Democratic Vices & Republican Virtues [PPT]

Constitution Day (September 17, 2010)
Democratic Vices & Republican Virtues:
The Influence of Greece & Rome on the
Dr. Robinson Yost, Assistant Professor, History
Social Sciences Department
The Founders &
The Classics
Education (classical
Points of influence:
o style of writing & speech
o stories of virtue & vice
o models of government
o classical pastoralism
o allusions, symbols, &
Thomas Jefferson
Grammar school & College
(17th –early 19th centuries)
I think the Greeks and
Romans have left us the
present models which
exist of fine composition,
whether we examine them
as works of reason, or of
style and fancy; and to
them we probably owe
these characteristics of
modern composition….
Standard works for college
John Adams (1781):
Three or more years Greek & Latin
In company with Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus,
and Livy, you will learn Wisdom and Virtue.
You will see them represented with all the
Charms which Language & Imagination can
exhibit, and Vice & Folly painted in all their
Deformity and Horror. You will ever
remember that all the End of study is to
make you a good Man and a useful Citizen.
Plutarch, Livy, Sallust
Cicero, Virgil, Homer, Greek New
More advanced tutors:
Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato,
Tacitus, Julius Caesar
College requirements:
Commonplace books:
o John Adams (Harvard)
o Alexander Hamilton (Columbia)
o James Madison (Princeton)
o Thomas Jefferson (Wm. & Mary)
from Thomas Austen’s commonplace
from Jefferson’s commonplace book
The Spartans
 frugality
 selflessness
 stability & security
 calm & courage
fantastic abs
 communal
 Hamilton: “Sparta was little better than a well-regulated
 Adams: communal ownership of goods was “stark mad”
 Jefferson: “military monks”
 suppression of
 brutal system
 Scottish accent
Other Lessons: The Greeks
[during the Revolutionary War] small cluster of independent republics vs. large
centralized monarchy
 [after the war] loss of Greek liberty to Macedon, failure to unite under a strong
central government (1787)
o Hamilton: “Philip, at length taking advantage of their disunion, and insinuating
himself into their Councils, made himself master of their fortunes.”
o Madison: constant warfare might repeat among the American states with a
strong central government (Plutarch)
o “Publius” (Madison) Federalist No. 18: “Had Greece . . . been united by a
stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the
chains of Macedon”
 lessons of the Achaean League, eventual submission to the Romans
o “Publius” (Hamilton) Federalist No. 16: most centralized among ancient
confederacies, though not centralized enough
o “Publius” (Madison) Federalist No. 18: “Popular government, so tempestuous
elsewhere, caused no disorders in the members of the Achaean republic, because
it was there tempered by the general authority and laws of the confederacy.”
Athenian Democracy: A Cautionary Tale
Democratic Vices (common ancient critiques: Thucydides, Plato, Plutarch):
 the masses: innately stupid, irrational, unstable, fickle
 specious egalitarianism: tyranny of weak over strong
 favors mediocrity, stifled initiative, failed to make use of experts
 dangers: demagogues, corruption, & constant war
 confuses freedom with lack of restraint, lawlessness, & anarchy
Democratic Vices (concerns of the Founders):
 “I had two things in view: to get the wisest men chosen, and to make them perfectly
independent when chosen. I have ever observed that a choice by the people themselves
is not generally distinguished for its wisdom.” (1776)
 “In all very numerous assemblies of whatever characters composed, passion never fails
to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every
Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” (1788)
 Sobriety, abstinence, and severity, were never remarkable characteristics of democracy
. . . Athens, in particular, was never conspicuous for these qualities; but… from the first to
the last moment of her democratical constitution, levity, gayety, inconstancy, dissipation,
intemperance, debauchery, and a dissolution of manners, were the prevailing character of
the whole nation (1787)
John Adams on Athens’ downfall, Defence of the U. S. Constitutions (1787):
1) Failure to balance power
2) Concentrated all power in hands of the masses
Most founders favored a “mixed government” NOT a democracy:
Admired the Roman Republic NOT Athenian democracy
Mixed Government: Ancient Greece to the 18th century
Historical background:
 Plato, Laws (4th c. B.C.)
o the one: monarchy
 tyranny
o the few: aristocracy
 oligarchy
o the many: democracy
 ochlocracy (Latin: mobile vulgus)
 Polybius, Histories (2nd c. B.C.) mixed government
o the one
 Roman consuls
o the few
 Roman senate
o the many
 Roman assemblies
 John Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656): “natural aristocracy”
Government, according to the ancients, and their learned disciple Machiavel, the only
politician of later ages, is of three kinds: the government of one man, or of the better sort,
or of the whole people; which, by their more learned names, are called monarchy,
aristocracy, and democracy. These they hold, through their proneness to degenerate, to
be all evil . . . The corruption then of monarchy is called tyranny; that of aristocracy,
oligarchy and that of democracy, anarchy. But legislators, having found these three
governments at the best to be naught, have invented another, consisting of a mixture of
them all, which only is good. This is the doctrine of the ancients....
