No Place Like Rome: How Classic Republicanism Influenced the Founding Fathers

By: Bob Fiedler

It has become commonplace for people to explain the current condition of the United States with allusions to the decline of the Roman Empire. But few talk about a more illuminating comparison between the Roman Republic and its influence on classical republican values articulated by the founding fathers. Its importance in the framing and ratification of the constitutional system cannot be overstated.

Almost everyone in 18th century America agreed that republican self-government and civic virtue flowered in classical antiquity. The continuing weight of this classical republican heritage was evident throughout the founding era. For example, the authors of the Federalist Papers signed as Publius, invoking Publius Valerius Publicola, one of the two leading figures in the Roman Republic’s formation. We also saw it in the adoption of pseudonyms such as Brutus, Cato, Candidus & Cincinnatus by other writers of the time.

This influence was also manifest in the Antifederalists’ tendency to speak as conservatives.

While the Federalists pointed to a lack of energy in the existing government, Antifederalists focused on a decline in civic virtue, a significant factor in the decline of the Roman Republic.

The Antifederalists argued there was no need for a completely new constitution to replace the existing Articles of Confederation, though they readily acknowledged that the Articles did need some substantial revision. The Antifederalists were open to some enhancement of the powers of the general government under the Articles, but they insisted the basic idea of the existing constitution and its underlying federal principles were essentially fine. The Antifederalists believed the existing structure under the Articles properly limited the central government’s powers, maintaining a balance of power between the general government and the state governments, as well as between the state and local governments. They charged that this limitation and balancing of powers was lost sight of in the proposed Constitution.

As the Antifederalists speaker Gilbert Livingston said in the debates during the New York ratifying convention:

True it is, there are some powers wanted to make this glorious, compact complete. But sir, let us be cautious that we do not err more on the other hand, by giving power to profusely when perhaps it will be too late to recall it.

And commenting on the clause in the proposed Constitution delegating to Congress the power to levy and raise taxes to provide for the common defense and general welfare, the Pennsylvania writer who called himself a Federal Republican wrote:

Our situation taught us the necessity of enlarging the powers of Congress for certain national purposes. Where the deficiency was experienced, had these and these only been added experience itself would have been an advocate for the measure. But in the proposed Constitution, there is an extent of power in Congress, of which I fear neither theory nor practice, will evince the propriety or advantage.

Likewise, we find the Federalists making similar appeals to the Roman Republic’s most celebrated reformers such as the Gracchi brothers, Gaius Marius & Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

More fundamentally, the Antifederalists tended to argue that the chief source of trouble in America was not primarily any defect in the Articles of Confederation, but rather a decline in civic and moral spirit among the American people in the years since the Revolution. Thus, Samuel Adams, or perhaps a follower of him, writing under the pen name Candidus wrote:

We’re too apt to charge misfortunes to the want of energy in our government institutions which we have brought upon ourselves, by dissipation and extravagance.

The Antifederalists argued that the proposed Constitution would do little to remedy this more important moral decline among the people, as they stress the importance of civic virtue in the populace.

However, Madison & Hamilton flip this argument on its head. For example, consider Madison’s argument in Federalist #37:

The novelty of the undertaking immediately strikes us. It has been shown in the course of these papers that the other Confederacy’s, which could be consulted as precedents have been vitiated by erroneous principles, and can therefore furnish no other light than that of beacons, which give warning of the course to be shunned, without pointing out that which ought to be pursued.

This argument was amplified by Hamilton in Federalist #9:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror, and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.

Even while Hamilton and Madison embraced the common practice of adopting a classical republican pseudonym, signaling that they shared, at least to some extent, respect for the classical republican tradition, their radical break with some of those ideas provoked some of the Antifederalists’ deepest worries about the proposed constitutional system.

The original understanding of classical republicanism was available to the Americans through the political theory of philosophers such as Aristotle and Cicero, and the great classics of ancient history, including Thucydides, Plutarch, and Livy.

But in the minds of the founders, the political philosopher Montesquieu gave the classical republican tradition its most compelling contemporary formulation in his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748.

The Spirit of the Laws was the most frequently cited source among all delegates in the Philadelphia Convention and the state ratification conventions. Montesquieu didn’t simply restate the classical republican tradition. In important ways, he reinterpreted that tradition and offered a new analysis of the classical republican experience.

In its original formulation, a Republican government was viewed more in aristocratic than in democratic terms. Republics were understood to be shaped by and for the elite. But it was not an elite defined by money or wealth. Instead, the elite were defined by their dedication to wise and sometimes heroic civic virtue. They were generously preoccupied with a politics of caring for the welfare of the whole community — welfare defined more in spiritual than in material terms.

