A Teaching for Republicans: Roman History and the Nation’s First Identity - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

A Teaching for Republicans: Roman History and the Nation’s First Identity

The Federal District of Columbia, both in its formal character as a capital and also in its self-conscious attempt at a certain visual splendor, is, for every visitor from the somewhat sovereign states, a reminder that the analogy of ancient Rome had a formative effect upon those who conceived and designed it as their one strictly national place. What our fathers called Washington City is thus, at one and the same time, a symbol of their common political aspirations and a specification of the continuity of those objectives with what they knew of the Roman experience. So are we all informed with the testimony of the eye, however we construe the documentary evidence of original confederation. So say the great monuments, the memorials, the many public buildings and the seat of government itself. So the statuary placed at the very center of the Capitol of the United States. And much, much more.

But Roman architecture and sculpture were not the primary inspiration for America’s early infatuation with the city on the Tiber. That connection came by way of literature, and particularly from readings in Roman history. What Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch, and their associates taught the generation that achieved our independence was the craft of creating, operating, and preserving a republican form of government. For gentlemen of the eighteenth century, Rome was the obvious point of reference when the conversation turned to republican theory. The Swiss, the Dutch, the Venetians and (of course) the Greek city states sometimes had a place in such considerations. And in New England the memory of the Holy Commonwealth survived. Yet Rome had been the Republic, one of the most durable and impressive social organisms in the history of the world. Moreover, there was a many-sided record of how it developed, of how its institutions were undermined and of the consequences following their declension. This Rome was no construct issuing from deliberations upon the abstract “good,” no fancy of “closet philosophers.”1 Public men might attend its example with respect, learn from its triumphs and its ruin. On these shores they did. And, once we were independent, with a special urgency. To explain why and with what results, I will first reconstruct a composite Roman model according to the understanding of those first Americans and then document that pointed synthesis with a limited selection from the wealth of supporting evidence left to us from the architects of our political identity. Only then will it be possible to account for the impetus given by this effort at emulation to the development of an indigenous American regime: account for and thus correct many now accepted readings of our early history, as that identification requires.

The best way to recover Roman history as it signified to the English Whig or likeminded commonwealthsman of the late eighteenth century is to ignore such diverting questions as what it meant to the republican historians themselves, to Polybius, to Plutarch, the Renaissance, or the leaders of the French Revolution. Or of what it means to Western man today. The distinction here is akin to the difference between the study of biblical influence and direct exposition of the scripture itself. Our fathers trusted the Roman historians rather well. To them, as to other late Augustans, history was a moral and political study, not a precise antiseptic science.2 And especially Roman history. They found the truth of men and manners in its long and varied entirety. This enlightenment did, to be sure, include a deposition from life under the Caesars—even though that testimony was chiefly negative in character. But the deepest teaching of the full chronicle was concentrated in its first three parts: from 510–252 b.c., the rise of the Republic (in Livy and Book II of Cicero’s De Republica); 262–202 b.c., the era of the Punic Wars (in Livy, Appian, and Polybius); and 201–27 b.c., the decline toward anarchy and despotism (in Sallust, Lucan, Tacitus, Suetonius, Plutarch, and others).3 Admiration for the old order was a convention with the later, imperial authorities. Caesar allowed the sentiment, sometimes even officially encouraged it: Caesar as the only conceivable keeper of the republican fires. Yet the moral imagination of Romanitas continued its location in the memory of the Republic long after the subject of this recollection had forever disappeared. Nothing could be more republican than the wicked, arbitrary, and tumultuous princes drawn to life in Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, than Tacitus’s portrait of Tiberius in The Annals, or the Galba and Otho of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. But these writings are republican only by implication. It is a presupposed knowledge of the Republic itself, and of the books where it is described and reported, that gives them an indirect resonance of bygone stabilities. Finally, it is the history of the Republic that is republican history proper.

Yet an even further narrowing of focus is in order. Beyond any doubt or question, the second of my divisions of the Roman record before Augustus is the most important. For its relation to the other two is almost as normative as that of the entire Republican period to the total history of Rome. Indubitably, the tale turned there, the action that embodied and implied the politics with which we are here concerned. In other words, the Rome that overcame Carthage was the perfection of pagan republicanism. Its merit, slow and certain in formation, corporate and all-absorbing in operation, was revealed in that test. Rome as a whole won a victory—won it with finality despite poor generalship, lack of sea power, and a terrifying adversary. That the consequence of successfully implementing this perfection was to be internecine strife is in no wise a necessary judgment upon the constituent particulars which worked toward its formation: is instead only evidence that traditional societies cannot recognize their own composition as something frail, in need of self-conscious husbandry, of protection from internal schism and the temptations of novelty and change. Imperial expansion, in conjunction with rearrangements within the Roman order—changes brought on by the exigencies of protracted conflict and unexpected, inadvertent conquests—disrupted the moral and economic balance of the Republic. Or at least set in motion the forces which brought that disruption to pass. How Rome at large became strong and then, by stages, lost that strength is what fascinated the generation which made a new republic in this new place.

Probably the best way to understand how the Roman Republic came to be is to consider the place occupied in its development by the Twelve Tables of the Law (449 b.c.). This codification made official and permanent the replacement of the ancient kings by a prescriptive, constitutional system. For the Law of the Tables was “essentially a codification of existing customs,” the “funded wisdom” of the Roman people upon which all subsequent additions to their legal order drew for their authority.4 It objectified their will toward existence as a community. To borrow language applied elsewhere, Rome was not made but grew. Despite the legend of Romulus and Remus and the myth of Trojan relocation, Romans did not connect their purchase on the favor of the gods with an original commitment to political “propositions” or a plan for improving the world. The ontological fact of Rome, rooted in familial piety, flourishing in patriotic zeal, was logically prior to any meaning it acquired. Out of the pull and push, the dialectic of a few tribes in central Italy, emerged a cohesive unity, bound by blood, place and history, slowly absorbing neighboring cities and peoples once these had earned their right to absorption, periodically redistributing sources of power within itself whenever the amiable interaction of its constituent parts required such adjustment. For out of that remarkable oneness of spirit Rome had acquired its original hegemony. And out of it the city continued to grow and prosper under new and unexpected conditions: continued to augment the dignity of its name and the honor of having a share in that name’s hieratic authority.

