Cato: A Tragedy: The Enduring Theatrical Mystery at Valley Forge

Arts & Literature

April 4, 2024
by Shawn David McGhee Also by this Author


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The Valley Forge winter of 1777-78 is an integral part of America’s national narrative.[1] For many citizens, the name “Valley Forge” relates both a physical and intellectual landscape, specific spatial geography in Pennsylvania and a certain emotional acreage representative of the enduring suffering many Americans embraced during the revolution. At the end of that challenging encampment, Gen. George Washington permitted a performance of English Whig Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy (perhaps at Bake House) on Monday, May 4, 1778.[2] The Continental Congress had, however, prohibited theater-going (and other cultural rites) in 1774 in its effort to pressure Parliament into repealing the Coercive Acts and purify Americans of perceived moral corruption. Just why the commander in chief allowed this theatrical engagement to take place given the political circumstances remains a point of contention among scholars.

Washington saw the play many times over the course of his life and, in some respects, modeled his own private and public behavior after that Roman senator.[3] According to historian Gordon Wood, Addison’s Cato impressed upon Washington “what it meant to be a stoical classical hero” committed entirely to the public weal.[4] Researcher Henry Wiencek claimed Valley Forge represented “the darkest moment of the Revolution” and, presumably to raise morale, Washington convened his officers to witness a performance of Cato.[5] Both Peter Henriques and Richard Norton Smith similarly claimed Washington staged the play to inspire a demoralized army at the nadir of the war.[6] Ron Chernow theorized the general approved the play to “buck up his weary men” and remind subordinates their sacrifice mimicked the glorious suffering of the ancient Romans.[7] Mark Evans Bryan recently argued that Continental officials held the play for “an exclusive entertainment” that offered a “display of Georgian gentility by young officers keen to garner the attention of Washington and the major generals.”[8] Which is it? Did Washington authorize the play to remind soldiers that sacrificing for the public good was a timeless expression of republican virtue? To revivify an otherwise downtrodden officer corps? To create the proper social environment for rank-conscious climbers to compete for favor and position? Or is there something else at play here?

Most historians who contemplate this controversial performance analyze it from the vantagepoint of the Valley Forge winter encampment. This parochial perspective naturally lends itself to the “sacrifice and/or inspiration” school of thought: Washington quietly offered the production to ingrain in his men the necessity of self-denial and resurrect their desire to press on after surviving a difficult winter.[9] But even this narrow view is difficult to rationalize considering Addison’s text. If the general hoped to “buck up his weary men” with a play, why Cato? After all, despite the unshakable virtue the tragic hero displays over the course of five acts, he fails to protect Rome from Julius Caesar’s imperial ambitions. And when Cato learns of Caesar’s arrival at Utica, the senator chooses suicide over surrender. Shortly before his corporeal body expires, he learns that Pompey’s son has arrived from Spain to combat Caesar. Had Cato lived to lead the Romans, his son Portius laments, their combined forces may have rescued the republic from impending despotism.[10] On the surface at least, this plotline is not exactly inspiring. If viewers imagined Cato and Rome as stand-ins for Washington and the United States and likewise Caesar as George III (as contemporary Americans did), the play gloomily predicted a certain if virtuous American failure.[11]

But what of staging the play to allow junior officers to curry favor with their superiors and jockey for promotions? Bryan’s argument is compelling, and it is likely that some men who attended and others who performed in Cato hoped to replicate their British counterparts’ aristocratic environment. But Washington approving a performance of Addison’s work presents a different problem. Why would an obedient and disciplined commander in chief, who sought to embody and model republican virtue, blatantly disregard the Continental Association’s eighth provision which specifically prohibited theatrical performances? Moreover, why would the general support a form of entertainment that he, as a former delegate of the First Continental Congress, identified as detrimental to the American cause? To get to the root of this political problem, a broader historical context is necessary.

Prior to the publication of Cato in 1713, Joseph Addison penned numerous essays commenting on, among other topics, politeness and politics. Through these writings, he hoped to promote gentility and civic pride among British subjects, arming them with a moral compass and shared sense of identity. A “Human Soul without education,” he remarked, is no different than a block of marble. Only a talented sculptor can transform lifeless stone into a work of art, and only scholastic training, following this logic, can prepare the mind to realize its vast potential. Education, Addison concluded, enabled men to “recover our souls out of Vice, Ignorance and Prejudice.” Addison aimed to nurture refinement through his essays and “contribute something to the polishing of Mens Minds.”[12] Addison’s literary exercises continued a tradition of intellectual and cultural cultivation in fashion since at least the early sixteenth century, when Italian knight Baldassare Castiglione published The Book of the Courtier.[13]

