Cicero and the American Revolution

Critical Thinking

November 26, 2020
by Paul Meany Also by this Author


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Despite Cicero’s significant reputation and widespread readership, little scholarship has focused upon Cicero’s reputation and oratorical practices’ influence upon the Founding Generation. Once Cicero delivered his orations at the court case of Roscius of Ameria, he was considered a prodigy of oratory. His career quickly took off, with him ascending each rank of a Roman politician’s career at the youngest age possible. During his lifetime, Cicero was the foremost representative of the senatorial faction of Rome. He was considered one of the finest orators of his day, awarded prestigious titles such as “Father of our Fathers” and greeted with cheers when he returned to Rome after his exile due to his opponent’s schemes. The Roman Republic eventually collapsed, but until its end, Cicero was the embodiment of the traditional Republican values.

Cicero undertook a wide variety of court cases with many published versions of his speeches surviving. Cicero’s fame was so widespread in Rome that later writers such as Quintilian took Cicero to be the personification of eloquence itself saying “the name of Cicero has come to be regarded not as the name of a man but of eloquence.”[1] This reputation for eloquence endured for hundreds of years. His writings struck Augustine so profoundly that he believed Cicero’s eloquence had brought him closer to God.[2] Even during the Medieval ages which favored monarchies over republics, Cicero was a role model for rhetoric, and authors such as Aquinas paid their respect to his intellect. With the advent of Civic Humanism and its push towards the gentlemanly ideal of a republic of letters, Cicero became the gold standard for oratory and writing.

America in the eighteenth century, on the cusp of a revolution, did not differ in opinion from previous eras. If anything, Americans were more engaged than ever with the concept of what it meant to be a republican citizen and statesman. Reflecting upon these questions, Cicero was a shining example to follow and emulate both in the realms of oratory and moral character. Eighteenth century America saw a rapid expansion in the field of public speaking.[3] What was once an area dominated by clergy quickly expanded to the political sphere. Oratory and the art of eloquent speaking became an essential element of American civic culture as early as 1750.[4] James Otis’s speeches against Writs of Assistance illustrated how a dry and esoteric legal debate could become an issue that captured popular imagination through fiery invective, the evoking of higher principles, and robust delivery.

In line with classical rhetorical theory’s teachings, eloquence was deemed to be an essential virtue for a free society to flourish. The bulwark of liberty against tyranny was robust freedom of speech that would produce eloquent defenders of free speech. This view was bolstered not only by classical texts but also by modern authors such as the writers behind Cato’s Letters who constantly argued in favor of freedom of speech as a defender of liberty.[5] Even Benjamin Rush, who vigorously opposed the classical language requirements of schools, happily referred to the example of Cicero to prove that eloquence thrives in free societies.[6]

Eloquent speech was a necessary skill not only for the political elite but for clergymen and aspiring lawyers. Education brought one to a gentlemanly status, and as the highly influential John Locke stressed, “there can scarce be a greater defect in a gentleman than not to express himself well in either speech or writing.”[7] Eloquence was deemed of the highest importance with some elocutionists believing that mastery of language would improve communication, government, morality and even religion.[8]

An important perception existed that America’s Revolution was both a military endeavour and an ideological battle. Moses Coit Tyler wrote that “Our epoch of revolutionary strife was a strife of ideas: a long warfare of political logic; a succession of annual campaigns in which the marshalling of arguments not only preceded the marshalling of armies, but often exceeded them in impression upon the final result.”[9] John Adams famously wrote that “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was, in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”[10] This language of soldiery was commonly used when writers and orators discussed speeches. They discussed the orators as soldiers of each side fighting for the minds and hearts of their listeners and readers.[11] Thus, the benefits of a classical education are apparent. By learning from Demosthenes, Aristotle, Quintilian, Isocrates, Longinus, and above all others, Cicero, men could become eloquent defenders of liberty in the battle for hearts and minds.