Said another way, the self-respect of every Roman depended upon his being a Roman. In a fashion which few of us would understand, the self in this system was derivative of the social bond and depended upon a common will to preserve that broad fabric of interconnection intact. A good Roman of the old school had personal pride and a considerable sense of honor. His was a shame culture, dominated by intense and personally felt loyalties to family, clan, and individual. Commitment to Rome had its root in, and was not separable from, these most primary attachments. They tell us what Rome meant. And why a true Roman was not an individual as we understand the term. Yet this frame of mind was not so statist or secular as such evidence would lead us to believe. For the fabled virtu of full citizens under the Republic had a ground in what Richard Weaver wisely denominated “the older religiousness.”5 Romans honored (and moved with them, as earth) the manes of their ancestors, the lares and penates of hearth and rooftree, the genius loci of groves and plains and waters, and the higher gods consulted through official augury: honored them privately and in the service of the state, itself always reverent toward the mysterious powers which touch the lives of men.6 But Rome’s tangential connection with the numinous entailed little of fable or theology, little suggestion of a divine plan for the city, only prescribed rites and ordinances. And this bond through custom only reinforced their social and political conservatism whose patterns were of a piece with the inherited religion. Respect for all the mores majorum, the tested ways, permeated everything in the habitus of this society. The will of the Fathers was the will of the gods.

The old Roman of good family had about him a continuous visual reminder of the history by which he had been personally defined. I make reference to the images of his ancestors which had a prominent place in the disposition of his household effects. According to Pliny the Elder:

In the days of our ancestors [these images] . . . were to be seen in their reception halls . . . arranged, each in its own niche . . . to accompany the funeral processions of the family; and always, whenever someone died, every member of the family that had ever existed was present. The pedigree, too, of the individual was traced by lines to each of the painted portraits. Their record rooms were fitted with archives and records of what each had done. This was a powerful stimulus.7

Roman history proper began with these family annals, and with the linen rolls which recorded by year the names of office holders and a few events. These propitiary figures stood between the Roman and the higher powers, dictated the religious ritual by means of which that relation was negotiated, and could therefore dictate in conjunction with these rite a prescriptive law which was the political state as the customary forms of worship were the state religious. Rome was the prescriptive law; and that law had a sanction in religion.

Of course, the prescriptive culture of plebeians and of the ordinary free farmers in the countryside was less elaborate than what we found in Pliny or can discover in the glowing pages of Fustel de Coulanges.8 Plutarch, however, in reporting a speech by the noble Tiberius Gracchus, leads us to believe that in the days of Roman glory the identity with the antiqui moris had been supported by the same ties with blood and place throughout every level of class and occupation. It is to the disappearance (during the Punic Wars and their aftermath) of these reasons for mutuality that the tribune objects. And for their reestablishment that he died.

The savage beasts, in Italy, have their particular dens, . . . places of repose and refuge; but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for the safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but air and light; and, having no houses or settlements of their own [are subjected to an indignity when their commanders exhort them] to fight for their sepulchers and altars
. . . [when they have neither] houses of their own nor hearths of their ancestors to defend.9

A general distribution of property, in at least thirty-one of the thirty-five tribes, was the strength-giving backbone of the Roman Republic. For, as one scholar has remarked, the original Roman was a farmer/soldier.10 And his mind reflected his occupation. Roman literature, and especially its normative components, tells us nothing to the contrary. It warns reiteratively against the corruption of the cities, the urbanite intrusion of foreign values or notions, and praises the advantages, practical and spiritual, of rural life. I call this mood hard pastoral—as opposed to the Arcadian (escapist) or Dionysian (fierce) pastoral of the Alexandrian Greeks. Peace, health, and repose (as, for instance, in Horace) are a part of its benison, but not freedom from work or liberation from duty. Consider in this connection the De Re Rustic of Cato the Censor. Or the satires of Juvenal. Or the Germania of Tacitus (about the Romans, not the rough folk across the Rhine; for the Germans serve as reminders of the human excellence once possible in Rome’s general population).11 All locate Rome at its best with a regulated combination of honesty, thrift, patience, labor, and endurance—with the “home place,” the routines of field, stream, and altar, where men and women of a predictable character may be formed out of a well-tested mold. The city was a place of general worship, a scene for politics, an armory and refuge in war, a point of contact with other societies. Rome is thus an arena, but not a seedbed for the original Roman sensibility. As was the case with Sparta, its firmest walls were the breastplates of its soldier/citizens so long as they could be expected to say (with Cato the Younger) in response to appreciation for service, “You must thank [instead] the commonwealth.”12

But this Cato Uticensis (along with his great-grandfather the Censor, and perhaps Camillus, a cynosure of republican excellence) comes down to us as a byword because his rectitude was a dramatic, unbelievable anachronism when it appeared in the senate, the forum and the field. In Cicero, Lucan, Persius, Plutarch, Tacitus, Appian, Martial, Sallust, and Virgil, he is remembered as the exemplar in that he stood out in bold relief against the political and moral decadence of the social wars. And because the Republic breathed its last with him at Utica, there was only one Cato to resist Julius Caesar. To confront Hannibal there were thousands. Which returns us to my centerpiece of republicanism in action, the Rome of the Punic Wars.