Through Cato, Addison likely hoped to continue this behavioral proselytization. He based his plot mainly on Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger and Sallust’s The War with Catiline.[14] Addison, throughout his composition, portrayed the title character as virtue embodied, a public figure dedicated solely to Rome who suppressed his private wants for the public good. Cato’s unswaying commitment to the state, as depicted by Addison, earned that Roman admiration from the entire political spectrum of contemporary Britain despite his obvious association with a political faction. The historical Cato caucused with the Optimates, a loose fraternity of Romans that worked to uphold senatorial power against encroachments on its authority from dictatorial tyranny above and mobocracy below. Historians typically cast Caesar as a member of the Populares, reformers who advocated for a more equitable distribution of Rome’s resources.[15] Addison, intimate with the destructive force political factions could potentially unleash upon communities (with both the English civil wars and the 1688 Glorious Revolution tattooed on the minds of most eighteenth-century subjects), warned readers of the perils of toxic partisanship. Parties, he explained, “spoil good Neighborhood, and make honest men hate one another.” Faction creates “a dreadful Spirit of Division” that “rends a Government into two distinct People.” It is, he continued, fatal to men’s virtue and morality and destroys common sense. Finally, he warned “A furious party Spirit … exerts it self in Civil War and Blood-shed … and extinguishes all the Seeds of Good-nature, Compassion and Humanity.”[16] Addison’s play channels these sentiments, issuing a stern reminder of political extremism’s bipartisan dangers. Once the play debuted in London in 1713, both Whigs and Tories claimed Cato as their own.[17] A liberal writer channeling a conservative figure united, however briefly, a fractured political community through theatrical patriotic valor and selflessness.

The work enjoyed critical and financial success; enthusiasts staged it throughout much of western Europe while translated editions appeared in Italy, Holland and France (among other polities). It likewise caught the imagination of most subjects in British North America.[18] New York hosted the first known colonial performance of Cato in 1732. Traveling actors next offered two productions at Charlestown, South Carolina, in November 1735. The show made its way to Virginia the following year and, by 1750, companies had staged the work at Philadelphia and again in New York.[19] Between 1732 and 1774 professional American thespians had staged Cato at least twenty-eight times with only Romeo and Juliet (barely) surpassing this figure.[20]

After 1765, the play met the moment for colonists, offering the best popular expression for how ostensibly pure and virtuous Americans might respond to the policies of a politically unaccountable Parliament. As observed by historian Forrest McDonald, “That most of the founding generation read or saw it or both is unquestionable.”[21] Washington freely borrowed lines from its pages throughout his life (most notably in his Farewell Address) while editor Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy included a verse in his gazette’s masthead for a good portion of the 1770s. “Do Thou Great Liberty inspire our Souls—And make our Lives in Thy Possession happy,” the heading thundered, “Or, our Deaths glorious in Thy just Defense.”[22] Resistance theater of a different sort from December 16, 1773, however, brought the empire to its breaking point and, for American Whigs, promoted Cato from remarkable entertainment to requisite moral instruction.

The third and final imperial crisis resulted from perhaps a few dozen brazen American Whigs tossing 342 chests of the Royal East India Company’s tea into Boston Harbor.[23] Parliament responded by passing the Coercive Acts, punitive legislation designed specifically to demoralize Boston into submission. As a result, communities from New England to Georgia began calling for non-importation and non-consumption of British goods, some even going so far as to call for non-exportation of American resources.[24] And virtually all called for a “Grand Continental Congress” to direct a nationalized resistance movement and secure American liberty at all costs.[25] The First Continental Congress convened at Philadelphia on September 5, 1774 and closed its doors in late October.[26] Congress’s actionable response to the Coercive Acts came in the form of the Articles of Association, itself something of a national code of conduct.[27] Over fourteen articles, the Continental Association: called for non-importation of slaves as well as British and Irish goods effective December 1, 1774; warned merchants, retailers and ship captains against price gauging and smuggling; declared those knowingly breaking the Association as individuals “inimical to the liberties of their country”; and advised colonists to limit slaughtering sheep to promote domestic textile production.[28] The eighth article holds the key to unlocking the Cato mystery. In that provision, Congress banned a range of popular pastimes such as horse racing, cockfighting, gambling, elaborate funeral processions and theatrical performances.[29] What lay behind Congress’s condemnation of these social engagements reveals the nature of the moral crisis American Whigs felt threatened their political nation.

