Lessons from History: Parallels Between the Roman Kingdom and the American ColoniesPosted: July 7, 2011
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Parallels Between the Roman Kingdom and American Colonies
Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write….Let us…read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome…Let us read and recollect and impress upon our souls the views and ends of our own more immediate forefathers, in exchanging their native country for a dreary and inhospitable wilderness…Recollect their amazing fortitude, their bitter sufferings—the hunger, the nakedness, the cold, which they patiently endured…Let us recollect it was liberty, the hope of liberty for themselves and us and ours, which conquered all discouragements, dangers, and trials.
John Adams, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law
Let’s see if this sounds familiar: Rome started as a small city-state, but grew to conquer the European continent and beyond. Internally, the city of seven hills suffered from several major economic crises, civil war and revolts. These problems were quelled by a focus on near constant external war. Eventually Rome not only ceased being a free republic where rulers were elected and the people respected, but also developed a two-party political system, dominated by populist rulers who sought to redistribute wealth and subsidize agriculture. This got to the point where the people would vote themselves bread and circuses. Indeed, their happiness and peacefulness depended on these government benefits.
Over time, it increasingly outsourced its labor and had to find its soldiers from the ranks of non-Romans as they became more and more entangled in wars. In fact, toward the end the swarming population of immigrants rendered its army useless. It even had to debase its currency to keep economically solvent multiple times. Meanwhile, Romans were less and less moral, and instead of honoring deserving philosophers, like Seneca, cults of celebrity popped up around members of the ruling class. Romans stopped fighting for freedom of speech, the right to keep their earnings, or for the rule of law in general. Instead it became a cesspool of sycophancy to the tyrants, materialism, and the pursuit of pleasure.
The United States was, of course, consciously modeled on Rome (see our Constitution, Capitol Hill, Senate, checks and balances on power, etc), and our founding fathers had a number of motivations to do so, some of which were kosher and others not so much. But it’s astonishing how many unintended parallels there are.
Nonetheless it would be an impossible task to try to find an equivalent for everything, down to Bush choking on a pretzel, because the US timescale is so accelerated. We’re already nearing the end and there have only been 44 US presidents, while there were hundreds of Roman Consuls and almost 150 Roman Emperors. However, it’s interesting to see that when the United States government cannot literally follow the same path, they will still resort to rhetoric. For example, when the US cannot start an actual war, it will still wage a “War on Drugs.”
This essay serves as my introduction into our cultural decay and the grave consequences that I think it has had and will have. I do not think it’s going to be fixed until it’s been largely destroyed, and “a light from the shadows shall spring.” I am far from having a solution. It’s only my intent to try to analyze the world we live in, put it in context, and hope that somebody smarter than myself will be able to fix it, or at least understand the direction that things should go.
My intention is not to glorify or either nation, and whether or not you agree with me here, I think we can all concede that we can learn from history else we’re doomed to repeat its mistakes.
From Mythological Origins to the Founding of the Republics
The hearer on the speaker’s mouth depends,
And thus the tragic story never ends
Both nations were founded and thrived throughout their history on myth, admirable from the standpoint of stability. Both sought to make their foundations appear like something of a higher nature and to derive authority from such an origin. They also sought to highlight values and glorified images of a past, in order that you should see these qualities reflected on them, and perhaps most importantly, to create a direction and purpose for future policy. When the original myth is not suitable for this, you change it.
I think that the crux of the mythologies is well expressed by Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy when he explains that there are two kinds of cities. The first kind of city is founded to be independent, not meant for external control. The second type is a city meant for the benefit (either economic or for the glory) of the mother state. Rome is the first type of city and the American colonies were founded to be this second kind of city. However, many records having been destroyed in the sack of Rome in 390 BC, they had quite a free reign to redefine their past on their own terms. The writers of American history, unfortunately, have taken similar liberties.
Rome’s myths take for granted its sovereignty; it was not a vassal state, nor ever let itself become one at the expense of almost constant war. Its myths instead focus on shaping a warring culture and a people that would back Rome’s many wars even to their own detriment.
To this end, many Roman myths were patriotic and meant to glorify the state and its leaders, to encourage emulation of them, and put forth clear pictures of morality. After all, if one of your leaders is the son of a god, it would be a grave mistake to go against him. For example, Aeneas was said to be the son of Venus, and Julius Caesar later claimed the same. In turn, Augustus/Octavian, considered the son of Caesar, deified his father (not content to be the grandchild of a god). This same invention got previous Roman rulers assassinated.
This is not to say that there weren’t attempts to answer some of life’s bigger questions. For example, in the Aeneid different groups of the deceased go to different parts of the underworld. The valiant go to the Field of War Heroes, there’s even a place where unborn babies go (explaining what Christianity does not), a field for people who have committed suicide, and a place where the truly bad are to be tortured. But in general it was used to justify life, ritual, current practices, and especially rulers. Its political purpose was to control the people and show you how the gods could punish you if you strayed from this path.