Public spirit had its heyday in these troubled times. Rome’s future existence was at stake. Livy tells us that after Cannae Roman women were forbidden to weep, that no man (soldier, planter, or merchant) charged the state for his goods or service, that no one took political advantage of his country’s distress.13 And Sallust adds in support that “before the destruction of Carthage the people and senate of Rome governed the Republic peacefully and with moderation. There was no strife among the citizens for glory or power.”14 In the view of the prudent Polybius, the credit for this balance (his great theme) and thus for Rome’s persistence belonged to its prescriptive, “organic” constitution: a constitution drawn by no lawgiver or savant but made “naturally,” not “by purely analytical methods, but rather through experience of many struggles and problems; with the actual knowledge gained in the ups and downs of success and failure.”15 Of course, this is a slow process and certain to involve fierce conflict. Livy’s first ten books give us a narrative of that evolution.16 And a clear impression of the reluctance among the plebeians (when agitated by their tribunes) to accept any stable order which did not guarantee their absolute control. Or the patricians to distribute unoccupied or conquered lands to those landless and deserving in the ranks of the common soldiery. Formidable enemies (such as Pyrrhus and Brennus) taught both the necessary lessons, that “such being the power of each element [of Roman society] both to injure and to assist the others, the result is that their union is sufficient against all changes and circumstances.”17 Taught them just in time.

The history of the three wars with Carthage is as stirring a tale as anyone could want. It is a story of repeated defeats and terrible casualties. Yet always the city stands and its citizens regroup. Hannibal seems to fear the physical proximity of Rome, even when it appears to be defenseless. He wanders south, attempting (with no success) to break the loyalty of Rome’s satellite communities. Then the tide turns. Carthage is riven internally. A narrowly commercial city, it has no healthy yeomanry to call to arms. Its aristocrats lack public spirit and aspire to absolute dominion. Mercenaries finally falter before armed and patriotic citizens. The Romans learn war at sea, learn Hannibal’s tactics and discover in their midst a captain to face him down. Scipio locates the weak link in the armor of his adversaries. The Africans lack dependable allies and cannot defend their city from siege.

Carthage does not frighten the Romans. Thereafter the end comes swiftly. For a summary, I must cite Titus Livius once again: “No other nation in the world could have suffered so tremendous a series of disasters and not been overwhelmed,”18 does not exaggerate.

Who, after this, will dare to jeer at those who praise olden times. If there were a city composed of sages such as philosophers have imagined in some ideal, but surely not actual world, I for my part cannot think that it would contain leaders with greater dignity of mind and less lust for personal power, or a populace more admirably conducted.19

But as we all know, the republican spirit of incorporation disappeared rapidly once Cato the Elder got his way and the ancient (and perhaps useful) enemy was no more. It is a commonplace that the Roman Republic was ruined by success, both in the Punic Wars and in the East (Macedon, Parthia, etc.). It is more appropriate to say that the harm was done by the form of that achievement, and by the time that it required. External pressure had been necessary to the development of a balanced constitution and a cohesive interdependence of the classes, a community of older (patrician) and newer (plebeian) families.20 Yet, contrary to many authorities, this dependence was in itself nothing ominous or unusual. Some of it is visible in the history of every healthy nation—an oblique proof that enemies can motivate a people to perform their best. Instead, the real problems were (1) removal of the Roman armies from the category of citizen-soldiers into the classification of fulltime military professionals; (2) the consequent decline of home agriculture and village life; (3) the growth of large slave-operated, absentee-owned estates; (4) the large concentration of wealth in a new group of imperial managers and international traders; (5) a great dependence on foreign food and the skills of educated foreigners; (6) a sharp decline in character among the plebeians of the city—the emergence of a useless, dishonorable proletariat. Without a rural nursery for virtue or a necessary role for all citizens, and with Romans in the army detached (and almost in exile) from the motherland, the ground had been cut from under the institutions of the old Republic.21 Add to these harbingers of disaster the decline of the official Roman religion and the concomitant “passion for words flowing into the city,” the foreign rituals and forms of speculation, and we can understand why old Cato drove out strange priests and philosophers.22

But to no avail. For Rome, though it had no imperial theory, had acquired an empire with a rapidity and ease which its social structure could not digest.23 Moreover, conquest had given the imperialist temper of the city a momentum which its earlier struggles in Italy did not foreshadow. The spread of wealth unconnected with merit or the spirit of public service completes the pattern: the substitution of “nobles” (rich men) for patricians (men of good birth); of proles (faceless members of a mob) for plebeians (plain but solid fellows). Sallust draws us a painful picture of the results:

The whole world, from the rising of the sun to its setting, subdued by [Rome’s] arms, rendered obedience to her; at home there was peace and an abundance of wealth, which mortal men deem the chiefest of blessings. Yet there were citizens who from sheer perversity were bent upon their own ruin and that of their country.24

And with the mob even worse:

For in every community [thus corrupted] those who have no means envy the good, exalt the base, hate what is old and established, long for something new, and from disgust with their own lot desire a general upheaval. Amid turmoil and rebellion they maintain themselves, without difficulty, since poverty is easily provided for and can suffer no loss.25

How different from the men who defeated “Pyrrhus, Hannibal, Philip and Antiochus, if not for [their] liberty and [their] own hearthstones [then for the] privilege of submitting to nothing but the laws.”26 I conclude my abbreviated Roman model with that potent conjunction. Liberty meant in this milieu access to one law, not freedom for “self-realization” (whatever that now signifies): dignity meant incorporation in that law, but not equality. Sallust informs us that, once the old kings fell from disrespect for liberty in law, living with senate, consuls, tribunes, and people under that ancient, common and impersonal authority made “everyman to lift his head higher and to have his talents more in readiness.”27 This was the concordia ordinum of Cicero.28 Its significance was not lost upon 1688 English Whigs who could see in the Roman balance what they had themselves achieved with and through a king. And it was the obvious burden of Roman history for the English colonials in North America who lived in constant fear of despotic subjection, burdened by a sense of general decline in the moral fiber of their world—a decline with its source in England.

