States: Tribunes of the People

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Secession of the Plebeians to Mons Sacer

Along the way of researching my last two posts, I ran across The Two Great Republics: Rome and the United States (1913), by Illinois Senator James Hamilton Lewis. I was hesitant to open this online book because from his Wiki bio, Lewis supported both Woodrow Wilson and The New Deal. Bleh.

But, I gave him a shot and I’m glad I did. While his conclusions squint Leftward, mine do not; his portrayal of Roman government and politics struck me as factual and neutral. His text found a home on my online reference bookshelf.

The takeaway lesson is that republican societies must adapt their governing forms to counter corruption and repel tyranny.

Roman society. After two hundred and fifty years of monarchal government, a senatorial coup d’état established the Roman Republic in 509 BC. Instead of kings, two annually elected consuls shared, with the senate, the executive power of the state. Senatorial and consular abuse of the people soon replaced that of kings.

War, or the threat of war, was an ever-present feature of the republic. Conquered lands, under the earlier policy of the kings, were divided into small allotments for equitable distribution. Not so under the new republic; patricians saw to it that conquered lands fell under their control.

Militia and Debt. Early Rome relied on unpaid militia, farmers compelled to often miss planting or harvesting their crops. Having no other choice to make up for losses, plebeians borrowed money to start over, to plant, till, and work the next year’s harvest. But, war often interfered, and indebted farmers grew insolvent. Roman law allowed creditors to sell insolvent debtors into slavery.

So, the poorer class of the plebeians furnished most of the soldiers for military campaigns, stood most of the expense, suffered nearly all the losses both of life and property, were excluded from any share in the land captured in war, and when all was said and done, slavery was a real possibility.

In just a few years, the aristocratic Roman Republic fell into oligarchy, which, in the face of external threats was an untenable situation.

Revolt. As Lewis relates, the militia refused to take the field in 495 BC. Roman society had enough of patrician oppression. Rather than resort to violence and kill their nobles, the plebeians simply left Rome for nearby Mons Sacer to start over. Lewis: “The patricians, thunderstruck by this unexpected movement, and being far more in need of the plebeians than the plebeians were of them, immediately made sufficient concessions to the plebeians to induce them to return to Rome.”

Tribunes. The patrician’s great concession, in 494 BC, was the establishment of an institution that not only saved the infant republic, but ensured its continuation for another 450 years. Through the office of Tribune, a few men elected by the plebe’s Tribal Assembly stood to protect fellow plebeians from patrician oppression. While their power evolved over succeeding centuries, the first protection from Tribunes was an absolute veto, by any Tribune, over acts by public assemblies, senate, magistrates, or consuls. Tribunes were outside lawmaking and day-to-day government, yet through their veto they exerted enormous influence.  As per Lewis,

The creation of the office of tribune was merely one more example of that system of checks and balances which played so prominent a part in the framing of the government after the expulsion of the king—a system of checks and balances so strikingly resembling that in our Federal Constitution. The tribunes were introduced as a protection for the plebeians and an additional restraint upon the magistrates.

Conclusion. While no single form of free government is adequate or appropriate for all peoples at all times, certain foundational principles are essential. First among them is the balance of forces, of powers among governing institutions. In the American system, balance is impossible without repeal of the 17th Amendment, of which I have repeatedly pounded throughout the life of this blog.

Due to the 17th Amendment, a despotic ruling institution slowly crept into our government. Known as the administrative state or executive branch agencies, these entrenched, anti-republican politburos are largely responsible for our ever-diminishing circle of liberty. So powerful are these self-serving social justice bureaucrats, I doubt that repeal of the 17A alone will restore balance. They may lay low over the next four to eight years, but without a counter-authority outside of Washington, DC to veto their acts, they stand ready to impose more Utopian diktats when the cycle turns and the next Obama-clone assumes office.

Just as Americans stood up to challenges with bold solutions in 1776, 1787, 1860, and 1941, we must confront our dire situation and take appropriate, corrective action. What is needed is an extra-governmental, Tribunal-like veto, an absolute veto over national legislation, regulations, and judicial opinions. Unlike the Romans in 494 BC, we needn’t invent an institution; it already exists. Like We the People, the states are component members of the American Republic, and have every right and duty to stand athwart usurpation and tyranny.

As a starting point for debate, two of Mark Levin’s proposed Liberty Amendments [1] offer a federal solution to unconstitutional lawmaking. When acting collectively, three-fifths of state legislatures can and should overturn burdensome and outrageous laws, regulations and scotus decisions. He wrote,

Moreover, unlike an amendment to the Constitution, the states would have the authority only to override specific federal laws or regulations [and federal court decisions], not replace them or modify them. Among other things, such a process would help relieve the intensifying dissatisfaction with congressional and bureaucratic interventions in the daily lives of the people. It would cause Congress to consider more seriously the reaction of the states and the consent of the people to the consequences of their lawmaking for fear that the states might override a bill or regulation [or court decision.]

What is old is new, and Mark’s state veto amendments are Rome’s Tribunal power dusted off, and modernized for 21st century America. There is little time to realign the power structure of our failing republic.  As envisioned by the Framers, the protective role of the states must be restored. We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Be proactive. Be a Re-Founder. Join Convention of States. Sign our COS Petition.

[1] Levin, M. R. (2013). The Liberty Amendments. New York, NY: Threshold Editions. Pgs. 50, 169.