Why Have There Been No Military Coups in the United States?
Plutarch writes of the life of Gaius Marius, the noted Roman general who seized power in the Roman Republic early in the first century B.C., that Marius was no patrician. He was born into the equestrian class—“poor smallholders,” as Plutarch describes them, a family living outside the great city. He rose to prominence on the strength of his own abilities and of his leading virtue, courage. As a young man, he had disdained the liberal arts education which had entered Rome from Greece. After all, were not the Greeks now the slaves of Rome, their education corruptive of the manliness that resists enslavement? A real man evidently needed no Aristotelian moderation, in Marius’ judgment: Plutarch cites Marius’ “harsh and better character,” his “inordinate love of power,” and “insatiable greed,” along with his inveterately superstitious mind, as markers of his rejection of everything urbane and civil. No gentleman he, and proud of it.
A great military strategist and tactician, Marius began his rise to prominence by crushing the Teutones and Ambrones at today’s Aix-en-Provence in 102 B.C. Using paupers and slaves as his soldiers, he next defeated and captured the formidable African monarch, Jugurtha. When the Teutones and the Cimbri joined forces to invade Italy, moving towards Rome, the Romans elected Marius consul, empowering him to repel the enemy. In this war, he proved a superb manipulator of the souls of his men, taking them to battle with appeal to their fear, their courage, their shame, their honor—all, sometimes, in the same speech.
“In a military context,” Plutarch writes, Marius’ “status and power were based on the fact that he was needed, but in political life his preeminence was curtailed, and he took refuge in the goodwill and favor of the masses”—not the patrician senators—and “abandoned any attempt to be the best man in Rome, so long as he could be the most powerful.” To do that, he needed to keep his soldiers satisfied and thereby to maintain his power base. This political necessity mirrored the character of his soul: “He was incapable of just quietly enjoying what he had.” Therefore, when he ran out of foreign wars, he could only turn to civil war. Forced into exile by his even more vicious rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, he regrouped his forces and came back, turning the city into a field of blood.
For centuries, Rome had been a proud republic, with elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy mixed in rough balance, with the senate as the balance-wheel. Marius and Sulla overturned that regime temporarily, foreshadowing the end of the republican regime at the hands of the Caesars, several decades later. Military overthrow of republics had occurred many times in Greece as well, and modern history has seen such revolutions in England (Oliver Cromwell), France (Napoleon Bonaparte), Iraq (Saddam Hussein), and many other countries. If there is any truth to the claim of ‘American exceptionalism,’ the absence of any such coup d’état in our own history undoubtedly ranks among the most striking examples of it. The dogs of war have barked no less frequently for Americans than for other nations, but the wolf of military takeover has remained silent. And this, despite the fact that we have seen some twelve U.S. generals elevated to the presidency, beginning with George Washington. Unlike Marius, our military men have been able to become first in peace after having been first in war, without bringing a general’s command-and-control temperament with them. The framers of the Articles of Confederation and the ‘anti-federalist’ opponents of the proposed United States Constitution in the late 1780s had provided for no presidency at all, in large measure to avoid the possibility that an independent executive branch could be seized by a military man, using the equivalent of the Roman consulship as his vehicle.
As students of the Roman regimes, the Framers of the Constitution recognized the need of energy in the executive as much as the Romans did. They also wanted to make their chief executive a defender of republican liberty, not its subverter. Politically ambitious military officers might channel their vigor and courage into peaceful civilian life, including high office, but no more than that. With this intention, the Framers designed the ruling institutions of the new republic in ways that have kept tyrannical souls like those of Marius and Sulla out of the presidency.
Marius could not have risen to power in Rome except by exploiting Rome’s factionalism, the inveterate resentment of the many plebeians for the few patricians. In Federalist 10, Publius famously calls faction the characteristic vice of popular governments. Factions typically center on what he calls the various and unequal distribution of property. The regulation of property has become “the principal task of modern legislation,” since “neither moral nor religious motives” adequately moderate factitious passions. As Rome itself had repeatedly proven, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” One way to control faction and thereby to prevent the tyranny that may arise to eradicate it is by designing the republic’s ruling offices not so much along the lines of a mixed regime, as in Rome, but in accordance with the principle of representation. The people will have a voice, but not directly—only through their elected delegates to the bicameral legislature and, much more indirectly, through the Electoral College to the presidency. The most democratic part of the government, the House of Representatives, will consist of persons who know their constituents but do not need simply to register their desires. Representative government enables officials to deliberate, to “refine and enlarge the public views.” The kind of appeal Marius made to the Romans would find itself quickly diluted among the Americans.
If there is something resembling a ‘mixed-regime republican’ element in the Unites States government, it can be found in that bicameral legislature. Although, as a democratic republic, America doesn’t have a born-to-rule patrician class as in Rome (and indeed as in Europe at the time of the Founding), there is no question that Senate members tend to be wealthier than members of the House. In the thirty-fourth Federalist, Publius examines how this kind of legislature will govern military expenditures. Such expenditures, he writes cannot be limited constitutionally, as it’s impossible to estimate far in advance the cost of wars, “contingencies that must baffle all the efforts of political arithmetic.” As we are not “entirely out of [Europe’s] reach,” and would indeed become less so as naval technology advanced, “to model our political systems upon calculations of lasting tranquility would be to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.”