But Americans, in creating a new republic, a modified Whig Rome, were proving to themselves that by sundering the link with England they were resisting despotism and arresting the corruption of their fellows: that is, such of their countrymen as were prepared to honor law, the unwritten prescription, and the patria (their lesser homelands, the chartered colonies qua states). Virtu was demonstrated in every assembly, on every battlefield. Personal honor and the unselfish keeping of oaths were both assumed. But responsible liberty was the precondition for all of these elements of character: liberty restricted by a given identity and channeled by a will to cohesion shared by a number of discrete political entities and kinds of people. And, as with the Romans after Lucius Junius Brutus had done his work, the law and the prescription were actually strengthened by removal of the king from the American Whig configuration. New arrangements among persons and states, to institutionalize what they were (and what they were becoming, by insisting on that character) seemed necessary. And especially after war. But no founding—any more than the Roman Republic had been an invention or creation out of whole cloth. As for confederation, Rome did a lot of that, absorbed to defend itself any who accepted its values, could reinforce its strength and needed the protection that combination could provide. Assuredly, Americans were a rural people, in the habit of governing themselves, with almost every freeholder a potential man-at-arms. Europeans, and especially the English who fought them, marvelled at the warlike firmness of these “embattled farmers.” And soon enough they came to prefer such of their number as could be recruited to serve in red to the mercenaries George III sent over. Add to this a general commitment to inherited religion and the pattern is complete. Once the die was cast, among such a people—a community which “knew the literature of Rome far better than they did that of England”—it is no marvel that, in making the break official, “the young boasted they were treading upon the republican ground of Greece and Rome.”29

I will not attempt to record all of the available expressions of self-conscious Romanism coming down to us from the original United States. For they are numerous enough to form a work of two large volumes. Indeed, they were so numerous, positive, or even assertive that Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania complained of the “pedantry” of “our young scholars . . . who would fain bring everything to a Roman standard.”30 Yet Morris grumbled in vain. For the analogy which he found to be oppressive informed the conduct of even so unintellectual and representative a public figure as the commander of our armies and then first President, George Washington. Consider for an instance Washington’s manifesto in answer to Burgoyne’s demands for submission, August 1777: “The associated armies in America act from the noblest of motives, liberty. The same principles actuated the arms of Rome in the days of her glory; and the same object was the reward of Roman valor.”31 Pure Livy—and from a man who kept a bust of Sallust on his mantel, who loved to be identified as a Cincinnatus, and who quoted regularly from the Cato of Joseph Addison, his favorite play. And if Washington behaved in this way, what Romanizing would we expect to find among his more bookish, intellectually curious peers? 32

But what surprises is not the Roman predominance in this early American passion for antiquity. For Augustan and later English neoclassicism was always principally an admiration for, and emulation of, Rome—not Greece. The difference on this side of the Atlantic was a matter of degree—of frequency and intensity in political application of the example. And especially outside of New England.33

However, though I cannot cite every offhand remark that confirms the pattern of allusion suggested by Washington, I must expand somewhat upon the echoes of Roman history distributed among the sayings of our political forefathers in order to establish a ground for my final arguments concerning their implications for the interpretation of our national beginnings. And to this end I will emphasize a representative set of “rebels”: Patrick Henry of Virginia, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and John Adams, the Squire of Braintree, Massachusetts. I commence with Henry because his draft upon the Roman model was so homely and so completely of a piece with his American Whiggery. For these reasons, and because he represents the untroubled romanitas of the South, where that attitude put down its deepest and earliest roots. Dickinson I include because he was one of the reluctant revolutionaries—a legalist or Erastian for whom the English Whig and Roman regimens coalesced into one (still predominantly English) instruction for American colonials. And also in recognition of his importance as a spokesman for the sensible Middle Colonies. John Adams is an obvious choice. For no colonial American was a deeper student of the history and political importance of earlier republics than this brilliant New Englander. Furthermore, he functions in pointed contrast to the perfectibilitarians so frequently spawned in the Zion of his nativity. Not one of this trio was an egalitarian, an optimist, or a devotee of “propositional, teleological politics.” And not one was a democrat of the sort we are often led to imagine that such men must have been.

Though Patrick Henry was, with the possible exception of Washington, more frequently compared to the great figures of the Roman Republic than any American of his time, he was almost as little a scholar as his illustrious friend upstate. But what he did study, he knew well. Says William Wirt, his first serious biographer, Henry read “a good deal of history.” And Livy “through, once at least, in every year during the early part of his life.”34 To what effect this concentration, we all know. But it is wise to consider the impact of Henry’s vigor and gravitas on the leading men of his own era. Only there can we recognize the premeditation in his achievements as patriot qua orator, his emulation of Livy’s heroes. St. George Tucker in recalling the performance before the Virginia Convention of March 23, 1775 (“Liberty or Death”) asks us to “imagine this speech delivered with all the calm dignity of Cato of Utica; imagine . . . the Roman Senate assembled in the Capital when it was entered by the profane Gauls. . . .”35 And George Mason, when recalling his great contemporary’s total career as keeper of the common virtus, of the memory that makes for honor, could go so far as to write that “. . . had he lived in Rome about the time of the first Punic War, when the Roman people had arrived at their meridian of glory, and their virtue was not tarnished, Mr. Henry’s talents must have put him at the head of that glorious commonwealth.”36

So seemed Henry to the end of his life when he thundered against the ahistorical, impious ideology of the French Left. So even when, in 1788, he fought the ratification of the Constitution by summoning up the togaed exemplars of his boyhood dreaming, to say “nay” once more to power, to protect the hearth and rooftree.37 Reasoning from the universality of his impact, we can assume with confidence that there was calculation in Henry’s Roman posture, a sense of what could be accomplished by cultivating the Roman analogy running throughout his entire career. From his sort of working classicism we can defend the claim of Charles Mullen that the “ancient heroes” of early Rome “helped to found the independent American commonwealth . . . not less than the Washington and Lees.”38

