prompting the latter to move against the Senate and begin his pursuit of sole power.  As the civil war grew, Cato allied with Pompey. After Pompey lost the battle of Pharsalus, Cato and some of his allies escaped with part of their army to Utica on the African coast, in present-day Tunisia.  When it became apparent that the military situation was irretrievable after the anti-Caesar forces lost the battle of Thapsus, Cato killed himself.

Cato became an example of a life lived in service of higher principle and, by the eighteenth century, he had evolved into a symbol of committed republicanism in the face of the threat posed by tyranny, represented in the person of Caesar.[9]  While the basic facts of his life came down through the centuries from Plutarch and other writers, Addison’s play popularized the Roman and turned him into a martyr for liberty.  It was no accident that Washington allowed, if not encouraged, the play’s performance at Valley Forge in the midst of a Congressional ban on drama as an indulgent extravagance.[10]

Addison’s play opens after the battle of Thapsus, the latest defeat for republican forces, surely something the army under Washington’s command understood well after a series of high profile defeats at British hands outside Philadelphia.  Their situation at Valley Forge may have reminded them of Cato’s army holed up in Utica.  The first act introduces one of the play’s major’s themes: the struggle between virtue and passion.  Virtue in the eighteenth century was not mere chastity, but a commitment to self-improvement and self-control through the embrace of reason to overcome the passions that led individuals and societies astray in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement and indulgence.  Thus, virtue had both a public and private nature.

In Cato, Addison presents the public aspects in the conflict between Caesar, who represents the pursuit of personal glory, and the benefits of civilization, represented by Cato and the Roman Republic.  More narrowly, he brings that conflict home to Utica in a conspiracy between two people holed up in Utica with pro-republican forces, Sempronius and Syphax.  Working together for slightly different motivations, they scheme to betray Cato.  Sempronius anticipates a reward from Caesar, preferably the hand of Cato’s daughter Marcia.  Syphax is a Numidian general who, recognizing the hopelessness of their situation, wants to prevent his prince, Juba, from joining the fate of Cato when Caesar finally wins the conflict. For his part, Juba admires Cato’s philosophy and seeks to emulate it; he also loves Marcia.

Addison captures the private aspects in two love triangles.  The first concerns the aforementioned Marcia; Juba the virtuous and Sempronius the opportunistic traitor both love her.  Juba hopes to win her by emulating her father.[11]  Sempronius hopes to receive her as a prize from Caesar.  The second concerns Cato’s sons, Marcus and Portius, and Lucia, one of Marcia’s friends.  Both sons love her, but also strive to emulate their father’s pursuit of higher purpose at the expense of their personal desires and passions.  Marcus, in particular, struggles with the battle between his emotional desire for Lucia and his commitment to the noble purposes of his father.  Unfortunately for him, his difficulty in controlling his emotions leads Lucia to prefer Portius.

When Sempronius first makes his appearance in act I, he confides to the audience that he is up to something and must dissemble when he encounters Portius.  After discussing the situation, the latter takes his leave, telling Sempronius:

I’ll animate the soldiers’ drooping courage,
With love of freedom, and contempt of life,
I’ll thunder in their ears their country’s cause,
And try to rouse up all that’s Roman in ‘em.
‘Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.[12]

Both John Adams and George Washington were familiar with the line.  Adams paraphrased it in a letter to his wife and Washington in letters to Nicholas Cooke and Benedict Arnold.[13]  To Arnold, then engaged in the disappointing Canadian campaign and facing circumstances only slightly less bleak than Cato, Washington wrote, “It is not in the power of any man to command success, but you have done more—you have deserved it …”[14]  It was a none-too-subtle way of placing Arnold on a pedestal with a first century Roman many admired.

Ironically, for a play named after him, Cato does not appear in the first act.  Instead, he hovers in the background, the standard of virtue to which his sons and Juba aspire despite their private passions, and the pillar of Roman civilization that stands against Caesar’s tyranny and Sempronius’ conniving manipulations.  Fortunately for the audience, Cato is in the first scene of act II.

