Socrates, Xenophon, Plato and the Founders



This is the fourth in a series of essays on the ideas that formed the Constitution. You can find the first test here, the second hereand the third here.

As explained in the second part, 18th century schoolchildren were not expected to master both Greek and Latin. However, they learned to read relatively easy Greek texts, including the New Testament and the writings of Xenophon. Schoolchildren were also introduced to extracts from more difficult documents, including Plato’s writings on Socrates.

Members of the founding generation who attended college—James Madison, for example—acquired fluency in Greek. They became very familiar with the views of Socrates, Xenophon and Plato.

Although most 18th-century Americans did not attend college or even get very far in their Hellenic studies in high school, Greek ideas permeated the general population. A delegate to a state convention called to ratify the Constitution probably had a pretty good idea of ​​who Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato were, even if the delegate had never studied Greek. The archives of the ratification of the Constitution show that the participants in the constitutional debates refer on several occasions to Socrates and to Plato and, more rarely, to Xenophon.

In truth, the influence of these three pioneers was greater than the number of references would suggest, as participants generally relied on the works of later writers, such as Polybius and Montesquieu, who had, in turn, built on the ideas of Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato.

John Adams

John Adams can serve as an example of a prominent founder who relied on Plato.

During the Confederation period, the French philosopher Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (name is masculine) argued that the separation of powers in the new American state constitutions was an unnecessary imitation of the British structure. Turgot argued that it would have been better to center all authority in democratically elected legislatures.

In 1786 Adams was in the service of the Congress of the Confederacy as a diplomat in Europe. He had been the primary author of the Massachusetts state constitution of 1780, so Turgot’s attack on that document was, in a sense, an attack on him. Adams responded with a three-volume work, the “Defense of the United States Constitutions.”

Adams’ underlying theme was that power should be distributed among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. However, he went well beyond the theme to create a veritable encyclopedia of Republican governments.

Adams’ first volume hit bookstores in Philadelphia shortly before the Constitutional Convention met, and the book circulated freely at the convention itself. It described the political systems of several contemporary republics, including Venice, the Netherlands (then a federal republic), and the Swiss cantons. He also examined the ancient republics, such as Athens, Corinth, Carthage, and Rome, and he discussed the views of several ancient scholars.

Adams summarized Plato’s treatment of how political structures change and deteriorate: monarchy turns into aristocracy, aristocracy into oligarchy, oligarchy into democracy, and democracy into tyranny. (Some of Plato’s reasons for democracies degenerating into tyrannies were license, disregard for the rule of law, and making “strangers [i.e., foreigners] equal[] to citizens. “)

Adams drew two central lessons from Plato and later writers who built on Plato. The first was that any national constitution should not be purely democratic, but should also have monarchical and aristocratic elements. It should include a Chief Executive with some monarchical powers, a Senate serving as an aristocratic branch, and a democratic House of Representatives. The other lesson was that the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic branches had to be balanced against each other.


As explained in the initial test in this series, after the framers drafted the Constitution, the Congress of the Confederacy sent it to the states for ratification. We now have a virtually complete record of the ratification process, thanks to a team of scholars who worked for almost 50 years to create the “Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.”

The “Documentary History” tracks references to Socrates, Xenophon and Plato among participants in constitutional debates. These participants included delegates to ratification conventions and members of the general public. They also included supporters of the Constitution (“federalists”) and opponents (“anti-federalists”).

One example was an anti-federalist who wrote under the pen name “A Farmer” (probably John Francis Mercer of Maryland). The “Farmer” praised “Socrates, Plato and Plutarch for those moral lessons which form the human heart to virtue”.

Another prominent anti-federalist was Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. In a letter to a doctor in favor of ratification, Lee kindly suggested that the doctor “knew Hippocrates better than Plato.”

On the federalist side, Hugh Brackenridge, a Pennsylvania attorney who later served on the state Supreme Court, recognized the seminal contributions of ancient scholars such as Plato. And Edmund Pendleton, who chaired the Virginia state ratification convention, argued that opponents of the Constitution seek perfection. Building (a bit backwards) on Plato’s views on how governments deteriorate, Pendleton wrote:

“An absolute monarchy ruins the people; a limited hurts the Prince: An Aristocracy creates intrigues among the great & oppressions of the Poor, & a Democracy produces tumults & convulsions… No, the Speculative Ideas of this one, have met the same Destiny, since the Republic of Plato…. so that the search for this Perfection is as vain as that for the Universal.

Yet another Federalist, Charles Carroll of Maryland, wrote of the degeneration of the republics, recalling the degeneration of the Athenians:[T]they were more pleased with the gross antics of a comic poet, and his illiberal abuse of the divine Socrates…”then” they condemned him to die, because his precepts and practice were a constant rebuke to their doctrines and their vices.

Protesters sometimes took advantage of the public’s familiarity with Plato and “Socrates the Wise” (as one author called him) to teach specific lessons.

Thus, the anti-federalist “Farmer” warned against wolves in sheep’s clothing: “Thus we often see a living Catiline [im]personifying a dead Cicero and a modern Thersites [a villain from Homer’s “Iliad] taking the ancient name of the wise Socrates or the divine Plato. On the Federalist side, Madison invoked Socrates as a measure of kindness and warned of the dangers of mob rule: “If every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

Other participants criticized Socrates – and especially Plato – because their conclusions relied heavily on theory rather than practical experience. The pro-Constitution author calling himself “Americanus” claimed that political science was not perfected until after the Glorious Revolution in England (1688-1689). Before that, he wrote: “Plato [and others] amused themselves by forming visionary plans of perfect governments, but, lacking experimental knowledge, their plans are no better than novels, the extravagant outputs of an exuberant imagination.

An anti-federalist author offered a more measured criticism:Amicus Plato, Amicus Socrates, sed major Amicus Veritas.” (“Plato is a friend, Socrates is a friend, but a greater friend is Truth.”) Another anti-federalist lamented the speed with which the first seven states had ratified the Constitution:

“For although it may, like the republic of Plato, please our fancy by exposing to our sight ravishing scenes and flattering perspectives; but experience, the great mother of knowledge, can only prove to us whether its effects will meet with our approval, or whether they will be compatible with our well-being, or the contrary?

On the other hand, some Federalists expressed pride precisely because they considered the proposed Constitution to be more grounded in reality than Plato’s “Republic”. Madison wrote that in an ideal government, “Respect for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little expected as the philosophical race of kings wanted by Plato.

We will leave the last word to John Adams: after the ratification of most of the States, he asked: “What would Aristotle and Plato have said if someone had spoken to them of a federal republic of thirteen States, inhabiting a country of five hundred ? Leagues of extent?

And that forms a good transition to Aristotle, the subject of the next episode.

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.

Rob Natelson


Robert G. Natelson, former professor of constitutional law and senior scholar of constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver, is the author of “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015).


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