Many eighteenth-century theorists imagined polities as cycling through an organic lifespan: birth, maturity, decline and death.[30] In light of this, disinterested statesmen aimed to prevent the latter stages by remaining virulent and youthful through an enlightened allocation of a given political community’s natural resources and labor pool.[31] For many American Whigs, Britain represented a modern Rome, a once-virtuous empire overrun with vice, effeminacy and self-interest rapidly devolving into a state of moral decline. Colonists hoped to avoid Britain’s perceived plague of disposable wage earners, landless drifters, oppressive factory regime and debauched aristocracy.[32] And while British North America did not resemble England in terms of its commercial modernity, Whigs did sound the alarm over what many considered degenerate practices out of place in their American Sparta.[33] During the Coercive Acts Crisis, Congress sought to morally cleanse colonists by prohibiting cultural cancers many felt had infected an otherwise healthy body politic. The Continental Association’s eighth article laid bare those ailments, aiming to “encourage frugality, economy, and industry” while promoting American agriculture, art and manufacturing. Congress further discouraged “every species of extravagance and dissipation” along with all “expensive diversions and entertainments.”[34] These demands represent a fusion of classical virtue and Protestant morality and asked American Whigs to submit private desire to public demand and sacrifice luxuries some felt tainted republican simplicity.[35] For resistance actors familiar with Addison’s Cato, that classical Roman effectively had lived by Congress’s contemporary creed. Put another way, Congress asked colonists to commit to living like Cato.

Even before Congress issued the Continental Association, many colonists faulted theater-going for weakening civic virtue among Americans. The educated ought to model appropriate Christian behavior for the masses, one observer lectured in 1768, by avoiding profligate productions that contradicted biblical prudence.[36] Middling folk, some contended, should lead frugal and industrious lives out of, if nothing else, necessity; partaking in frivolous entertainments like plays only contributed to the misery of poorer families since attendees wasted resources they might otherwise have reserved for food and fuel. One critic advised upper-class women to avoid theater altogether for fear it would corrupt feminine virtue by exposing ostensibly pure ladies to profanity and vulgarity. Others warned that plays transformed men into women and all attendees into slaves, ultimately creating crowds of dependents incapable of defending the commonweal.[37] Another commentator blamed theater productions for “sinking the Athenians into effeminacy” and warned Americans of a similar fate.[38] This collection of attitudes made its way into Congress’s eighth provision and most theater companies ended up shutting their doors or relocating outside the mainland colonies after 1774.[39] Despite the hostility Whigs expressed toward theater performances, however, American writers continued to dedicate their energy to writing plays for colonists to read during the crisis period. Appreciating the difference between public productions and private consumption is critical to fully grasping Cato at Valley Forge.

Going back to the classical world, playwrights often wrote morality and politics into their works, allowing productions to function as entertainment and vehicles of education (or indoctrination).[40] Historians David Shields and Fredrika Teute described eighteenth-century theater as “Britain’s great school of manners and the engine of fashion.”[41] This tradition continued during the crisis period as colonists picked up their quills to inculcate Americans into supporting the Whig cause with patriotic propaganda. Naturally public theatrical productions, fit with costumes, stages, intoxication and idleness, threatened the purity of the republican ideal. Reading alone or in small groups in private spaces, however, allowed consumers to absorb the politeness and politics of a given work without the waste and extravagance associated with public performances. During this period, Mercy Otis Warren wrote The Adulateur, The Defeat and The Group, each of which commented on or satirized revolutionary politics and war, casting favorable light on the American position. Hugh Henry Breckinridge crafted The Battle of Bunkers Hill and The Death of General Montgomery, the former lauding the righteousness of the American cause, the latter lambasting supposed British wickedness at Quebec.[42] And Philip Freneau, the “poet of the American Revolution,” directed his verse to the imperial struggle, perhaps most famously in “The British Prison Ship.”[43] This composition relates his first-hand experience of captivity’s horrors. “Shut from the blessing of the evening air / Pensive we lay with mingled corpses there,” he recounted, “Meagre and wan, and scorch’d with heat below / We loom’d like ghosts, ere death had made us so.”[44] And while Americans likely read this literature with the intended pride or outrage writers’ designed it to provoke, Cato still held an even deeper emotional connection with most colonists. For a people expected to sacrifice material and social convenience in an effort to save their suffering communities, nothing resonated more than the self-denial depicted in the pages of Addison’s Cato.

On September 26, 1777, His Majesty’s forces marched into Philadelphia, the rebel capital and meeting site of the Continental Congress, to settle in for the winter.[45] After considering several options, General Washington selected Valley Forge for his army’s third winter encampment. Contrary to the mythology surrounding this pivotal decision, Valley Forge offered an excellent site for military quarters. The land’s natural bounty supported thousands of farmers who produced dairy, flour and wheat for the wider Atlantic marketplace while forges, mills and furnaces diversified the local economy. The Schuylkill River served as both protective barrier and commercial highway while the landscape’s elevation kept the Continental Army safe from potential surprise attacks. Finally, Valley Forge provided plenty of flat land, acreage utilized to construct an organized military community and train soldiers for the coming campaign.[46] Despite these available advantages, the army’s condition initially remained dire.