Rome was said to be founded by a Trojan solider, Aeneas, and his plight begins where the Iliad leaves off, much like Homer’s Odyssey. The poem was commissioned by Augustus Caesar (first emperor of Rome), and makes it clear that the gods wanted Rome to be founded. He faces many struggles on the way, wars, their ships being burned, seeing the woman he loves commit suicide after he had to leave her, his wife and father dying, and more (not unlike the story of Job). But, it was fate that he would found Rome, and even Juno, who tormented him most, relented in the end, realizing it was simply Rome’s destiny not only to be an independent people but to rule the world.
In our modern society that admires the ancient Greeks, as part of our democratic myth perhaps, it may be surprising that the Romans chose to tell themselves as being founded by a Trojan rather than a Greek. However, by eschewing Greece, Rome was eschewing democracy, instead favoring monarchical Troy. Virgil didn’t invent the idea that Romans came from Troy, but he gave it new splendor.
It also justified Rome’s conquest of the Greek states, and subsequent enslavement of the Greek people, because now people get to imagine they are avenging their ancestors, the Trojans, against a Greece that used deception to tear down the mighty with the Trojan horse.
To put Virgil in context, he lived throughout the collapse of the Republic and the birth of the Empire, and was commissioned to write this mythical poem by the first Emperor. He saw that the traditional republican foundations had been forever bastardized and corrupted. While the moral direction of Homer was unity, society and peace, the moral direction of Virgil is piety and reverence, hoping to reverse some of the people’s corruption and degeneration that had set in after the Punic Wars. And so, unlike Homer’s Odysseus, a crafty man who is rewarded for his guile, Aeneas is a very pious and moral man.
The impression that contemporary readers were supposed to derive was that Augustus was the embodiment of Aeneas, their classical hero. They were supposed to admire and love Aeneas, and since Augustus was so similar, holding the same values, this would confer authority on him. John Dryden’s introduction to his translation of the Aeneid explains that these values were: “piety to the gods, and a dutiful affection to his father, love to his relations, care of his people, courage and conduct in the wars, gratitude to those who had oblig’d him and justice in general to mankind.” Thus, it was essentially just propaganda. As we will see, this is reminiscent of America’s myth of creating this new religious free world, like Biblical wanderers, setting out on their holy mission.
The following passage from the introduction to Billson’s translation brilliantly illustrates the purpose of the United States mythology as well: “The purpose of the Aeneid was two-fold: to legitimize the new regime by expressing the divine mission of Rome to rule and spread the blessings of her civilization; and to reassert the personal qualities of the model Roman of the old Republic—a profound sense of obligation, strict adherence to duty, deep religiosity and seriousness of purpose—that was essential to the success of the new regime.”
Further, the Aeneid does not talk about the Republic or glorify it. It does not glorify Brutus (the original slayer) or Publius or any others. It skips over that time to Caesar as the birth of Rome’s glory, which is quiet convenient. This is just as we look back to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as our historians. They are not our historians, not the necessarily truth seekers, but they were visionaries and our molders of the future whose art partially came to resemble life, and partially did not. This is not to say that they were being crafty. Virgil, Livy, Ovid, and other Roman mythmakers thought they were doing the best for their country, and I believe so did our own founding fathers.
From Aeneas were descended Romulus and Remus, famous twins born from one of Rome’s Vestal Virgins. Nobody believed that she didn’t actually violate her sacred vows, and so they imprisoned her, and her kids were thrown into a floating river. They survived by being nursed by a she-wolf. Sounds quite like a mix between the stories of Mary and Moses, does it not? That they grew up in the wild is supposed to represent freedom and lack of servility.
As adults, they fought each other to the death and Romulus prevailed. He was the first King of Rome, and its founder, first making his bones upon the Palatine Hill. The city later expanded to its famous seven hills, and far, far beyond. Interestingly, Livy implies that the Senate assassinated him for his ambition to make Rome a world power through conquest. But the final straw appears to have been his creation of a personal bodyguard, which was considered to be something only a tyrant would do—why should a good ruler fear the people? He was the first in a long string of Roman rulers to be legally killed for the same reason– Caesar is only the most famous example.
But Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy points out the flaw in this argument. That “what he did was for the common good and not from personal ambition, is shown at once creating a senate, with whom he took counsel and in accordance, with whose voice he determined.”
And so we see that myth paradoxically gave a warning for war, while at the same time justifying it. Certainly that their first King was assassinated for these ambitions did not stop the Romans people from backing their rulers in seemingly endless wars and conquest (they were also fairly easily persuaded by rhetoric) and after awhile, once the neighboring nations were provoked and fearful of Rome’s growing power, war was inevitable.
As we shall see in due time, these prolonged conflicts were one of the causes of her downfall, but throughout much of her history they kept Rome internally stable. The commons had much that they could complain about—notably that they were not given any respectable share of the spoils of war, though sometimes soldiers were permitted to pillage. Meanwhile, the aristocracy amassed riches, and war was only more lucrative as time went on and they came to annex Greece, Egypt, Gaul (modern day France), Spain, and more.
