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  • The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States by Carl J. Richard
  • Leslie Butler (bio)
The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States. By Carl J. Richard. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. 272. Cloth, $49.00.)

While serious historians writing in the 1960s could dismiss early Americans' Greek and Latin references as little more than "window dressing," subsequent work has overturned that glib assessment and presented an increasingly nuanced picture of America's obsession with the classics. Carl Richard's earlier book The Founders and the Classics (1994) builds on the pioneering work of Meyer Reinhold's Classica Americana (1984) to document just how steeped the revolutionary generation was in the history, political thought, and mythology of Greece and Rome. More recently, two volumes by Caroline Winterer—The Culture of Classicism (2002), on colleges, and The Mirror of Antiquity (2007), on women in the early republic—demonstrate the impressive adaptability, persistence, and social reach of the classical tradition in America. Richard's second monograph continues this scholarly project by reassessing the antebellum decades.

Richard's title encapsulates his argument by directly challenging Reinhold's assertion that the period between 1760 and 1790 was "the golden age of the classical tradition in America," when the classics were, "in one form or another, read by a greater proportion of the population" than at any time since antiquity. Not so, Richard argues, and, similarly employing Hesiod's metal hierarchy to represent decline, he contends that the earlier period instead constituted the "silver age" to the antebellum era's true "golden age." He bases this contention on the broad reach that the classics enjoyed in the decades before the Civil War, when classical learning spread through an expanding educational system, Greek Revival buildings popped up across the country, middle-class consumers adorned their homes with urns and other antiquity-themed goods, and inexpensive primers and grammar books put translations of classical texts into the hands of more readers than ever before. Far from dying out with the revolutionary generation, Richard argues, the classical tradition did not simply persist in an attenuated way but actually widened its social and cultural influence through a process of democratization that replaced the intensive engagement of a handful of elite, eastern, white men with an extensive cultural presence. [End Page 125]

An initial chapter maps the many routes through which antebellum Americans encountered the classics. Richard argues that knowledge of classical languages extended well beyond the tiny college-bound minority to include many white women and even, in some northern cities like Philadelphia, African American men and women. Even the English language-based readers young people read—such as The Columbian Orator, from which both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln learned—drew on classical texts and themes. William McGuffey, the editor of the popular McGuffey Readers, was himself a professor of ancient languages. Outside the school, American society "reinforced this classical conditioning" through the names of towns, the construction of neoclassical post offices and courthouses, and the development of a popular oratory rooted in Greek and Latin models.

The core of the book unfolds over the next six chapters, each of which focuses on a distinct flash point in antebellum culture and society: democracy, pastoralism, utilitarianism, nationalism, romanticism, slavery, Christianity. Here the book stands slightly at odds with its larger claim about the extensive reach of the classics, as Richard relies primarily on documents from prominent figures, with less attention paid to more popular sources. Nonetheless, these chapters, drawing on the writings of the Adams family, John C. Calhoun, Margaret Fuller, Louisa McCord, and many others, offer probing examinations of the dialogue between ancient wisdom and present-day imperative. The classics, it turned out, did not provide "eternal truths" but contested, multiple ones, which partisans and advocates routinely excavated and deployed to support their cause. The slaveholding apologist George Fitzhugh and the abolitionist Charles Sumner, for example, each looked to Greece to shore up their positions on slavery. In other words, both read the same Aristotle. Richard insists on this "dark side" of America's classical heritage, which "provided vital inspiration...


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