31 May 2011

America as Rome: as if....

"The relationship between the Founders and the classical past was similar to our present relationship to the Founders," Gordon S. Wood writes in a new afterword to his recent essay, "The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution," "Just as we use the Founders, such as Jefferson and Washington, to get our bearings and reaffirm our beliefs and reinvigorate our institutions, so too did the Founders use antiquity, especially republican antiquity, to help shape their views and justify their institutions. Today this classical memory bank -- those sets of ancient meanings -- no longer exists for most Americans."

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.


d.eris said...

I was thinking a little bit about this general topic recently after re-reading some essays from the Anti-Federalist papers. The anti-Federalists took their pseudonyms from famous Roman political figures just as their counterparts among the Federalists themselves did. But while the Federalists took on the names of famous consuls (ex. Publius), the Anti-Federalists took on names of plebeian politicians or agriculturalists (Cato), or other terms reminiscent of the lower classes (Centinel). The most interesting name, perhaps, from among the Anti-Federalists is Brutus. One of the founders of the Roman Republic was Brutus, and of course another Brutus was the assassin of Rome's most famous consul, Caesar, ironically bringing about the consolidation of the empire and death of the republic by the act.

Samuel Wilson said...

Interesting point. I was also reminded of occasional attempts to rewrite Roman history in our time, e.g. Michael Parenti's The Assassination of Julius Caesar, which portrays the dictator as a populist taken down by a right-wing conspiracy of aristocratic senators. I don't know if someone today could get away with calling himself Brutus; firstly because pseudonyms are thought to be cowardly; secondly because the name implicitly claims the right to assassinate; and thirdly because it'd leave people wondering what Popeye cartoons have to do with politics.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you eat spinach, you'll turn into a violent, raging sociopath who can simply beat your political opponents into submission and win the election by default.

d.eris said...

lol . . . yes, Brutus might be a tough brand to sell today. But there are a number of bloggers out there who have taken on the name of Publius and there's the Cato Institute and so on.

I don't know very much about the American revolutionaries' appropriation of the legacy of Rome beyond the intellectual appropriations found in the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers. On this topic, it might be very interesting to see a thoroughgoing comparison with the actual re-imagination and re-enactment of Roman rites and rituals in the French Revolution, the toga-clad Cult of the Supreme Being and so on.

Samuel Wilson said...

Wood reports one instance of American toga wearing, when Joseph Warren delivered an oration in 1775 commemorating the Boston Massacre. He also notes that Rome's biggest and most lasting influence came in the form of neoclassical architecture, the Founders preferring the Roman style to the decadence or luxury of Baroque, Gothic, etc, for its proportionate simplicity.

Anonymous said...

Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist nutcase, but let's not forget that a number of the founders, including Washington, Franklin, etc. were Free Masons. If you compare the Free Masons manifesto (or whatever they call it) to our Constitution, you will find many similarities, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Although I've not done research on the topic, I would guess that Roman senators, if not all citizens, had similar rights. It wasn't until the Catholic church became the dominant force in Roman politics that you begin to see an end to these "freedoms".