“Those Noble Qualities”: Classical Pseudonyms as Reflections of Divergent Republican Value Systems

Critical Thinking

August 3, 2023
by Shawn David McGhee Also by this Author


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During the trial years under the Federal Constitution, some political observers contributed to the national discourse by employing one of the period’s most ambitious and creative ornaments: the classical pseudonym. Cloaked behind these ancient disguises, commenters added a historically nuanced layer to their arguments that enlisted the ubiquitous gravity of the classical past.[1] These signatures have puzzled generations of scholars since at least the middle of the twentieth century, leaving them scrambling to decode their exact purposes. Douglass Adair, for example, argued that a classically-educated audience integrated the diplomacy of a pseudonym’s historical figure into contemporary essays.[2] Mackubin T. Owens, Jr., conjectured the founders “looked to antiquity for their models of greatness” and selected classical masks to emphasize a particular virtue for an eighteenth-century audience.[3] Other scholars determined that ancient noms de plume allowed elite statesmen to participate in an erudite parlor game or simply behave in a manner unbecoming of their station.[4] Most recently, Eran Shalev argued that the founding generation used these literary devices to connect with and channel the virtue of the past.[5]

Each of these explanations is convincing, but a critical element remains absent from this conversation. During the early 1790s, political contributors used classical pseudonyms to draw on the authority of the ancient world in their contemporary struggle to define the new national order. By reflecting their republican value system through a Greek or Roman prism, these actors sought to legitimize their vision with the sacred wisdom of the classical world. Ultimately, writing under ancient veneers allowed partisans to politicize and weaponize ancient history during the turbulent start of the Federal Republic.

Federalists employed ancient personalities who advocated a patrician worldview and a culture of deference. These American aristocrats resurrected historical and semi-historical actors such as Timoleon, Lycurgus and Marcus to help articulate and cultivate their contemporary republican vision. In contrast, Republicans conjured classical figures who championed plebeian rights and a culture of vigilance. These American activists animated ancient figures such as Caius, Aratus and Lucius to promulgate an opposing value system. In the process, these factions transformed revered heroes of the ancient world into de facto American partisans, channeling their legacies into the national drama.

The following passages examine classical pseudonyms as presented in the two nationally distributed newspapers, the Gazette of the United States and the National Gazette.[6] Advertisements for titles arriving in American bookstores during the 1790s, as reflected in those papers, reveal Americans’ continued fascination with the classical past.[7] For most, John Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans remained the most widely available source of ancient history.[8] Other classical works or classically-themed literature commonly referenced by Americans include translations of Homer, Virgil, Tacitus and reprints of Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy.[9]This keen interest in the ancient world conditioned the reading republic to think creatively and politically about classical pseudonyms.[10]

Sampling four months of the Gazette of the United States reveals that, over thirty-one editions, that paper published thirty-nine pseudonymous articles. Contributors submitted a full 33 percent of these under a classical nom de plume.[11] Within those same months, the National Gazette published thirty-three editions with sixty-one articles attributed to a concealed author; 31 percent of these writers obscured themselves behind a Greek or Roman personality.[12] Taken together, roughly one third of the pseudonymous essays printed in both papers invoked the power of the classical world. While this essay is by no means comprehensive, the following examples uncover a pattern for how some contemporary contributors engaged ancient figures to articulate their republican order during the first Washington administration.

Masthead of printer John Fenno’s pro-administration newspaper, Gazette of the United States. (Author’s Collection)

Shortly after George Washington took the first presidential oath of office under the new constitution, John Fenno established the pro-administration Gazette of the United States to endear the new federal system to Americans.[13] Below are two examples from that newspaper reflective of how Federalists politicized ancient history through classical pseudonyms before Republicans responded in kind.