Having established his broader theme, Addison sharpens the conflict between mankind’s higher and baser self in presenting his characters with temptations and choices.   For Cato, the choice is between liberty and slavery, freedom and servitude.  He clearly prefers liberty and freedom, telling a fellow senator, “A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty / Is worth a whole eternity in bondage.”[15]  In act II a messenger from Caesar arrives, offering peace and elevation to Cato if he submits to Caesar’s rule.  Cato, of course, dismisses the offer out of hand and instead demands that Caesar surrender and face the judgment of Rome.  (He also declines to inform his allies in Utica of it, forcing them to share his fate).  Juba, meanwhile, confesses his desire for Cato’s daughter, Marcia.  Cato promptly rebuffs him as well, chastising the young man for pursuing his personal desires when such momentous events are in play.   (Indeed, the liberty or death phrase arrives with Cato’s rejection of Juba’s petition.)  Syphax attempts to take advantage of Juba’s heartbreak and sway him from Cato’s noble cause, offering to carry Marcia off for his prince, but fails.  Juba reacts angrily and Syphax finally joins Sempronius in Caesar’s cause, secretly forsaking his prince.  He and Sempronius have laid the groundwork for a mutiny by the army.

Whereas Juba succeeds in his test of virtue, remaining true to Cato in the face of Syphax’s temptation, Marcus and Portius fail.  The former surrenders to his passion and enlists his brother to convince Lucia to pledge herself to him.  Portius, who undertakes the mission somewhat reluctantly, cannot hide his own passion for Lucia.  He confesses his love to her even as he begs her not to hurt Marcus by rejecting him.  Ironically, whereas Cato’s sons fail this personal test, Lucia rejects Portius because he asks the impossible of her and instead foreswears him.  Thus, Addison posits that failure to place a higher priority on one’s public duty leads to personal failure.  Indeed, no one in the play who indulges his personal interests and desires truly succeeds.

While Cato’s sons spend their time and energy on an impossible love triangle, Sempronius begins to spring his trap.  Even as mutinous soldiers confront Cato, Sempronius pledges his fealty to the exiled leader.  It serves him well, as Cato talks the soldiers out of abandoning their cause immediately by shaming them.  However, urged on by Sempronius, Cato condemns the leaders to death.  Sempronius is quick to have the sentence carried out, lest his own part be revealed and, no doubt, with the expectation that the executions will spread yet more discord in the army.  Addison returns to his “liberty or death” motif in words that any American revolutionary would appreciate:

Meanwhile we’ll sacrifice to liberty.
Remember, O my friends, the laws, the rights,
The generous plan of power delivered down,
From age to age, by your renowned forefathers,
(So dearly bought, the price of so much blood,)
Oh let it never perish in your hands!
But piously transmit it to your children.
Do thou, great liberty, inspire our souls,
And make our lives in thy possession happy,
Or our deaths glorious in thy just defence.[16]

The call to a higher, more noble, sacred purpose—liberty—is clear.

Although Cato turns back Sempronius’ initial mutiny attempt, the latter attempts to kidnap Marcia.  Juba kills him in the process, leading Marcia to confess her love for Juba.  At the same time, Syphax leads Juba’s army out of camp, fleeing to Caesar.  In the process, the Numidians kill Marcus, but not until the latter kills Syphax.  Upon reuniting with his son’s corpse, Cato bewails the want of more than one life to lay before his country.  Heartbroken at his son’s death and disheartened by the Roman republic’s collapsing situation, he tells Portius and his allies to flee and live a life of quiet contemplation someplace safe.  Determined not to become Caesar’s prisoner or to bow down to his tyranny, Cato kills himself.  Addison spares his audience the gruesome end.  The real Cato’s first attempt to disembowel himself was not fatal.  So, amidst his family’s efforts to restrain him and treat his wounds, he stabbed himself again. The Roman intends his final act to mock Caesar, who, having conquered the republic, will be denied its most prominent symbol, at least to Cato’s mind.[17]

In Cato: A Tragedy, Addison offered the Revolutionary generation an example of an individual uncompromising in his defense of liberty, who closely identified it with republicanism and the fruits of civilization.   Before the war, it was an inspiring message about the individual’s duty to a larger cause and the ancient defense of liberty.  During the war, Cato’s persistent commitment to his principles in the face of overwhelming force, even to the point of death, made the play an appropriate drama to present to the troops at Valley Forge.  Every other individual who chose his personal interest over the duty to defend liberty failed in his private pursuits.  Only Juba, who remained true to Cato and his cause in the face of temptation, received his heart’s desire in Marcia’s love.  While Steuben trained the army, Addison, and even Cato after a fashion, instructed its mind.


