The influence of ancient democracy on the framers of the American Constitution is an old topic that receives much lip service. We all learn about it in school, even if we're fuzzy on the details. In the past, I've usually imagined this as a vague absorption of classical political theory: a sense of what Athenian democracy looked like, how the Roman Senate worked, what Plato and Cicero thought about republics—all of which was pieced together with that newfangled liberal theory stuff into a blueprint for a democracy.
It's entirely possible that I'm just an idiot and missed an obvious point during my education. But while reading about the end of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of the Empire this term, it's become clear to me that my notion of how the authors of the Constitution were influenced by classical democracy was completely off-kilter. I was focusing on all the subtle, geistlich, hand-wavy stuff. That misses the point.
Sure, the late-eighteenth-century minds who founded the country were all trained at the height of classical education, and they wove all kinds of influences and thinkers into their work. And I'm sure that the lofty philosophizations of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine mattered at various points in the writing process.
But focusing on that ignores antiquity's most palpable influence on the American Constitution, which is this: the writers of the Constitution were obsessed with the end of Roman democracy, and how to prevent it. Having liberated themselves from one monarch, nothing disturbed them more than the thought that democracy might naturally revert to monarchy. And once you study a little first-century B.C. Roman history, the Constitution starts looking more and more like a handbook on What the Romans Should Have Done.
Key structural principles of American government—features that are so central that they seem boring—read, in historical perspective, like direct responses to the steps that led to the end of the Republic. And many of those are built to ensure that no single person can amass powers in the way that Julius Caesar, or his heir Octavian (who is frequently said to be the first "emperor"), did.
- Civilian control of the military (Art. 1, Sec. 8; 2.1). Caesar and Octavian were able to rise to power on strong military backing, in part because their armies were loyal to them personally rather than to the state at large. Strictly speaking, no one was supposed to enter Roman Italy while in command of an army, but Caesar flatly ignored this. (The Rubicon River was the northern border of Roman Italy; this is, of course, the source of the idiom "crossing the Rubicon.") A monopoly of force allowed them to bend all the other rules.
- War powers (1.8). Only Congress can declare war. (Though obviously this has been weakened over time.) Madison in particular was worried about separating war powers from the Presidency on account of Roman precedent, saying at the 1787 Convention, "The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended."
- Ban on serving in both the legislature and executive (1.6). The Roman Senate worked very differently from our own; senators were appointed rather than elected. Caesar was a senator, as was Octavian. Octavian later used this office as the titular basis of all his other powers: the Latin title he held was princeps, which ultimately became the equivalent of "Emperor," but actually meant "first member of the Senate"—a prestige title not dissimilar from being president pro tempore. Article 1.6 makes sure that you can't be president and senator or Speaker of the House at the same time—that would be too much power. (It's also an instance of the separation of powers—a principle influenced strongly by the Roman historian Polybius by way of Montesquieu.)
- No titles (1.9). In part, the Constitutional Convention wanted to prevent the rise of a British-style, hereditary, landed aristocracy in America. But they also wanted to avoid a situation where a leader could be called "Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus," ("Commander Caesar the August, Son of the Deified One") as the Senate styled Octavian. (And Octavian actually turned down even more titles in a bid to look modest.)
- No dictatorship. The Roman Constitution allowed for the appointment of a temporary dictator in extreme emergencies. These dictators had the power to do more or less anything in order to secure the health of the state (rei publicae constituendae). Julius Caesar held this office; Octavian turned it down, even though it was offered to him; decades before Caesar, Sulla held the dictatorship, pointing out some of its design flaws and potential for overreach while in office. Even in emergencies, the idea of practical autocracy was too much for the framers to contemplate, so we have no office equivalent to emergency dictator.
- The Establishment Clause: separation of church and state. Obviously, there were a lot of non-Roman factors involved here: a long-standing culture of religious toleration, intellectual work done by major figures of the Enlightenment, etc. But less commonly noted is that fact that one means that Caesar and Octavian used to consolidate their influence on Roman society was the holding of multiple priestly offices: both became, at some point, pontifex maximus, highest priest, and Octavian held a half-dozen lesser offices and orders, as well. Doubtful though it must have seemed to any of the rationalists at the table during the Convention that a cult of emperor worship might ever arise in America, it seems at least plausible to me that they didn't want a state-recognized religion for this reason.
- No bills of attainder or ex post facto crimes (1.9); due process. The dictator Sulla and the triumvirs (including Augustus) enacted proscriptions in order to "settle" the state: declarations of lists of public enemies marked for immediate execution without trial. Not only were they immediately declared non-citizens (and therefore not entitled to the protections of citizens), but they were also stripped of their property. Sulla used this, at least in part, as a way of replenishing the Roman Treasury. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments make sure that this can't happen: no person shall be deprived of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." But this could cut both ways. Cicero (among others) was exiled by ex post facto legislation meant to target him for having executed conspirators without trial—another possibility the founders tried to rule out.
- A written constitution, difficult to amend. Lastly, many of the constitutional problems of the late Republic arose from the fact that Roman law was not coherently codified into a single text. (Caesar wanted to change that, but was murdered before he could.) Consequently, its principles were often unclear, and it was easy to bend various inconvenient "rules." A written constitution helps avoid this problem by stating principles clearly. And the relative difficulty of amending the Constitution—which has only become harder as the Union has expanded and modern polities have become more fractious—was at least in part a defense against the threat that an Octavian-like figure might come along and use force, wealth, and charisma to charm others into weakening that constitution for his own gain.
It also touches on a number of deeper issues I'm interested in about the question of whether we still believe that historical comparisons can serve as the basis of legitimate knowledge (the "epistemic status of historical knowledge," if you prefer)—but maybe that's for another day. I also think it helps clarify why certain seemingly inconspicuous principles and rights are very important when seen against the background of history: what's at stake isn't even individual welfare as much as the survival of democracy itself—and with it, perhaps, civilization as we know it. But I don't want to overstate the case... and grand arguments about the fate of civilization are a little too much for this blog to handle, at least today.