In a letter to Henry Lee written in 1825, Thomas Jefferson counseled that the Declaration of Independence’s authority rested “on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, Etc.” George Washington had the play Cato performed before his troops at Valley Forge, presumably because he believed that ancient examples would inspire them. In what sense was America an experiment in self-government, and in what sense was it a continuation of the Roman or Athenian experiment in popular government? The American Founders relied on the Western tradition for their understanding of virtue, but they learned from the failures of the ancient regimes and sought to correct those failures when framing the Constitution.
The ancient constitutions presupposed a high degree of virtue, and ancient regimes would often stifle freedom in order to ensure that citizens cultivate virtue; the American Constitution, prioritizing liberty and individual rights, embraced a more sober understanding of human nature.
Plato’s Republic is considered his most comprehensive account of government, yet the imaginary republic constructed by Socrates stifled liberty to ensure order and harmony. The American founders rejected much of Plato’s thought because The Republic paints liberty as inconsistent with order and political unity. For example, in 1814 John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson,
“I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. while wading thro’ the whimsies, the puerilities, & unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this?”
In addition to stifling liberty, The Republic relies on one-man rule and proposes that a philosopher king should be vested with power; the founders found this suggestion unpalatable because they believed that one-man rule could quickly lead to abuses of power. One of The Republic’s central allegories is the image of the “ship of state.” In Book 6, Socrates argues that the “true pilot” of the ship will be overlooked by the multitude, and he will be called a “star-gazer” or a “good for nothing.” Nevertheless, Socrates argues that such a man deserves to rule because a good captain must “pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art.” In Federalist 10, Publius rejects Plato’s prescription of an “enlightened statesman” to steer the ship of state. He writes,
“Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.”
Not only did Publius believe that an enlightened statesman would likely be rejected, but he also believed that it would be unlikely that the statesman could “take into view indirect and remote considerations.” Whereas Plato believed that a high degree of knowledge was necessary for rule– however unlikely that knowledge may be– the founders believed that it was unlikely that rulers, even if enlightened, could properly consider and weigh all “indirect and remote considerations” having to do with politics in a popular regime. Additionally, the framers did not believe that enlightenment made men less self-interested; rather, they believed that even an enlightened statesman may have passions and interests that would tie him to a particular faction and corrupt his judgment.
If the framers did not follow Plato’s political prescriptions, did they also reject Aristotle? In The Politics, Aristotle identified six different kinds of regimes: monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, polity, and democracy. He argued that what defines a regime as correct or deviant is whether the ruler rules for his own good, or the public good. He suggested a “mixed regime.” The mixture, he suggested, was an aristocratic republic. In Book 5, Aristotle argued that justice is the end of regimes, and that some degree of stability is necessary to promote peace and justice. Aristotle concluded that disputes among the few rich and the many poor result in instability and injustice. In Book 5, Chapter 7, he wrote that “Both polities and aristocracies are overturned above all through a deviation from justice in the regime itself.” Aristotle argued that such regimes are overturned because the parties attempt to rule for their own benefit at the expense of the common benefit. Aristotle argued that this results because the aristocratic and democratic elements of the regime have not been “finely mixed.”
While it does seem that our regime is mixed because we have aspects of each kind of regime, in Federalist 14 Publius argued that our republic is unmixed. He wrote, “America can claim the merit of making the discovery of the basis of unmixed and extensive republics.” In other words, he argued that the American founding presents a new kind of constitution, a true republic, and that no historical or philosophical examples can explain our Constitution. In Federalist 39, Publius argues that Holland, Venice, Britain, and Poland are all called republican governments, but argues that they are not truly republican in form.
There are many ways in which the U.S. Constitution is novel, but the most obvious novelty is a system of representation predicated on the consent of the people. In Federalist 39, when defining republicanism, Publius wrote that:
“It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic. It is SUFFICIENT for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people.”
In Federalist 51, Publius argued that what makes a republic– a reliance on the people– is also the “primary security” for liberty. He argued that “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.” Unlike Plato’s Republic, which relied on a philosopher king, the American Constitution relies on the virtue and wisdom of the people. Unlike Aristotle’s mixed regime, the idea of consent permeates all of our institutions. What makes the American regime unique is its firm reliance on the people as the source of political power, and the faith that the people are capable of justly wielding political power.
Did the American founders, therefore, reject ancient wisdom entirely? Although the framers rejected many of the ancients’ prescriptions for political constitutions and created a form of government which was unprecedented, they relied on ancient wisdom in order to do so. Although the framers rejected the totalitarian government of Plato’s Republic, and did not precisely follow Aristotle’s model for a mixed regime, what led them to create a novel form of government was an understanding of human nature and the failures of past experience. The framers were led by history and experience, and much of the history they considered was ancient, and they derived their critiques from the same foundation as the ancients did. In the next essay, I will consider the history and experiences that led the framers to create our Constitution, and I will highlight precisely what makes it different from past constitutions.
Samuel Postell serves as Executive Director of The Center for Liberty and Learning at the Founders Classical Academy of Lewisville, Texas. Mr. Postell graduated from Ashland University with undergraduate degrees in Politics and English. He earned his master’s degree in Political Thought from the University of Dallas and is working on his dissertation to complete his Ph.D. Mr. Postell is writing a book on Henry Clay and legislative statesmanship, a subject about which he frequently writes and publishes. He has also conducted studies for Ballotpedia and has frequently contributed to Law and Liberty and Constituting America. At Founders Classical Academy he teaches courses on Government and Economics, and has taught courses on American Literature and Rhetoric.