The Roman Principle

Thomas Jefferson.

At the birth of the Republic, the contrast with the European monarchies became clear. The ideals of the Republic represented a fundamental shift in the role of government in individuals’ lives.

While monarchies “could tolerate great degrees of self-interestedness, private gratification, and corruption among their subjects,” the newly-minted American Republic prided itself on disinterestedness. Gordon Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, 69. To hold a nation together, a monarchy “relied on blood, family, kinship, patronage, and . . . fear.” Id.

Republics, on the other hand, “had no adhesives, no bonds holding themselves together, except their citizens’ voluntary patriotism and willingness to obey public authority.” Id. At the heart of republics were “virtue and self-sacrifice.” Id.

The disinterestedness of republics was most evident by what Thomas Jefferson called “the Roman principle,” the principle that called for the elected officials to “serve without salary.” Id. at 71. Jefferson believed that to have a virtuous government, elected officials should be burdens to those officials. Id.

These early ideals by Jefferson manifested themselves in George Washington attempting to refuse his presidential salary and Benjamin Franklin proposing that officials in the executive branch received “no fees or salaries.” Id.

The differences between the European monarchies and the newly emerging American republic represented a shift in governmental ideals and structures. The foundations of the Republic stood on the shoulders of the people. The people expected a responsive, virtuous government. Mostly, the people wished for a government different from the monarchies of Europe, riddled with corruption.

These general ideals seem so ubiquitous in contemporary American society that it is easy to overlook their importance and consequences. These ideals paved the way for the spread of freedom and liberal institutions in America. Ultimately, these ideals were the seeds that grew into the jungle of democracy that we recognize today.


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