The Founding Fathers built this country with the Roman Republic’s model in mind and were even more concerned about what caused its fall than how it rose to prominence. Rob Goodman, author of a new Cato the Younger biography, Rome’s Last Citizen, recently wrote an article in Politico discussing the historical comparison between the United States and the last days of the Roman Republic.
Though the former speechwriter for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) must be commended for attempting to bring classic Roman history back into modern discourse and for writing the first major biography of Cato since Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, his analysis generally missed the mark.
The modern connection between the Tea Party, Founding Fathers, and Roman republican statesmen is apt, but his idea that intransigence and opposition to D.C. politics is the cause for America’s current dysfunction is inaccurate. American dysfunction comes from the deep divide in values and the destruction of the constitutional safeguards designed by the Founders.
Goodman was mostly accurate when he said:
Tea Partiers imagine themselves as revolutionary Americans; revolutionary Americans (churning out pamphlets under names like “Publius,” “Brutus,” and “Cato”) imagined themselves as republican Romans; and those Romans measured themselves against the generations that bequeathed them an empire.
Many Americans today see our own republic in severe decline and worry that numerous damaging changes to republican institutions may become irreversible if not corrected soon. They look to the principles that made the country great in the past and use them as a guide for reform. In many ways, this is not too unlike what the Founders did when they created the republic.
The Founding Fathers believed that they were reviving the republican principles of Rome and combining them with classical liberal ideas derived from the Enlightenment. Americans at the time of the founding absorbed the stories from Plutarch and other Roman historians, modeling themselves after the ancient republic’s foremost citizens.
For instance, one of the most popular plays at the time was Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy, which depicts the great Roman senator’s patriotic suicide, which he preferred to living under the tyranny of Julius Caesar. George Washington liked the play so much he had it performed by his men at Valley Forge, and many of the famous lines from the Revolution most likely come from Addison’s work, including Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” and Nathan Hale’s final words, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
Today, Tea Party conservatives tout a heritage derived from America’s founding values and American exceptionalism, tying their principles to the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the virtues of traditional American culture. Though diverse and decentralized, the Tea Party originally arose in opposition to the big government schemes of multiple presidential administrations, with the goal of restoring Constitutional governance.
Like the Founding Fathers, Tea Party conservatives attempt to link themselves to the great and timeless principles of the past, which were grounded in a deep understanding of human nature.
This has led to a new generation of statesmen, like Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and others who have picked up the mantle of Ronald Reagan and channeled the passion of grassroots conservatives around the country to stand by sound policies and limited-government ideas.
Clearly, Goodman views these men and women as dangerous and writes, “Rome’s tragedy is that the men who saw and sold themselves as guardians of the way of the elders did more than anyone to undermine it.”
Goodman implies that the virtuous men who opposed Caesar ultimately failed to change with the times and, instead of adjusting to the new era which was not all that far outside the norm, destroyed the republic through their firm and unbending opposition to Caesar’s agenda. He also implies that the Founders had an irrational fear of tyranny, writing, “America’s founders regularly branded their opponents as would-be ‘Caesars,’ and in our time, their style of argument has blended with apocalyptic religion and taken on new life.” He admits that Julius Caesar’s policies were illegally enacted (he passed laws by bypassing the senate), but decries the “crisis politics” that those in the Roman Senate, like Cato and Cicero, precipitated.
However, his analysis is misguided in that he places blame for America’s current crisis politics, its winner-take-all zero-sum-game nature, and its constant dysfunction. It is the result of a century of progressive ideology that, as President Obama has said, was intended to “fundamentally” transform the United States of America by eroding constitutional safeguards and placing more power in the hands of the federal government.
The progressive agenda, from its early days at the turn of the twentieth century until the modern day, has been aimed at placing a new cornerstone at America’s foundation. Rejecting both the “natural law” ideas of individual rights and the carefully crafted system of federalism codified by the Constitution, progressives have radically increased state power, placed more power in the hands of the executive branch, and created the bureaucratic-administrative state that now runs rampant.
Instructive in understanding the long-term agenda of progressivism and the philosophy that Tea Party conservatives oppose so staunchly is Jay Franklin’s book 1940. Franklin was a progressive journalist in the mid-twentieth century who was, appropriately enough, trying to get President Franklin Roosevelt elected to an unprecedented third term when he wrote the book.
Franklin believed the time had come to strip away the remaining vestiges of Constitutional federalism, which had already been eroded by progressive reforms in the early twentieth century. He explained what kind of changes he and other progressives had in mind:
The internal organization of the Government should, consequently, differ from the old-time Constitutional set-up of separate and discordant powers, legislative, executive, and judicial. For if the fiat of the Progressive State is to be law in the matters to which it confines its interposition, it must be in a position to issue its orders promptly, clearly, and without doubt to its validity.
Gone would be the careful “Madisonian” checks and balances that placed limits on the power of federal, state, and local governments, as well as the checks between the branches of the federal government. Unlike previous strong executives, like Andrew Jackson or Grover Cleveland, progressives did not just want a president who would use his constitutional powers to their fullest extent to veto bad legislation or lead the nation through war, but instead would craft and implement legislation through a vast federal bureaucracy.
Congress, which Franklin called a “rubber stamp body” in 1940, would only have the power to meekly push back against the imperial executive from time to time and enter a “respectable twilight.”
Turning around the famous statement by Founding Father John Adams that our country should be a “nation of laws, not of men,” Franklin said, “America has had enough of a government by lawyers; it wants a government by men.” The slow process of legislative bickering, in progressives’ view, had to be replaced with a bureaucracy of experts, whose “scientifically” decided policies would be superior to mere politics.
We are entering an age of Caesarism, and we must fight fire with fire. Against the foreign dictators we must pit a powerful Presidential office and give the White House, through democracy, all the powers the executive needs to deal swiftly and thoroughly with the rapid shifts and changes of world affairs and domestic problems.”
To Tea Party conservatives, this mindset is dangerous and anti-republican. After two bailouts, repeated changes to Obamacare through executive fiat, and the political weaponization of the IRS, conservatives fear that the United States is becoming closer to a “Banana Republic” than a legitimate one.
In the final days of the Roman republic, Cicero made a statement that would undoubtedly resonate with Tea Partiers, quoted in Anthony Everitt’s book, The Rise of Rome:
The Republic, when it was handed down to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colors were already fading with age. Our own time has not only neglected to freshen it by renewing its original colors, but has not even gone to the trouble of preserving its design and portrayal of figures.
Rome had a few great men in its last days as a republic but no movement to back them. In this regard, modern conservatives have an advantage. The Tea Party should take to heart Cicero’s lament that the republic was dying because few attempted to freshen its original principles. Instead of simply upping the brinksmanship in D.C. or, worse, caving to the demands of progressives, the Tea Party must work on structural reforms to return the country to the system of federalism that the Founders envisioned.
Conservative radio host Mark Levin’s “Liberty Amendments,” explained in his book The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic, were a good start and have popularized the idea of more permanent and unshakable reforms. Other plans such as the “Compact for America,” crafted by Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute, would help return balance to American government by returning some powers to the states and pushing the federal government to balance its budget.
The lesson that should be learned from Cato, Cicero, and the great men of the Roman Republic is not that Americans should lie down and let the republic fade but that they should continue to build a popular movement to restore its values, based on the principles of our founders.