“Cato” Took to the Boards at Valley Forge, with a Nod from General Washington

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“Suicide of Cato the Younger” Painting by Josef Abel 1817 Cato Uticensis.”
“Suicide of Cato the Younger.” Josef Abel 1817 Cato Uticensis.” Photo by akg-images / Wikimedia Commons

“A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity in bondage.”
—Joseph Addison, Cato 1713

During the Enlightenment, theater played a significant role in cultural life in both Europe and the American colonies, and among the Founders, George Washington was one of the most ardent devotees of the art. During the American Revolution, the play Cato by British writer Joseph Addison was performed at Valley Forge for the officers and troops, much to their enjoyment. It was during the winter of 1778, when few entertainments relieved the harsh conditions in the camps, not far from the much more comfortable wintering quarters in Philadelphia of the British. Major General Johann de Kalb referred to the Americans’ encampment as a “wooded wilderness.” Cato the Younger (95 to 46 b.c.), the subject of Addison’s play, provided a vivid onstage model for the American audience that winter and spring. A closer look at the play, its historical context, and its reception in the 18th century can enrich students’ appreciation of both General Washington and the American officers and troops’ concept of republican virtue in both the rank and file and in the leadership during times of strife.

In colonial America the philosophical and political writings of les Lumières, literally “the Enlightened,” (Locke, Spinoza, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, among others) were devoured by the Founders. Steeped in their thought, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson argued against monarchy and for republican government. The idea that legitimate government must rest on the consent of the governed and secure natural rights expressed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence replaced the older view that some men ought to rule over other men by hereditary right.  Enlightenment writers went further in arguing that all forms of government have a tendency to devolve into tyranny if not kept in check by a vigorous separation of powers and a vigilant citizenry. Julius Caesar was rightly judged to be, in the era, more of a villain than a hero for his overweening ambition to overturn institutions and rule Rome as “dictator for life.”

Enlightenment thinkers viewed Marcus Porcius Cato (grandson of Cato the Elder, who, in his time, attempted to preserve ancestral Roman customs) as a symbol of a virtuous response to tyranny. Cato (known as the Younger) regarded Caesar’s rise as a threat to the Roman Republic and joined with Pompey in Caesar’s Civil War. Cato, from the aristocracy, also took a dim view of Caesar’s populist agrarian policies. In Utica (now in Tunisia and near ancient Carthage) Cato made his last stand as Caesar’s troops approached, holding them off as long as possible while protecting the safe departure of his adherents before—in the face of inevitable defeat—stoically taking his own life. The great irony is that just as Cato is dying ten thousand reinforcements arrive. “Were Cato at their head,” laments one of Cato’s sons, “once more might Rome assert her rights, and claim her victory.”

George Washington did not read Latin or any other foreign language, but he enjoyed seeing plays performed in English, and his appreciation and embrace of the lessons of antiquity owes much to the theater of his day. Washington’s favorite play was, indeed, Cato, but he saw the full gamut of theater performed in his time, from farce and history plays to comedy, romance and Shakespearean tragedy. (He attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York City in 1789 and Sheridan’s The School for Scandal three times.)

 “Cato” was staged in the bake house at Valley Forge that winter, when it buoyed the troop’s spirits. Some officers recounted how, even with ticket in hand, they still found it impossible to find a seat.

By allowing a performance of Cato, a Tragedy in Five Acts (the Continental Congress had actually prohibited plays from being performed before the troops as a corrupting influence), Washington refuted some of the accusations being slung about implying that he himself wished to gain great power after an ultimate victory over the British. This echoed with the remonstrance of Caesar in Roman times, whom many considered a usurper.

Washington’s response, perhaps, in allowing Cato to be performed, made it clear that he was acting more like a Cato than as a Caesar. In fact, Washington would act even more virtuously, returning to the farming life after the British surrendered, as another hero of Roman history, Cincinnatus, did after defending the republic. Moreover, Addison’s Cato rings with phrases already familiar to audiences then and now: “What pity is it / That we can die but once to serve our country.” Or, “Better to die ten thousand thousand deaths / Than wound my honour.” Garry Wills has written in Cincinnatus, his study of George Washington and the Enlightenment: “Men were quick to quote such verse at a time when the lines between ‘real life’ and art were made deliberately fuzzy.”

With the success Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, students are already primed to explore the republican vision of the Founders, and General Washington’s love of theater may at first surprise. With further mining of the topic, though, teachers of both English lit and U.S. history will discover students’ willingness to peer a little further into the at times inextricable interrelatedness of history and literature and the ongoing and ever-changing ways in which both are later received by scholars and the public at large.

Related EDSITEment resources:

What Made Washington A Good Military Leader?

Emanuel Leutze’s Symbolic Scene of Washington Crossing the Delaware

The Argument of the Declaration of Independence

Inventing a New Republican Culture for America

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