Autopsies of the Dead Republics

Edmund Pendleton
Edmund Pendleton. By: William Pendleton.

Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece were intertwined with the American Revolution and the establishment of the American republic.

The ancient virtues of “restraint, temperance, fortitude, dignity, and independence” shaped the ideal American republican. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 50. The fact that George Washington appeared to possess all of these virtues made him the most obvious choice for an American leader. This sentiment was captured in Landon Carter’s words, where he wished that more leaders were like Washington, who was “not so much in quest of praise and emolument to yourself as of real good to your fellow-creatures.” Id. quoting Landon Carter to George Washington, May 9, 1776, Force, ed., American Archives, 4th Ser., VI, 390.

Edmund Pendleton perhaps framed America’s trajectory best, saying to the Virginia Convention of 1776 that America was “treading upon the Republican ground of Greece and Rome.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 50 quoting Gummere, Colonial Mind and Classical Tradition, 18; see also Colbourn, Lamp of Experience, 22-23, 200-32. America also looked to England, just as England looked to the ancient republics, as a “source of inspiration and knowledge.” See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 50.

Americans also analyzed the ancient republics “that were once great and illustrious, but are now no more,” so as to better diagnose “the ills of the mother country in the 1760s and 1770s.” Id. at 50-51. Americans believed that “[s]imilar causes will forever operate like effects in the political, moral, and physical world: those vices which ruined the illustrious republics of Greece, and the mighty commonwealth of Rome, and which are now ruining Great Britain, so late the first kingdom of Europe, must eventually overturn every state, where their deleterious influence is suffered to prevail.” Id. at 50 quoting Austin, Oration, Delivered March 5, 1778, Niles, ed., Principles, 52; Tudor, Oration Delivered March 5, 1779, in ibid., 57.

Gordon Wood, in The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, described America’s evaluation of the ancient republics best: “The history of antiquity thus became a kind of laboratory in which autopsies of the dead republics would lead to a science of social sickness and health matching the science of the natural world.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 52. For some, the glory of Ancient Rome represented the high ideal of America, as Charles Lee’s words to Patrick Henry capture: “I us’d to regret not being thrown into the World in the glorious third or fourth century of the Romans.” Lee to Henry, July 29, 1776, Lee Papers, II, 177.

The study of the ancient republics inspired early Americans, but as America has grown and prospered, the ancient republics are less remembered and less studied by American leaders. Many of the Ancient Roman ideals and principles pervade American society to the present day, as explained further in The Roman Principle, and there are numerous parallels between America and Ancient Rome.

Americans could and should study Ancient Rome, both its glory and its demise, to more fully understand the deepest roots of what are known as American ideals. In other words, the “autopsies of the dead republics” should not stop the more America prospers. There is ample time to reflect on the rise and fall of those dead republics and better understand what policies and measures can prolong America’s success.

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