Since Lu and the Six and in transit, I figure this is as good a time as any to continue the conversation on the Greek influences on the American Constitution. Part, er, 3? Yeah, lets go with three. Enjoy.
From Plato and Aristotle, to Polybius, to Montesquieu and finally to the Founding Fathers, the idea of the separation of powers was well seated in the annals of history. Plato and Aristotle both argued for mixed government, though in different forms. Plato came from the school of Socrates, a man who had been a dedicated hoplite in war, yet had chosen to live outside politics. Socrates is the foundation for Plato and Aristotle and their idea that the best ruler was the best educated, or the most intelligent.
Plato took the teachings of Socrates and developed his own vision of the perfect government. Plato believed in a caste system, where the children of the people were raised by the state. Once an individuals talents were assessed they would be assigned to a particular role in the society. Those that proved to be brave and strong would be trusted as guardians of the state, the intelligent should be educated to rule, and the average man and woman would be the workers to provide for the warrior and the rulers. Aristotle was the student of Plato, and on one hand he agreed with Plato and Socrates that the best ruler was a man best educated; however, he maintained a more Athenian view of government, as he believed that the Athenian tradition of democracy must be maintained.
As the Founders looked for rhetoric and example of a democracy that safeguarded liberty, they often looked to the Frenchman, Montesquieu. Montesquieu was well versed in the Greek traditions of Plato and Aristotle, and followed their reasoning on a mixed form of government; however, Montesquieu believed in the three part government proposed by the Greek historian Polybius. Indeed many of the ideas the Founders used from Montesquieu’s writings were based in Greek history, and the Founders were well aware of the Greek basis for his work. Eric Nelson notes that “Montesquieu does not draw… from ‘ancient sources’ in general, but rather from almost exclusively Greek sources,” and that “John Adams observed as much when he characterized Montesquieu’s republican ideas as ‘imaginations of his own, derived from the contemplation of the reveries of Xenophon and Plato’.”#
The ancient had not always gotten their republics right; that is, often the ancient republics fell to tyranny and the founders wanted to know why, so they could attempt to keep the same from happening to their republic. “Uncovering the cancers which had killed the republics was the principle obsession of the founders’ leading coroners.”# A Greek example often used during the constitutional debates was the Lycian League, and was the ancient example that James Madison believed the American constitution most emulated.
In the Federalist Paper #45, he states that “In the Achaean league it is probable that the federal head had a degree and species of power, which gave it a considerable likeness to the government framed by the convention. The Lycian Confederacy, as far as its principles and form are transmitted, must have borne a still greater analogy to it.”# The issues that Madison sees from these two examples are that they never consolidated under a central government, which he believed led to their ruin, and that the external pressures faced by these confederations was greater then what the American states would face. For Madison this was an important consideration for the creation of a strong central government. He stated that “these cases are the more worthy of our attention, and the external causes by which the component parts were pressed together were much more numerous and powerful then in our case; and consequently less powerful ligaments within would be sufficient to bind the members to the head, and to each other.”# Madison is convinced by the example of the Achaean and Lycian confederacies that either the colonies voluntarily bound themselves to each other under a strong central government, or the confederation would not last.
The idea of a strong central government was paramount to Madison, who wrote at great length about the defense of the weak from the strong, and how to maintain union that did not dissolve into rivalry. He mentions a few example from his historical studies, and from the Greeks he specifically highlights the problems that the “contentions, not the Coalitions of Sparta, Athens & Thebes, proved fatal to the smaller member of the Amphyctionic Confederacy.”# In his quest to unite the States of America he is looking to the evidence of the past, to the lessons taught by the experiences of the Greeks, as passed down by Plutarch, in his considerations on how to proceed in America. “What was the condition of the weaker members of the Amphyctionic Confederacy. Plutarch [life of Themistocles] will inform us that it happened but too often that the strongest cities corrupted & awed the weaker, and that Judgment went in favor of the more powerful party.”# The Amphyctionic example, and the Achaean and Lycian confederacy examples, added up in Madison’s mind as proof of the necessity of a strong central government for the American confederacy. As Madison believed these stories were not just examples, but were a place to start in the decision making process, they became his ground work for the Constitution.
Both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists of the constitutional era used the ancient tales of democracy to prove their decidedly opposite views on what was a heated topic. Interestingly, as both sides agreed on the dangers of pure democracy, the argument was over how best to control the tyranny of the demos while maintaining a free society. The Federalists felt that a strong federal government would defend the peoples interests, creating wealth through government programs. The Republicans, on the other hand, viewed this strong central government as a threat to individual liberty. Hamilton, in the Federalist Paper #10, makes the case that in a pure democracy, “…there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.” Hamilton’s studies of the ancient democracies led him to believe that, in a pure democracy, the majority had no reason to protect the rights of the minority. “Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”# A governmental system where the rights of the minority were not guarded, therefore, would lead to mob rule and tyranny.
For Hamilton, after his study of the ancient democracies and historians, the idea of a pure democracy equated to mob rule. In these pure democracies the majority are able to abuse the liberties of the weak. He makes this case several times throughout his career, and each time he contends that to avoid the fate of the ancient states, the Americans had to avoid democracy in favor of the republic. The argument in favor of a republic didn’t settle well with all, however, and the essays that make up the Anti-Federalist papers countered the arguments of Hamilton.