Private Joseph Plumb Martin declared the army “in a truly forlorn condition” on its march to Valley Forge, made up of soldiers with “no clothing, no provisions and as disheartened as need be.” Yet despite men remaining “weak, starved and naked,” he explained, they “engaged in the defence of our injured country” determined to persevere.[47] Surgeon Albigence Waldo ruminated in his diary, “Why are we sent here to starve and Freeze—what sweet Felicities have I left at home; A charming wife—pretty Children—Good Beds—good food.” He then described his current condition, “Here all Confusion—smoke and Cold—hunger and filthiness … There comes a bowl of beef soup—full of burnt leaves and dirt, sickish enough to make a Hector spue.”[48] Washington assessed the situation in equally fatal terms that December. “What then is to become of the Army this Winter,” he asked President Henry Laurens, as soldiers slept “under frost and snow without Cloathes or Blankets.” The general harbored grave concerns over whether or not Continental forces would even remain intact during the encampment.[49] About eighteen miles east at Philadelphia, the material circumstances for the British Army were markedly different.

Surveying the comparative military camps that winter, Philadelphia loyalist James Allen ridiculed General Washington for being a “lame-spectator” to the ruthless success of British raiding parties. Allen estimated the Continental Army had dwindled to an embarrassing 5,000 men after calculating for desertions, disease and death. In contrast, he explained His Majesty’s forces had spent the Philadelphia encampment enjoying “a very gay life the whole winter, [while hosting] many very expensive entertainments.”[50] The frequent festivities culminated that season with Gen. Sir William Howe’s departing celebration following his resignation. Organized largely by Maj. John André, the eighteen-hour Meschianza unfolded on May 18, 1778, a fortnight after Continental officers staged Cato. This extravagant display of indulgence and opulence began in the afternoon with a flotilla of officers and gentry engaged in a regatta on the Delaware River as musicians performed spirited music on the river’s banks. Later, a neo-feudal jousting tournament took place between British officers clad in medieval French garb and divided into two camps, the Knights of the Blended Rose and the Knights of the Burning Mountain. After this theatrical mock-combat, spectators proceeded to a feast, then a ball, before the penultimate offering: an elaborate show of fireworks. As perfectly described by historian John Ferling, the festivities ultimately concluded early the following morning with a round of speeches and toasts for every “conceivable object save one—a British victory.”[51] Yet despite the carefree attitude on display, the British mood had turned considerably darker by the time officers staged the Meschianza. Attorney James Allen wrote, the “face of politics is much alter’d for the worse, a war with France being inevitable, as she has recognized the independence of America and entered into a commercial treaty with the united States.”[52] Eighteen miles west at Valley Forge, the American mood had also changed by early spring.

Washington learned in late April that France had recognized American independence.[53] By May 3, President Laurens had officially informed Washington that treaties “between the Court of Versailles and the United States” had been read before Congress and would likely be ratified and published in the coming days.[54] On May 4, according to Lt. Col. William Bradford, Jr.:

Cato was performed before a very numerous and splendid audience. His Excellency and Lady, Lord Sterling, the Countess and Lady Kitty, and Mrs. Green were part of the Assembly. The Scenery was in Taste—and the performance admirable.[55]

The Bake House at Valley Forge National Park. Only the right portion of the home pictured dates to the 1777-78 encampment. This strongly suggests that, if Cato did take place inside, it unfolded behind the front door on the right porch. (Author)

Scholar Mark Evans Bryan plausibly deduced this engagement took place inside Bake House. Bryan uncovered that weeks earlier, another officer had received a ticket for an entertainment but the “bakehouse” was too crowded to enter, lending strength to the position that future performances may have also occurred in that particular building.[56]

Just how exactly Cato unfolded is absolutely unknown. American legend holds that actors performed this tragedy outdoors before the entire army.[57] Indeed, as late as 1927, Valley Forge offered a similar amphitheater production before a large audience to (approximately) commemorate the 150th anniversary of that 1778 performance. Yet it almost certainly did not happen during the encampment en plein air. Bryan is again likely correct in concluding that organizers intended the Valley Forge performance exclusively for men of rank.[58] Historians have yet to uncover any contemporaneous evidence suggesting anyone other than officers enjoyed this spectacle. Even the intrepid and ubiquitous Joseph Plumb Martin made no mention of Cato in his memoir.[59] But if this performance catered to the officer corps, it is difficult to imagine leadership considering it a reproduction of British leisure and cosmopolitanism. After all, the deep communication networks imbedded in both Valley Forge and Philadelphia certainly informed Continental officers of the incomparable round of perpetual parties and festivities the British enjoyed at Philadelphia.

