The Fourth of July and Ancient Greece and Rome

One of my personal traditions for the 4th of July is watching 1776.  For those who are unfamiliar with this movie, it is based on the 1970s musical of the same name and starts the recently deceased Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson.  In part because of the era when this musical was written, it takes a more open-eyed view of the events of the Spring of 1776 leading up to the Declaration of Independence — including the flaws of the founding fathers, the difficulty in getting the resolution on independence passed, and how slavery almost prevented independence.

Aside from its willingness to confront the history mostly head on — it acknowledges the existence of a faction in the Continental Congress that was more interested in compromise than independence but glosses over the large loyalist contingent in the country as a whole — another interesting thing about the musical numbers is that the last musical number — sung by John Adams — includes some allusions to the Roman Republic.  At the time of the framing, Rome and Athens were seen as models of ancient democracies and what could go wrong with them.  This admiration can be seen in Washington identifying himself with Cincinnatus — an early Roman statesman who was called to serve Rome in a time of crisis — receiving emergency powers — who resigned to return to civilian life when the crisis had passed and the three authors of The Federalist Papers using the pseudonym Publius.  Putting aside the fact that, in reality, both Rome and Athens were much less democratic than the United Kingdom, a major interest of the framers (discussed at length in their writings) was why Athenian democracy and Roman democracy ultimately fell and what that meant for the new country that they were building.   In both cases, the problem was that the small country became an empire.

In the case of Athens, Athens sought to use its preeminent position after the Persian Wars for its own benefit at the expense of its supposed allies (who quickly became client states) and its neighbors.  The result of this “Athens First” policy was to encourage revolts in the subject states and an anti-Athens alliance among its neighbors leading to constant warfare until another regional power crushed all of the Greek city-states.  In the end, putting Athens First did not make Athens Great Again.

In the case of Rome, the problem was more internal than external.   To combat its external foes, the Roman military grew.  And the best way to keep those soldiers well paid was by waging war on and defeating other regional powers.  As a substantial part of the income of soldiers came from looting defeated enemies, soldiers began to identify their interests with their successful commanders rather than the elected leaders of the country.  Eventually, power shifted to the generals who were able to dictate the allocation of offices.     In the end, the failure of the civilian power to keep the military under civilian control led to the military controlling the civilian power.

The Framers understood that American greatness was not guaranteed.  They understood that the same problems that led to the downfall of democracy in other countries could also happen here.  They understood that the continued success of democracy in their new countries would require vigilant devotion to the ideals of democracy combined with a structure that would place barriers in the place of a would-be dictator who would use the misguided passions of the moment to crush domestic opposition.

Since the time of the framers, this country has survived multiple threats to democracy.  While some of those threats have been foreign, a significant number of have been internal demagogues who were willing to trade a lot of liberty for imaginary security.  In other cases, the threat has been internal debates in which the passions of the moment led to divisions which temporarily appeared to be irreconcilable and voters forgetting that we are all in this together  In all of these moments, the better angels of our nature emerged in time to save us from permanent damage to our democratic enterprise.   While there is no guarantee that we will always be able to turn away from the brink in time, it is important to remember those foundational principles and the fears of the framers and work to assure that the self-created problems of today will also pass.

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3 thoughts on “The Fourth of July and Ancient Greece and Rome

  1. Anthony Uplandpoet Watkins

    I would like to make a couple suggestions. I would offer to do it myself, as I am a big believer in volunteering to fill the need one perceives, but I do not know how.

    It seems to me like it might be useful to have a weekly, or more often piece on the status of various congressional and senate races, and the ongoing effects that the Trump administration is having, as well as a good link to how people could get involved either in their own local races, and/or in races that appear to becoming more competitive. It could be this is too complicated and time consuming for an all volunteer staff, I dont know, but i do think i would find it helpful, and others might, too. Demconwatch is always a great resource, but often it seems like it can be a long time between posts. I dont advocate filling with fluff, but one or two pieces per week might be helpful in maintaining both traffic and effectiveness.

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