The ideas that formed the Constitution: Cicero Continued
By: Rob Natelson
The previous installment in this series outlined the life and career of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. It described how John Adams relied on Cicero’s work in the preface to the first volume of his survey of republican constitutions. Although Adams was in Europe when the Constitutional Convention met, his volume circulated among the delegates.
In one respect, however, Adams misrepresented Cicero, and so did Alexander Hamilton. This essay explains how and why. This essay also shows how those debating the proposed Constitution resorted to Cicero’s writings and reputation.
The Adams–Hamilton Error
Adams’s book accurately reported Cicero’s view that the best and most stable form of government mixes elements of kingship (a chief executive), aristocracy (a senate), and democracy (a house of representatives). Adams deduced that the best existing form of mixed government was that of Great Britain: It included a king who served as the chief executive, a House of Lords to represent the aristocracy, a House of Commons to represent the people, and an independent judiciary. Adams conceded that the British system had been corrupted, but he argued that “in theory” it was “the most stupendous fabrick of human invention … ”
Unlike Adams, Hamilton was at the Constitutional Convention. In a lengthy floor speech, he relied on the views of Cicero and other writers to pronounce the British form to be the best government in the world. He urged the convention to employ the British constitution as a model. Hamilton recognized that Americans would not accept a king or a formal aristocracy, so he proposed the closest equivalent: an all-powerful central government with a chief executive indirectly elected for life, a senate indirectly elected for life, and an assembly elected directly by the people for three-year terms. The states would have only such authority as the national government granted to them.
Adams and Hamilton based their understanding of Cicero’s views on surviving fragments of De Republica (“On the State”). But in 1820 more of De Republica was re-discovered. In the re-discovered portions, Cicero stated that the chief executive in a mixed government should be chosen only for a limited term of office. Cicero worried that a king or other lifetime executive would be so powerful that he would outweigh the other branches of government: “The royal power is bound to be supreme,” Cicero wrote. “Such a government [will] inevitably [become] a monarchy.”
Even without the benefit of the re-discovered portion of De Republica, the convention rejected Hamilton’s quasi-monarchist proposals. Instead, it offered a Constitution in which the chief executive, like a Roman consul, would be elected for only a set term. Moreover, unlike the “during good behavior” tenure of British lords and Roman senators, the Constitution provided that U.S. senators would be chosen for six-year terms.
Cicero in the Ratification Debates
Cicero was a prominent figure in the debates on whether to ratify the Constitution. Both Federalists (advocates of the Constitution) and Antifederalists (opponents) referenced him in ways that were trivial, somewhat important, or very important.
On the trivial side, debate participants sometimes used the names “Cicero” and “Demosthenes” as mere synonyms for “great orator.” An example appears in a letter by Francis Hopkinson, a Pennsylvania Federalist. After James Wilson delivered a speech supporting the Constitution, Hopkinson wrote that “Wilson exerted himself to the astonishment of all hearers. The powers of Demosthenes and Cicero seemed to be united in this able orator.”
By contrast, an Antifederalist composed a poem with a verse to the effect that Cicero was still a better orator than Wilson—even though Cicero was dead! The Virginia legislator Spencer Roane (later a prominent judge) declared that the speeches of Patrick Henry were worthy of Cicero.
Sometimes participants used Cicero’s name sarcastically. Thus, Federalists occasionally referred to anti-Constitution speakers as “ciceroes.” Antifederalists returned the compliment in kind.
On other occasions, participants used Cicero as the exemplar of a virtuous statesman, while Cataline (Latin: Catalina), whose seditious plot Cicero crushed, symbolized the political rascal. A Pennsylvania Antifederalist writing under the pseudonym “Cicero” announced he would respond to a Federalist “Cataline.” A Massachusetts Federalist branded his opponent as a “MODERN CATALINE.”
More constructively, disputants mined Cicero’s writings for political wisdom, both on the Constitution and on other subjects. William Samuel Johnson—who had represented Connecticut at the Constitutional Convention—urged a friend who had just delivered an oration “to take the first opportunity (as Cicero & many of the best speakers have done) to write down your speach [sic].” Also from Connecticut was Noah Webster, later famous for his dictionary. An ardent supporter of the Constitution, Webster authored a pamphlet in which he relied on Cicero to claim that the Roman senate, like the proposed American Senate, was elective. (In fact, the Roman senate was elective only in a lateral sense; if a man was elected to a major executive office, he thereupon became a Roman senator.)
