On May 1, 1672, the English playwright and politician Joseph Addison was born in Wiltshire, England. While Addison lived most of his life in England and died over a half century before the events of the American Revolution, he had nearly as much impact on the events of the conflict as the Founding Fathers of the United States.
Addison’s great contribution to America’s founding comes from a play he wrote in 1713 called Cato: A Tragedy. It was a story that chronicled the final days of Cato the Younger, a Roman senator who opposed the usurpation of power by Julius Caesar. It was about the final days of the Roman Republic before it became an empire.
While Addison’s play did not come close the literary genius of Shakespeare and the love story was bland and uninspiring, Cato: A Tragedy evoked the greatest feeling of patriotism from readers and listeners. It was a tale of a virtuous and patriotic underdog fighting to protect his liberty and the liberty of his fellow citizens.
Cato opposes Caesar from the beginning of the play and fights to preserve the Republic of Rome, but he ultimately fails in this endeavor. Rather than accepting a deal from Caesar to maintain his own life and status, Cato kills himself.
Just before committing suicide, Cato says, “A senator of Rome, while Rome survived, would not have matched his daughter with a king, But Caesar’s arms have thrown down all distinction; Whoe’er is brave and virtuous, is a Roman.”
Cato is saying that no true Roman would accept tyranny; all real Romans would die rather than live as anything other than a free Roman citizen.
American at the time of the Revolution gobbled Addison’s play and frequently appealed to lines from it. It was a favorite of George Washington, who had it performed at Valley Forge. Washington’s favorite character was Juba, who was a Numidian prince who fought for Rome and Cato against Caesar.
During the play, Juba meets Cato and says, “I blush, and am confounded to appear before thy presence, Cato.” Juba claimed that he doesn’t feel worthy of Cato because he is a Numidian, but Cato said that Juba was brave and that he had “a Roman soul.” Cato claimed that being Roman was more about having a noble Roman character and embracing virtue than it was about ethnicity, something that would become even truer about the United States.
The great Virginian orator and statesman, Patrick Henry, most likely borrowed his most famous line from Cato.
Henry said in a speech before the Virginia Convention while pleading for his fellow Americans to fight against the British, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Henry’s words were almost a direct copy of line spoken by Cato to Juba, Cato said, “It is not now a time to talk of aught but chains or conquest; liberty or death.”
The references to Addison’s play do not end with Patrick Henry.
A soldier in the Continental Army, Nathan Hale, was caught spying on the British Army in New York City and was sentenced to be executed. Before he was hanged, Hale is noted to have said, “I only regret is that I have but one life to give for MY country,” with a particular emphasis on the “my.”
Hale’s line is incredibly similar to a passage in Cato that reads, “How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue! Who would not be that youth? What pity is it that we can die but once to serve our country.”
This nationalist sentiment was incredibly important to Americans during and after the Revolution because the events that occurred in the struggle were the first bonding experiences in the budding nation’s short existence. Hale did not die for the British Empire, King George III, a band of rebels or even his home state of Connecticut, he died for his country
Lines from Cato should give Americans inspiration today just as much as they did during the time of the nation’s founding. One can peer into the minds of the founders by reading Addison’s inspiring, early 18th Century tract.
Read Cato: A Tragedy here
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