When the commons wanted to protest they could do so a way that would cripple the state, but war kept them distracted. When you think you’re about to die, the last thing on your mind is the rate of taxation on olive oil. And thus myth was beneficial to the state and became necessary for Rome’s stability. Their consent was necessary because they were the ones who kept the city running and made up most of the army. The senate’s power base rested on their consent, in the way that a broken horse doesn’t realize how much power it could have over its rider if only it ceased consenting to be ridden. Keeping this consent over time did lead to them granting the plebs more rights, such as the creation of the people’s tribunes after their withdrawal to the Sacred Mount in 494 BC. But it would be hundreds of years more until they got such reforms as the Agrarian Laws (redistribution of land) intermarriage between the classes, and other such changes.
And this is yet another cause of Rome’s downfall. As Livy writes, the majority of people do not seek freedom, equality, or justice. They seek stability. I would add that people seek stability, but they also seek what others have, perhaps above all. People want to be the upper class; they don’t want to make everybody the upper class. They want what is exclusive.
Wars gave the population both of these things. Though the people had to be granted some rights to keep peace at home, war ensured a population of slaves that freed up Romans for leisure, and the raw materials and agricultural acquired secured their way of life. It also led to the creation of fantastic spectacles—lions from Africa fighting those sentenced to die, gladiators, lavish naval battles in the arena, and more. These also served to blind the masses, and again, this addiction to pleasure and entertainment sowed the seeds of destruction on yet another front as Romans became lax, passive, and corrupted, to their own demise.
Early on this tendency was feared and the people were warned against descending into this darkness. It is yet another paradox in Roman history. The intention of these games has always been to pacify the masses. Romulus, the founder of Rome and its first king, and an ambitious one, saw the need for a large population if Rome was to become powerful, and so encouraged the people to intermarry with other peoples. This provoked violence, and to calm the people, he began the Consualia games, in honor of Neptunus Equester.
The Rape of the Sabine Women is a brilliant myth surrounding these games that the distractions of entertainment, and the negative consequences that you allow to happen while you so distract yourself. While the Sabines came to Rome to enjoy these spectacles, their unmarried women were carried off by Roman men, the Sabines having refused to intermarry with them. Blinded by the spectacle and drunk with the spectacles, they left themselves vulnerable.
It especially illustrates the importance of population. Machiavelli explains: “They who would have their city become a great empire, must endeavor by every means to fill it with inhabitants; for without a numerous population no city can ever succeed in growing powerful. This may be affected in two ways, by gentleness or by force. By gentleness, when you offer a safe and open path to all strangers who may wish to come and dwell in your city…by force, when after destroying neighboring towns you transplant their inhabitants to live in yours. Both of these methods were practiced by Rome, and with such success, that in the time of her sixth king there dwelt within her walls eighty thousand citizens fit to bear arms…Rome was soon able to place two hundred and eighty thousand men under arms; while either Sparta nor Athens could ever muster more than twenty thousand.”
Without also having this inclusive policy, relying only on force what happened to Sparta will befall you: “For after she had spread her dominion over all the cities of Greece, no sooner did Thebes rebel than all the others rebelled likewise, and the trunk was left stripped of its boughs.” (Machiavelli).
And so we see population and growth, distraction and war, and yet this influx of influences led to destruction—Rome, too, was a melting pot. This very immigration policy was at the heart of their growth but later wrought her destruction. Over time efforts to get into Rome grew more desperate and violent, but they didn’t actually seek to destroy Rome. They sought to be a part of Rome, a Rome, though already largely destroyed, they still saw as glorious.
This never came close to destroying Rome throughout most of its history, but when its culture had decayed and other nations gained the militaristic upper hand, then the dusk passed into the night. The barbarians were used as spectacle. In turn, the spectacle destroyed the Roman spirit. And the barbarians were then able to destroy the Romans. I am not a particular adherent to Eastern Religion, but there is certainly a cycle of life to be illustrated in these events. It’s a chilling, but all too true, tale of what the United States likely faces in its future.
Rome sought continually, in her uncorrupted years to continually renew the spirit of government to prevent their destruction. This is a theme that we see over and over in early American history as well—the idea of government and the populace needing constant renewal to stay free. John Adams in “Governor Winthrop to Governor Bradford” (find date) writes: “Calamities are the caustics and cathartics of the body politics. They arouse the soul. They restore original virtues. They reduce a constitution back to its first principles.” But it only works when the people are uncorrupted, and that ship, my friend, has sailed.
We are now ready to move on to our second King of Rome, Numa. Livy writes that this was a time of great stability due to the great piety of the Roman people. Machiavelli comments that “The effect of this was to render easy any enterprise in which the senator great men of Rome thought fit to engage.” Religion is the lubricant of the state.
Machiavelli continues, “And it will be plain to any one who carefully studies Roman History, how much religion helped in disciplining the army, in uniting the people, in keeping good men good, and putting bad men to shame; so that it had to be decided to which prince, Romulus or Numa, Rome owed the greater debt, I think the balance must turn in favor of Numa; for when religion is once established, you may readily bring in arms; but when you have arms without religion it is not easy afterwards to bring in religion.”
