“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
(By Bill Moloney; Hilton Head, SC) As the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia drew to a close in the summer of 1787, the 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin was approached by a woman who asked, “What have you given us, Doctor?” Franklin famously replied “A Republic, Madame- if you can keep it.”
As the American Republic was being born, Franklin and his colleagues were very aware that the long declining and decadent Venetian Republic was in its death throes. In just 10 years its extraordinary thousand-year existence would be casually snuffed out by a 28-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte- the same man who would end the short violent life of France’s First Republic just a few years later.
The model republic that most compelled the Founding Fathers however was that of Rome. Nearly all had read Edward Gibbon’s massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, particularly the early volumes, which described in great detail the dramatic collapse of the Roman Republic which had endured for nearly five centuries.
In 1978 historian Barbara Tuchman published A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Concerned by the destructive impact on American society of Viet Nam, Watergate, and severe economic dislocation seen in the context of the 20th Century’s horrific carnage- two World Wars, the Holocaust, murderous totalitarian ideologies- she sought to illuminate one of the darkest centuries in Western history as a cautionary tale for her own era.
Just as Tuchman saw the troubles of her own time as a serious threat to the continued viability of the American Republic, so too might we view the severe cultural and political upheavals of our own day. In seeking perspective on our current afflictions we can perhaps usefully focus on an even more “Distant Mirror”: The first Century B.C., which was the last century of the great Roman Republic.
To revisit this tumultuous period I would recommend two brilliant biographies by distinguished British historians: Anthony Everitt’s Cicero (2001) and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar (2006).
Looking back across 2000 years these two men are arguably the best remembered and most highly regarded figures in the history of the Roman Republic. Born just six years apart and brutally murdered within a year of each other the two were alternately enemies and allies but always center stage in the Republic’s final tragedy.
Cicero has commanded posterity’s attention through the power of his words- Senate orations, captivating letters and numerous philosophical treatises that are unsurpassed in Latin Literature. Caesar remains a towering historical colossus through the power of his deeds- an awesome combination of military and political genius equaled only by Napoleon.
When you immerse yourself in the politics, personalities, and problems of the Roman Republic’s last century it is impossible not to be stunned by the similarities to our own time- growing government corruption, rampant bribery, voter fraud, rigged elections, destructive class warfare, runaway entitlement programs, crony capitalism, arrogant elites, disregard for the law, abuse of the courts, and frequent public disorders.
When problems were just political Rome’s sophisticated institutions allowed for compromise but when politics became infused with cultural antipathies and class hatred the conflicts became irreconcilable. Just as the poison of slavery drove America’s long simmering regional conflict toward disunion and ultimately Civil War, so too did Rome stumble down the road to protracted Civil War and finally to the heretofore unimaginable dissolution of the Republic.
In the final brutal years of dissolution all participants claimed to be “saving the Republic”; all opponents were “tyrants”; any lost election was “stolen”; worthwhile victories had to be total and permanent not just until the next election, and evil deeds were routinely excused as necessary to defeat a dangerous enemy. All claimed that normalcy and the health of the Republic would be restored just as soon as their enemies were destroyed and excluded from public life.
Perhaps the best description of this baleful panorama was written sixteen centuries later:
“Blood and destruction shall be so in use, and dreadful objects so familiar”.
-Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, scene 1
Like humans, Republics are not immortal. Perhaps this Roman Tragedy has no meaning for us, but surely Franklin, Santayana, and Tuchman would urge us to look honestly into these “Distant Mirrors” and weigh our attitudes and our actions accordingly.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events