Unlike Henry, John Dickinson was a thorough classicist. And a deep student of the law, trained in England at the Middle Temple. The former intellectual habitus was subsumed within the latter. Against the usurpations of crown and Parliament, Americans had no better defender of their “historic” (as opposed to “natural”) rights as Englishmen. And for such strictly prescriptive constitutionalism this pillar of the Philadelphia bar found much Roman precedent. In the late 1760s he could write with his beloved Sallust, “Nihil vi, nihil secessioni opus est” (No need for force, no need for separation).39 Yet the promise of something more severe is just beneath the surface of his reasonable Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania: a determination epitomized in the words of Memmius as quoted by Dickinson from the Jugurtha in his final exhortation to his countrymen: “I shall certainly aim at the freedom handed down from my forebears; whether I am successful or not . . . is in your control.”40

Indeed, Dickinson quotes as much Roman history as his purposes will allow. Like a good Whig, he insists that all Englishmen have their civil status (and are one) in the law, politically exist through that bond. King and Parliament have authority according to its dictates, not in themselves. Furthermore, the constitution (prior to and the basis of statute law) will be kept, even if some of the derivative elements of the transoceanic political structure surrender their connection to each other in its behalf. Dickinson’s most recent editor is wise to set him over against “the rationalist view” of human justice which maintains that men are meaningfully “born” with “certain rights” on which they can insist, even if not specified in a particular social continuum.41 That rights—even the most sacred—can be realized only in a specific history and are likely to disappear when the edifice which contains them is fractured, Dickinson never forgets. He invokes the bad examples of James II and of the Caesars of Tacitus who, by art, “ruined the Roman liberty” and practiced “dangerous innovation.”42 And especially in the matters of taxation, standing armies, and court manipulation. Two worlds, but one problem. In England there were, as Dickinson notes, men who denied that either English or Roman political history was of any significance in treating of the North American colonies, men who prated of “indirect representation” and urged the King toward writs of fire and sword. But the Roman colonials, if citizens when they went out to form a new city, were still citizens once there—sometimes better citizens. And likewise American colonials, as secured in their charters binding on both King and Parliament. But he does insist, knowing with Cicero (Oration for Sextius) that never to be roused is to forget what honor demands.43 His letters are the essential expression of that great middle body of Americans who continued to think and feel as a kind of Englishman, even when they had come with regret to join with their radical compatriots and insist on independence. And he continued to be the same kind of man as author of the original Articles of Confederation, and at Philadelphia in 1787.44

A discussion of John Adams in this context must be very restricted. For though a great “common law” man like Dickinson and a lifetime admirer of the “balanced” Roman constitution, a devout republican and therefore no democrat, his near stoicism causes him at times to plead universal law as a ground for rebellion: to plead as if he were a primitivist and theoretical uniformitarian like Jefferson (at his worst) and Paine, a meliorist with a habit of ignoring historic circumstance. These passages, solus, are, however, misleading. Adams pled “higher law” only in the spirit of Burke, as something sometimes visible and partially preserved in “the cake of custom”—and especially after regular English cooking; or as something obvious, like the right of self-preservation.”45 I identify this part of his politics with those of the not-too-Puritan, not antinomian members of the 1641 English Parliament: and with the authors of the 1689 Declaration of Rights. It was Adams’s view that England, once the Stuarts were expelled, became through its constitution “. . . nothing more nor less than a republic in which the King is . . . first magistrate.”46 And that the situation of Americans changed very little when the King, as administrator of the given law (“a republic is a government of laws, and not of men” alone) failed in his duty, “abdicated,” and had to be officially removed.47 A republican is what Adams always was, even when loyal to George III.

But as American republican, Adams advocated consistently a “balanced constitution.” And what he meant by this familiar language is, by reason of our ignorance of the classics, nothing like what we might imagine. Polybius is behind this facet of Adams’s position, and also Livy. Particularly Polybius.48 But more important (and encompassing these Roman instructions) is his view of how the English prescription, the great body of Whig theory, could be applied to the new situation created at Yorktown.49 Adams in this respect clearly resembles Dickinson, combining English and Roman constitutionalisms, with the former retaining predominance: combining them in the quarrels before the Revolution; and, once the war was over, continuing with them in the effort to convert the resulting independence into a framework for sustaining a nationality already there. Adams had clearly a more rigorous mind, a more consistent theoretical position than his friend from Delaware and Philadelphia. Yet he is identical with him in refusing to accept Lockean or other rationalist conjectures about men in a pre-social state. 50 For him, a social contract was, if trustworthy, something worked out by a given people: worked out among themselves, over a period of time. Their existence as a people is, however, a priori. This is Polybius and Livy. No constitution, even if aimed at balance, could be better as a social bond than one “negotiated,” whose development itself was a source of mutual trust among the people whose unity it formalized. Adams understood balance in these terms and, in his Discourses on Davila (1791), said so: “While the [Roman] government remained untouched in the various orders, the consuls, senate, and people mutually balancing each other, it might be said, with some truth, that no man could be undone, unless a true and satisfactory reason was rendered to the world for his destruction.” With this promise, liberty begins.51