And so we see, like the United States, in the beginning Rome was a very religious nation. Since Rome’s monarchy lasted 244 years, it’s likely that there were more than seven kings, but the general idea to be conveyed is that early Romans were pious and reaped the benefits of this. Stability, order, honesty, and safety. But I can only marvel at how quickly values fade from the mind.
Even our early Americans so quickly tossed their values to the wind and we see John Adams write in the name of John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts (in the time of the Puritans): “But how soon is this ardor extinguished! In the course of a few months they have cooled down into such a tame, torpid state of indolence and inattention that the miseries of slavery are suffered to preach their abominable doctrines, not only with impunity, but without indignation and without contempt.” So quickly and readily do we cast ourselves into the eternal flame of stupidity.
The third king of Rome was called Tullus Hostilius—note the meaning of the surname. According to the mythology, he was essentially the opposite of Numa. To avoid redundancy, I will not relate all that happened during his reign, but the essence of the myth is a quick decay of values. A golden time, followed by a decay—not yet evil, but certainly without the golden sheen of the past. As mentioned, we see this same narrative played out in our own history. It’s really no wonder that Eastern religions make the balance of good and evil a central part of their religion.
It’s with our fifth king, only about one hundred years after the founding of Rome, that we see the seeds of destruction blossom. Tarquin the Elder became king by currying favor with the richer of the plebeians, as opposed to the aristocracy who would have preferred to have a king from among their own number. To add insult to injury, he was not of Roman birth, but was an Etruscan with a Greek father. That he became king, as Will Durant writes, represented the growing power of business and finance against the landed aristocracy.” You can see how the resentment was budding.
He then proceeded, whether due to personal motives of staying in power, or for what he deemed the common good, struck at the very power base of the aristocracy and reorganized the voters and the army. Durant writes, “He classified the citizens according to wealth rather than birth, so that while leaving the old aristocracy intact, he raised up as a balance to it a class of equites, literally, horsemen…to serve in the cavalry.” The resentment culminated in his assassination, and the patrician class “aimed to limit the kingship again to a religious role” as was speculated that they originally played (Durant).
To their dismay, the next king was also an Etruscan and the son-in-law of Tarquin the Elder, Servius Tullius. With Servius we have our first king who was not elected. His power base were the outraged masses who he, with his mother-in-law, manipulated by not telling the people that the king was dead in the days after his death, allowing Servius to serve in the meantime and curry favor.
He proceeded to further erode the power of the patricians. Where his predecessor divided them by wealth, he added a division by area of residence preventing them from being able to aggregate what power they had left. There were also 35 new tribes for them to be split up among. No longer could they dominate elections to the same degree.
At the same time, he was a benefactor to the poor and gave distributed the spoils of war amongst them–something that did not happen for a long, long time under the Republic. To give his actions some context, when the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud (Servius’s son-in-law), seized power by murdering him he gave a speech in which he said that Servius’s excessive love for the poor came from the fact that he himself came from a poor family.
However, Tarquin the Proud didn’t hesitate to shed patrician blood and himself kept a body guard. (Livy is clearly showing this to be a sign of a tyrant, tyrants who deserve to be murdered. Interestingly, Livy’s story of his seizure of power is very much like Augustus did. He writes that Tarquin entered into the forum with armed men, sat on the throne, demanded all be present and gave a speech. Those who he thought would oppose him were murdered. But unlike Augustus he was not wise enough to then ensure a time of stability and peace afterward.
This power-hungry king “degraded freemen with months of forced labor, had citizens crucified in the Forum, put to death many leaders of the upper classes, and ruled with an insolent brutality that won him the hatred of all influential men” (Durant). Livy writes that he “had deprived the leading men of the state of their land and divided it among the very lowest that he had laid all the burdens which were formerly shared by all alike, on the chief members of the community.” Durant further writes that this was particularly offensive because “the patricians had thought of the rex as the executive of the Sneate and the chief priest of the national religion.”
Machiavelli chimes in, “All business which formerly had been transacted in public, and with the sanction of the Senate, he caused to be transacted in his palace, on his own responsibility, and to the displeasure of everyone else.” (Machiavelli).” Not to fully equate these two events, but it was also business interests being struck at and increasing centralization of commerce in the American colonies that led to outrage.
He was also the 3rd Etruscan King of Rome, and the kings essentially were no longer elected. It’s a long-standing trend in history, as Machiavelli points out in his Discourses on Livy that nearly all rulers, during the time of the monarchy and the Empire, who are chosen (adopted or elected) as opposed to inherit or seize power are good leaders. Those who seize power or the sons of the previous ruler generally show themselves to be tyrannical leaders.
The usual reason given for the patricians finally having enough was that his son raped a noblewoman, Lucretia who later killed herself. The aristocrats commence the rebellion, and the king and his family are sent into exile. Note that one of the men she called to her was Publius Valerius Publicola who was also a leader of the overthrow. In The Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, they refer to themselves as Publius, trying to capture a little of his former glory. However, it’s clear that there was a long buildup of resentment and hatred toward the monarchy.
