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The Golden Age of the Classics in America

The Golden Age of the Classics in America

Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States

Carl J. Richard

ISBN 9780674032644

Publication date: 03/23/2009

In a masterful study, Carl J. Richard explores how the Greek and Roman classics became enshrined in American antebellum culture. For the first time, knowledge of the classics extended beyond aristocratic males to the middle class, women, African Americans, and frontier settlers.

The classics shaped how Americans interpreted developments around them. The example of Athens allowed politicians of the democratic age to espouse classical knowledge without seeming elitist. The Industrial Revolution produced a backlash against utilitarianism that centered on the classics. Plato and other ancients had a profound influence on the American romantics who created the first national literature, and pious Christians in an age of religious fervor managed to reconcile their faith with the literature of a pagan culture. The classics supplied both sides of the slavery debate with their chief rhetorical tools: the Aristotelian defense of slavery to Southern slaveholders and the concept of natural law to the Northern abolitionists.

The Civil War led to a radical alteration of the educational system in a way that steadily eroded the preeminence of the classics. They would never regain the profound influence they held in the antebellum era.


  • In a lucid and readable book, Carl Richard clearly demonstrates the ongoing importance of classicism in the decades before the Civil War in the United States. Focusing on well-established figures in the American political and literary canon, he shows how the ideals of the classical world continued to provide Americans with one of their principal sets of ideological tools well into the nineteenth century. Richard shows that classicism was democratized in nineteenth-century America, reaching more broadly and deeply into American culture than it had in the previous century.

    —Caroline Winterer, Stanford University


  • Carl J. Richard is Professor of History, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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