Even in 1787, Adams’s thought began with what was and had been, not with what might be. After the “tyrannical machinations” of George III had been forestalled, his fear was of the process well described by Livy, that by seeking perfect liberty Americans could well discover what real servitude is like.52 Devotion to an inherited regime, as in the time-tested constitutions of the states, protecting legitimate holdings in property while securing to all citizens access to the same restricted body of laws, could hope to secure a general assent.53And if we were to go further with union, we should begin the process with a foundation in that devotion. Comity would be the result. Inside the American configuration, Adams struggled to conserve. In the year of the Declaration he could write a friend, “I dread the Spirit of Innovation.”54 What we often fail to see is that such dread is what made him a rebel and still a New England sort of American; an Englishman, once rebellion was done. Imbalance through foolish innovation should be expected, in a republic, to draw its support from the lower orders of society, as aggravated by ideologists and crafty demagogues. Not from the senatorial class, Adams’s beloved republican gentlemen. And envy would be the cause. Titus Livius tells us nothing to the contrary. Nor the favorite of Adams’s old age, gloomy Sallust. Following their example, he thundered against the “simple, centralizing schemes of Dr. Franklin and Tom Paine,” defended the institution of senates, a strong elected executive, and a deference toward law in the conduct of popular assemblies.55 And he cried out in alarm when certain of his countrymen conflated their own political inheritance with what had in 1789 begun in France.

But the best way to measure the indebtedness of John Adams to the history (and historians) of the Roman Republic is to look outside his published writings and beyond his public career: to the correspondence of his old age, and particularly his exchange with Jefferson. One scholar has observed that “. . . the greater part of Adams’ historical investigations were devoted to studying governments which failed, he believed, because of their unbalanced structure.”56 This was true of his early preparations in response to the Stamp Acts. And it was true to the end.57 Readings in Roman history were, however, only part of a larger, lifetime habit. As an aged man, he could claim that . . . classics, history and philosophy have never been wholly neglected to this day.”58 For the repose of his spirit, and the support of his judgment, he found these “indispensable.”59 The senectutal epistles prove these words to be no exaggeration.

The Virginian, in contrast, was more Greek than Roman. His studies, like his experience, had made him sanguine. Above all else, Adams found in the classics warnings against men in the mass, unrestrained by precept or authority, corrupted by flattering politicians. Jefferson (especially in Tacitus, Suetonius, and other authorities on the Empire) saw more of a caution against concentration of power than an admonition to avoid egalitarian preachment, an “excess of words in the city.” But finally, in the shadow of sectional conflict over the admission of Missouri as a state, the thought and language of the two old friends/old enemies came together. The end result of the centralizing that began in 1820 was both a concentration of power and triumph for the popular spirit of endless adjuration over “principles”: the new founding of Abraham Lincoln, which Adams, as a New Englander, could spot on the horizon long before his Southern counterpart.60 The French influence combined, in the years before secession, with the old Puritan montanism to undermine the civility and public spirit necessary to republican cohesion. In their place stood finally the politics of “continuing revolution” and capital-letter abstractions, the “Empire of Equality and Liberty” foreshadowed in Webster’s reply to Hayne.61 In consequence, the Roman republican teaching as a serious influence was thereafter generally confined to the nomological South. There survived the dream of ordered liberty saluted in the following lines, by an anonymous Charleston Whig of 1769:

Parent of Life! true Bond of Law!
From whence alone our Bliss we draw, Thou! who dids’st once in antient Rome,
E’er fell Corruption caus’d its Doom, Reign in a Cato’s godlike Soul,
And Brutus in each Thought controul; Here, here prolong thy wish’d for Stay,
To bless and cheer each passing Day,
Tho’ with no pompous Piles erect,
Nor sculptured Stones, thy shrine is deckt;
Yet here, beneath thy fav’rite Oak,
Thy Aid will all thy SONS invoke.
Oh! if thou deign to bless this Land,
And guide it by thy gentle Hand,
Then shall AMERICA become
Rival, to once high-favour’d Rome.62

This vision of the political good I can trace from John Randolph’s fulminations against bankers, cities, dole, and expediency (alieni avidus sui profusus) to Tom Watson’s outcry against “A party for Pompey—A party for Caesar—No Party for Rome.”64 And beyond—i.e., until the South came to feel that
the heritage of the Republic had become its exclusive possession, even in secession.64 But that is another essay.

What then did Rome mean to the original Americans? What counsel did its early history contain? And what must we conclude about our forefathers from their somewhat selective devotion to the Roman analogue?

To begin with, in so far as the original national identity derives from a reading of early Roman history, our first Americans did not see in independence a sharp departure from the identity they already enjoyed. Rather, both of these developments were, above all else, necessities for the protection of an already established society: necessities like those behind Rome’s own republican development. “Their respect for [that] past brought them to their rebellious and finally revolutionary posture.”65 Even in whatever they attempted that seemed new. All of which is another way of saying that Romanitas on these shores, to whatever extent that we may demonstrate its presence, is an indication that American Whiggery is (or was) closer to that of Edmund Burke than to the nostrums of Priestly and Fox. And is no relation whatsoever to the “virtue” preached by Robespierre. Burke’s view of the ancient European orders transplants rather well in a locally structured commonwealth with no nobility and no established church. Indeed, as Burke himself discovered in conflicts with his King, it is perhaps more consonant with a pious, xenophobic republicanism under a specified tradition qua law than with monarchy.”66A community of interdependent parts, inseparable and yet distinct, was the natural consequence of the growth of thirteen colonies as separate social, political, and economic units. The war with England had itself given the specific colonies unto themselves a new social maturity and cohesion, and to their citizens a horror of class conflict and internecine strife.