But was it correct to automatically conclude that the righteousness of the monarchy could not be restored? During these years, there was due process, trials, and appeals. The Senate existed from the very first, with one hundred senators, later to be increased to two hundred under Tarquin the Elder (and further increased in later times), and was constituted by the patrician class. It’s been speculated that this class was originally another people who conquered the Latins, perhaps Sabines. Durant explains that in the beginning, however, the aristocracy were not such “lords of comfort” as they became in later years and actually were a modest and hard-working bunch.
There was also representative government in the form of the curiae. Livy writes that, in fact, throughout the monarchy after the death of one king, the people clamored for another (similar to the Biblical story of David). The kings practiced the same warring, conquests, and distributions of spoils to advantageous peoples throughout their time as later rulers would do (even fighting personally in battle) meaning that the people were largely distracted from ills at home as well.
Further, the institution of slavery under the kings was nowhere near what it became under the Republic. Durant reports, “Under the kings they had been costly and few, and therefore had been treated with consideration as valuable members of the family. In the sixth century BC, when Rome began her career of conquest, war captives were sold in rising number to the aristocracy, the business classes, and even to plebeians; and the status of the slave sank.”
And so, it’s wrong to think that the overthrow of the monarchy was a popular uprising. It was a patrician movement. It was the last three kings that caused the split between the monarchy and aristocracy, the aristocracy having seen their power undermined. The commons and the majority were not suffering. Their lot had actually been improved under these last few kings. The plebeians had more power than they did before and were not going to fight to take that away from them, be that as it may. Meanwhile the aristocracy saw their members attacked and, most importantly, their wealth. It was an elite uprising. The fiercest haters of monarchy were always the aristocracy throughout its history. It always represented a loss of sovereignty for them where the poor had something to gain by it.
I want to take a moment and illustrate an important point. The monarchy, while it can be allied with the aristocracy or the commons, it is neither. It is a separate body that has the ability to shield the one against the other. And in many ways it succeeded where the Republic would later fail, as we will see with the ensuing clash between the plebs and the patricians that would continue for centuries.
And so, the monarchy could not go on. And here again we have our theme of renewal. Like in America, there were loyalists who resisted the foundation of a republic. Interestingly in Rome the most notable of these were the sons of Brutus, one of the first consuls. Brutus had his sons killed for their attempt to restore the monarchy. But overall, it was a government founded and conducted by popular consent, in the way that the American Revolution sought to appease cries for “taxation without representation.” However, it was not a violent overthrow. The last king, as mentioned, was exiled (though he tried to return with an army various times) and not assassinated.
Like John Adams with his flurry of letters, Patrick Henry with his firebrand speeches, and our brilliant commoner Thomas Paine, the Roman revolutionaries courted the people, and established their republic, if they could keep it.
The other type of city Machiavelli describes is a dependent city, meant for the economic or political benefit of the mother state. British America was this type of colony, and the early settlers considered themselves English men and women. This is not to say that they did not have their own religious and commercial motives, but they recognized that the British crown granted them their charters for its own benefit.
Having been left largely to administer themselves throughout most of their colonial history, they grew to develop institutions of self-government and in a number of ways were freer than the English in England, especially in matters of religion. The crown kept its interference limited to commerce. Over time, however, these interferences grew more unacceptable to a people used to freedom (which they defined as a lack of governmental intervention) and the pain was all the bitterer because they felt subjugated (not being allowed to have representation in Parliament). Concurrently, new sentiments were aroused in the colonists, especially after 1763 that led to an outright rejection of their colonial purpose.
Similarly in Rome, the aristocratic leaders who overthrew the monarchy were motivated by an waning of their own power, feeling more than a little slighted, and also a recognition that in a monarchy the rules could be recreated the monarch went. The religious-minded British also learned this lesson. With each new king came new religious policy and so there was no assurance of continued freedom to practice any given religion, and the freedom of a particular religious sect would wax and wane through time without any assurance of the future.
The very heart of their legal debate was a rejection of British authority, claiming that Parliament had no right to legislate for the colonies because the colonists were not represented in the legislature. They sought to make their own laws and have these be as binding as the laws made in England, as they felt that the Magna Charta (1215) granted to all English subjects, but took the argument further and said that they had a number of divine rights given directly from God. Britain felt undermined and that these ideas were subversive.
Money also played another role, indeed, as a motive of the British in changing their policy in the decade and a half before the war, and slowly Americans came to believe they would be financially better off without the British.
The early settlers came from a world of violent religious clashes and most were genuinely pious. These clashes in theology may seem small to the non-religious mind (they were all Christian, after all), but they were taken with the utmost sincerity. As Livy once wrote of Rome: “The neglect of the gods which now prevails, had not then made its way; nor was it then the practice of every man to interpret his oath, or the laws, to suit his private ends.”
Since the start of the Reformation tensions were high and only intensified, with the constant frustration of religious policy being changed with each new monarch. Before going to America, English colonial efforts first started much closer to home in Ireland. In the early days of Spanish and French conquest and colonization in America, it was here that the English concentrated and not only sought to mold their community into their own religious image, but also seize lands and waters for fishing, agriculture, and commerce (MacCullough). It was a bloody affair at times—with the Spanish financing Catholic rebels and English armies being used to quell the rebels and reconquer. However, all three peoples ultimately failed—the Spanish and French in North America and the English in Ireland. As a last resort they ventured to the New World, thousands of miles away.
