Despite our best efforts, we occasionally stumble along the way of life. On the discovery of our mistakes, we correct them, learn, move on, and hopefully avoid repetition. As our capacity to learn improves with age, we learn from the mistakes of others as well. But, perhaps the wisest among us learn from the successes of others. To avoid as many of life’s natural pitfalls as possible, pay attention to the examples of the successful, good, and virtuous.
That which applies to our personal lives extends to society and that expression of society, republican government. Few republican governments of any extended life, all of which exist for the general welfare of the society that created them, didn’t stumble into errors or need improvement.
Among long-lived republics, the law given to Sparta by Lycurgus included a senate composed of elders, Gerousia to advise the two Spartan kings. Further refinement of Sparta’s middle institutions, those between the people and kings, arrived a hundred and thirty years later in the form of Ephors, an annually appointed body of aristocrats.
In contrast to Sparta, Athens did not adequately adjust her governing institutions and provide for an appropriate middle institution. In his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, John Adams attributed Athens’ relatively short duration to “. . .want of tempering democracy with a share of aristocracy. . .”
No republic demonstrated the ability to adjust its governing forms to meet contingencies like the Republic of Rome. From kings, to a senate, to consuls, to tyranny under Decimviri, Roman government eventually achieved proper balance when it established tribunes of the people. This system carried her with little political violence for several hundred years until the senate rejected Gracchi’s land reforms and clubbed hundreds of his supporters to death in 133BC. While the failure to deal with societal crises heralded the end of the republic, the Roman republic limped on over another hundred years.
As outlined by John Adams in his Defence, few subsequent nations in Europe after Rome did not employ the abilities and wisdom of aristocrats, natural or hereditary, in a separate house. The few that did not, like 18th century Poland, featured a miserable populace hardly distinguishable from slaves.
Various Enlightenment philosophers from Harrington, Sidney, Locke, and Montesquieu wrote of mixed and balanced governments, of middle institutions that housed the natural aristocratic element of free societies.
Every one of his Britannic Majesty’s North American colonies featured some sort of executive council. Royal governors appointed most of them; all were inadequate. Without proper middle institutions, unbalanced colonial governments creaked along until the logjams between the Crown and popular assemblies erupted in revolution.
In James Madison’s 1787 Virginia Plan of Government, the House of Representatives appointed senators from nominees of the state legislatures. While he was on the right track as to the source of senators, we are fortunate the Framers ultimately designed a second legislative body independent of the first.
Despite the lessons of history and experience, our beloved republic succumbed to the perfume of democracy with enactment of the 17th Amendment in 1913. In a work from the 1997 UNLV Law Journal, J.S. Bybee wrote:
During the debates over the proposed amendment, Elihu Root, New York Senator, former Secretary of State and War, and future Nobel Peace Prize winner, recognized the folly of this act. He said that in the original mode of selecting senators the people were as Ulysses, heroically bound to the mast that “he might not yield to the song of the siren …. [S]o the American democracy has bound itself… and made it practically impossible that the impulse, the prejudice, the excitement, the frenzy of the moment shall carry our democracy into those excesses which have wrecked all our prototypes in history. Just as the Goddess Circe had warned Ulysses, “no one,” Root argued, “can foresee the far-reaching effect of changing the language of the Constitution in any manner which affects the relations of the States to the General Government. How little we know what any amendment would produce!
Well, now we know, as if our grandparents didn’t know by the New Deal, that the states were rendered incapable of withstanding a tidal wave of popular legislation that upended the tenets of our Declaration, if not the very purposes of constitutional government itself.
Where the Romans slipped into Decimviri tyranny for a few years, they regained their footing and returned to republican, mixed, and balanced government. Not so in progressive 20th and 21st century America. Incredibly, a people founded in free government not only fail to recognize this horrid, one hundred and four-year old mistake, many believe that more of the same, more democracy than ever, is the remedy to our national sickness!
A government designed around separation of legitimate (legislative, executive, judicial) and enumerated powers, has degenerated into an inadequately mixed government of ill-defined limits. Where the long-lived, limited monarchies and republics of old featured elements of the democratic, aristocratic, and executive, America’s wretched excuse for government lacks the necessary aristocratic middle institution, a real senate. As our experience under Obama shows, a popularly elected congress cannot defend the people against unlimited executive abuse and judicial tyranny. More from John Adams:
Since we don’t know the end date of a republic, which is determined by heaven, we have every duty to manage a sickly constitution, and preserve a strong one; we may watch, and prevent accidents; we may turn off a great blow from without, and purge away an ill humor that is lurking within, and render a state long lived, though not immortal.
We cannot afford to play much longer around the edges of our coming demise. Like changing the driver of a car on cinderblocks, sending new men and women to corrupted institutions is inadequate to the task of freedom’s restoration. America stumbled in 1913. We must regain our national balance and restore a senate of the states.
We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Be proactive. Be a Re-Founder. Join Convention of States. Sign our COS Petition.
Reference: Bybee, J. S. (1997). Ulysses at the Mast: Democracy, Federalism, and the Sirens’ Song of the Seventeenth Amendment. Scholarly Commons @ UNLV Law, 501 – 567.