Championing elite rule, “Timoleon” educated the public on the necessary qualities national figures ought to possess to serve the federal government. Only men of pedigree with character and fortune great enough to resist corruption, he lectured, were fit for higher office. The people, he warned, ought to dismiss outright any man who openly sought public affection. This essayist communicated with an audience likely familiar with Plutarch’s Timoleon, the Greek warrior who killed his tyrant brother to protect the liberties of the polis. Later in life, the people summoned Timoleon from a self-imposed exile to rescue Syracuse from Carthaginian oppression.[14] In the wake of Washington’s inauguration, the American Timoleon asked that voters only elevate men similar in character to the president to national positions. Washington, himself a man of virtue and wealth, left public life after vanquishing his British brothers to secure American liberty during the Revolution. And like Timoleon, he returned from this self-imposed exile to rescue the people from popular oppression. Through this pseudonym, the writer wrapped Washington and a patrician worldview in the robes of an ancient Greek to advocate an elite leadership class.

Signature of pseudonymous author “Timoleon” as seen in John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States,May 2, 1789. Notice that printers copied each pseudonym in all capital letters, allowing them to nearly function as a headline. (Author’s Collection)

In an equally telling essay, “Lycurgus” urged Americans to instill in their children “a just regard for the ruling and protecting powers.” Elites, he recorded, absorbed the political wisdom of the modern world and studied the ancient past before designing the Federal Constitution; that document rescued the republic from the chaos of the 1780s. National figures transformed into “the fathers of a country,” this writer claimed, and thus deserved the appropriate degree of deference from the people. These men, he continued, assumed the obligation of modeling exemplary behavior in both their private and public lives to communicate their continued fitness to lead.[15] This essayist’s readers likely recalled the pseudo-historical Spartan king, Lycurgus. According to Plutarch, he too traveled beyond the polisand recorded the best qualities of each government he encountered, weaving them into Sparta’s constitution. Spartans praised Lycurgus for “his eminent virtues” and swore allegiance to his fundamental law.[16] The Oracle at Delphi, explained Plutarch, openly praised Lycurgus for advancing the happiness of his people through the wisdom of his constitution.[17] This writer invited Americans to connect the founding of the new republic with that of Lycurgus’s Sparta. And like the mythical king, this contributor asked that citizens respect their virtuous leaders, defer to their superior wisdom and unconditionally adhere to their just laws. By recruiting Lycurgus into the Federalist fold, this essayist conjured the authority of a revered Spartan king to advocate a political culture of deference.

Masthead of printer Philip Freneau’s pro-Republican newspaper, National Gazette.(Author’s Collection)

The elite vision propagated by the Gazette of the United States rattled those of the Republican persuasion. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson condemned that paper for promoting “pure Toryism” that disseminated “the doctrines of Monarchy [and] aristocracy” while marginalizing the people.[18] He concluded only a “whig-vehicle of intelligence” could combat Federalists’ dangerous indoctrination, and ultimately recruited Philip Freneau to publish the National Gazette.[19] Republicans, some behind ancient disguises, took to Freneau’s paper to condemn the patrician worldview propagandized by Federalists and to offer Americans an alternative vision.

“Aratus” wasted no time condemning enemies of republicanism and described the American and French revolutions as crises in “the affairs of mankind.” Though these two regime-toppling uprisings had granted more optimism to the present generation than any before, he urged that resistance actors not imbue a “mistaken confidence.” He pleaded with observers to remain vigilant, as reactionary forces actively plotted to regain authority and extinguish the flames of liberty. Aratus next reminded readers that since the days of Herodotus and Thucydides, the greater portion of mankind had groaned under “the scourge of a vigorous despotism.”[20] Tyrants would smother hard-earned liberty, he warned, the moment sentinel-citizens eased their guards.[21] Unveiling the historical Aratus unlocks the relevance of this otherwise mysterious pseudonym and adds additional urgency and depth to this writer’s message.

Plutarch’s Aratus hailed from that den of tyranny, Sicyon. As a boy, Aratus narrowly escaped a murderous political purge and nourished “a vehement burning hatred against tyrants” ever after.[22] As an adult, he liberated his polis and kept a watchful gaze over the Peloponnese, vanquishing tyrants who threatened the people’s sovereignty. After a lifetime performing as a bulwark of liberty, however, he momentarily relaxed under Philip II. That Macedonian king wasted no time orchestrating Aratus’s assassination.[23] This Greek liberator spent a lifetime combating tyranny, yet a single unguarded moment sent him to the grave. The American Aratus offered American readers a dire warning: republican government was fragile and only a vigilant citizenry could sustain it. American and French resistance actors had vanquished the tyranny of their respective kings, but without vigilance, patrician opponents of both revolutions would reclaim their Sicyon.