Early efforts to establish British colonies in America had been made under previous kings, but the first lasting colony, Jamestown in the Virginia Colony, was founded under King James I. In fact, this colony was not separatist or religiously at odds with England. The inhabitants were Anglican, adherents to the Church of England, but they did seek to do things differently and to this end no bishops were ever named and landed power was kept away from the clergy. You can see early signs of the American political character that would develop—local representation and separation of church and state.
They were loyal to these beliefs throughout the religious and political strife in England that was to come. Further, Jamestown became a commercial center exporting goods to England, as colonies do. In other words, this was not a revolutionary movement. So, it’s very wrong to think of these early colonists as renegades, and clearly there was a difference between being a separatist and colonizing the New World. Indeed, they helped to further the political and commercial agenda of Great Britain and quiet religious tensions—if people didn’t like it, they could certainly leave!
There was also a clear difference between creating a religious community and fomenting freedom as we think of it today. Some practiced more tolerance than others, but only in Pennsylvania and New York in this era did we see the current intermingling of religions that we value today. And even this was an accident of fate, not planned or seen as the happiest state of things by the organized religious groups. MacCullough states that this is largely because no single religious group established themselves firmly enough due to lack of clergy.
The one place that did not lack large numbers of clergy was Massachusetts due to Harvard, originally intended to train clergy. Here, non-members of their church were excluded from their assembly (“taxation without representation!”). They were looking to Rome, not democratic Greece. It’s also fairly obvious that this “democracy,” or even belief in human rights, did not extend to other peoples–strict Christianity is not synonymous with freedom or democracy. Nor were the Biblical peoples were not very peaceable.
Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States that “The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a ‘vacuum’” and used religion to seize their lands and war against them to get what they wanted. As even the most casually educated know, the Native American population was soon reduced to a small fraction of what it once was.
They were the group was indeed most separatist, and thus receives an unjust share of the attention from posterity. Many Puritans were disappointed by James I who was from a reformed background but did not advocate the Puritan cause to their satisfaction. He actually strengthened certain Catholic institutions (The Reformation). While Charles I, James’s successor, granted the Puritans their charter, he also attacked the growing Protestant establishment. As I mentioned before, the English had learned the lesson that monarchy in the post-Wittenberg world meant uncertainty.
A good degree of mythology was necessary for the Puritans to succeed in their endeavor. Without reassurance that they were undertaking divine work and fulfilling a celestial purpose, it was not so easy to face the stinking corpses on the way across the Atlantic, or to endure the bitter winters that had wiped out former groups of colonists. The idea, as MacCullough explains, was that they were molding the rugged outdoors into an Eden. They shaped nature, they shaped souls, they shaped society, and they were bound by a covenant to God to do so.
And so taking a moment to compare these stories to that of Rome, we see more major comparisons. Both the Aeneid and this early religious history tell stories of immigrants and pilgrims. The Trojans also faced war, their home having been burned to the ground by treacherous Greeks, and later had to war with the Italian peoples in order to establish themselves. Aeneas’ wife and father died, and at one point, the women were so discontented with the state of things that they burned the ships to stop the constant uprooting. But Aeneas led the Trojans through these travels by the idea of manifest destiny, that they were founding Rome, to be a “city upon a hill” (literally, as Rome was eventually built on seven hills).
Indeed, one of the most famous quotes associated with the Puritans is John Winthrop’s declaration that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be a “city upon a hill.” He was quoting Matthew 5:14, a speech by Jesus in which he says “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” I’m no Biblical scholar, but I wonder if this was not, in turn, a reference to Rome. Jesus lived in the time of Roman rule in the province of Judea, and would have been aware of its description as the “city of seven hills,” its Senate on the Capitoline Hill, etc. For this reason, perhaps, he chose this image as an analogy to influence. In any case, Winthrop was certainly well-educated in Roman history.
Another fitting comparison to Rome is that the “Romans interpreted the Auspices to meet the occasion; and made a prudent show of observing he rites of religion even when forced to disregard them; and any who rashly slighted Religion they punished” (Machiavelli). These Puritans tended to put religion before all else, and ostracized (or killed) those who slighted their beliefs.
Despite our focus on this group, there was a wide diversity of peoples and religions in America, and a substantial portion of the population was not English. Some were Dutch Protestant like New York; some Swedish like those in modern-day Delaware; some were Anglican like Virginia and remained as such for many decades; some were Catholic like Maryland was originally; and some were Puritan like the Massachusetts Bay Colony who went as far as to prohibit non Puritan church members from participating in local politics. We also have the Quakers in Pennsylvania and many more, not to mention those who didn’t give a lick for religion and wanted their gold and glory.
Therefore, we can conclude that Massachusetts hardly was a place representing mass sentiment or the character of the Americans. MacCullough writes: “For all its subsequent fame in American mythology, their settlement remained small and poor, for not many wished to join them.”
