American government and political science will come alive when you read the Greeks and Romans, the same way that words come alive when you study Latin and Greek. There were many influences on the Founding Fathers, and certainly the modern philosophers—Locke and Hume—were important along with the tradition of English liberty. But separation of powers, mixed government, and checks and balances are the principles that first come to my mind when I think of the genius of the American political system; and where did these concepts come from?
Plato in the Republic describes five types of government and says they are all flawed. Aristotle in his Politics gives a slightly different scheme, which I have reproduced here. The true and the perverted forms of government:
|monarchy or royalty
|aristocracy (rule of best)
||oligarchy (rule of rich)
Aristotle prefers the republic but also gives the caveat that all forms of government are unstable and cycle through these different forms with abrupt and often violent changes.
The ideal of a mixed government was popularized by the Roman Polybius, who saw the Roman Republic as a manifestation of Aristotle’s theory. Monarchy was embodied by the consuls, the aristocracy in the Senate, and democracy in the assemblies. Each institution complements and checks the others. Sound familiar?
Just as Palladio rediscovered Vitruvius and thus made classical architecture the standard for the last 400 years, the Frenchman Montesquieu read and studied the ancients, especially Polybius, and helped to make the republican form of government, especially separation of powers, the standard for our time in his work, the Spirit of the Laws, which, after the Bible, was the most frequently quoted work by the pre-revolutionary Founding Fathers. It had a great impact on James Madison, the father of the Constitution. There are two triads to remember in government:
- mixed government: monarchy, aristocracy, democracy (president, senate, house)
- separation of powers: executive, legislative, judicial
In the English system, one person could hold seats in more than one branch of government, which led to abuses and corruption, a flaw that was corrected by the framers of our Constitution.
Our Founding Fathers were steeped in the ideals of the Roman Republic; they even adopted Roman names. The authors of the Federalist Papers—Madison, Hamilton, and Jay—used the pseudonym Publius, in honor of Publius Publicola, who along with Junius Brutus overthrew the monarchy in 510 B.C. and helped found the Roman Republic.
READING ASSIGNMENT: Cicero is so much easier to read than Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, so I am giving you a break and assigning you Cicero’s On the Republic. Cicero is great at summarizing the Greeks and all of the relevant ideas of his time and making them all understandable for his Roman audience, who, like us moderns, aren’t as clever as the Greeks.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2013 edition.
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