The Measure of a Republic

Author: Gary Hart
In his magisterial work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, more quoted than read, made this one-of-many interesting observation: “In the commonwealths of Athens and Rome, the modest simplicity of private houses announced the equal condition of freedom; whilst the sovereignty of the people was represented in the majestic edifices designed to the public use.”  The publication of the six volumes of this history (1776-1788) coincided almost exactly with the establishment of the American Republic.
Contrast the situations of republican Athens and Rome with 21st century America where homelessness mounts while the gilded yachts arrive at the docks of magnificent private mansions, where private houses of tens of thousands of square feet are bought and sold while public libraries are closing, where public works deteriorate for lack of investment while investment bankers reward themselves magnificently.
The important factors in Gibbon’s observation were these: first, he was describing the “commonwealths” of Athens and Rome, that is Rome as a republic before it sought empire; second, that wide-spread modest housing was a symbol of equality; and third, the “majestic edifices” were emblematic of the “sovereignty of the people.” 
Twenty-first century America has lost all sense of the commonwealth, what we the people own together.  Conservative ideology does not like the sense of the commonwealth, so central to the nature of a republic.  Grand housing is a symbol of the triumph of wealth, not equality of freedom.  And public edifices for the use of all the people require investment of public revenue, condemned as well by conservative ideology.  
Gibbon would find it difficult to identify America today with those early commonwealths which our Founders sought so diligently to emulate.  Regretably, he would find more in common with the Roman empire whose decline and fall he so brilliantly documented.

15 Responses to “The Measure of a Republic”

  1. Curtis E. Mulkey Says:

    Ok, I and all of the people with whom I communicate with,( which is a lot),KNOW what all of our problems are. The reference to the Roman Empire is a good one and certainly an accurate one, BUT, Yours is about twenty such references I have read,( This Year). What WE,( the Country) NEEDS IS SOME ANSWERS!! How do we get enough people organized to launch a “Non-Violent” Revolution? Who will do it, get it started? Who has the Money? I’m trying to survive on Social Security,( which hasn’t had a COLA in two years, while all of my Medical Co-Pays have gone up 300%, not to mention FOOD and GAS to get to the Store and Doctors. At 71 I am looking for SOLUTIONS, I know the Diagnosis..

  2. Jim Engelking Says:

    This is like a blow to the solar plexus, Gary. I am staggered by its implications for our declining republic. Moreso because of the declining education of our people through the constant conservative attacks on public schools, their control of sources of news reporting, and increasing concentrations of wealth and power. The masses are being manipulated and enslaved from an early age by entertainment, gadgets and chemical substances. There is little notion of the common good among the general populace, and I wonder whether the principles are still being taught. Certainly politicians have retreated from espousing them. Those without financial power increasingly fight among themselves for scraps that fall from the tables of the rich. America’s grasping for empire since WWII has left it weaker internally, and it appears that no one can turn it back from the brink.

  3. Bill Pruden Says:

    Once again Senator Hart has succinctly identified yet another unhappy example of how the modern United States has wandered from its core principles. While “all men are created equal” was about opportunity and not results, the influence of money, as reflected in the socio-economic divide of which he despairs, is reflected in virtually every aspect of the modern American experience, from a political system in which money has made a mockery of the idea of each vote being equal to the supposed epitome of the American meritocracy, the key to success—college admissions. And to think that such education is supposed to prepare citizens to contribute to a society whose very being is encapsulated in “we the people.” While it is true that the Founding Fathers were among the young nation’s elite, they nevertheless established a nation, in which everyone, all of “we the people,” had the chance to try and climb the ladder of success. Today that ladder seems more like a toll road and one must pay to even have a chance to play. A couple weeks back the Senator wrote of the need to get a new generation involved in politics so we could return to the principles upon which this nation was founded. No modern problems needs their attention more than the ever growing divide between the economic haves and have nots. It is a cause that a nation with a soul, as Senator Hart put it a couple weeks back, cannot ignore.