What was the crown’s perspective on all this? While the monarchy allowed the colonists to achieve some of their religious goals, the end goal in permitting this was commerce. If religion stimulated them to produce, export, and purchase the refined products back from England, than freedom they would have. The colonists were not religious renegades, but were living in a commercial colony which valued and practiced religion (in general). The people consented to this situation by colonizing under a royal charter, and this fact was never considered part of their “bondage.” Only later when the British government began levying certain taxes, without allowing the colonists to sit in Parliament, did this sentiment arise. Without commerce, they would not have survived, and possibly would have lost the support of the crown, knowing this was their purpose.
And thus, one the one hand it is wrong to take the Marxist, and crudely simple “dead, white men” point of view that the founders of America. There was a fervent religious spirit among Americans, though posterity likes to portray them as all Deists and thus not loyal to Christian principles. This is incorrect. But on the other hand it is wrong to deny that there were also seeds of virtuous decay that would take root in the coming century, and flourish in the 20th.
By 1763, John Adams took up the name of John Winthrop to try to spur the people of Massachusetts again to action writing, “But how soon is this ardor extinguished! In the course of a few months they have cooled down into such a tame, torpid state of indolence and inattention that the missionaries of slavery are suffered to preach their abominable doctrines, not only with impunity, but without indignation and without contempt.”
To summarize the two early religious environments, we first see Rome coming into her own as a sort of city-state, and under Numa it was transformed into a deeply pious nation. Later writers such as Livy, perhaps from nostalgia, write that it was the most religious time in Rome’s history. Though technically it remained a part of Roman life throughout its history, down to Constantine who was baptized a Christian on his deathbed, Romans waxed and waned in their dedication; toward the end they were certainly waning more than waxing.
So too in British America we see a genuine, often fervent religious dedication. To this day we’ve adopted one of these group’s mythology as our own, the Puritan, and many people still talk of America’s political and economic influence in the world as part of a kind of covenant with God, like they are the new Israelites. And though these feelings and beliefs have never been quite consistent among the populace, especially not after the Civil War, Christianity still remains the dominant ideological system. Even when people do not identify with atheism, mysticism, agnosticism, etc, they will affirm that they believe in God, and very easily fall into the Judeo-Christian narrative of good versus evil.
Having established the religious context, we next delve into commerce and the economy of the colonial era and the lessons we can learn from this period. The economy was always linked not only to Great Britain but to Europe. You cannot have an America without a Europe, and so you’ll forgive me if I briefly delve into European affairs.
Like the Italy of 700 BC (and for many centuries onward), 16th and 17th century Europe was racked with conflict and war. There were brief periods of one state’s dominance—Spain, then France, then Britain—but the power they held was never extreme. In fact, the end goal in many of the ensuing conflicts was to never let any monarch get any more power, and also to maintain the status quo. As Elizabeth I said, “Whenever the last day of France came it would also be the eve of the destruction of England.”
Thus, the English during this time played the role of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, while in our parallel histories, the Samnites and their allies in the Italian Peninsula feared the rise of Rome. Britain dedicated herself to preventing any other nation from expanding its power, at the expense of financing Dutch rebels in the United Provinces, lending aid and money to the Huguenot uprising in France, harassing the other nations (with the Dutch) in the New World to disrupt trade and supply routes, raiding their colonies, financing Frederick the Great and more.
This argument is still frequently used today to engage in wars that are more “harassments” than total-destructive war. For example, the United States’ interventions in Central America, the Middle East, Asia. If we really are to learn from history though, we will realize that this always ends in bankruptcy, at the very least, and when you do gain some power, it’s quickly taken away since the path to power is so hazardous on your country. Roman wars, on the other hand were not of this nature—they were more of a “total war” in that if they came after you, they would make sure that you would not rise up against them again. I think that if you were truly justified in your war, this is what you would do rather than engage in a wasteful expenditure of money and lives.
As Livy writes, they did nothing half-heartedly. You could be destroyed, your city burned and your population enslaved or wiped off the face of the earth. On the other hand, if you were lucky (or Italian) you could simply become “companions” (a vassal state), sometimes with Roman citizenship and sometimes not, depending on your utility. Rome, consequently, lasted far longer than either the American, British, or any other European Empire.
Not only were there changes in the nature of the wars being fought, but there were vast military changes during this time as well. Paul Kennedy explains that after the decline of feudalism, knights no longer owed military service to their sovereign, and so it was crucial for any ruler to be able to pay, out of pocket, for a war, or have excellent credit to borrow the amount. You might be their king, but 16th century folks had kids with mouths to feed too.
Further, you not only had to pay and equip a land-based army, but an ever more costly fleet of ships to sail around the globe. The Spanish didn’t bother to do this, with a few exceptions, however—they would usually just commandeer whatever navy they could.
It was the Spanish colonies that allowed the Hapsburg rulers to stay solvent. Kennedy writes, “Even when the English and Dutch attacks upon the Hispano-Portuguese colonial empire necessitated an ever-increasing expenditure on fleets and fortifications overseas the direct and indirect gains to the Spanish crown from those territories remained considerable.”