If the performance did take place inside Bake House and overcrowding sometimes rendered that space inhospitable, how exactly did the action unfold? Also, if Washington and other notable figures attended, this typically crowded space would likely have been even more congested than usual. Moreover, it is worth noting that Bake House earned its appellation due to it being an active kitchen supervised by Superintendent of Bakers Christopher Ludwick to prepare bread for the Continental Army, further packing the home.[60] These factors would have severely limited the building’s available square footage for a practical theatrical production of Cato. But if Bake House’s structural limitations are combined with Congress’s cultural prohibitions, a credible scenario presents itself.

Main parlor, Bake House, left. This is the room that may have witnessed the Cato performance. It is about 17’x17’ (or about 289 square feet) and incredibly cramped with a low ceiling. If the action did take place here, it almost certainly did not involve a stage. Historians must at least entertain that participants engaged in a private reading of the tragedy rather than a lively production fit with props and costumes. Beneath the main parlor, right, of Bake House is where the bakery operated. Notice the cellar door on the left for loading in supplies and moving out finished food stuffs for the army. (Author)
Audience Watching Production of 1927 Pageant Cato on Park Land, celebrating (approximately) the 150th anniversary of the Valley Forge Winter. (Valley Forge National Historic Park)

While some historians countenance an unlikely amphitheater performance and others a more plausible officer corps production, an equally convincing interpretation is that Cato at Valley Forge was not a theatrical display at all in the traditional sense. To avoid breaking the letter of the law as explicitly detailed in the Continental Association’s eighth article while adhering to its spirit, Washington may very well have opted for a middle ground of sorts. Rather than elaborate costumes, rehearsals and props, scholars must at least entertain that what actually took place within the cramped walls of Bake House that spring evening was a table reading of Addison’s work. After all, reading plays did not break the Association; in fact, Whigs considered reading a necessary and virtuous engagement during the crisis period.

The main hall at Bake House is approximately 17´x17´ (roughly 289 square feet) with a low ceiling. Given these constrained measurements, it is unlikely that a standing performance with a stage of any kind took place in this space. In short, the room that unequivocally remains from the original structure is a tight parlor that would struggle to seat fifty people comfortably, theatrical considerations aside.[61] Yet imagining several readers, maybe in improvised costumes, maybe not, seated by candlelight and reciting their parts in private quarters is less a stretch than a grand outdoor spectacle or even an indoor stage performance in such a small space. And any variety of large-scale performance would almost certainly have left behind more evidence. But holding an intimate reading shortly before revealing the Franco-American Alliance would have presented American officers with a more enviable politico-military position (through the play) than Addison left Cato’s followers after the stoic senator’s suicide. In this contemporary version, Cato (Washington) lived to join with Pompey’s son (France) to unite against Caesar (George III). And throughout the recital, Addison’s selfless lawmaker would have reminded the officer corps that they sacrificed in the name of their suffering country, just what Congress expected of Americans. In other words, a limited reading would not only have adhered to the self-denial mandated by the Continental Association; it would have amplified Congress’s attempt at moral purification with an aural lesson in public sacrifice.

This uncredited image is from the 1713 first edition of Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy. (Liberty Fund)

On Tuesday, May 5, the day after the Cato performance, Washington decreed “the Almighty ruler of the Universe” had intervened on behalf of the United States and recruited “a powerful Friend among the Princes of the Earth” to help Americans secure independence. After some military theatrics and thirteen cannon discharges, the army shouted “Long Live the King of France” before offering a final salute “To the American States.”[62] The once-desperate Continental army emerged that spring a more disciplined and organized institution.[63] Addison’s Cato reminded the officer corps of their solemn responsibility to elevate the needs of the state above the wants of the self. General Washington probably expected the soldiery to absorb Cato’s virtue from their superiors in what might be described as “trickle-down virtue.” Valley Forge ultimately represented another in a series of profound crises that mimicked, however imperfectly, the darkest days of Rome. And American Whigs embraced a willingness to suffer as part of their proto-national ethos in a shared struggle to, in the eternal words of Addison’s Cato, “Restore the commonwealth to liberty.”[64]



[1] This work is indebted to Director of Visitor and Community Engagement Adam Gresek of Valley Forge National Historical Park. He allowed the author a careful and informative investigation of the interior of Bake House, which is not open to the public. Throughout he remained generous with his time and patient with the author’s methods, a bounty to this present work. Ranger Steven Walter also offered his time and knowledge regarding Cato at Valley Forge. This essay is better informed due to their consideration.

[2] Mark Evans Bryan, “‘Slideing into Monarchical Extravagance’: Cato at Valley Forge and the Testimony of William Bradford Jr.,” William and Mary Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2010): 123-144.

