When Benjamin Franklin departed the Constitutional Convention at the close of its final session on September 17, 1787, he was approached by a prominent Philadelphia socialite and friend of George Washington and John Adams named Elizabeth Powel, who asked him, “What have you given us, Dr. Franklin, a monarchy or a republic?” He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
We currently find ourselves at a critical inflexion point in the history of our Republic, where the choice is between the republican ideals of American exceptionalism and an authoritarian polity like fascism or tyranny. In this context, the term "republican" refers not to the Republican party but rather to the political and cultural ideology that binds a people or nation (over many generations) to a republican form of government, just as siblings are bound to their parents. I will examine the "republican idea" and consider how the abandonment of that ideal inexorably led to the collapse of the Roman Republic, and what implications it may have for our own democratic-republican polity.
Current Attacks on American Republicanism
American exceptionalism has traditionally been based upon the primacy of God-given individual rights; the rule of the law based on consent of the governed (republicanism); a written constitution; equality under the law; individual responsibility; representative democracy; and laissez-faire economics. American exceptionalism is thus a charter and example for America and for other nations as well.
However, ever since Obama's 2009 inauguration, the political-cultural war against this excemptionalism has become increasingly one-sided. Goliath is the authoritarian neo-Marxist coalition of Islamists, transgender activists, climate fanatics, anti-Semites, corporate crony socialists, "friends of China," the Deep State, Antifa fascists, BLM racists, financial and political opportunists, and "progressive media" groupies who have seized the commanding heights of American political culture: (social) media, academia, entertainment, and the Deep State.
On the other side has been the "righteous remnant" (a biblical term) who, like David, were willing to take the field against Goliath. These happy few are the believers in and defenders of American exceptionalism, such as the Tea Party, conservative and patriotic media, and their supporters in Christian and Jewish groups. Trump's support in 2016 and 2020 showed that this righteous remnant was not small but was in fact the majority, and they are realizing that you can only win a war if you fight it. It is because of this that the nature of the struggle in our current political-cultural war is at long last changing, as the authoritarian neo-Marxists are, for the first time, facing a patriotic citizenry aroused to defend American exceptionalism.
In this war, there has for a long time been no shortage of bad news, but recently good news is emerging as patriots and ordinary Americans are winning early skirmishes against the authoritarians and mounting protests against the LGBT onslaught against boys and families. There has also be widespread, organic, parental counterattacks against Critical Race theory’s priciples being taught in schools, a pushback against woke harrassment, and outrage over the now-verified evidence of systemic election fraud.
Imagine that 225 years later Benjamin Franklin again posed his question- can we preserve the culture and form of our republican government? Keep in mind John Barnhill's truism: "When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty."
Lessons from our Classical Roots
In the modern Anglo-American conception of a republic, sovereignty rests with the people. The state is to be ruled by citizen-representatives and there is no hereditary principle. From the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, we know that this modern formulation is close to the Founders' understanding of the republic they were trying to create out of a loose confederation of the original 13 colonial states. The Founders were steeped in classical history and political theory, especially that of the Roman Republic and Athenian democracy. This is why a review of how Roman republican political culture withered away from 133-44 BCE, can increase our understanding of how a similar collapse in our political culture began in 1965 and has lasted to the present.
The Roman Republic was admired for its durability and stability, and it allowed Rome to extend its power and influence worldwide. Other forms of government (oligarchy, monarchy, despotism, tyranny) have inevitably and consistently failed because their political base was too narrow. Without the consent and support of the governed, these inflexible polities could not sustain a long fight against foreign enemies; and in the absence of agreed rules of governance, anarchy and incessant civil war became the norm.
Founded in 509 BC after overturning a monarchy, the Roman Republic fought many defensive and aggressive wars in its first 400 years. Even after major defeats, such as to the Gauls in 387 BC and Carthaginians in 216 BC, the Republic nevertheless displayed extraordinary resilience and always managed to bounce back from defeat, however catastrophic. Likewise, America was founded and then survived in the white hot forge of war against the great powers of the world: French & Indian War; Revolutionary War; War of 1812; Civil War; WWI; WWII.
The domestic history of the Roman Republic was, if anything, even more desperately turbulent than the foreign wars. The Conflict of the Orders (500-287 BC) saw unceasing social and political conflict between the patricians (Senatorial oligarchic elites) and the more numerous plebeians (the people), with the latter finally achieving political equality during the 3rd century BC. In the 2nd century BC, several social reformers (Populares) tried to pass agrarian laws, which eventually caused the agreement between the two sides to irreparably break down during the tribuneships of the Gracchi brothers.
For 400 years until 133 BC, there had been an implicit compact between the contending parties (patricians vs. plebs) that political contests would be settled under the rule of law. It was this commitment and attachment to the "republican idea" that has distinguished Roman and American political culture from any other before or since.
Surprisingly, the essence of the "republican idea" in these two political cultures, which accounted for their unparalleled successes, is not the positive written law (statutory and constitutional), which developed over centuries. Important as that was, what was and is more paramount in a successful republic is devotion and adherence to this principle: thou shalt not cross certain red-line limits on political-legal activity. Power is to be transferred by honest elections.
A political party may vigorously fight for political power in accord with the rule of law, with all parties involved implicitly agreeing not to use violence or fraud to seize and hold power. With the exception of our Civil War in our own history and with no exception in the early Roman Republic, contending political parties generally were faithful to this republican idea. What frayed and then ripped asunder the Roman political compact was distrust between the parties that grew into political paranoia in the period immediately before and during 133-121 BC in Rome and from 1965 till today in the U.S.
Are We Losing Our Republic?
Aristotle had his students study the constitutions of 170 Greek city-states, based on his own model analysis of the Athenian constitution. He concluded that "republics tend to decline into democracies, and democracies to degenerate into despotisms." In History of the Peloponnesian War Thucydides shows that in democracy the rule of demagogues is to be expected before the collapse into tyranny.
As terrible as the absolute power of a despotism is, the very worst form of government is tyranny, where the ruler(s) not only has absolute power, but there is no law at all. The tyrant often comes to power with the support of the many vs. the few in a law-less democracy. Our Republic is now on the brink of whether we can keep it or not.
Photo Credit- HindustanTimes.com