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Maryland Federalist, pointed out that Cicero supported a mixed government that serves the happiness of the people. Carroll, of course, thought the Constitution would create such a government.
A Virginia Federalist cited Cicero in support of (1) the Constitution’s grant of the pardon power to the president and (2) the Constitution’s ban on ex post facto laws.
On the opposition side, a defender of an Antifederalist new to Philadelphia alleged that Cicero crushed Cataline’s conspiracy when Cicero had lived in Rome only three years. (Actually, Cicero had lived there for about 25 years.)
Finally, a New York cynic styling himself “P. Valerius Agricola” recommended that everyone emulate Cicero in asking of each new political proposal, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits?
Some disputants used events in the orator’s life as sources of lessons. One such event was the suppression of Cataline’s conspiracy. Here’s another:
In 52 B.C.E., Cicero was in court defending a thug named Titus Annius Milo. However, hostile troops lined the area, and Cicero, intimidated by the show of military force, launched only a weak defense. At the Virginia ratifying convention, the Antifederalist framer George Mason took advantage of this episode in attacking the Constitution’s choice of the Senate as a court to try presidential impeachments:
“The President is [to be] tried by his counsellors,” Mason said. “He is not removed from office during his trial. When he is arraigned for treason he has the command of the army and navy, and may surround the Senate with 30,000 troops. It brings to my recollection the remarkable trial of Milo at Rome.”
Quotations From Cicero
Debate participants frequently deployed a ciceronian quotation to make a point. The fact that most educated people had read Cicero helped ensure that these quotations were used fairly. Authors usually, although not invariably, reproduced their selected passages in Latin, without translation. As one writer observed, this presented an air of learning to readers who didn’t know Latin and provided some fun “construing” (translating) to those who did.
For this essay, however, I have pre-empted all the fun by translating the quotations discussed below.
Recall the Antifederalist writer who defended an author new to Philadelphia by claiming Cicero was only a newcomer when he suppressed Cataline. The person being defended was Benjamin Workman, a professor at what is now the University of Pennsylvania. (See this pdf for his story.) In one of his own op-eds, Workman defended himself. He noted that he was a teacher and recited Cicero’s praise of good teachers: “What greater or better benefit can we bring to the republic than to teach youth well?”
The Antifederalists were upset by what they considered an insane rush to approve the Constitution. A New York Antifederalist compared the frenzy to Cicero’s description of Rome during Cataline’s conspiracy: “There is treachery within, danger within, an enemy within; we must fight against dissipation, insanity, and crime!” In a later essay, the same author characterized the Constitution’s supporters with another passage from the same speech: “For these aren’t just moderate lusts, but superhuman and intolerable audacity!”
A Maryland opponent, tracking Cicero, asked whether the essay of a Federalist author was “a plan of the sober person or the dreams of a drunk? the thoughts of wise men or the works of madness?” A South Carolina Antifederalist cautioned, as Cicero had: “We have come to the final crisis! If we slip now, there will be no way we can recover or resist.”
A New Hampshire opponent, apparently more resigned, admonished Elbridge Gerry, who like George Mason, had been a framer of the Constitution but disliked the final version: “[A]dopt the Sentiment of Cicero … that the Republic come to no harm.”
Supporters as well as opponents of the Constitution resorted to Ciceronian quotation. A Massachusetts essayist reflected on the divisions among Americans in this way: “[W]hen we look around us and view the various parties which exist in the State, pursuing with equal warmth different objects from different motives, we are ready to say with Cicero, ‘God is willing, but people are not willing to be useful to each other.’”
Moreover, at the North Carolina ratifying convention, James Iredell (later a Supreme Court justice) urged adoption of the Constitution by paraphrasing Cicero: “The great principle is,” Iredell said, “The safety of the people is the supreme law.”
Perhaps using Cicero in this game of thrust and counter-thrust places the founding generation in an unflattering light. If so, then one more quotation may provide perspective. It’s a line of poetry that a New York Antifederalist attributed to Ovid, but which Cicero himself credited to the much earlier poet, Quintus Ennius. The line is:
“Simia quam similis turpissima bestia nobis.”
It means, “How similar to us is the monkey, that most disagreeable beast!”
This essay was first published in the Dec. 9, 2022 Epoch Times.