[3] Peter Henriques, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 81-82; H. C. Montgomery, ‘Washington the Stoic,” Classical Journal 31, no. 6 (1936): 371-73

[4] Gordon S. Wood, “The Greatness of George Washington,” in Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006), 36.

[5] Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 36.

[6] Henriques, Realistic Visionary, 81; Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 269.

[7] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004), 107.

[8] Bryan,“‘Slideing into Monarchical Extravagance,’”123-144.

[9] Willard Stern Randall, George Washington: A Life (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 43; Henriques, Realistic Visionary, 81; Smith, Patriarch, 269; Chernow, Hamilton, 107:

[10] Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin, eds., Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2004).

[11] Roger E. Stoddard, “Notes on American Play Publishing, 1765-1865,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 81 (1971): 161-90.

[12] Joseph Addison, Spectator 215 in Henderson and Yellin, Cato, 131-34.

[13] Henderson and Yellin, “Introduction,” in ibid., xv.

[14] This can be gleaned from Addison’s dialogue in Spectator 169, in ibid., 127-31.

[15] There is fierce debate among classicists about the utility and viability of using Optimates and Populares to describe factions in the Roman Republic, a debate well beyond the scope of this essay. Since Cato clearly stood up for the prestige of the senate and the Optimates are associated with this political objective, for the sake of brevity I have included the term’s usage. Likewise, the eighteenth-century audience familiar with Addison’s Cato remained deeply unsettled by the creeping presence of faction. See Erich Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1974); M.A. Robb, Beyond Populares and Optimates: Political Language in the Late Republic (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010); Richard E. Mitchell, Patricians and Plebeians: The Origins of the Roman State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).

[16] Spectator 125, in Henderson and Yelling, Cato, 123-26.

[17] Henderson and Yellin, “Introduction,” in ibid., xiii-xiv.

[18] Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin, “‘Those Stubborn Principles’: From Stoicism to Sociability in Joseph Addison’s Cato,” Review of Politics 76, no. 2 (2014): 223-41; Randall Fuller, “Theaters of the American Revolution: The Valley Forge ‘Cato’ and the Meschianza in their Transcultural Contexts,” Early American Literature 34, no. 2 (1999): 126-46; Hannah Filipowicz, “School for Patriots?: The Foundational Dramas of the American and Polish Revolutions Revisited,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 52, no. 1/2 (2010): 19-45.

[19] Katherine Harper, “Cato, Roman Stoicism, and the American Revolution,” PhD diss. (University of Sydney, 2014), 71-72.

[20] Bryan pointed this data out in “Slideing into Monarchical Extravagance,” 123n2; see also Odai Johnson and William J. Burling, The Colonial Stage, 1665-1774: A Documentary Calendar (Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001), 64-65.

[21] Forrest McDonald, “Foreword,” in Henderson and Yellin, Cato, viii.

[22] Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, 1985), 195-96; see for example, Massachusetts Spy, September 29, 1774.

[23] Benjamin Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

[24] Shawn David McGhee, No Longer Subjects of the British King: The Political Transformation of Royal Subjects to Republican Citizens, 1774-1776 (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2024).

[25] Newport Mercury, August 15, 1774; New-Hampshire Gazette, August 12, 1774; Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, November 24, 1774; “Letter from a Private Individual to Peyton Randolph,” October 20, 1774, in in Peter Force, ed., American Archives: Consisting of a Collection of Authentic Records, State Papers, Debates, And Letters And Other Notices of Publick Affairs, the Whole Forming a Documentary History of the Origins and Progress of the North American Colonies; of the Causes and Accomplishments of the American Revolution; and of the Constitution of Government for the United States, to the Final Ratification Thereof: Fourth Series, 6 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1837-1853), 1:944.

[26] Caroline Robbins, “Rights and Grievances at Carpenters’ Hall, September 5-October 26, 1774,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 43, no. 2 (1976): 100-18.

[27] McGhee, No Longer Subjects of the British King.

[28] Worthington C. Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 34 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 1:78.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Gracchus,” Pennsylvania Packet, October 17, 1774; see also See also Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 1980).

[31] “Lucius Publicola,” Pennsylvania Packet, October 24, 1774; see also McCoy, Elusive Republic.

[32] McCoy, Elusive Republic.

[33] For some expressions that compared American purity with the classical world, see Samuel Adams to Thomas Young, October 17, 1774, in Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., The Writings of Samuel Adams, 4 vols. (New York, NY: Knickerbocker Press, 1904-1907), 3:162-63; John Adams to Abigail Adams, September 20, 1774, Abigail Adams to John Adams, October 16, 1774, in L. H. Butterfield, et al., eds., Adams Family Correspondence, 13 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963-), 1:156-57; William Tudor to John Adams, September 26, 1774, in Robert J. Taylor, et al., eds., The Papers of John Adams, 18 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977-2016), 2:174-76.

