On Constitution Day, we celebrate the signing of our Constitution and we also reflect on and celebrate the system of government that the Constitution created. The Americans who set up this system of government were very conscious of their place in history, desiring to set up a system that could provide for both order and liberty in the new American nation. Trying to convince New Yorkers to approve the new Constitution, James Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 39 that it was necessary for the Constitution to set up a republican form of government. “It is evident,” he wrote, “that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination that animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” In other words, the Constitution had to reflect the principles that Americans had fought for against Great Britain not many years before the Constitutional Convention.
The men who framed the Constitution are, of course, a crucial part of our national history and certainly believed that the system of government that they set forth was part of a great experiment in whether people could govern themselves. But if we look to them as key players in our own history, where did they turn for their own historical examples? Thomas Jefferson believed that future American students must study British history and American history, but he also believed that ancient history had much to teach Americans. “History,” Jefferson said, “by apprising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.” For the founders of our nation, the study of history had great importance, and it is on ancient history that I want to focus in these few minutes.
Historian Carl Richard, in The Founders and the Classics, details the influence of the writings of Greek and Roman historians that told of the ancient Greek city-states such as Athens and Sparta, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. Indeed, many of the founding fathers had read the works of Plutarch, Thucydides, Tacitus, and other ancient historians as they learned Greek and Latin before going to college. Richard illuminates many of lessons that the founders learned from reading ancient authors, and three of these lessons seemed particularly applicable for Constitution Day.
First, American patriots in the early part of our country’s history believed that liberty was always in danger, that people could easily lose their freedoms. They saw this in the examples of Greece and Rome, as they read about tyrants who manipulated the people for their own benefits rather than for the benefit of their respective countries. They saw Julius Caesar, for example, as a destroyer of the Roman Republic, a society without a king that had been governed virtuously by the nobles and the commoners of Rome before it was turned into the tyrannical Roman Empire. On the other hand, the founders sought to identify with those who had taken the side of liberty rather than tyranny. George Washington both consciously imitated and was praised for his similarity to Cincinnatus, the legendary Roman who was offered great power in a state of emergency, saved Rome, and then gladly gave up that power when the danger had passed, as Washington had at the end of the Revolution. Or take the authors of the Federalist Papers, who signed each section “Publius,” one of the founders of the Roman Republic after he had helped to remove the king.
The founders also believed that unity between the states was important. When they drafted the Constitution, the 13 states were only loosely united. The framers of the Constitution believed that “a more perfect Union” was necessary for, as they put it, “the common defence” and the overall strength and health of the nation. They often looked to the ancient Greeks who had fought each other rather than uniting, and earnestly hoped that the states who had recently fought Great Britain would not fight each other.
Finally, the framers believed in the idea of “mixed government.” Now, we’ve all felt that the government mixes things up from time to time, but mixed government is something different. The framers looked at ancient Rome and Sparta, among others, as examples of governments that had not just a king or a direct democracy, but rather balanced the perspectives of both the privileged and the common people. They believed that by creating a presidency chosen by electors and a Senate chosen by state legislatures they could provide the proper balance to a House of Representatives that was very much the representative of the people as a whole. For the framers, the stability and balancing of different groups’ interests that was present in Rome was far superior to the direct and unpredictable democracy in Athens.
As we remember our own history on Constitution Day, we can see that the framers also saw history as important and tried to learn from it. The Constitution gives us the protections to freely discuss and debate the great questions of the day. And so we may ask ourselves, how can we learn from history to preserve the great principles of liberty and justice that our system of government is based on? And how can we understand where our nation, including even our founders, have failed in those areas in order that we can more fully live up to our lofty goals?