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James Madison and Tiberius Gracchus on representative government

In Federalist 63, Madison pointed out that the principle of representation was not exclusive to modern republics. In the Roman Republic, Madison thought, the Tribunes of the plebs were “annually elected by the whole body of the people, and considered the representatives of the people, almost in their plenipotentiary capacity.” Representation was not unknown to the ancients. The “true distinction” between ancient constitutions and American governments, Madison thought, was “the total exclusion of the people” in the latter. Ancient and modern republics both knew representation, but modern republics severely diminished the role of the people.

Historians, ever suspicious of anachronism, are skeptical of Madison’s claim that representation had played a role in classical antiquity. But Madison may have been on to something; there is clearly a sense in which the ancient Romans regarded the ten Tribunes of the plebs as representatives of the Roman People.

In 133 BCE, the Tribune Tiberius Gracchus clashed with a fellow Tribune, Marcus Octavius, who had vetoed Gracchus’ agrarian bill. Tribunes could constitutionally veto legislation by other magistrates. After Octavius’ veto, Gracchus asked the popular assembly to depose Octavius, an unprecedented move that was widely considered unconstitutional. The assembly followed Gracchus and proceeded to depose his colleague Octavius, but there must have been second thoughts: according to Plutarch, the unprecedented dismissal of a Tribune by the People was “very displeasing, not only to the nobles,” but even “to the multitude.”

Gracchus had to justify his course of action before an informal popular assembly. The challenge was to explain why the deposition of a fellow Tribune did not amount to the destruction of the power of the tribunate and of popular rights. Gracchus argued that a Tribune was “sacred and inviolable because he was consecrated to the people and was a champion of the people.” However, if a Tribune should “wrong the people, maim its power, and rob it of the privilege of voting,” he “by his own acts deprived himself of his honourable office by not fulfilling the conditions on which he received it.”

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was a Roman politician of the 2nd century BC and brother of Gaius Gracchus. Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was a revolutionary theory of representation. By exercising his constitutional veto against Gracchus’ agrarian bill, Octavius had employed his power “against the very ones who had bestowed it.” Octavius had “robbed” the People of the “privilege of voting” and had thus forfeited his office. Gracchus claimed that by vetoing the bill, Octavius had effectively ceased to be Tribune. If it was right for Octavius “to be made tribune by a majority of the votes” it must be “even more right for him to be deprived of his tribuneship by a unanimous vote.” The Tribune is conceived to act on binding instructions from the popular assembly; failing to do so will depose him. This is of course directly opposed to Madison’s “plenipotentiary” view of the tribunate.

It is instructive to compare Gracchus’ with American ideas of representation. One strand of political thought adheres to a “plenipotentiary” or “pre-Gracchan,” view (also called the “trustee conception” of representation by political scientists). According to this view, representatives are separated from those who elected them and autonomous in their decisions. This “autonomy gap” between people and representatives allows for representatives to act according to their personal judgment and conscience. Representatives are not bound by the will of their electors but free to reach the conclusions and compromises they see fit. They enjoy Madison’s “plenipotentiary capacity.”

A second strand of political thought is closer to Gracchus. The British thinker Edmund Burke famously called this the “ambassador” idea of representation. Here the representative acts on binding instructions, resulting in a much closer connection between representative and electorate. In recent U.S. politics, Grover Norquist’s famous “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” and Tea Party aspirations provide examples for this “Gracchus model” of representation—pledges and oaths are supposed to hold members of Congress on a short leash, committing them to policy and diminishing their bargaining options.

The tension between Gracchus and Octavius—between representatives as agents with a mandate or plenipotentiary trustees—played a prominent role in the debates of the American Founding. Before the Revolution, colonial legislatures adhered to an “ambassador” conception of representation where closeness was prized. In the debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists these opposing conceptions of representation were again at stake. For the Anti-Federalists, the House of Representatives was not sufficiently alike those it represented and not sufficiently close to them—representatives were bound to be too independent from their electorate, separated by an autonomy gap.

The Federalists admitted that their conception of representation opened up such a gap. Indeed, they were adamant that representatives be insulated from the people, and they even thought the Constitution allowed for a “natural aristocracy.” For the Federalists, such insulation would only contribute to the quality of government. In Federalist 57, Madison welcomed representation by an elite. Degeneracy of this elite would be prevented by constitutional constraints such as term limits. During their term, however, representatives would enjoy the plenipotentiary capacities of Tribunes before Gracchus.

In 1788, the Federalists won, but throughout American history, Tiberius Gracchus’ view reasserted itself. It is tempting, but would indeed invite anachronism, to look at this contest of representational ideals as Madison himself did: through the lens of the history of the Roman Republic. One important reason for the Federalists’ take on constitutional representation was of course their interest in the crisis, civil wars, and collapse of that ancient Republic. This crisis was precipitated—or so the Federalists were led to believe by a prominent Roman tradition—by Gracchus’ unconstitutional deposition of Octavius.

Featured image credit: Cicero Denounces Catiline by Cesare Maccari, 1889. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Vi

    A little besides the point, while deposing Octavious was considered unconstitutional, he really was an agent of the (political) enemy and trully did not represent the people who elected him. This is basically a recall election. Clearly, if people would be involved in every vote today, the voting participation would be less than 5%, so practically, that view is not viable.

  2. Rob Howse

    Interesting. Montesquieu (whom I am working on right now) draws his concept of representation in part from the practice of Rome. This is clear even very early on in The Spirit of the Laws see e.g. Book II Chapter 2.

  3. Benjamin Straumann

    Thanks Rob. Yes, that makes perfect sense. Have a look at pp. 319-325 of my book, where I discuss Montesquieu’s views on the Roman Republic (and the extent to which they are owed to Jean Bodin).

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