In the essay itself, Wood argues that American ambition to emulate republican Rome died out pretty quickly, within two generations of the Revolution. While it lasted, the "legacy of Rome" promised an America much different from the one we know today. Wood notes that Roman republicanism, as the Founders and the Enlightenment understood it, emphasized "positive liberty," the right of citizens to participate in government.
This kind of positive liberty was realized when the citizens were virtuous -- that is, willing to sacrifice their private interests for the sake of the community, including serving in public office without pecuniary rewards. This virtue could be found only in a republic of equal, active and independent citizens. To be completely virtuous citizens, men -- never women, because it was assumed they were never independent -- had to be free from dependence, and from the petty interests of the marketplace. Any loss of independence and virtue was corruption.
In the 20th century, a President could say, "The business of America is business." The Founders, Wood claims, thought somewhat differently.
Classical republicanism was naturally suspicious of the marketplace, of commerce and business. Of course, commerce as the handmaiden of agriculture was considered benign and in the eighteenth century was even applauded as a source of peace and prosperity among nations. Still, classical republicanism was mistrustful of merchants as political leaders. Despite the fact that they moved agricultural goods abroad and brought great wealth into the country, merchants were thought to put their own interests ahead of those of their country and thus seemed incapable of disinterestedness.
But what were the interests of the Founders' ideal country? If they distrusted businessmen's self-interest, they also distrusted the perceived dependency of the vast majority of the population. They worried that the poor or working-class people would vote, if allowed, according to the dictation of their employers or the persuasion of ambitious demagogues. Objectively, they believed that people who had to work for a living lacked the leisure time necessary to cultivate an enlightened sense of the public interest. Classical republicanism, as Wood notes, was an ideology popular with plantation owners, but it also appealed to someone like Benjamin Franklin, who only entered political life after he felt secure enough financially to retire from business and live as a gentleman. Republicanism in the Roman sense was something different from democracy as we understand it today -- a moral principle entitling everyone to a voice in the decisions that shape their lives. It was also something different from the 20th century welfare state. Merchants were not distrusted because they were reluctant to contribute toward meeting the needs of the poor, but because their self-interest, particularly if they were involved with foreign trade, might go against the national interest in time of war. The Roman republic was a warfare state, not a welfare state, and the ideal of disinterested virtue was the man who could put aside his material interests to put his life on the line in the service of the state against its enemies. You can see its appeal to a people who saw "barbarians" just across the border and foreign empires lurking nearby.
American enthusiasm for Roman republicanism was probably doomed not to outlive the revolutionary militancy of the Founding generations. As Wood writes:
Instead of becoming a grand incarnation of ancient Rome, a land of virtuous and contented farmers, America within decades of the Declaration of Independence had become a sprawling, materialistic, and licentious popular democracy unlike any state that had ever existed. Buying and selling were celebrated as never before, and the antique meaning of virtue was transformed....Far from sacrificing their private desires for the good of the whole, Americans of the early Republic came to see that the individual's pursuit of wealth or happiness (the two were now interchangeable) was not only inevitable but justifiable as the only proper basis for a free state.
It wasn't Wood's business to discuss the long-term consequences of this transformation, but we're free to weigh the pros and cons. But while Wood doesn't attempt to argue whether American republicanism was compromised by the apparent abandonment of classical public virtue, the following passage from his article remains suggestive:
Republics demanded far more morally from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In monarchies each man's desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by fear or force, by patronage or honor. In republics, however, each man somehow had to be persuaded to sacrifice his personal desires, his luxuries, for the sake of the public good. Monarchies could tolerate great degrees of self-interestedness, private gratification, and corruption among their subjects. After all, they were based on dependence and subservience and had all sorts of adhesives and connections besides virtue to hold their societies together. Monarchies relied on blood, family, kinship, patronage, and -- ultimately -- fear.
If the United States proved more tolerant of "great degrees of self-interestedness, etc," had it ceased to be a republic? If the nation had actually become more democratic, did this prove that democracy is somehow more tolerant of these perceived vices than republics are? Is that because in democracy, the national interest was whatever the majority of the moment decided it was, or no more than an aggregate of individual interests, as opposed to the objective fact the Founders implicitly assumed it to be? If a national interest is an objective fact, is it something different from what the Romans or the Founders imagined it to be? And if it is an objective fact, does that limit the people's power to say it's whatever the majority pleases? This isn't the place to answer these questions, any more than Wood's essay was. But this is as good a time as any to ask the questions rather than taking anyone's answers for granted.