Americans had a keen understanding of the idea, popularized by Montesquieu, that “only a small homogeneous society whose interests were essentially similar could properly sustain a republican government.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 356. This idea created a fundamental problem for America: it was not a small homogeneous society, and it was rapidly expanding.
The separation of powers in the government of the United States has “come to define the very character of the American political system.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 151. Read more
The political spirit of the colonies in the 1700s, while unfamiliar in many respects, has parallels to the modern political landscape in America. The colonies political thought was closer to Niccolo Machiavelli and Montesquieu, rather than John Locke.
The colonists generally “did not conceive of society in rational, mechanistic terms; rather society was organic and developmental.” Gordon Wood, Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 29. One of the common views at the time was: “It is with states as it is with men, they have their infancy, their manhood, and their decline.” Id. quoting Stow Persons, “The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly, 6 (1954), 147-63.
This theory of nations and people presented “a variable organic cycle of birth, maturity, and death, in which states, like the human body, carried within themselves the seeds of their own dissolution,” with the speed of dissolution “depending on the changing spirit of the society.” Gordon Wood, Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 29 quoting Stow Persons, “The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly, 6 (1954), 147-63.
In contemporary America, these beliefs regarding the cyclical nature of nations would resonate with many. Even if most modern Americans do not think in terms of analogizing nations with men, the rise and fall of nations is still a popular subject.
Notably, Americans, and their immediate predecessors, have always been painfully aware of the seemingly temporary nature of prosperity in the strongest of nations. Optimistically, Americans have always hoped to devise a system of government and a culture that was capable of avoiding what seems to be inevitable decline.
Whether that is possible or not, this American hope fuels an insecurity of decline and a desire to study history so as not to repeat it. Perhaps this insecurity can prevent or mitigate the most common causes of decline and even significantly delay decline, but can it stop decline from happening altogether? It is doubtful.