Addison’s “Cato” and the American Revolution

The 1712 play, “Cato, a Tragedy” by Joseph Addison, had a pervasive influence on the generation that fought in the American Revolution. Based on the story of Cato the Younger, the enormously popular play glorified Stoic virtue and devotion to republican principles.

During the darkest time of the Revolution, at Valley Forge, Washington assembled his officers to see a performance of “Cato.”

Washington paraphrased a line from the play when he wrote to Benedict Arnold, “It is not in the power of any man to command success, but you have done more – you have deserved it.”

Abigail Adams described George Washington with a paraphrase from the play: “Cato is stern, and awful as a god.”

Two of the most famous lines from the American Revolution are Nathan Hale’s last words on the gallows, “I regret only that I have but one life to give for my country,” and Patrick Henry’s words to the Virginia Assembly when he drew his sword and cried, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Both are paraphrases of lines from Addison’s play.

(Wiencek 35-36)

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