Week 1: Stephanie Lawton, ‘Praises to the Dead’

Join us on Wednesday 16th October at 5pm for the first OxEARS of Michaelmas Term, where Stephanie Lawton, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, will be joining us to discuss her pre-circulated paper. We will meet in seminar room 1 at the Rothermere American Institute on South Parks Road, and head to the pub for a drink and dinner afterwards. All are welcome! If you are not on our mailing list and would like a copy of the paper, please email grace.mallon@univ.ox.ac.uk or stephen.symchych@sant.ox.ac.uk.


Tombs. Eulogies. Death Masks. Triumphal processions. One expects to encounter these words in a history of the ancient Greco-Roman world. But in the nineteenth-century, Americans performed similar rites to commemorate the lives and legacies of popular president-generals. Why did Americans use rituals from more than two millennia earlier to commemorate their own heroes? At one time scholars like Bernard Bailyn dismissed Classical influence in American political culture in the U.S as superficial window-dressing for elite display, but Caroline Winterer, Carl Richard, and other recent scholars have shown that Americans’ engagement with the Classical world was foundational to their conceptions of citizenship, patriotism, and the organization of the public sphere. Stephanie Lawton’s dissertation builds upon the emerging historiography by examining Classical elements in the funeral ceremonies for citizen-soldier presidents George Washington, AndrewJackson, Zachary Taylor, and Ulysses S. Grant. Drawing on insights from the Roman Imperial Cult, she argues that nineteenth-century Americans created their own classicized, presidential memorial cult to cultivate a unified, national identity and to define the ideal, republican citizen-soldier. In doing so, Americans also embedded rituals and values closely associated with Greco-Roman imperialism deep within their political culture. At this week’s OxEARS, we will be discussing her second chapter, titled “Praises to the Dead,” which employs evidence from over two hundred eulogies delivered after George Washington’s death in 1799 to show orators looked to Ancient Greece and Rome to derive the purpose, structure, and content appropriate for eulogies to a United States president. The chapter also challenges the dominance of Washington as an American Cincinnatus in the scholarly literature by showing that classical references in his eulogies were remarkably diverse in 1800 and that Americans could agree about what the ideal citizen was not far easier than what he should be.

This chapter also challenges the hegemony of the Cincinnatus image within Washington historiography by arguing that comparisons between Washington and ancient heroes was far more diverse in 1800 than often acknowledged.

Stephanie Lawton graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in 2013 and joined the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History in 2014 as a student of Dr. Gary W. Gallagher. Her research combines the digital humanities and political, cultural, and intellectual history through the study of classical influence on United States political culture. Lawton has received several fellowships, including from the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, and has presented her findings at the annual meetings of the Southern Historical Association and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.

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