Roman history taught that all of this was natural: a commonwealth “grown,” not made; a definition by history, not by doctrine or lofty intent; and a general recognition, negotiated in the dialectic of experience, that all Americans had together a corporate destiny and would henceforth depend upon each other for their individual liberties. Confederation for liberty: Roman history allowed for that one near-abstraction. But liberty, meaning collective self-determination and dignity under a piously regarded common law, is a check upon ideology, not a source.67 For modern regimes the alternative is the hegemony of an ideal as end, not condition. And the arrangement becomes finally the hegemony of a man, a despotism which makes a noble noise. Between 1775 and 1787, we discovered no new doctrine. We left that to the English. Self-defense was our business. Courage and discipline were displayed. Also self-sacrifice. Furthermore, leaders filled with public spirit had appeared and had earned the confidence of their compatriots: leaders who would be available to call up, once again, the active virtue which had preserved “the walls of the city.” King John and the Tarquins, Charles I and James II had together made Americans to know what was wrong with “emperors” and with George III. Once freed of his authority (and his provocations) they would aspire to no overseas dominion, employ no mercenaries, deify no administrator, and neglect no freeholding. Or, at least for a while, they would go from what and where they were, many and one, a culture of families, not so atomistic or commercial as The Federalist anticipates they were to become. Not deracinated, they would cherish the emotionally nourishing matrix of the unpoliticized communities to which they were primarily attached. And they would keep the “democratical” component of their position in perspective, tolerating no Jacquerie (vide Shay’s Rebellion), no divisive feudal appointments—honoring their most deserving citizens with office and good repute, as in history. Their only innovative engagement would be in the creation of new states in the “open” lands to the west—states just like their own!

All of this composition and more our fathers could recognize in the history of Rome, in the “laboratory of antiquity” where lessons for their not-so-new science of politics seemed unmistakably clear. In between us and these self-evident truths stand the War Between the States and other, subsequent (and derivative) transformations. Plus a legion of historians from the party which triumphed in these “other revolutions.” To penetrate their now accepted obfuscations and to see the elder Rome as did the first American citizens is an appropriate undertaking in these years of official self examination. Appropriate, painful, and surprising.