There have been many studies on the endless pamphlets of the revolution, but little work has been done on the oratory of the day. Sadly, little remains of the great speeches of the Revolution. Patrick Henry’s famous speech at the Second Virginia Convention where he exclaimed “give me liberty or give me death” was painstakingly reconstructed in good faith by the nineteenth century scholar William Writ, but doubts remain about its accuracy. Speeches were of a utilitarian and immediate character. Above all else, they were designed to convince people. Another critical factor is that few men sought to create their career through oratory alone. It was a facet of their character, not the whole. Thus, possible notes and original scripts are lost to time.

The lack of scripts does not mean that oratory was not significant. On the contrary, Robert Ferguson has observed, “oratory was the real key to success” for early American lawyers.[12] Successfully delivered speeches brought men to the forefront of American politics. After Patrick Henry’s speech for Parsons in 1763, his legal practice was enlarged, and two years later he was elected as a member to the Virginia House of Burgees. Similarly, after James Otis’s impassioned attack upon the Writs of Assistance, he was quickly elected to the Massachusetts legislature unanimously.

Cicero wrote extensively about rhetoric during his life in De Inventione, Brutus and most importantly De Oratore. The rhetorical theories advanced by classical authors such as Aristotle, Quintilian, and Cicero formed the core principles of American rhetoric. The theories of Aristotle, while deemed of great utility and value, did not play as significant a role as Cicero for two reasons. First, not enough evidence of Aristotle’s life remains to suggest he was civically engaged. Thus, he conveyed a scholarly approach which did not appeal to American sensibilities. Secondly, Aristotle was heavily appropriated by the Catholic Scholastics such as Aquinas, making him unattractive to the mostly Protestant Americans.[13]

Cicero was greatly admired for his skills in all aspects and genres of oratory. Modern textbooks relied heavily upon classical precedent, and Cicero was extensively read for both his legal speeches and philosophical views both in grammar school and at a college level. De Oratore was heavily featured in college curricula. The scholar James Farrell argues that every educated American during the first fifty years of the republic had probably read De Oratore.[14]

The most popular writers of rhetorical handbooks in eighteenth century America were indebted not only to Cicero’s oratorical example but also to his theories of oratory’s place in society. The core texts on practical eloquence in America during the second half of the eighteenth century were John Ward’s System of Oratory and Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.[15] While Ward relied more on Quintilian for principles, he illustrated by the example of Cicero.[16] His definition of oratory is also in harmony with Cicero’s definition in De Oratore. Ward’s work is so heavily indebted to classical principles and examples that it can resemble a compendium more than a handbook. Reminiscent of Quintilian, Blair admired Cicero so much that he stated Cicero’s name “alone suggests everything that is splendid in Oratory.”[17] According to Blair, classical orations were the models of eloquence to emulate.[18]

John Witherspoon, engraving after an original portrait by Charles Willson Peale. (New York Public Library)

John Witherspoon has been described as the first complete American rhetoric.[19] During his life, he was America’s foremost patriot clergyman and eventually became a delegate for New Jersey in the Second Continental Congress. Witherspoon’s oratorical style was, in practice, quite plain, and his delivery was reported to be quite barebones, resembling what Cicero would refer to as the Attic style of oratory, a distinctly un-Ciceronian style of speaking.[20] While different in practice, however, in the area of theory, Witherspoon relied heavily upon Cicero. When he lectured on eloquence in Princeton he evoked Cicero both as a model of eloquence and a theoretical authority from whom to study and learn, particularly in the speeches he admired such as Pro Roscio and Pro Milone.[21] Witherspoon played a prominent role in educating a swathe of figures who went on to become to be supreme court judges and pivotal politicians such as James Madison and Aaron Burr. His devotion to Ciceronian ideals was not merely a scholarly affair. He even named his own home Tusculum, after Cicero’s villa.[22] Witherspoon’s rhetoric centered around civic duties and Cicero’s ideal of politics as the highest duty in life was omnipresent throughout Witherspoon’s excursions into rhetoric.[23]

