America & Rome
February 1, 2014 37 Comments
The United States of America was the world’s earliest real democracy. For all the classical myths about Athenian democracy, the vote was possessed by a small fraction of the people who live there; in the USA that was not so. The blot there, as with Athens, was that there was a system of slavery, where slaves got no votes, but as the 1860s showed decisively, slavery could not long co-exist with democracy
No one wandering around Washington DC can miss the references back to the one successful example of a Republic in the ancient world – Rome. The parallels are striking. Like the Roman Republic, America was a state where the citizens served under arms when needed, and where men of quality served the State as part of what a good citizen did, before going back to cultivate their estates; Washington, Jefferson and Adams would have been at home on ancient Rome. These were men for whom the concept of the ‘res-publica’ – that is the public good, was a reality; it was something they were willing to put before their own personal interests. They had a concept of proportion and restraint; they built for the longer term, not the shorter, able to do so because of the unique genius of the American Constitution.
America is not an unmediated democracy; it is a constitutional one, built on the notion of checks and balances; the founders of the Republic learnt from the British experience. They had their own version of a king, but this king was elected, and his powers were checked and balanced by a bi-cameral legislature. Back then the Senate was not directly elected, it was a model of the House of Lords which worked, where, again, men of quality (who would not have stood for election) could be selected by their State to serve; the purely popular part of the constitution, the House, was subject to short terms so that its members could not long ignore the interests of their constituents. This was, and remains, even with an elected Senate, a very clever system.
For all the attention paid to President’s Obama’s words about acting where he could on his own initiative, he knows, as do those critics using the words for partisan purposes, that there is actually very little he can do. He certainly knows it, and the words are more a tribute to the effectiveness of the work of some dead white men than he may realise (although being half-white himself, he might want to pat himself on the back for the work of his mother’s ancestors).
The Founders knew all about Kings and their ambitions – such men were part of their history as British subjects. They knew, before Lord Acton enunciated the dictum, that power tended to corrupt, and that absolute power tended to do so absolutely; they did their best to ensure that no King George, no King John and no Henry VIII would emerge on the shores of the Republic. This has often been a source of grief to Presidents: from Woodrow Wilson, through FDR, Nixon and Obama, inhabitants of the White House have grumbled. The answer to this is ‘good, that means the constitution is working’.
The ‘imperial presidency’ model that has been in fashion since FDR has brought with it the risks which imperial ambitions did to the Roman Republic. States with a large military need a lot of tax revenue; they are also apt to plead the necessities of war as excuses for suspending normal democratic procedures.From Vietnam through the revelations of Edward Snowden, two things are clear: that this temptation has been given in to by many Presidents; and that built into the American DNA is the refusal to let this happen without protest.
I see the arguments against what Snowden did and think him foolish in the extreme in the way he wet about doing what he did; but I think he was right to protest, and that had he shown more faith in the justice system of his own country, he would have been more effective, and right. Democracy is not owned by either of the American political parties, although they both act, at times, as though that were the case. It is the common property of the people of the Republic. In the end, it is best to acknowledge that no Party has a monopoly on wisdom, and that compromise is of the essence of democracy. And for those who forget that, there is the Constitution to remind them of it. No President, and no party, can govern without the consent of all Americans, and that consent is mediated through the messiness of Congress.
However frustrating that might be at times, it is something in which all Americans should glory, and of which they should be rightly proud. The Founding Fathers built well, and built for all time. In this, Rome and America were not alike – thank God.