  1. Hostility to Plato among colonial republicans was so great that it has puzzled all subsequent scholarship. But it is easily explained: Plato’s politics are an a priori, theoretical creation, derived not from experience but from high doctrine and propositional truth. See 178–79 of Richard M. Cuminere’s The American Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963).
  2. This attitude toward history as a humane or ethical study was an Augustan commonplace. See for instance H. Trevor Colbourn’s The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 21–25; James William Johnson’s The Formation of English Neo-Classical Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), 31–68; and Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 218–19.
  3. Cicero’s De Republica was available only in fragments before 1820. But its arguments are suggested in the rest of Tully.
  4. Cited in full, with the appended comment which I quote, in Roman Civilization: The Re public (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), edited with an Introduction and Notes by Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, 99–111.
  5. The Southern Tradition at Bay (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1968), edited by George Core and M. E. Bradford, 98–111.
  6. Hyperbolic but indispensable for the study of the full sweep of Roman piety is Fustel de Coulanges’ century-old The Ancient City. I cite the Doubleday Anchor Books edition, New York, 1955, 38–40 and 136, et passim. Consider also the Antiquities of Vasso, the Stoic, as represented by Augustine in the Civitas Dei.
  7. Roman Civilization, 482 (from Natural History, XXXV, 2). Polybius supports this view: The Histories (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966), translated by Mortimer Chambers, with an introduction by E. Badian, 261–62.
  8. But not in its essential impulse. Consider, for illustration, Horace’s image of life on the Sabine Farm.
  9. Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, translated by John Dryden and revised by Arthur Hugh Clough (New York: Random House, n.d.), 999. For support see Cicero’s second oration against Verres, (Roman Civilization, 456).
  10. R. H. Barrow. The Romans (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1949), 11–14.
  11. Tacitus is as often praised by Old Whigs, English and American, as any Roman historian. And his Germania has become infamous as a point of departure for various rhapsodies on the need for gemeinschaft and the merits of the organic (that is, unphilosophical) society. But his republicanism, apart from a few portraits, is too indirect for the purposes of this essay. It is, however, pervasive. See M. L. W. Laistner, The Greater Roman Historians (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966), 114; and Michael Grant, The Ancient Historians (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 271–305.
  12. Plutarch, 928. From his life of Cato Minor, expressed by Cicero in response to the reduction by Uticensus, of the abusive orator Clodius.
  13. See Livy., Book XXIV. I employ here the text as translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, The War With Hannibal, Books XXI–XXX of The History of Rome from Its Foundation (Baltimore: Penguin, 1970), 253. See also Laistner, 89, on the communal theme in Livy.
  14. Sallust, “The War With Jugurtha,” xli; I cite the Loeb Classical Library edition, edited by J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921), 223. See also Grant, 201–07.
  15. Polybius, 222. See also 193.
  16. Grant writes (228) that Livy’s “account of the earlier Republic is largely one long narration of traditional Roman virtues.”
  17. Polybius, 229. In support see Livy, Book III, xvii. I cite the Loeb edition, edited by B. O. Foster (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939), 57–61: the speech of Publius Valerius. Also Grant, 240, et seq.
  18. Livy, The War With Hannibal, 154–55.
  19. Ibid., 385.
  20. See Livy, Books III and IV; also Joseph M. Lalley, “The Roman Example,” Modern Age, XIV (Winter, 1969–1970), 14.
  21. I derive here (as did our fathers) from Baron de Montesquieu. See David Lowenthal’s edition and translation of Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968), 91–92.
  22. Plutarch, “The Life of Cato Major,” 428.
  23. In this connection I would recommend Arnold J. Toynbee’s finest work, Hannibal’s Legacy (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965); and also Tenney Frank’s Life and Literature in the Roman Republic (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1956), 19–23.
  24. Sallust, “The War With Catiline,” xxxvii, 63 of the Loeb edition.
  25. Ibid., xxxvii; still 63.
  26. Sallust, “Speech of the Consul Lepidus,” iv; 387 of the Loeb edition.
  27. Sallust, “The War With Catiline,” vii; 13 of the Loeb edition.
  28. Cicero’s vision of the social order depended upon his confidence in the “political manners” of the Romans, the force of the “public orthodoxy.” Things in this societas were attempted in the way of political change only in an accepted fashion, a manner which postulated loyalty to Rome, regardless of personal success, or else the result would be forfeiture of status as citizen. On the difference between societas and universitas (nomological and teleological regimes) see Michael Oakeshott’s On Human Conduct (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 199–206. On Cicero see “Cicero and the Politics of the Public Orthodoxy,” The Intercollegiate Review 5 (Winter, 1968–69), 84–100, by Frederick D. Wilhelmsen and Willmoore Kendall.
  29. Gummere, 119 and 18.
  30. Ibid., 14.
  31. Ibid., 18.
  32. Johnson, 91–105. Also Howard Mumford Jones’s splendid chapter, “Roman Virtue,” 227–72 and 96 of O Strange New World (New York: The Viking Press, 1964), Jones helpfully includes illustrations of Washington carved as a Roman senator.
  33. See Charles F. Mullett, “Classical Influences on the American Revolution,” The Classical Journal, 35 (November 1939), 92–104. Gummere admits (37) that the reformist temper, coming down from Puritanism, worked against the classical inheritance in New England. New England remained a universitas, even when Unitarian.
  34. William Wirt. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (New York: McElrath and Bangs, 1835), 31. Henry also read one political theorist, Montesquieu, whose constant text was Livy. See Richard Beeman, Patrick Henry (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), 116.
  35. Jay Broadus Hubbell, The South in American Literature, 1607–1900 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1954), 120.
  36. Quoted in Kate M. Rowland’s The Life of George Mason 1725–1792 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892), Vol. I., 169.
  37. Gummere, 186.
  38. Mullett, 104. Henry of course was not unique in this emulation. And it may have been unselfconscious, the reflex of an intense admiration like that of Charles Lee when he told Henry, “I us’d to regret not being thrown into the World in the glorious third or fourth century of the Romans” but changed when he could say that his classical republican dreams “at length bid fair for being realized.” Quoted in Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1789 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 53.
  39. Gummere, 107,
  40. In Empire and Nation, containing “Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania” and Richard Henry Lee’s “Letters From the Federal Farmer” (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962) ed. with an Introduction by Forrest McDonald, 84.
  41. Ibid., xiv.
  42. Ibid., 35 and 10.
  43. Ibid., 71.
  44. The best description of this middle party, who made the Revolution possible and then controlled its results (away from Jacobinism) in drawing up the Constitution, is in Merrill Jensen’s The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763–1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968). John Dickinson, as their spokesman, went so far as to oppose the Declaration of Independence as both too early and too ambiguous in its language. But he accepted the results and went out with his neighbors. Dickinson’s greatest influence may have been toward the establishment of a Continental Congress and, in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in the creation of a United States Senate with two seats for each state.
  45. George A. Peck Jr., ed., The Political Writings of John Adams (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954), xxiv of the editor’s “Introduction.”
  46. Colbourn, 96. Also The Political Writings of John Adams, 44.
  47. Colbourn, 87. Adams was a chauvinistic New Englander and therefore blind to the differences between his own legalism and the antinomian, “revealed politics” of Cromwell and other Puritans. He seems not to know that many Erastians followed Charles I. But he is clear about the settlement of 1688–89.
  48. Gilbert Chinnard, “Polybius and the American Constitution,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1 (January 1940), 38–58. See also Richard M. Gummere’s “The Classical Politics of John Adams,” Boston Public Library Quarterly, 9 (October 1957), 167–82, and Zoltan Haraszti, John Adams and the Prophets of Progress (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952). On the link between the Whigs and Polybius see Zera S. Fink, The Classical Republicans (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1945). Colbourn, 102.
  49. Colbourn, 102.
  50. The Political Writings of John Adams, Peck’s “Introduction,” xv.
  51. Jones, 260.
  52. Livy, III, 121 of the Loeb edition. Also Peck’s “Introduction” to Adam’s Political Writings, xviii.
  53. I refer to his A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United Slates (1786–87). Here and in his early A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765) Adams identifies New England as the perfection of the English tradition.
  54. Colbourn, 87.
  55. The Political Writings of John Adonis, 105, 119, and 132.
  56. Colbourn, 87.
  57. See Vol. VI, 12, 43, 86–87, 209, 217 and 243 of Adams’s Works, the edition of Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little Brown, 1850–56), 10 volumes. But the influence of Roman history is evident throughout his political writings. See especially the Novanglus (1774–75).
  58. Colbourn, 85. By “philosophy” he meant, for the most part, ethics and “political philosophy.”
  59. Gummere, 193.
  60. Adams in answering Governor Hutchinson, 1773. Quoted by Colbourn, 98. The difference between this paper and the rantings of other Sons of Liberty is instructive. Such radicals, of course existed, but the Revolution was not finally their show.
  61. See Richard Weaver’s “Two Orators,” Modern Age, 16 (Summer–Fall 1970), 226–42.
  62. Hubbell, 161. Quoted front the South Carolina Gazette. I suspect that the author may have been William Henry Drayton. See Jones, 254, for a related passage from Richard Henry Lee.
  63. This echo from Sallust’s “The War With Catiline,” iii, is quoted on 164 of Russell Kirk’s John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1964) and is part of an extended philippic against American declensions from “republican virtue”; Watson’s remark seems to come from Cato Minor’s orations in Lucan’s Pharsalia. See C. Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (Savannah: The Beehive Press, 1973), 109 and 353.
  64. A good illustration is Major Buchan, the patriarch in Allen Tate’s The Fathers (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1960).
  65. Colbourn, 186.
  66. Indeed, no society is likely to be as xenophobic as a racially homogenous republic. The only equivalent would he a monarchy uniting strictly patriarchal tribes.
  67. See Richard Henry Lee, An Additional Number of Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1962), 178. Reprint of the edition of 1788.
  68. Wood, 51–52.

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like