“The victorious cause was dear to the gods; the lost cause, to Cato.” This is the inscription (in Latin) inscribed on the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. It serves to remind visitors not only of the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War, but also of the length of the shadow of a man who lived over 2,000 years ago.
Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger is the subject of a new biography by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni entitled Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar.
Goodman and Soni begin their study of the life of Cato the Younger by relating the high esteem in which he was held by the men and women of the Founding generation. George Washington, for example, inspired the weary battle-worn Continental troops at Valley Forge with a performance of a dramatic retelling of the story of Cato written by Joseph Addison. Many of Washington’s colleagues in the pantheon of American liberty also considered Cato the acme of republican virtues they sought to emulate. The authors write:
Washington’s peers studied and memorized the tragedy. They quoted it, consciously and unconsciously, in public statements and in private correspondence. When Benjamin Franklin opened his private diary, he was greeted with lines from the play that he had chosen as a motto. When John Adams wrote love letters to his wife, Abigail, he quoted Cato. When Patrick Henry dared King George to give him liberty or death, he was cribbing from Cato. And when Nathan Hale regretted that he had only one life to give for his country — seconds before the British army hanged him for high treason — he was poaching words straight from Cato.
George Washington, John Adams, and Samuel Adams were all honored in their time as “The American Cato” — and in revolutionary America, there was little higher praise. When Washington wrote to a pre-turncoat Benedict Arnold and said, “It is not the power of any man to command success; but you have done more — you have deserved it,” he too lifted the words from Addison’s Cato.
So much of this man Cato, who heroically and habitually placed principle above politics, endeared him to the founders of the American Republic. This "Catophilia" was not confined to the new republic’s secular leaders, however. Throughout the new nation, pastors preached sermons praising the virtues of Cato. Take for example this excerpt from a sermon delivered in 1793 by renowned pastor Peter Thacher to an artillery company in Massachusetts:
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