  4. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,

    On May 31, 2001, you stated in Goodbye to Politics, Matters of Principle, “Someday, somehow, America will long for a restoration of its ideals and its nobility and it will once again turn to young women and men who understand politics to be unselfish, a way to serve, and a process for the creation of a better society and world. May that day come soon.”
    Curtis E. Mulkey asks on 6/20/2011, “What WE,( the Country) NEEDS IS SOME ANSWERS!! How do we get enough people organized to launch a “Non-Violent” Revolution? Who will do it, get it started?”
    For those of us who see these problems, understand their causes and results, and agree with you that they must be addressed in some meaningful manner to step forward and as I stated in my comment on 6/6/2011 to Goodbye to Politics, “…create a philosophy for the movement, think through the processes necessary to put the movement in place, and then produce and propagate the material … in such a manner that the majority …, regardless of race, sex, or creed, can identify with and support the goals of such movement.”
    Senator Hart, I challenge you to come forward once more and lead us in this endeavor. We need the leadership of people like you to be able to do what is needed. With the knowledge and experience that you and those with whom you interact possess lead us forward so that, We the People of the United States of America, in Order to (re)form (our) Union, (re)establish Justice, (regain and) insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and (re)secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, …(may) ordain and (re)establish the Constitution of the United States of America.
    The “someday” is here. The People of the wonderful Country already “long for a restoration of its ideals and its nobility”. The young People need you once again to provide that leadership, not as a politician, but as the Teacher, the Guide, the Father, so that they may learn from you and recreate this blessed Country into something that all of those who have gone before us would be proud to call “their Nation”.

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  7. Brett Greisen Says:

    Dear Sen. Hart,

    Thank you for a concise stating of one of many parallels to Gibbon that have become more obvious with each passing year. Our decline has come slowly, but it is now accelerating with every suppressed vote, every election stolen due to inadequately tested, protected & verifiable election by computer vote.

    The Hill is mostly, if not totally corrupted with the connivance of many of its past & current denizens (elected & not.)

  8. Stephen Burnett Says:

    Gary, I often use a phrase that I coined myself, and it too is reflective of the writings of Gibbon. I originally published it on, then made it into my email signature. There were, in point of fact, many reasons for Rome to have collapsed, but here is yet another that also fits much too well with the modern United States:

    “Any nation in a state of #ConstantWAR is never at or near it’s apogee; rather, it has stepped off the cliff and is plummeting into the abyss.”

    Look sharp, Americans! We did not get to the top of the world political food-chain because we “deserved” to. We reached that mountaintop with great effort; sustained over many decades — centuries, even; costing hundreds-of-thousands of lives — both American and other peoples; and with the currency of the vast natural resources our nation was born to.

    Was it all really worth it, as we watch our pinnacle recede into the darkness?

    Sorry to sound like a pointless pessimist, but I simply don’t see the United States as we currently know it lasing very much longer.

    A Russian [former KGB] Intelligence Officer/Historian was wildly excoriated here for positing that the USA was bound for a fracturing into [he believed] six new distinct nations.

    Looking at the extreme gulfs separating the current body politic in the US, I have for many years felt certain that this man is right. The very savagery of the attacks on his well-thought-out hypothesis and his person tell me that he struck a nerve, and life has taught me that those that strike such nerves almost always turn out to be right.

    Ironically, the Soviet Union fractured this very way into more pieces way before the US got around following suit, but believe me, we are in the game and will have to swim in the currents of history or drown.


  9. Gary Hart Says:

    Once again, perceptive and thoughtful comments. My thanks. In response to Mr. Pillow: most of my life has been spent in public service, in office and in commissions, in writing and in teaching. I must work for a living. I went back to school rather late in life to qualify to teach young people and that is what I have been doing for five years. I have written twenty books and hundreds of articles and appear in the media when I am asked and the topic is serious. I am not sure what “coming forward and leading” right now would amount to. This blog is part of my effort to continue to make a contribution.

