What role did the Greek and Roman classics play in the making of the American Constitution? Existing scholarship has put the main emphasis on the political theory of republicanism. In his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, Gordon Wood described a shift from classical republicanism to a more democratic post-Constitution Republic. In the 1998 edition, Wood points out that his book had been pulled into the vortex of the debate about the role of republicanism that followed in the wake of Bernard Bailyn’s 1967 Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and J. G. A. Pocock’s 1975 Machiavellian Moment. In 1998, Wood writes that he may have pictured 18th-century American republicanism as too “severely” classical, and he now seeks to soften the opposition between republicanism and democratic liberalism.
Wood now acknowledges that 18th-century republicanism was more Lockean than he had allowed. It was a “modernized” republicanism, which in its “updated” version was less anti-commercial and more liberal. What had originally drawn communitarian philosophers and legal theorists to Creation, namely the prospect of an anti-commercial alternative to Louis Hartz’s interpretation of the Founding, turns out to be no such thing—Wood’s 1998 republicanism suddenly looks a lot more Hartzian than it did in 1969.
However, even in his recent work, Wood holds on to his original interpretation of John Adams—a holdout who even after 1787 kept talking about politics as a classical republican. Adams thus emerges as a striking exception, an oddity out of step with the spirit of the increasingly democratic United States.
But there is a problem with the very concept of classical republicanism. There was never a coherent tradition of Greco-Roman republicanism in the sense Pocock, Wood, and their followers have argued. Aristotle was indeed singularly concerned with virtue in his political theory—but this is because he viewed the state as an educational machine designed to enable men to be virtuous and lead the good life. Machiavelli also focused on virtue—because he considered (martial) virtue the means to expand the republic and achieve glory. For Aristotle, the polis is an instrument to achieve virtue and the good life. For Machiavelli, virtue is an instrument to achieve glory and political success.
Finding an explanation for and a remedy to the collapse of the Roman Republic was of crucial importance to the American Founders. Apart from the English constitution, which was interpreted as a republic in disguise, there was no more consequential model than the Roman Republic. The Roman writers of the last century BCE who witnessed the Republic’s collapse had diverging explanations for the breakdown. Some, such as Sallust, put forward the idea that luxury and the corruption of virtue were responsible for the Republic’s demise. This is the view that is commonly captured with the term “classical republicanism.”
But there had always been a competing, no less influential interpretation: according to Cicero, John Adams, and many others, the crisis of the Republic was a constitutional crisis, and an explicit constitutionalism could have provided its remedy. This tradition focused on an institutional analysis of the fall of the Republic in juridical and especially constitutional terms.
Neither Adams nor the authors of the Federalist Papers were classical republicans in either the Aristotelian, Sallustian, or Machiavellian sense of the term. In a way you could say, therefore, that the political theory of the Constitution and the ratification debates left classical republicanism behind. But the Federalist and Adams relied on a long tradition of writers, from Cicero to Jean Bodin to Trenchard and Gordon to Montesquieu, who were fascinated by the crisis of the Roman Republic and who drew similar conclusions from its fall—namely, that virtue could not be relied upon for stable government, and that the solution would have to be institutional.
The solution, they thought, should be sought in what the Founders called a “compounded republic.” Virtue and self-denial, by contrast, were considered “cant-words” (Cato’s Letters). Adams agreed: it was “by no means” luxury or ambition which had brought down the Roman Republic, but lack of constitutional entrenchment and the usurpation of constitutional rights. Adams very much doubted that “any people ever existed who loved the public better than themselves,” and he based his Ciceronian constitutionalism on an Epicurean political psychology (borrowed from Polybius, Cicero himself, or Hobbes).
Cicero and Livy had shown that the seeds of this constitutional solution could already be found in the Roman Republic. The history of the Republic was littered with legal arguments contesting the validity of laws and the actions of magistrates, and these arguments hinged on a distinction between legislation (leges) and higher-order, entrenched constitutional law (ius). Cicero turned this inchoate constitutionalism into an explicit constitutional program.
Bodin, the Commonwealthmen, and Montesquieu drew on this tradition of Roman constitutional thought. It was this set of ideas, developed as a remedy against the demise of republican government and military despotism, which the Federalist proponents of central government, constitutional checks, and a bicameral legislature applied when they debated the Constitution in 1787-88.
The fascination of the Founders with the fate of the Roman Republic has often been written about, but the smokescreen of “classical republicanism” has obscured the crucial differences between those, writing in a Sallustian vein, who were interested in virtue, and those, following Cicero, who discounted virtue and thought that constitutionalism was the remedy to republican decay. The novelty of the constitution-making in the States and at Philadelphia can therefore be seen, paradoxically, in its application of ideas drawn from the collapse of an ancient political order.
Featured image: “Scene at the signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.