The ideas that formed the Constitution: Cicero
By: Rob Natelson
The first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth essays in this series addressed the influence on the Constitution of four leading Greek thinkers. There is one more Greek on our list, the biographer Plutarch. He lived much later, however, so to retain chronological order, we now turn to our first Roman.
Marcus Tullius Cicero is a pivotal figure in the Western tradition. His writings were at the heart of Founding-era education. His precepts, whether derived directly from his compositions or from authors who relied on those compositions, permeated 18th-century political and ethical thought.
Cicero was born on Jan. 3, 106 B.C.E. in Arpinum (now Arpino), Italy. His family was part of the local aristocracy. “Marcus” was his given name, “Tullius” designated his clan, and “Cicero” the specific branch of his clan. Members of the founding generation frequently referred to him as “Tully,” an Anglicization of “Tullius.”
Cicero was a precocious youth. Plutarch relates that during his school years “his natural talent shone out clear and he won name and fame among the boys, so that their fathers used to visit the schools in order to see Cicero with their own eyes and observe the quickness and intelligence … for which he was extolled.”
His parents recognized his talent and gave him a fine education, partly in Rome and partly in Athens. After his mandatory year of military service, he returned to Rome to make his career. He became the first in his family ever to win high office in the capital. He was, as the Romans said, a novus homo—a “new man.”
In 81 B.C.E., Cicero began to plead in the law courts. In 76, he won his first public election—as quaestor (a financial officer) for the following year. The Senate assigned him to assist in the administration of state funds in the province of Sicily.
In Sicily, he earned a reputation for being capable and honest. A few years later, this reputation helped persuade Sicilian leaders to enlist him as the chief prosecutor against Gaius Verres, who had looted the island when provincial governor. Cicero won the case against Verres, and his victory made him famous. His speeches for the prosecution, known as the orations In Verrem (“against Verres”) became staples of European and American education.
In 64, after serving in intermediate offices, Cicero was elected one of the two consuls for the year 63. The consuls were the republic’s chief executives.
While consul, Cicero exposed and crushed an insurrection headed by an unscrupulous politician named Lucius Sergius Catalina (known in English as “Cataline”). Cicero’s orations against Cataline also became part of the European-American educational canon.
During 51–50, Cicero served as governor of Cilicia, a province in southern Asia Minor (Turkey). Otherwise, he did not hold executive office after his consulate. He preferred to lead the Senate by prestige and persuasion.
In 46, Julius Caesar became the master of the Roman world, only to be assassinated in 44. Cicero had no role in the assassination, but shortly thereafter he delivered a famous series of speeches (the “Philippics”) warning senators about the ambitions of Caesar’s associate, Marc Antony. These speeches were to prove fatal to Cicero. When negotiating a deal with Caesar’s heir Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus), Antony insisted on Cicero’s execution. Soldiers dispatched by Antony killed him on Dec. 7, 43 B.C.E.
Cicero polished and published each oration after he delivered it. Fifty-two of them survive. In addition, he penned a series of scholarly books and essays. They addressed theology, oratory, obligations, morals, old age, political science, and other subjects. Although his work displayed a fair amount of originality, Cicero’s principal goal was to translate Greek philosophical concepts into Latin for the benefit of a Roman audience.
After the collapse of Roman rule in Western Europe (traditional date: 476 C.E.), Latin remained the universal language of learning and education—a status it retained until the 18th century. When ancient Greek texts were lost to Western Europeans, Cicero’s writings helped keep learning alive.
Three of his books were especially useful to those drafting and debating the Constitution: De Legibus (“On the Laws”), De Officiis (“On Duties”), and De Republica (“On the State”—or, literally, “About the People’s Affair”). Unfortunately, the American Founders had only fragments of De Republica: Most of the book had been lost over time. The fragments were quotations or paraphrases in the works of later authors, notably St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.).
A major portion of De Republica was rediscovered in 1820. But that, of course, came too late to affect the Constitution.
John Adams’s Resort to Cicero
The first volume of John Adams’s survey of republican governments circulated at the Constitutional Convention, and it quoted extensively from the available fragments of De Republica. In those fragments, Cicero set forth the following propositions:
- Law is built on justice; where there is no justice, there is no law.
- A nation (populus) is not just a mass of individuals, but an association based on consent.
- The best constitution mixes elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
- The concord of upper, middle, and lower classes is analogous to the blending of musical instruments at a concert.
- Unmixed governments degenerate into corrupt forms, particularly into tyranny. A tyranny is not a true republic because a republic is the property of the people while in a tyranny everything belongs to the ruler.
Later in the “Defence,” Adams enlisted Cicero to support Adams’s view that in a mixed government the aristocratic interest should be represented by a senate.
Most of those propositions were basic assumptions among the American Founders.
Clauses in the Constitution Derived from Cicero
Cicero’s views did more than influence the Founders’ basic assumptions. His views also are reflected in some of the Constitution’s specific provisions. Those provisions include
- the division of government into monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic branches, with mutual checks among the branches (Articles I & II);
- the congressional power to “declare war,” which Cicero viewed as a necessary precondition to most armed conflicts (Article I, Section 8, Clause 11);
- the bans on ex post facto laws in Article I (Section 9, Clause 3 and Section 10, Clause 1);
- limits on wealth redistribution and on cancellation of debts, particularly in Article I, Section 10;
- clauses that promote the “public trust” ideal (pdf) that government officials serve the people rather than themselves, such as Article I, Section 8, Clause 1—intended to authorize only taxes imposed for the “general Welfare” rather than for the benefit of special interests [pdf] [pdf]);
- clauses that promote the “public trust” ideal that government act impartially (e.g., Article I, Section 9, Clause 6); and
- the Eighth Amendment, banning punishment more than proportionate to the crime.