Rome exemplified this dilemma, Publius observes. Its liberties “proved the final victory to her military triumphs.” As for modern Europe, its “liberties…as far as they have ever existed, have, with few exceptions, been the price of her military establishments” (Federalist 41). This being so, a standing army “is a dangerous, [and] at the same time that it may be a necessary, provision.” Therefore, “a wise nation will combine all these considerations.”
The federal union, however, “by itself, destroys every pretext for a military establishment which could be dangerous.” Although one or a few states might be easy prey to foreign invaders, “America united,” even without a standing army, “exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited.” “The moment of [the Union’s] dissolution will be the date of a new order of things.” In that event, “the face of America will be but a copy of that of the continent of Europe,” its liberty “crushed between standing armies and perpetual taxes.” Worse still, a disunited America would see foreign powers playing divide and rule on this continent, even as they do in Europe. As I write these lines, this has been exactly the strategy followed by Russia in its several invasions of Ukraine, perhaps with more to come, beyond Ukraine.
The fact that all spending bills must originate in the House—again, the most democratic branch of the democratic republic—will limit such spending nonetheless, as the people have won the battle against taxation without representation. At the same time, the more nearly patrician, or at least richer, Senators, with their longer terms in office, will moderate any impassioned rush into war. Congress as a whole can check and balance ambitious presidents, if only by exercising the power of the purse. Further, Congress must limit its funding, as “the Constitution ties down the legislature to two years as the longest admissible term” for military appropriations.
The Framers built additional constraints into the office of the executive itself. Publius forthrightly observes that “energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government”—a character the Articles of Confederation lacked. “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government,” which is one way of having “a bad government.” This, he continues, is especially true in war, which is why the American president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In Federalist 70, Publius pays considerable attention to the executive offices of the Roman republic.
The “ingredients” of executive energy are unity, duration in office, financial support, and competent power.” Safety in the executive depends upon a due dependence upon the people and due responsibility for one’s conduct in office. How did Rome measure up to these standards?
In its frequent wars, Rome “was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of dictator, as well as against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasion of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.” The dictator had little or no dependence upon the patricians, let alone the people as a whole. And he made sure that he could not be prosecuted for anything he did while dictator.
When it did not suffer under dictatorship, however, Rome had not one but two co-equal executives, the consuls. That is, if something went wrong, each pointed the finger of blame at the other. Responsibility was lacking. This executive dualism might well have led to even more rivalry than it did, except that the patricians were so frequently in conflict with the plebeians at the same time they were faced with foreign wars and invasions. This led the Romans to give one consul authority over foreign policy, the other over domestic policy, keeping the two men distracted from one another. “This expedient must no doubt have had great influence in preventing those collisions and rivalships which might otherwise have embroiled the peace of the republic.”
In the American republic, by contrast, the executive enjoys the unity of a Roman dictatorship along with the powers of commander-in-chief while at the same time being constrained by four-year terms in office and by dependency on Congress for financial support. Publius is well aware that an executive might be tempted to undertake a life of Marius. “Self- love” often causes “the great interests of society [to be] sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, to the obstinacy of individuals, who have credit enough to make their passions and their caprices interesting to mankind.” Against this, the Framers designed a regime that frustrates such passions, while recognizing that they will never be extirpated so long as human beings are what they are.
In addition to the institutional structures ordained in the Constitution, one must notice that the way of life in republican Rome differed from that of America. Rome had begun as a military monarchy, then became a military republic. Even in its founding legend, Romulus overpowered Remus and, as Roman historians from Livy to Tacitus testify, it fought its way through the centuries. Because it was so good at pursuing that way of life, its great generals became its principal heroes. More, as those men ranged farther afield in the republic’s extensive empire, their troops became more attached to their generals than to Rome and its republic. A military republic thus encourages not only habits of obedience to one commander but the geopolitical circumstances in which such a regime might easily threaten the civilian-ruled capital.
America’s commercial republic is as extensive as many of the ancient empires, but the American way of life inclines us to think of territory less in terms of military rule than of free trade. From the start, Americans have understood their political union as a vast free-trade zone. Ambitious citizens most often devote their lives and energies to peaceful commercial competition, not military rivalry. The best accounts of the distinction between military and commercial republics remain Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline and his massive and authoritative The Spirit of the Laws both works well known to the American Founders.
Finally, the purpose of the American republic differs from that of the Romans. The Declaration of Independence maintains that government should aim at securing the safety and happiness of the people. Romans most assuredly sought their own safety, but it wasn’t happiness so much as glory that its leading men prized. War did not only seek them out; they sought it. And so have many rulers and many peoples, before and since—America (mostly) excepted. Our presidents have sometimes conquered for territory—invoking our ‘Manifest Destiny’ to rule from sea to shining sea on this continent—but seldom for fame, which Alexander Hamilton called “the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” Thanks to the Framers’ work, that ruling passion has stayed within the boundaries of reason, along with the men whose minds are ruled by it.
Will Morrisey is Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College, and Editor and Publisher of Will Morrisey Reviews.
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