Over a series of essays, “Caius” howled that Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan sacrificed “the manyto the aggrandizement of the few.”[24] Elites designed the funded debt, he asserted, to “perpetuate oppression to your remotest posterity.”[25] A dangerous cabal of American patricians, he claimed, conspired to “erect a detestable aristocracy or monarchy on the ruins of republicanism and the independence of our country.”[26] The Washington administration, Cauis warned, not only threatened the fundamental principles of the American Revolution; it sought to corrupt a healthy Federal Constitution with “all the weaknesses, vices and infirmities of the decayed and expiring constitution of Great Britain.”[27] Expressing faith in American vigilance, he remarked, “The people are not inattentive . . . [They] will unite when this danger is brought to bear.”[28] Caius hoped to awaken Americans to the iniquitous plans of what he considered a self-interested elite. Recovering the Roman origins behind this mask adds remarkable historical power to Republicans’ pleas for vigilance.

No Federalist would have dared stir the ghost of Caius Gracchus to advocate national elitism. That Roman raised plebeian awareness of patrician greed, advocated for equitable land distribution and demanded voting rights for all peninsular citizens. While making these demands, he did not follow custom and address the comitium. Instead, he spoke directly to the people, his back to that assembly.[29] Plutarch marveled that this slight positional change revolutionized Roman politics, transforming the government “from an aristocracy to a democracy” and engendering public figures to appeal to plebeians rather than patricians. Elites murdered Caius during his crusade against their perceived greed.[30] Advocating vigilance through this radical Roman joined Republicans in a timeless struggle between the privileged few and the vigilant many.

Signature of pseudonymous author “Caius” as seen in Philip Freneau’s National Gazette, February 6, 1792. (Author’s Collection)

One of the more dynamic exchanges between these value systems unfolded during the nation’s second presidential election. Disguised writers took to the press to either attack or advocate for Vice President John Adams in what became for some a struggle for the soul of the republic.[31] In the National Gazette, “Lucius” warned Americans to “guard themselves” from Adams, since the second magistrate remained “attached to a government of kings, lords, and commons.” Lucius voiced his support for New York governor George Clinton since Adams aimed to introduce “hereditary orders” to the republic.[32] These remarks prompted a response from “Marcus” in the pages of the Gazette of the United States. Marcus advised readers to ignore Lucius, since independent (wealthy) “men of information” supported both Washington andAdams. The current national magistrates, he lectured, satisfied “the real republicans of our country.” Any literature critical of Adams, he concluded, came from the deranged minds of designing demagogues.[33]

This discourse continued in the pages of the Gazette of the United States. “Lucius” again warned that if Americans wished to preserve republican government and the principles “upon which it was founded” they must abandon Adams for Clinton.[34] Assessing the argument, “Antonius” offered his own warning. “Beware my countrymen,” he wrote, “of those temporizing politicians, who under the pretense of advancing your interest” served their own. “Though Lucius, like his predecessor among the Romans sacrifice[d] the principles of honor to the gratification of his ambition—like him I trust he will . . . meet a similar fate.”[35] Uncovering the source material for this triumvirate exposes an even richer discourse.

For many Americans, the most widely known models for Lucius and Marcus rested in the pages of Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy. Lucius stood with Cato in his doomed resistance to the ambitions of Caesar, making this pseudonym a powerful indictment of Adams’ alleged monarchical inclinations and designs on an imperial presidency. Unwilling to allow Republicans to cast themselves as heroes in this neo-Roman drama, the Federalist “Marcus” invoked the spirit of Cato’s son: Caesar’s allies struck down this defender of Roman republicanism during Rome’s crisis of order.[36] Addison’s work clearly held great emotional significance in the American imagination.[37] Both proto-parties linked their cause to Cato while casting Caesar as the villain, a development this essay rationalizes below. First, however, we must address Antonius, who at first glance does not fit neatly into this Addisonian dialogue.