[34] Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1:76.

[35] McGhee, No Longer Subjects of the British King.

[36] Boston News Letter, October 30, 1760.

[37] Ann Fairfax Withington, Toward a More perfect Union: Virtue and the Formation of the American Republics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 24-37.

[38] “Philander,” New York Journal, February 4, 1768.

[39] Jason Shaffer, “‘An Excellent Die’: Death, Mourning, and Patriotism in the Propaganda Plays of the American Revolution,” Early American Literature 41, no. 1 (2006): 1-27.

[40] Peter Arnott, “Greek Drama as Education,” Educational Theater Journal 22, vol. 1 (1970): 35-42;

[41] David S. Shields and Fredrika J. Teute, “The Meschianza: Sum of All Fetes,” Journal of the Early Republic 35, no. 2 (2015), 189.

[42] Shaffer, “‘Excellent Die,’” 1-27.

[43] For some literature on Philip Freneau, see Lewis Leary, That Rascal Freneau: A Study in Literary Failure (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1942); Jacob Axelrad, Philip Freneau: Champion of Democracy (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1967).

[44] Philip Morin Freneau, The Poems of Philip Freneau. Written Chiefly During the Late War (Philadelphia, PA: printed by Francis Bailey, 1786), 196.

[45] Frederick Bernays Wiener, “The Military Occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 111, no. 5 (1967): 310-13.

[46] Wayne Bodle, The Valley Forge Winter: Soldiers and Civilians in War (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002); John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War for Independence (New York, NY: Oxford Press, 2007), 274-75; For the concept of the army as a military community, see Holly A. Mayer, Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1996).

[47] Joseph Plumb Martin, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier: The Narrative of Joseph Plumb Martin (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006), 58.

[48] Albigence Waldo, “Valley Forge, 1777-78: Diary of Albigence Waldo, of the Connecticut Line,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 21, no. 3 (1897): 299-323.

[49] George Washington to Henry Laurens, December 23, 1777, in Philander D. Chase, et al., eds., Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, 29 vols. (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1985- ), 12:683-87.

[50] May 11, 1778, “Diary of James Allen, Esq., of Philadelphia, Counsellor at Law, 1770-1778,” in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 9, no. 3 (1885): 435-36.

[51] Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 295-96; for the best cultural analysis of the Meschianza, see Shields and Teute, “The Meschianza,” 185-214.

[52] May 11, 1778, “Diary of James Allen,” 435.

[53] William Heath to George Washington, April 21, 1778, James Bowdoin to Washington, April 23, 1778, in Chase, et al., Papers of Washington: Revolutionary Series, 14:580, 591-92.

[54] Henry Laurens to Washington, May 3, 1778, in ibid, 15:21-22.

[55] Paul Leicester Ford, Washington and the Theater (New York, NY: Dunlap Society, 1899), 26.

[56] Bryan, “Slideing into Monarchical Extravagance,” 127; see also Thomas Ewing, ed., George Ewing: Gentleman Soldier at Valley Forge (New York, NY: Thomas Ewing, 1928), 67.

[57] Shaffer, “Excellent Die,” 2-3; Fuller, “Theaters of the American Revolution,” 128-30.

[58] Bryan, “‘Slideing into Monarchical Extravagance,’” 123.

[59] Martin, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier.

[60] For baking on the premises, see Howard M. Jenkins. “The Old Iron Forge: ‘Valley Forge,’” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 17, no. 4 (1893), 442; for Christopher Ludwick’s commission as “superintendent of bakers, and director of baking, in the grand army of the United States,” see Worthington Chauncy Ford, et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 7:323; For a brief sketch of Ludwick’s remarkable life, see “Christopher Ludwig: Baker-General in the Army of the United States during the Revolutionary War,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 16, no. 3 (1892), 343-348.

[61] I am indebted to technician David Sutton for accompanying me and taking these measurements on August 1, 2023. His mechanical capabilities and structural knowhow better informed the author of the practical possibilities of Bake House’s spatial order for this essay.

[62] General Orders, May 5, 1778, in Chase, et al., Papers of Washington: Revolutionary Series, 15:38-41.

[63] Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone, Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016).

[64] For voluntary suffering as the sinews of American union and primordial quality of a proto-national ethos, see McGhee, No Longer Subjects of the British King; for the closing quote, see Addison, Cato, in Henderson and Yellin, Cato, 36.


