Well, ok, the two never met. At least not in this reality. Still, many Americans of the day regarded George Washington as the American Aeneas. Of course, he was also known as the American Cato the Younger, the American Cicero, the American Achilles (his only Greek title, as far as I know), and the American Cincinnatus.
A lot of scholarship has examined the English (from King Alfred on), the liberal/Enlightenment, republican, and the Protestant influences on the culture and ethos of Revolutionary America. Sadly, though, very few scholars have looked at the classical and antique origins of America.
Of those few, however, one of the very best is CU’s very own Chris Kopff, a professor in Boulder since 1973. A classicist with a love of the American Founding, Kopff has not only absorbed the literature that exists on the subject, but he’s also contributed some very original thoughts to it as well.
Kopff, as many can attest, is an excellent speaker as well as writer. One of my favorite pieces he wrote, “Open Shutters on the Past: Rome and the Founders,” can be found in an excellent anthology put together by Gary Gregg and published in 1998, Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition.
The opening paragraph will give you a sense of Kopff’s abilities as a scholar and writer:
If direct contact with the classical tradition was essential for the American Found, it may be equally essential for a contemporary attempt to restore freedom and creativity to the United States. If the classical tags of eighteenth-century political debate were as incidental to the achievements of that age as its powered wigs and snuffboxes, the classical past will be all the more irrelevant to our age and its dilemmas (Vital Remnants, pg. 71)
Kopff, not surprisingly, finds the past very relevant to the present, noting that while the Founders did not try to recreate the classical world, they did live and breathe it in their actions, their ideas, their letters, their debates, and their architecture.
And, this takes us back to Aeneas. In Virgil’s classic story of the men of Troy searching for a home in the Mediterranean, Aeneas, through a myriad of trials against human and god, comes to forge a new civilization on the Tiber. Neither Trojan nor Latin, it combined into the best of each, thus assuring the firm foundations of the republic and (unfortunately) the empire.
Washington in his own words and actions did the same in America, at least at a deeply symbolic level. Just as with Aeneas, Washington sought not to create an entirely new civilization, but, instead, sewed together pieces of the past to make something acceptable to the present. America was not something entirely new. Instead, it was Hebraic, Christian, American Indian (the equivalent of the Latins in the Aeneid), Greco-Roman, and very English.
Though perhaps the least liberally educated of the American Founders, Washington exemplified the spirit of antiquity. He possessed the physical prowess of Achilles, the fortitude of Cato, the humility of Cincinnatus, the wisdom and patience of Cicero, and the hope of Aeneas.