The American Founders as Neo-Romans

In the United States, founding-era republicanism has often been described by historians as something of a whimsical experiment, wherein those who imparting the American political systems drew no inspiration from historical happenstance. This view, I believe, does not properly account for the visible impact of Roman history on early American republicanism.

Generally speaking, the American founders were highly influenced by the events and figures of the late Roman Republic. Without a doubt, they showed particular reverence toward figures who directly challenged Roman oppressors and defended the republic to its bitter end. Cato the Younger, for instance, held a special place in patriot hearts. Washington had Joseph Addison’s famous rendition of his life performed for troops at Valley Forge, and Georgia Clinton adopted his namesake in a series of letters opposing the Constitution. Murdered for his opposition to those who sought to undermine the republic, he was truly considered as a martyr of the republican virtue, and the mere mention of his name stood as a symbol of liberty.

Conversely, the existence of many founding principles can only be understood as a response to the devious deeds of Julius Caesar. Controlling a strong army of loyalists, Caesar used his popularity with his army and Roman plebeians to execute an unprecedented maneuver. Crossing the Rubicon River, he led his army into the heart of Italy, hoping to seize political power. He uttered the Latin phrase, “alea iacta est” – which translated to the famous admission that “the die is cast.” In the Roman Republic, military forces were strictly under the subordination of the civil authority. This duplicitous act was punishable by death in the Roman system, and made Caesar an outlaw and traitor. This was because his exploit violated the tenets of imperium, which disallowed military commanders from bringing forces into Rome.

Even after being ordered by the Senate to disband his army and return to Rome without any forces, Caesar ignited a civil war through his march on Rome. After tracking down and eliminating all political adversaries, his campaign of intimidation eventually led to the appointment of dictator for life. Despite the Senate’s gesture, his power was secured only through force.

Clearly influenced by Caesar’s schemes, the American founders took deliberate strides to prevent a new Caesar from emerging within the new American states. Many of the original state constitutions contained explicit verbiage which expressed the subordinate position of the militia forces in relation to the civil administrations of the states. In the United States Constitution, expenditures to support military forces were limited by two years, and the writers of the Constitution intended for the military to be disbanded in times of peace. Furthermore, only Congress had the ability to direct and to declare war, and military commanders possessed no independent political power.

Cicero, who had the courage to oppose both Caesar and Mark Antony, was also regularly hailed as a heroic figure by the American founders. His legendary oratory, which ridiculed the oppressive consolidation of political power, made him the primary enemy of both men. His continual resistance to tyranny led to his execution, and his severed hands and head were publicly displayed in the Roman Forum. An account by the Roman historian Cassius Dio also alleged that Mark Antony’s wife cut out his tongue and jabbed it with a hairpin in disdain toward his persuasive speaking ability. Like Cato, he too had been a republican martyr.

Truly, the maxim of free speech affirmed by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights speaks to the importance of the liberty to criticize one’s government. Instead of allowing fatal violence between political rivals to settle political conflicts, the presence of republican checks and balances and the distribution of political power between federal branches and the state governments aimed to prevent the mass accumulation of authority by singular strongmen.

Furthermore, pamphlets and essays written by founding-era politicians contained various pseudonyms of Roman figures that the authors believed represented their views. Publius, the pseudonym adopted by Alexander Hamilton for The Federalist essays, was a founder of the Roman Republic. Brutus, the name adopted by an opponent of the Constitution in New York, was a one-time friend of Caesar who aided in his assassination. Cincinnatus, a famous Roman figure who once walked away from power when it was offered to him, inspired a series of founding-era tracts as well.

All of these factors highlight the extent to which ancient Rome had inspired American republicanism. Rather than antiquated remnants of the past, the founders viewed the historical circumstances of those times as important harbingers of future events. “I know of no way of judging the future but by the past,” Patrick Henry famously professed. Knowing that history’s mistakes would inevitably rematerialize without a candid effort to suppress them, the founders sought to avoid the woes of Roman usurpations.