  10. martin stepek Says:

    An insightful and timely analysis Senator Hart. I am not a U.S. citizen; I live in Scotland, but the nature and culture of the USA influences and pervades the whole world, some for the good, some not so. One of the commentators did get it right – if somewhat in a rant: many have already analysed what’s wrong. It really is time for action. Many of us hoped President Obama would make radical changes but for whatever reasons this is not coming through…or maybe we’re just too impatient.
    The challenge it seems to me is two-fold:
    1. Having a clearly-articulated, not fudged or compromised alternative vision and a strategy that people can understand and then either support or not – that’s the deomcratic way;
    2. Within the strategy having clear ideas and plans on how to win the battle – because this does come down to a battle, hopefully peaceful and political – with the massive vested interests of those who do own the fancy yachts and huge mansions.
    Words are very important so well done on the fine comparison with Rome and Athens…but it’s actions that will change your beautiful country with its still majestic constitution and vision of its founding fathers.

  11. John Bryans Fontaine Says:

    “…Twenty-first century America has lost all sense of the commonwealth, what we the people own together…”

    We have become an Entertainment Political Information Complex ( EPIC ) and the situation is rapidly becoming, though the poorest of us might be starved of food, we will be given ever more circuses.

  12. Gary Hart Says:

    All comments are welcome, but especially from those outside the U.S. To Mr. Stepek my response is an observation from a lifetime: Americans, especially in difficult times, want “change”. But we differ greatly over what that change should be. There is some vague sense of a better republic and a more perfect nation. But when it comes time to make major changes, we become very apprehensive and conservative. Thus, our vision of who we are and ought to be often varies greatly with what we are willing to do collectively to achieve that vision.

  13. Bill Pruden Says:

    While I already have said my piece in response to this week’s blog, in reading the thread I think it is important to recognize the tremendous leadership and contribution that this blog represents. While the Senator does not need me to defend him, we must not forget that he has more than done his time in the frontlines, leading and serving with distinction and that now, while others of hs generation have taken refuge as lobbyists or simply retreated from the fray, he continues through this blog to contribute in a thoughtful and civil way to the necessary public discourse while also working as a teacher, and in that role impacting the next generation who are ultimately the ones must accept the challenge to move the distinctive American experiment forward in the way the Founding Fathers envisioned. In all of that I find inspiration and motivation for my own work as an educator, while also feeling profound appreciation for Senator Hart’s continued engagement.

  14. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,
    To quote from your Introduction to “Reform, Hope, and the Human Factor: Ideas for National Restructuring” – “… we must learn to think differently about our problems and their solutions, we must reform our public institutions and the policies they produce, we must use the national interest as the touchstone for wise decisions, and we must see our people – “the human factor” – as our greatest resource and our hope for change and progress.”
    I remember the first time I read this “manual” upon which your 1988 Presidential campaign was based. I took it to heart and have attempted to work toward those ends. I appreciate your response to me on June 21st, but I still need advice as to how those of us who seek these same goals go about achieving these ends. Someone has to be in the trenches, on the streets, in the fields, in order to make this a reality. I would like to facilitate change without violence. I am, however, a realist and fear that change will only come through violent means, if we do not start immediately to implement a plan and process that will create avenues through which to funnel our efforts to overcome the apprehension and conservatism of which you so rightly speak.
    Stephen D. Pillow

  15. A. Anderson Says:

    Sorry to be the skunk at the party again but I should not have to note that Gibbon was referring to two slave-holding societies, not to be furthering the strangeness of that reference. Perhaps I should be bringing Tacitus to bear with regard to the condition of our own Republic now, on this occasion, and in this moment, for I have found it far more useful in comprehending recent events.

    It is of import to note the depravity of a Vaspasian/Nero (Richard Cheney) and his idiot manchild of the right wing (George W Bush, er, Caligula who brought much worse than a horse into the Senate) bearing stricking concordance not referred to in general Gibbonsian overviews, well, at least not to my satisfaction anyway…


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