Keep Our Republic

Author: Gary Hart

Keep Our Republic Reading Room: A Recommendation

To those interested in the American Republic and republicanism, Edward Watts 2018 book Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny is highly recommended.  It is very readable and accessible ancient history and bears lessons for the 21st century American Republic.

Depending on one’s dating methods, the roots of Roman republicanism date to the late 5th and early 4th centuries B.C.  The Watts book principally concerns itself with the third, second, and first centuries B.C. when Rome experienced structural, political, and social changes that transformed it from a republic to an empire.

At the height of its republican powers, Rome, as we know, was governed by a “complicated but elegant set of offices and procedures designed to protect this shared Roman liberty by encouraging political compromise, building durable consensuses, and ensuring shared government of the Republic.”  This elegant arrangement enabled influential patricians and plebians to govern with the approval of citizen assemblies.

This structure was composed of consuls, praetors, and tribunes with the senate at the peak of the pyramid.  Providing checks and balances were four to five citizen assemblies whose approval to governing innovations was generally required.

Borrowing parts of Greek leagues of city-states, especially the Aetolian, this new Roman invention functioned reasonably well with only minor stress over two centuries, that is until the third century B.C.  Here is where instructions for future republics, including the late eighteenth century American experiment, bears examination.

Toward the third decade of the third century B.C. there arose the Grachii, particularly Tiberius and Gaius.  Rome found itself earlier engaged in the First and Second Punic Wars.  Victorious wars expand territory but they also cost money.  Money largely came from plunder of the losers, but much of that remained with political elites.  Thus, the income gap between patricians and plebes expanded.  And the elite patricians became increasingly concerned with governing restless foreign conquered lands.

Increasingly, farming small plots of land provided less sustenance than higher paying jobs in Rome, and youths made their way to the cities while those left behind increasingly brought pressure to bear on governing structure for land reforms that expanded farming acreage.

If any of this seems familiar in twentieth and early twenty-first centuries America, it should.

Gaps between cities and country, wealth and poverty, and degrees of shared political power appeared.  Protests increased, with mounting violence, and had to be repressed.

The principal cultural transformation that occurred during this period was the replacement of honor and public duty with wealth, status, and personal power.

Tiberius Grachus, once a hero if not also a tribune of the people, was murdered near the senate steps by a gang of his principal rival’s supporters in 133,  “Romans understood that the Republic changed irreversibly on that day.”

Professor Watts summarizes it best: “Romans had avoided political violence for three centuries before a series of political murders rocked the Republic in the 130s and 120s B.C.  Once mob violence infected Roman politics, however, the institutions of the Republic quickly lost their ability to control the context and content of political disputes.  Within a generation of the first political assassination in Rome, politicians had begun to arm their supporters and use the threat of violence to influence the votes of assemblies and the election of magistrates.  Within two generations, Rome fell into civil war.  And, two generations later, Augustus ruled as Roman emporer.”

This would all seem like bloody ancient history to us now, until we remember November 22nd, 1963.  And recent public calls for State officials certifying election outcomes to be “taken outside and shot” for doing so.

All this to call to memory how relatively quickly the happy days’ history of the relatively recent Eisenhower years has given way to a wrenching change of course in 2016 and the rumbling chaos that now overtakes America.

Democracy is in peril.  But so is the American Republic founded on the principles of resistance to corruption, a sense of the commonwealth, and most of all civic virtue and civic duty.

At very few times in our nation’s history has our Republic been as close to fracturing of its founding structures, as was second century B.C. Rome, as it is today.

 

4 Responses to “Keep Our Republic”

  1. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    That sounds a bit heavy, but I’ll check it out. Just ’cause. 🙂

  2. Jack DuVall Says:

    I think it may be somewhat overdrawn to say that, as in the late Roman Republic, American political culture is headed fully for “the replacement of honor and public duty with wealth, status, and personal power.” The latter has been true intermittently in our history, particularly when one considers the lying of presidents such as Richard Nixon and the political supporters of President George W. Bush on whose watch probably took place the first evidence of tampering with presidential election returns in the 21st century. Some would say, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” But the longer periods in which national elections have been corrupted seem to occur a bit more frequently nowadays. Let’s hope that our ramrod-straight, newly elected President Joe Biden will be a strong cleanser of our system.

  3. Don Smith Says:

    Gary
    Tonight I feel great history has been made. I look forward to telling our grandchildren about the FDA’s approval of the COVID vaccine and the US Supreme Court’s denial of Trump’s GOP seeking to overturn the election…. the nightmare is about over. I am sure our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be studying the events of this night in their history books in seventy years. A great night for civilization: a triumph of democracy … and a victory for modern science.
    Sleep well, all.

  4. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    As ever, pithy!

    Analogy is good for a country.

    Too often, the United States, and united Kingdom, in their correct aim to sing their own praises, put exceptionalism to the front, even where it ought to be more sensible to emphasise humility.

    We saw it even in a clash of these , our two great nations, in the vaccine for Corona virus. Fauci, a fine professional, critic of the UK by default of comment in his elevating of the Us, implied, the UK cut corners to approve, the US, are the best in the world at its process of approval of vaccine.

    Reality check, all the western democracies have good and bad aspects. Lumbering bureaucracy even in a pandemic, isn’t one of them, nice to think it is better to call it, being careful, or rigorous though it might be!

    We see this same attitude in the French, germans, and the UK, over Brexit, and the Eu, as a body. “We know best!”

    We do, some of us, sometimes.

    It is now the preserve of us who are wiser, led here by a great wise man, to tell it otherwise.

    I as an Englishman, citizen of the UK, not quite citizen of the world, know of the great, good, and bad in my country and its history.

    I too, also, realise, with a father from Italy, wife from the United states, the Roman, American analogy can work, and does, here!

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