The works of Ward, Blair, and Witherspoon have many similarities that all span from their underlying Ciceronianism. De Oratore was available both in Latin and English, meaning that those who could not attend college still had a chance to read Cicero in vernacular. Ward’s, Blair’s, and Witherspoon’s works were all intended for the up and coming middle class of their day, not just the elite of society. What is most illustrative of Cicero’s influence is how the Founding Generation emulated his style and adopted his views of the ultimate end of oratory. While language can be made beautiful and pleasing, it is ultimately intended to inspire action above all else. While few complete transcripts of speeches survive, we have eyewitness accounts. These accounts center around the emotions that orators could provoke, which would stir men and call them to arms.[24]

Cicero, alongside Demosthenes, was considered one of the foremost orators the world had ever seen. There was no higher compliment to a speaker than to compare them to the men of antiquity, especially Cicero.[25] James Otis became a leading model of Ciceronian invective, Patrick Henry was compared to Cicero and Demosthenes and Richard Henry Lee was dubbed as Virginia’s Cicero.[26]

However, Cicero’s reputation encapsulated more than just a master orator; he also served as a model for republican citizenship and radical political views. Cicero became linked to republicanism for the obvious reason that he defended republican institutions, but Cicero being perceived as a radical needs further explanation.

Sallust famously snubbed Cicero in his work The War of Catiline. When the radical Whig Thomas Gordon wrote his translation of Sallust, he included Cicero’s Catilinarian speeches. Gordon also prefaced this work with a lengthy preamble on the true principles of government in which he condemned Sallust for not including praise of Cicero.[27] Gordon went further in his chastisement of Sallust by dubbing Cicero as “by Right the Hero of his History.”[28] Gordon, who arguably held a comparable degree of intellectual authority in American minds to figures such as John Locke, effectively aided in radicalizing Cicero as a figure in line with contemporary ideas.[29]

To some degree, this had already been the case as Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations soft deism, and stance against superstition, had made him an admirable figure to freethinkers such as Hume and Voltaire.[30] But it was Gordon’s works that effectively politicized Cicero as a thinker against the establishment despite being a man of the establishment in his lifetime.

Being compared to Cicero was not only a compliment to a man’s eloquence, but also a compliment to his moral character as a man firmly rooted in a developing republican world. To be Cicero was to be a lover of freedom and a selfless patriot. Josiah Quincy  described Cicero as “the best of men and the first of patriots.”[31] Widespread assumptions of Cicero’s moral character were exploited to make political points. When Alexander Hamilton wrote a series of pamphlets condemning the Whiskey Revolution he used the pseudonym Tully, a nickname derived from Cicero’s full name Marcus Tullius Cicero.[32] By doing so, he painted the rebels as demagogues and populists attempting to overturn the newly founded republican government. When Samuel Adams wrote against the presence of standing armies, he did so under the name of “Let the arms yield to the toga,” a phrase from De Officiis.[33] John Adams’s orations against Hutcheson were deliberately styled to paint him as a new Catiline.[34] Comparing an opponent to Catiline implied a plethora of vices from unmanly luxury, demagoguery to traitorous intent.

The affinity towards Cicero was not solely political instrumentalism; in many cases, the admiration of Cicero could also be separated from his political philosophy and his rhetorical skill. Unlike many senators, Cicero’s familial origins were surprisingly mundane. His family had wealth but not status. Despite his humble origins in Arpinum, he rose to the top of the Cursus Honorum rapidly. For the newly emerging middle-class Cicero represented a model of a man who could rise above the circumstance of birth through education and dedication, a staple of American thought in the eighteenth century. Ministers, merchants and especially lawyers were enamored with Cicero’s bourgeois virtues.[35]

Cicero’s Catilinarian orations immortalized his supreme excellence of oratory and have been admired for centuries. The Founding Generation in continuity with those before them paid their respects to Cicero the orator but also to Cicero, the man. Cicero’s eloquence was explained both by his amazing abilities and by his education and dedication to freedom which made him the perfect role model. In the Boston Commemoration speeches, aspects of Cicero’s oratorical style can be seen. Descriptions of orations provide a glimpse into how well speeches were received based on the emotions they evoked and the actions they set in motion. Cicero’s idea of speech as one of man’s highest functions was an idea that the Founding Generation implicitly accepted. De Oratore was read by nearly every educated man and modern eloquence textbooks heavily relied upon Cicero as both a theoretician and practitioner of rhetoric. Finally, many great orators were complimented as being America’s Cicero, a compliment that was not only appealing to their technical skills but also their moral character.