The life of virtue, led by civic leaders, was understood not only, or even primarily, as a life of service to the community. The supreme goal of politics was understood to be neither the promotion of the interests of the rich, nor the promotion of the ordinary person’s desire for security, liberty and prosperity. Instead, the exercise of the public and private virtues was conceived as itself, the highest purpose of the community. The life of virtue, civic and intellectual, was held to be itself the peak of human flourishing.

Classical theorists recognized that in almost all situations, this noble aspiration had to be compromised in order to win the necessary support of the more materialistically minded and commercially successful citizens, along with the consent and support of the numerically powerful poor and middle classes. In practice, it was understood that concern for virtue had to be diluted by concerns for wealth, freedom, and equality. So, the best practical sort of Republic was conceived in this classical theory as a mixed regime, meaning a republic that mixed or combined aristocracy with elements of democracy.

This scheme took considerable power out of the hands of the moral elite and placed that power in the hands of the majority of the populace. In the best version of this compromise mixed regime, the few of distinguished virtue had to share power with the many ordinary people and govern with their consent.

Thomas Jefferson articulated this classic mixed regime in a letter to John Adams written near the end of their lives:

 I agree with you, that there is a natural aristocracy among men, the grounds of this our virtue and talents. There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents. The natural aristocracy, I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trust and government of society. May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural Aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy. I think the best remedy is to leave to the citizens, the free election, and separation of the real Aristoi to the pseudo Aristoi; of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise.

Montesquieu stressed a true democracy requires that all citizens maintain an intense public spirit. Each and every citizen must be willing to devote considerable time and energy and expense, to public service. The classical republican ideal, especially in this new democratic version, was held in high honor, especially by the Antifederalists, who appeal to key elements of this Montesquieuian version of the classical ideal as a standard by which to judge and condemn the proposed Constitution.

The founders, including Antifederalists, didn’t completely embrace this classical republican ideal, even in its more democratic version. A deep ambivalence about the classical republican ideal made the Antifederalist outlook very complicated. Sometimes, to be sure, leading Antifederalists spoke in very classical sounding terms, such as the Brutus 7 essay:

We ought to furnish the world with an example of a great people who, in their civil institutions hold chiefly in view the attainment of virtue, and happiness among ourselves.

It was characteristic of the Antifederalists to speak of the chief goal of government as securing the rights and liberties in an individualistic sense. But the Antifederalists also believed that in order to protect this more individualistic liberty, major aspects of the classical ideal needed to be preserved and fostered — aspects that would be abandoned, or lost, in the constitutional order proposed by the Federalists.

What most deeply distinguished the Antifederalist outlook from the classical republican ideal, in both its original and its updated Montesquieuian form, was the Antifederalist tendency to view politics as less a positive good, and more as a necessary evil required to protect personal liberty.

The Antifederalists tended to conceive government as intrinsically dubious and even corrupting because they saw humans, as by nature, prone to use whatever power they gained to seek more power. And they believed that power would likely be used to exercise exploitative control over others. As the writer with the penname, John DeWitt wrote:

The more we examine the conduct of those men who have been entrusted with the administration of governments, the more assured we shall be, that mankind have perhaps in every instance abused the authority vested in them or attempted the abuse.

The Antifederalists thought that classical ideas, including the need for civic virtue in the populace, would prevent an otherwise steady drift toward oligarchic or aristocratic oppression by whatever elite held government offices. As expressed in Centinel’s first essay:

A republican or free government can only exist where the body of the people are virtuous, and where property is pretty equally divided. In such a government, the people are the sovereign, and their sense or opinion is the criterion of every public measure. For when this ceases to be the case, the nature of the government is changed, and an aristocracy, monarchy, or despotism will rise on its ruin.

On this qualified appeal to classical republicanism, Antifederalists opposed the new Constitution. They believed it threatened individual rights by excessively centralizing power and removing government from direct local control, making the Constitution likely to foster an elite aristocratic and intrusive government rather than active independent power sharers. This concept is summarized by George Mason during the Virginia ratifying convention:

The very idea of converting what was formerly a confederation to a consolidated government is totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us. It is ascertained by history. He says that there never was a government over a very extensive country without destroying the liberties of the people. History also supported by the opinions of the best writers shows us that popular governments can only exist in small territories. Is there a single example (he challenges the Federalists) on the face of the earth? To support a contrary opinion? Was there ever an instance of a general national government extending over so extensive a country abounding in such a variety of climates, etc., where the people retain their liberty?