  • Excellent article! My PhD thesis is looking at the Classics during the American Revolution and I’m just gathering materials about the Revolutionary War period so this article came at just the right time. I’ve seen a few sources mention the play being performed at Valley Forge which I was hoping to add at the beginning of my chapter as a little anecdote to help make my point, but I found myself wondering why Washington would put on a play when theatre productions were barred during the war

    The author is right to call it a mystery and I appreciate this well-written and detailed explanation for what might have happened.

  • The answer to this is simple: George Washington. Washington, a Virginia Anglican Christian and most assuredly NOT a Puritan, loved the theater. Indeed, often his behavior was very much based upon the image that is created on the stage. He was very careful to always exhibit the necessary “presence” of a true leader even when he probably did not feel like doing so! Cato was his favorite play and he saw in it an intellectual argument for the cause as well as what might be called “entertainment.” It had a lesson to teach and his men needed diversion from their wretched existence. George Washington lived playing cards, strong drink, dancing, fine dining, the company of ladies and the theatre, all the things Puritans insisted would lead to a dissolute life. Apparently the puritans were wrong.

  • An excellent, engaging article! In a post-script, the British officers also sponsored and enjoyed the theater (in Philly and NYC). Funded by senior officers, the junior officers participated as actors and sometimes hired local women to play the female parts. Here is a link to a previous JAR article on the British officers’ theater in occupied cities.

    While it is clear from your extensive scholarship that the American rendition of Cato had higher-level purposes, the British seemed to produce comedic plays out of boredom. There was considerable downtime in winter quarters, and they needed a laugh!

  • A great article. However, we should be realistic. At this time, the Continental Congress did not include
    a penalty in their restrictions. Without a government, who would enforce the Continental Congress wishes?
    Washington had his own guard, he was in command of his beloved army. Congress would not challenge
    Washington and at this time, I believe Congress gave him “control.”
    Having a chance to have do something different is just the human thing to do.

  • Interesting article on Cato, but I am very dubious the play took place “in” the building called the Bake House. To begin the only reference to the play there reads “at” the Bake House, not “in”. Also the building was not identified as such until long after 1778. And logically would Washington have wanted that busy operation, with wagons coming and going that close to his HQ.
    The reports of the commissaries office on May 1, May 10, and May 18, show hundreds of barrels of provisions “in” the Bake House. Would the troops have been rolling barrels out and back in for a play? Dubious. See below.

    Weight by Estimation
    “In the Bake house” 84 Barrells of Flour 16,800
    111 Barrells biscuit 11,100
    2 Barrells Indian meal 420
    174 Barrells beef & pork 34,800
    4 Barrells fish 820

    Thomas Jones, “Return of Provisions and Stores in the Magazines at Camp, including those near Potts Grove,” 1 May 1778, RG 93, M859, Roll 76, Doc. 22112, f95, NA.

    May 10, 1778,
    “In the Bake house”
    240 barrels of flour, 56,000 pounds
    160 barrels of bread, 16,000 pounds
    147 barrels of beef and pork, 29,400 pounds
    4 barrels fish, 820 pounds

    Thomas Jones, 10 May 1778, Provisions remaining on hand, RG 93, M 859, Roll 75, f242, Doc. 22055, NA.

    “In the Bakehouse”
    386 barrels of flour 77,200 pounds
    150 barrels of bread 23,000 pounds
    36 barrels beef & pork 7,200
    Thomas Jones, DCGI, 18 May 1778, Return of Provisions in Camp, RG 93, M 859, Roll 75, doc. 21967, f12, NA.

  • Thank you, D Malcolm and good luck on your dissertation. In addition to some of the source material listed in my footnotes, please check out Eran Shalev’s outstanding book Rome Reborn on Western Shores and his article “Ancient Masks, American Fathers: Classical Pseudonyms During the American Revolution and Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 23 no. 2 (2003). Also might I point you to my own article in the JAR, “‘Those Noble Qualities:’ Classical Pseudonyms as Reflections of Divergent Republican Value Systems.” It deals with classical themes during the Early National Period but it is useful for how some writers likely employed the historical power of the classical world to shape the new constitutional order.

    And Gene, thank you for the kind words. I enjoyed both your latest article and Dispatches appearance. What a great find!

    As far as Congress having no authority, I would like to point readers to October 16, 1778, in Ford, et al., Journals of the Continental Congress, 12:1018. “Whereas frequenting play houses and theatrical entertainments has a fatal tendency to divert the minds of people from due attention to the means necessary of the defence of their country, and the preservation of their liberties: Resolved, That any person holding an office under the United States, who shall act, promote, encourage or attend such plays, shall be deemed unworthy to hold such office, and shall be accordingly dismissed.”

    It appears Congress was not at all happy to learn about the performance of Cato.

    I am reminded of a great quip from John Murrin that I will paraphrase. “People of the past were at least as smart as us and every bit as complicated.”

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