A contextual reconfiguration accommodates Antonius’s involvement in the above exchange. Admittedly, the following passage is conjectural, yet it offers a plausible explanation for how “Antonius” effortlessly cast “Lucius” as a villain. It also remains confined to the classical texts eighteenth-century Americans regularly consumed. If Lucius is plucked from Addison’s play and returned to the pages of Roman history, he transforms into Lucius Catiline, a “vicious and depraved” popular leader, according to the historian Sallust, motivated only by his “Passion to seize the Commonwealth . . . in his pursuit of Tyranny.”[38] The post-Julian historian Plutarch accused him of incest, fratricide and debauching the Roman youth. When Lucius challenged Cicero’s consulship, the latter successfully sent Antonius forth to destroy the former and his army.[39] Reframing this debate allowed Antonius to strip Lucius of his republican credentials and recast him as traitor to Rome and America while Antonius debuted as conqueror of Catiline and defender of Adams.

The classical world resonated deeply with this generation of Americans, many of whom were convinced they were living in a transformative moment.[40] Certainly political observers felt a connection with the ancients and sought to capture something of their virtue.[41] They also likely hoped Americans would aim to replicate the character of the classical veneers they ventriloquized through; Plutarch anticipated as much. Even that historian expected his biographical sketches to encourage readers to emulate “those noble qualities” of his virtuous subjects.[42]

Shortly before the end of the first Washington administration, Alexander Hamilton composed a letter expressive of how naturally the classical rationalized the contemporary world in many eighteenth-century American minds. “No popular government was ever without its Catalines and Caesars,” he reasoned to the president. “These are its true enemies.”[43] Naturally neither party supported Catiline. Yet both feared Caesar for different reasons. Republicans despised him for his imperial ambitions, Federalists for his popular demagoguery. Strangely, both occupied the obverse and converse sides of the same proverbial coin. And which contemporary version of Caesar threatened the American republic, of course, depended on partisan loyalties.

Reconfiguring classical pseudonyms as partisan tools expressive of a particular republican vision offers a deeper understanding of the hysteria that characterized the 1790s.[44] By animating Greek or Roman leaders, contemporary observers transformed ancient actors into American advocates of divergent world views. This multi-dimensional colloquy connected the ancient past with the American present and pitted competing conceptual models of the new republican order in a struggle for the nation’s future. Print culture circulated these ideas and helped a classically-literate citizenry make sense of the world around them. During the final decade of the eighteenth century, Americans performed a number of popular rites and rituals that served as political expressions.[45] Deploying ancient signatures only added to the festive nature of the Early Republic’s street politics.


[1]Paul A. Rahe, “Cicero and the Classical Legacy in America,” in eds. Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas Cole, Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011);Gordon S. Wood, “The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution,” in Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (New York: Penguin, 2011), 57-79.

[2]Douglass Adair, “A Note on Certain of Hamilton’s Pseudonyms,” William and Mary Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1955): 282-97.

[3]Mackubin T. Owens, Jr., “A Further Note on Certain of Hamilton’s Pseudonyms: The ‘Love of Fame and the Use of Plutarch,’” Journal of the Early Republic 4, no. 3 (1984): 275-86.

[4]Marcus Daniel, Scandal and Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Jeffrey L. Pasley, “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001); Donald H. Stewart, The Opposition Press in the Federalist Era (New York: State University Press, 1969).

[5]Eran Shalev, Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historic Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009).

[6]Pasley, Tyranny of Printers.

[7]See for example, Gazette of the United States, November 14, 1792; National Gazette, November 3, 1791.

[8]Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[9]For the print availability and general popularity of Cato: A Tragedyand the message most colonists received from that work, see Forrest McDonald, “Foreword,” in Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Other Selected Essays, eds. Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).

