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McDonald on Washington’s favorite play Cato

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Source: Foreword to Addison's Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays, ed. by Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin, with a Foreword by Forrest McDonald (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).

Foreword by Forrest McDonald

The formation of the American republic was such a farfetched undertaking that, when it was done, many could regard it as a heaven-sent miracle. The winning of independence on the field of battle was monumental enough, but that was just half the task. The other half was to establish a regime that would provide a maximum of liberty consistent with the public safety. Compounding the problem was that Americans were unreservedly committed to a republican form of government, and no extant models of that kind of government were available.

The more-educated and better-informed citizens looked in every conceivable place for guidance, and they found but little. There was the Bible—which almost everyone read—but its only political advice was that monarchy was bad, and Americans had already reached that conclusion. Political theorists abounded, but the dicta of Locke and Montesquieu were not applicable to American conditions, nor were those of Plato and Aristotle. The Scotsmen David Hume and Adam Smith were relevant but far from adequate. By default, that left the history of the ancient Roman republic, and all educated Americans were familiar with that history, but its essence was a tragic tale of decline into tyranny.

Ordinary people knew about ancient Rome, too, not from books but from an enormously popular play by Joseph Addison, Cato. Though the seventeenth-century Puritanical prejudice against stage productions still lingered in parts of New England, eighteenth-century Americans elsewhere were avid playgoers, and Cato was by far their favorite play. It was first performed and published in London in 1713. It was soon republished in Glasgow, Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh, Göttingen, Paris, and Rome; at least eight editions were published in the British-American colonies by the end of the century. The play was also performed all over the colonies, in countless productions from the 1730s until after the American Revolution.

That most of the founding generation read it or saw it or both is unquestionable, and that it stuck in their memories is abundantly evident. Benjamin Franklin, as a young and aspiring writer, committed long passages from it to memory and then attempted to write them out, in hopes that Addison’s writing style would rub off on him. Mercy Otis Warren based her own play, “The Sack of Rome,” directly on Cato. Patrick Henry adapted his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech directly from lines in Cato. Nathan Hale’s celebrated last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” echoes a remark by Cato, “What a pity it is that we can die but once to save our country.”

Cato was the favorite play of George Washington, who saw it many times and quoted or paraphrased lines from it in his correspondence over the course of four decades. The first known occasion when he cited it was when he identified himself with one of its characters in a letter to Mrs. George William Fairfax in 1758. In 1775 he wrote to Benedict Arnold to commend his heroism in the ill-fated Quebec expedition: “It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more—you have deserved it.” In Act 1, scene 2, Cato’s son says, “’Tis not in mortals to command success. But we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.” One of Cato’s most quoted sentiments was “‘When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway,’ the post of honor is a private station.” Washington expressed that thought on numerous occasions, including the letter he wrote to Alexander Hamilton in 1796 opening the correspondence through which the two wrote the renowned Farewell Address.

The impact of the play upon Washington and others is illustrated by the fact that, during the dreadful winter at Valley Forge, he had it performed for his troops to inspire them with determination, despite a congressional resolution condemning stage performances as contrary to republican principles. Moreover, in 1783, when his officers encamped at Newburgh, New York, threatened to mutiny—as Cato’s troops had done in the play—Washington appeared before them and quite self-consciously shamed them into abandoning the enterprise essentially by rehashing Cato’s speech.

At first blush, Cato would scarcely seem to offer much consolation to Americans in their efforts to establish a durable republic. The story recounts Cato’s noble but vain efforts to save the remnants of the Roman republican Senate from the usurping arms of the all-conquering Caesar, “who owes his greatness to his country’s ruin.” In the end, Cato commits suicide, and the republic perishes as well.

Yet one of the subplots of the drama offered a ray of hope, at least for the more sanguine of the founders, for it provided a means of escaping a dilemma. Both classical and modern theorists of republics held that their actuating principle was public virtue—virtue in the sense of selfless, full-time, manly devotion to the public weal. Many Americans had been governed by such public spiritedness during the war and made great sacrifices for the cause of independence, but in normal times people were too individualistic and too avaricious to sustain that level of commitment. Besides, Americans believed in original sin, which in eighteenth-century terms meant that they believed men were driven by their “passions”—drives for self-gratification—and that the “ruling” passions of most public men were ambition and avarice, the love of power and the love of money.

One of the characters in Cato provides a way around that human frailty. Juba, a young Numidian in Cato’s camp (who incidentally was the character with whom Washington identified in his early letter), is concerned that he may have incurred Cato’s displeasure by being preoccupied with his love of Cato’s daughter at such an inappropriate time. He says, “I’d rather have that man approve my deeds, than worlds for my admirers.” Just before, he had recited what were famous lines about honor, “the noble mind’s distinguishing perfection / that aids and strengthens virtue where it meets her, / and imitates her actions, where she is not.” Honor in these verses is a substitute for virtue: a preoccupation with earning “the esteem of wise and good men.” Addison thought the point so important that he wrote an essay in The Guardian explaining and elaborating it. Genuine virtue, he declared, was exceedingly rare, but all could aspire to honor. To put it differently, Addison, through Juba, advises people to follow the opposite course from what Shakespeare’s Polonius recommends in Hamlet. Polonius says to his son Laertes, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Shakespeare put the words in the mouth of a prattling fool, and Addison tells us that they are indeed foolish words. Rather, he says, be true to the wise and the virtuous, and then thou cannot be false to thyself.

In his public life, Washington followed Addison’s advice, and so did Hamilton, and so did a host of other founders; and in the doing they overcame their private shortcomings and behaved virtuously enough in public to establish a regime of liberty that would perdure.

Forrest McDonald

Last modified April 13, 2016