[1]. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 10.1.112.

[2]. Augustine, Confessions, 3.7.8.

[3]. Carolyn Eastman, “Oratory and Platform Culture in Britain and North America, 1740–1900,” Oxford Handbooks Online (July 7, 2016),

[4]. Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 20-25.

[5]. David S. Bogen, “The Origins of Freedom of Speech and Press,” Maryland Law Review 42, no. 3 (1983): 429-465.

[6]. Dagobert Runes, ed., The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1947), 378.

[7]. John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education: And, Of the Conduct of the Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996), 141.

[8]. James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2015), 169-187.

[9]. Barnet Baskerville, The People’s Voice: The Orator in American Society (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 9.

[10]. John Adams, Letter to H. Nile, February 13, 1818.

[11]. Baskerville, The People’s Voice.

[12]. Robert A. Ferguson, Law and Letters in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 17.

[13]. Ward Briggs, “United States,” in A Companion to the Classical Tradition, ed. Craig W. Kallendorf (London: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 280.

[14]. James M. Farrell, “‘Above all Greek, above all Roman fame’: Classical Rhetoric in America during the Colonial and Early National Periods,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 18, no. 3 (2011): 429.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Kenneth D. Frandsen, “Ward, Adams, and Classical Rhetoric,” Southern Speech Journal 34 (1968): 109.

[17]. Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 2: 26, 19.

[18]. Farrell, “‘Above all Greek, above all Roman fame,’” 430.

[19]. Thomas P. Miller, “John Witherspoon,” in Eighteenth-century British and American Rhetorics and Rhetoricians: Critical Studies and Sources, ed. Michael G. Moran (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994).

[20]. Cicero, De Oratore, I.87.

[21]. Thomas P. Miller, ed., The Selected Writings of John Witherspoon (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 2015), 303.

[22]. Gregory S. Aldrete and Alicia Aldrete, The Long Shadow of Antiquity: What Have the Greeks and Romans Done for Us?  (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 153.

[23]. Miller, “John Witherspoon,” 274.

[24]. Farrell, “‘Above all Greek, above all Roman fame,’” 429.

[25]. Sandra M. Gustafason, Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 71.

[26]. Richard O. Brooks, Cicero and Modern Law (Surrey: Routledge, 2009), 489.

[27]. Rob Hardy, “‘A Mirror of the Times’: The Catilinarian Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century British and American Political Thought,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition14, no. 3/4 (December 2007): 431-454.

[28]. Thomas Gordon, ed., The Works of Sallust: Translated into English with Political Discourses upon that Author; To which Is Added, a Translation of Cicero’s Four Orations against Catiline (London: R. Ware, 1744), 14.

[29]. Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic: The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1953), 141.

[30]. Matthew Fox, “Cicero During the Enlightenment,” in The Cambridge Companion to Cicero, ed. Catherine Steel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 321.

[31]. Charles F. Mullett, “Classical Influences on the American Revolution,” The Classical Journal 35, no. 2 (November 1939): 93-94.

[32]. M.N.S. Sellers, “The Constitutional Thought of Alexander Hamilton,” in Constitutions and the Classics: Patterns of Constitutional Thought from Fortescue to Bentham, ed. D. J. Galligan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 263.

[33]. Carl J. Richard, “Cicero and the American Founders,” in Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Cicero, ed. William H.F. Altman (Boston: Brill, 2015), 124-144; Cicero, De Officiis, I.77.

[34]. John Adams, Diary and Autobiography, 1: 26.

[35]. Stephen Boetin, “Cicero as a Role Model for Early American Lawyers: A Case Study in Classical Influence,” The Classical Journal 73, no. 4 (April – May 1978): 313-321.

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