Mixed Government & The Founders
 John Adams, “An Essay on Man’s Lust for Power” (1763)
No simple Form of Government can possibly secure Men against the Violences of Power.
Simple Monarchy will soon mould itself into Despotism, Aristocracy will soon commence on
Oligarchy, and Democracy will soon degenerate into Anarchy, such an Anarchy that every
Man will do what is right in his own Eyes, and no Man’s life or Property or Reputation or
Liberty will be safe.
Thirteen original state constitutions: Ten created a senate
 Adams, Defence of the U. S. Constitutions (1787): Three improvements
since Lycurgus
o representation
o separation of powers
o division of the legislature into “three independent, equal branches”
 James Madison: arguing for a nine-year term for senators (1787)
Landholders ought to have a share in the government to support these invaluable
interests and to balance and check the other [the many]. They ought to be so
constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate,
therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have
permanency and stability.
The Constitution & Mixed Government: The Federalists
“Publius” (Madison), The Federalist (1787-1788)
o “history informs us of no long-lived republic which had not a senate” No. 63
o cites Aristotle, Polybius, & Cicero as sources
o “The accumulation of powers, legislative, executive, and judicial, in the same
hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or
elective, many justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” No. 47
Alexander Hamilton, advocated lifetime terms for both the president & Senate
o (June 1787, outline of speech): “British constitution best form. Aristotle—
Cicero—Montesquieu—Neckar. Society naturally divides itself into two political
divisions—the few and the many, who have distinct interests. If a government [is]
in the hands of the few, they will tyrannize over the many. If [it is in] the hands of
the many, they will tyrannize over the few. It ought to be in the hands of both; and
they should be separated.”
o “When the [Roman] Tribunitial power had leveled the boundary between the
patricians and plebeians what followed? The distinction between rich and poor
was substituted. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a
monarchy. The difference of property is already great among us. Commerce and
industry will still increase the disparity.”
Other Federalists endorsed Constitution as a mixed government: John Dickinson,
George Wythe, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson
Mixed Government: The Anti-Federalists
Antifederalists: rejected mixed government or denied its applicability to U. S.
o Charles Pinckney: “The people of this country are not only very different from
the inhabitants of any State we are acquainted with in the modern world; but I
assert that their situation is distinct from either the people of Greece, or Rome,
or of any other State we are acquainted with among the antients.” (1787)
o Patrick Henry: “similar examples are to be found in ancient Greece and
ancient Rome—instances of the people losing their liberty by their own
carelessness and the ambition of a few.” (1787)
o “An Old Whig”: compared the American people, should they ratify the
Constitution, with the tree in Aesop’s fable
Antifederalists: advocated mixed govt., yet denied Constitution would create one
o “A Farmer”: “There is nothing solid or useful that is new. And I will venture to
assert that if every political institution is not fully explained by Aristotle and other
ancient writers, yet that, there is no new discovery in this the most important of all
sciences, for ten centuries back.”
o George Mason: “The government will set out a moderate aristocracy; it is at
present impossible to foresee whether it will, in its operation, produce a monarchy
or a corrupt, tyrannical aristocracy. It will probably vibrate some years between the
two, and then terminate in the one or the other”
Rome: Good & Bad
Roman Virtues:
 pseudonyms
 analogies
 symbols
 heroes
 early Republic
Roman Vices:
 why did it fail?
 “Farmer Washington—may he, like a second
Cincinnatus, be called from the plow to rule a great
people.” (1788)
 Hamilton called Washington “the American Fabius”
 Patrick Henry: “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I has
Cromwell, George III may profit by their example.” (1765)
 tyranny over
 loss of liberty
 villains
 late Republic &
detail from The
Apotheosis of George
Washington (1865)
by Constantino Brumidi
o War (Freedom)
o Science (Minerva)
o Marine (Neptune)
o Commerce (Mercury)
o Mechanics (Vulcan)
o Agriculture (Ceres)
Fundamental Lessons:
o republics strength against
centralized monarchy
(Persian Wars)
o weaknesses & instabilities
of democracy (Athens)
o degree of centralization
necessary (fall of Greece)
o importance of mixed
government & virtuous
behavior (early Roman
o ambition of powerful
individuals (decline & fall of
Roman republic)
o vice led to tyranny,
corruption, degradation
(Roman emperors)

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