[10]Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990); Robert A. Ferguson, Reading the Early Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[11]Gazette of the United States, February, March, October, November, 1792.

[12]National Gazette, February, March, October, November, 1792.

[13]For an account of George Washington’s first inauguration, see Hartford Courant, May 4, 1789; John Fenno has no biographer. For a good survey, see Eric Burns, Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), 262-68.

[14]Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecian and Romans, trans. John Dryden, 2 vols. (New York: Modern Library, 1979), 1: 325-55.

[15]“Lycurgus,” in Gazette of the United States, July 10, 1790.

[16]Plutarch, Lives, 1:55.

[17]Ibid., 1:52-80.

[18]Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, May 15, 1791, in Julian P. Boyd, et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 44 vols. (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1950-), 20:416.

[19]Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, July 21, 1791, in William T. Hutchinson, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Congressional Series, 17 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1962-1991), 14:49-51.

[20]“Aratus,” in National Gazette, November 24, 1791.

[21]“Aratus,” in Ibid., November 14, 1791.

[22]Plutarch, Lives, 2:613.

[23]Ibid., 2:612-45.

[24]“Caius,” in National Gazette, January 16, 1792.

[25]“Caius,” Ibid., January 26, 1792.

[26]“Caius,” Ibid., February 6, 1792, January 26, 1792.

[27]“Caius,” Ibid., February 6, 1792.

[28]“Caius,” Ibid., February 9, 1792.

[29]Plutarch, Lives, 2:371-84.

[30]Ibid., 2:374.

[31]Shawn David McGhee, “Characters Pre-Eminent for Virtue and Ability”: The First Partisan Application of the Electoral College,” Journal of the American Revolution, allthingsliberty.com/2022/10/characters-pre-eminent-for-virtue-and-ability-the-first-partisan-application-of-the-electoral-college/.

[32]“Lucius,” in National Gazette, November 17, 1792.

[33]“Marcus,” in Gazette of the United States, November 21, 1792.

[34]“Lucius,” Ibid.

[35]“Antonius,” Ibid., November 28, 1792.

[36]Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays, Henderson and Yellin.

[37]McDonald, “Forward,” in Ibid.

[38]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).

[39]Plutarch, Lives, 2:415-23.

[40]See, for example, John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776, in Lyman H. Butterfield, et al., eds., The Adams Papers: Adams Family Correspondence, 14 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1961- ), 2:29-33.

[41]Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 109.

[42]Plutarch, Lives, 1:205.

[43]Enclosure: [Objections and Answers Respecting the Administration, August 18, 1792, in Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961-87), 12:229-58.

[44]For the 1790s as a passionate or emotional moment of American politics, see Marshal Smelser, “The Federalist Period as an Age of Passion,” American Quarterly 10, no. 4 (1958): 391-419.

[45]Simon P. Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997); David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).



  • This is a great article, Shawn! Really interesting to see how these pseudonyms characterized people and their personalities from the Founding Era. This topic has always been fascinating to me, and something I have wanted to study more, so your article provides a great backdrop for that research. I also find it interesting that, in many ways, we still discuss a lot of the same issues today as we did 200+ years ago (needs of the many vs. the few, tyranny, etc.), albeit in different shapes and forms. Really appreciate your work!

  • Hey Al, thank you for the kind words. The use of classical pseudonyms in Early Republican discourse has captivated me since my first trek through graduate school. It represents an outgrowth of research I conducted into newspaper culture during the first Washington administration and I would like to one day follow the use of these signatures into the earlier crisis period as well as the deeper 1790s. I likewise enjoyed your survey of the Fallen Timbers monument. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • Great job! Very interesting and timely considering all that is happening in today’s politics. It would be really great if the candidates seeking the high offices today would do even a fraction of the research that the “Elites” did before they wrote the constitution. This paper is definitely a “Call to Arms” for toda1ys problems and what will be needed to bring this nation back together on the right track.
    After reading this I am going to print up a bumper sticker saying, “Our republican government is very fragile, and only a vigilant Citizenry can sustain it!”
    Bravo! Great job! keep them coming and thanks for making us think and compare!

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