Cato electrified audiences in revolutionary America, first in Charleston, SC, a key embarkation point for the Atlantic slave trade and proximate to large rice plantations. The slave auction block survives to this day, as does the Dock Street Theatre, where Cato was performed in 1735. As Emma Christopher argues, those sailors in closest proximity to the slave trade had a near hysterical attachment to “liberty.”
Cato’s Letters, a series of essays originally printed in London to decry political corruption, wealthy corporations, and advocate for free speech, were also very popular in the American colonies. The letters, written from the persona of “Cato,” were a response to the debacle of the 1720 “South Sea Bubble,” the first stock market crash. Thousands of small investors lost money invested in the slave-trading company, while big investors and government leaders managed to sell their shares just before the crash. These essays were widely reprinted and had an influence on the construction of the First Amendment. The contemporary “Cato Institute” is another offspring of Cato’s Letters.
Cato became a mainstay of the fledgling American theatre scene in the 1760s, whe producer David Douglass made Cato a staple of the American Company’s repertoire. These performances very likely shaped public debate about the Stamp Act of 1765, an unpopular measure that led to the rise of the Sons of Liberty, riots up and down the eastern seaboard, and the tarring and feathering of tax collectors. Performances of Cato in Charleston, Philadelphia, Portsmouth NH, and New York in 1766-67 may have influenced the repeal of the Act by stirring white colonists to identify as a nation under siege.
From November 1771 to April 1775, the masthead for Massachusetts Spy featured Cato’s address to liberty in Act III:
Do thou, great Liberty, inspire our Souls,
And make our Lives in thy Possession happy,
Or our Deaths glorious in thy just Defence’ (III.i.319-21).”
By 1776, recent Yale BA and aspiring amateur actor Nathan Hale had read it and memorized a few of its speeches while sitting in the Linonian Society library in New Haven. His famous last words, “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” spoken just before the British hanged him as a spy, paraphrases Cato’s speech as he gazes upon the body of his son Marcus, who has died in battle: “What pity is it that we can die but once to save our country” (Act 4.4.81–82). Patrick Henry appropriated Cato’s trademark phrase, “It is not now a time to talk of aught / But chains, or conquest; liberty, or death” (Act 2.4.79–80) and sanitized the implications of the traitorous Sempronius’s speech: “God, can a Roman senate long debate / Which of the two to choose, slavery or death!” (Act 2.1.25–26) when he uttered his condensed version: “give me liberty, or give me death.” Alexander Hamilton, writing to his wife Eliza, repurposed Marcus’s “Thou best of Brothers, and thou best of Friends!” in a letter that would then reappear almost 250 years later in Hamilton’s “Best of Wives and Best of Women.”
Cato was excerpted in Noah Webster’s American Selections in Reading and Speaking (1787) and Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator (1817), a formative text for the young Frederick Douglass, published the same year Ira Aldridge began playing Othello. It opens with the epigram “Cato cultivated eloquence, as a necessary means for defending THE RIGHTS OF THE PEOPLE and for enforcing good Counsels.” The Columbian Orator included Cato’s speech before the senate and Jonathan Mitchell Sewell’s epilogue from the 1778 Bow Street Theatre production in New Hampshire:
Our senate too the same bold deed have done,
And for a Cato, arm’d a Washington;
A chief, in all the ways of battle skilled,
Great in the council, mighty in the field.
His martial arm, and steady soul alone,
Have made thy legions shake, thy navy groan.
And thy proud empire totter to the throne.
The Valley Forge Cato happened in spite of the Continental Congress’s prohibition on theatrical productions. ‘For the ragged soldiers in Washington’s camp,’ writes Randall Fuller, “Addison’s tragedy offered a salient version of national destiny characterized by self-sacrifice, republican virtue, and an almost boundless devotion to the principles of liberty” (128).] So embedded in the mythology of the American Revolution did this performance become that the Valley Forge Park Commission organized an open-air staging of Cato in the Park in May 1928.
After the Valley Forge production, the Bow Street Theatre in New Hampshire added an epilogue that compared Cato to Washington; Decius (Caesar’s ambassador) to the British naval commander and peace commissioner Lord Howe; and Juba to the Marquis de Lafayette. The epilogue’s circulation, as Jason Shaffer notes, through editions of the play published at Portsmouth (1778), Providence (1779), Worcester, Massachusetts (1782), Boston (1793), is a testament to how important Addison’s Cato was to the construction of American identity and the mythologization of the revolution during and after the war. The epilogue declared Washington our Cato, but not suicidal, and “unconfined,” with all the American continent before him.