able to translate the first ten chapters of the
Gospel of John from Greek into Latin.
When James Madison applied at the Col-
lege of New Jersey (now Princeton), he was
expected to be able to “write Latin prose,
translate Virgil, Cicero, and the Greek gos-
pels and [to have] a commensurate knowl-
edge of Latin and Greek grammar.” Even
before he entered, however, he had already
read Vergil, Horace, Justinian, Nepos, Cae-
sar, Tacitus, Lucretius, Eutropius, Phaedrus,
Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato.
The study of the classics inculcated in
these men a respect for the lessons of his-
tory, lessons that were readily apparent in
their writings and debates about how to
construct the American Republic. They
combed the annals of the ancients for
examples of governments that worked
well—and for those that did not.
“These men,” says Tracy Lee Simmons,
discussing the Philadelphia debates in 1787:
had read and digested Polybius, Aristotle,
and Cicero, and they used the ancient luminaries to frame and illustrate their ideas
before the assembly . . . These heated yet
erudite debates, along with the Federalist
Papers, fairly pullulate both with subtle
classical allusions—with which Madison,
Hamilton, and Jay assumed readers to be
tolerably familiar—and direct references
to the leagues—Amphictyonic, Achaean,
Aetolian, Lycian—formed by the ancient
Greeks in order to achieve political and
Not only are writings like the Federalist
Papers replete with classical references, but
the pseudonyms each of the writers chose
for themselves were all taken from the writers of classical times.
Today it is not uncommon to hear some
say that Christians should shy away from
the pagan authors of antiquity. This is an
idea the founder’s generation—including
great Christian thinkers such as Cotton
Mather and Jonathan Edwards—would
simply have considered preposterous.
Education is the cultivation of wisdom
and virtue. In deciding how to accomplish
this with our own children, we would do
well to see how it was done in a time when
wisdom and virtue were more prevalent
than in our own.
Martin Cothran is the editor of Memoria Press’ The Classical Teacher magazine
( memoriapress.com/classical-catalog). He is
the author of several popular titles for Memoria Press ( memoriapress.com), including
the Traditional Logic, Material Logic, and
Classical Rhetoric ( memoriapress.com/
He is a former instructor at Highlands Latin
School ( https://thelatinschool.org) in Louisville, Kentucky. He holds a B.A. in philosophy and economics from the University of
California at Santa Barbara and an M.A.
in Christian Apologetics from the Simon
The education of the Founding Fathers was deeply and thoroughly classical.
It was designed to teach them wisdom and virtue.