[1]           Thomas Fleming, “George Washington’s Favorite Play,” Journal of the American Revolution, December 11, 2013,

[2]           Robert M. Keller, compiler, Performance Notices in The Colonial Music Institute database,, accessed September 20, 2016; Robert Brand Hanson, ed., The Diary of Dr. Nathaniel Ames of Dedham, Massachusetts, 1758-1822 (Camden, ME: Picton Press, 1998),, accessed September 20, 2016; Jason Shaffer, Performing Patriotism: National Identity in the Colonial and Revolutionary American Tradition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). 45

[3]           Harlow Giles Unger, The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life (New York: John Wiley & Sone, 2006), 52; David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), 47.  According to Austin Washington, his great uncle George kept a copy of Cato by his bed.  Austin Washington, The Education of George Washington (Washington, DC: Regnery History, 2014), 279.

[4]           Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 126.  The School for Scandal was first performed in 1777 and lacked the political themes that made Addison’s Cato relevant to the politics of the day.

[5]           Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin, eds., Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy, and Selected Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004), 44.  The play went through several iterations and the text contained here is from the 8th edition, which does not differ from the 7th edition that Addison considered definitive.  Performances included additional material that Addison preferred not to see in printed editions.  References to the play’s text are hereafter cited as Cato, with reference to the act, scene, and page number.

[6]           Cato, act IV, scene 4, 84.

[7]           Ray Raphael, “Patrick Henry’s ‘Liberty or Death’-Granddaddy of Revolution Mythologies,” Journal of the American Revolution, July 13, 2015,

[8]           Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 213-24.

[9]           Carl J. Richard, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers (Laurel, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), Chapter 7.

[10]          David Malinsky, “Congress Bans Theatre!” Journal of the American Revolution, December 12, 2013,

[11]          In a 1758 letter to Sally Fairfax, Washington flirtatiously suggested they might enjoy playing the parts of Marcia and Juba.  See Rob Hardy, “Cato,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, September 11, 2016,

[12]          Cato, act I, scene 3, 14.

[13]          Cato, act I, scene 3, n 19, 14.

[14]          “George Washington to Benedict Arnold, 5 December 1775,” in George Washington, Selected Writings (New York: Library of American Paperback Classics Edition, 2011), 81.

[15]          Cato, act II, scene 1, 33.

[16]          Cato, act III, scene 5, 68.

[17]          Cato, act V, scene 2, 90.


  • “Some consider it to have been Washington’s favorite play.[3] (In his biography of Washington, Ron Chernow notes Cato’s importance, but believes a comedy, The School for Scandal, was Washington’s favorite play.[4]”
    There is no reason to believe that both of these plays were Washington’s favorite, just at different times in his life. Addison’s Cato was first performed in 1713 while The School For Scandal was first performed in London in 1777. We know that Washington saw his first play in 1751. He may have Read Cato before he ever saw it but we know he could not have seen it before that year. The School For Scandal appears in Washington’s notes as having first been seen in 1789. 1789 was Washington’s first year as President then residing in New York. It is easy to imagine that during these different times in his life his favorites would alter. People change and we should never see the Founders as having been born the same people they were when they left the world.

  • Good point, as the favorite things in our lives change. Truth be told, the “Washington’s favorite play” moniker comes from biographers trying to interpret/short-hand Washington’s personal tastes, which definitely ranged from the high-brow to the bawdy. Certainly, it’s likely that both plays had a special place in his heart for different reasons, the same way someone might value both Saving Private Ryan and The Goonies.

  • Thank you for this very interesting and enlightening piece, Eric. I recall reading that supporters of theatrical productions tended to have a rough go of it in 18th century America, particularly in New England. The performance of plays like Cato played a very important role in breaking through religious and social mores, at least during the Revolution, when speaking against a performance of Cato might call one’s patriotism into question. I have also read that in New England public performances of choirs and musical instruments outside of church (including, God forbid, the violin!) were able to overcome pious resistance for the same reason. William Billings’ Chester comes to mind…

    1. Appreciate the comment. I was surprised to learn, right here in the Journal, that Congress actually banned theater for a time during the war. Looked to me like a regional issue, most likely due to the heavy Puritan influence on culture in New England. Washington was an avid theatergoer and companies seemed to arrange their schedules to be in Williamsburg whenever the Burgesses were in session.

      1. Eric, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Kenneth Silverman’s “A Cultural History of the American Revolution”, which does a good job of putting developments in art, theater, music, literature, etc. in their social and political context. It’s interesting to look at the period from that perspective; it changed the way I viewed events covered in more standard histories.

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