Ancient Republics and European Charters
The Founders were students of history. Before entering college, for example, young James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams were expected to read, translate, and speak intelligently about the original Greek and Latin writings of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero, and many others. Knowledge of the past led them to dismay at the bad results of past republics. While they studied the past, they did not revere it. They were not afraid to break new ground. They wanted a political science that worked, as opposed to utopian theories of republics of the past.
The history of ancient republics was full of warnings. Power-hungry men either seduced the public with their charisma, conspired with others to stage distracting false controversies, or offered pleasant diversions while slowly but surely dismantling freedom.
Hamilton warned in Federalist No. 1 about “men who have over-turned the liberties of republics, commencing as demagogues and ending as tyrants” (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1, 1787).
And even those people who meant well were not immune to the natural desire for power. Since the time of Magna Carta, Englishmen had petitioned the King in protest of abuses, with unsatisfying results. And they didn’t need another Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England following the execution of King Charles I) any more than they needed another King George. The idea that those with power would eventually want more power—and act to take that power at the expense of individual rights - was plain to see all through human history. Establishing safeguards against this natural and on-going threat would be key.
Philip of Macedon in Athens, dictators in Rome, and their own recent history demonstrated to them the threat to liberty posed by charismatic men who slowly but surely oppressed the governed.
The solution, history proved, would not merely be to let the people rule unchecked through direct democracy, where citizens vote on policy issues directly rather than through elected representatives.
John Adams, who had completed an exhaustive study of constitutions in history, wrote in a letter, “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide” (John Adams to John Taylor, April 15, 1814).
James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10 that [direct] democracies “in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths” (James Madison, Federalist No. 10, 1787).
Republican government—with crucial modifications—would be the solution. The people would rule through their representatives who would, it was hoped, govern more dispassionately while remaining accountable to their constituents. Philosophers such as John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu demonstrated the need for separation of powers sustained by checks and balances. But Madison took one piece of conventional wisdom and turned it on its head. Philosophers of the time believed that for republics to work, they had to be small (like the colonies and, later, the states). Madison, on the other hand, argued in Federalist No. 10 that a large republic would actually protect liberty better. This was because, Madison argued, the diversity of interests among people in a large territory would prevent factions (or groups of people opposed to the common good and/or the rights of others) from coming together as a powerful majority. Therefore, Madison said, peoples’ rights would be safe not only from a tyrannical ruler, but from the mob rule of a direct democracy.
By combining their extensive knowledge of history with the understanding of human nature set forth in modern political science, they created something new. While we tend to take it for granted today, the republic created by the Founding generation in 1787 was something never before seen in the world.
In addition to the history and philosophy of the time, they were also inspired by virtuous citizens from history. George Washington especially admired Cato the younger, a Roman citizen who tried to save the Roman Republic from being ruled by a dictator with unlimited power.
Just as it did in ancient times, republican government requires that citizens act virtuously in the defense of self-government. They must act responsibly to take care of themselves, their families, loved ones, and communities. They must remain vigilant against the types of demagogues history is full of—those who start out calling themselves champions of the people, but who turn out to be their greatest enemies.
George Washington explained, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people” (George Washington, “First Inaugural Address, 1789).
When James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay together wrote their defense of the Constitution, The Federalist, they chose “Publius” as their pen name (Hamilton, Jay, Madison, The Federalist, 1787-1788). Publius was a Roman aristocrat who helped establish the Roman republic. The lessons the Founders took from the study of ancient republics and European charters included an understanding of the need for checks and balances in government, a fear of tyrannical rulers hungry for power, and an understanding that direct democracy would be no better than monarchy when it came to protecting rights.
The challenge for the United States was—and still is—to learn from the full histories of ancient republics: their glory days as well as their descent into dictatorships. In this way, they can serve to us, just as they did to the Founders, not only as inspirations but also as cautionary tales.
They combined lessons from the past, tested ideas of philosophers, and their own inventions in political science to create a revolutionary system of republican government that was distinct, unique, and exceptional.