Machiavelli warns us of giving too much credit to money, though, and we would be wise to heed ancient wisdom. In Discourses on Livy he relates the take of Croesus, the king of Lydia, showing Solon of Athens his treasure store and asked Solon’s what he thought about his power. Solon then replies “war is made with iron and not with gold, another coming with more iron might carry off his gold.” Rather, Machiavelli, states, it is a solid army.
And so, we can see the importance of money and the American gold, silver, and other commodities in financing the wars, but no single military force had a supremely decisive edge over another, certainly not in the kind of dominance that Napoleon would create in his armies a few decades later.
Soon the Habsburgs faded away, bankrupt, and a power vacuum was left around 1660, and the same would happen to France who was the next to take center stage. After they rose to power, they surged ahead with centralization, organization, and bureaucratization, consolidating and strengthening their power after the Hundred Years War. Kennedy writes, “all this forced the other powers to follow suit, if they did not wish to be eclipsed.” Thus, much like he steady trend of Americanization that went on around the world in the twentieth century, the other countries of this time proceeded in their Francofication. But, as we know, this ended poorly in the time of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI only a few decades later.
If only they would have heeded the following advice: “Whosoever increases not his strength while he adds to his dominions must needs be ruined. He who is impoverished by his wars, even should be come off victorious, can add nothing to his strength, since he spends more than he gains” (Machiavelli).
In any case, with France defeated and the other European nations having to look inward to repair themselves, Britain was now head honcho not only in Europe but on the American continent, having largely expelled the Spanish and French. The restraints off and the centralization begun, the British began to exert more control over their American colonies.
I want to take a moment and reflect on how we can see the consequences of this history in early American policy. You can see that they would have seen the disastrous effects of intervention, having the Spanish and French examples before them. In contrast, they would have understood the benefits of a peace, to let a country recover and build itself up, hence their subsequent (if only in theory) isolationism. One child becomes an alcoholic because daddy was. The other doesn’t drink because daddy was an alcoholic.
You can also see why they would have abhorred political factions. Great Briton was rife with factions in Westminster. France was not, and it’s generally recognized that Britain’s factions prevented it from properly handling the American colonies, whereas, for a time, France was seen as an uber-efficient governmental machine. So, without even having to crack a book they could observe many fundamental political principles.
It was in this warring context that the colonies were established, and we can now understand how very deeply Britain wanted and needed revenue from them, and in the latter half of the eighteenth century, following the trend of heavier and heavier centralization by the French, these controls began to increase.
The goal was to make the colonies more dependent on the crown. By around 1750, all of the colonies, except Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, were crown colonies (Andrews). Consider that the opposite course of action—giving more and more freedom to the colonies would have been looked on as only helping their enemies.
And it was bitterly resented. The Americans had begun with institutions of self-government and popular representation, with only a governor and council appointed from England, which ruled them. As we see in Rome, even while it was a kingdom, there was a senate and public officials were popularly elected—indeed, even the king was elected by the people.
We learned before that the Roman patrician over throwers of the monarch sought to do so for two reasons: 1) the hereditary, Etruscan dynasty was spiraling out of control, culminating in the rape of a noblewoman; 2) their own power was undermined by the preceding political reorganization under the last kings.
We only have to read the rhetoric of John Adams (let alone the many others) who echoed this first sentiment, with his rampant claims of tyranny. For example, he called the Stamp Act “an enormous engine, fabricated by the British Parliament for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America.” By 1776 this was a widespread (though not all-encompassing) feeling.
The British perspective was that, since America had benefited from the time of relative self-governance and peace, not having been involved in the European affairs, that they should help pay in the form of the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act, and the Townshend Act. The colonists, in turn, cried this would ruin their productivity. It was but a small stepping stone to the argument of their being ruinous, to their being unconstitutional. The colonists then began attacking the very legitimacy of British rule by calling upon the Magna Carta of 1215 and divine principles of justice.
C. Bradley Thompson, editor of one selection of John Adams’ writings wrote that: “It violated in two important ways the most fundamental principle of the English constitution: the principle of consent. The Stamp act denied the rights guaranteed by Magna Carta that no citizen shall be deprived of his property or taxed without his consent, and it extended juryless courts of admiralty into the American colonies. When combined with the recently passed Sugar Act, the Stamp Act permitted the transfer of revenue enforcement from regular common-law courts to the newly empowered admiralty courts. In Adams’ eyes this meant that unconstitutional courts would now enforce unconstitutional taxes.” Forever the two peoples had fractured, despite the repeal of most of these unfavorable laws.
Fundamentally, I think, the British failed in their being so disconnected from the Americans and thus did not offer solid leadership or any peaceful direction, leaving a void for the radicals to fill—much like the Roman monarchs leaving a void for the Senators (well-versed in persuasive oratory) to fill.
But where the British may not have been paying attention, the early radicals were. I think that they felt that they were the only ones who saw what was coming, having received a rigorous education in the classical works of Rome and Greece: “Those who covet such power, always have recourse to secrecy, and the blackness of darkness to cover their wicked views; and have always their parties and instruments and minions at hand, to disguise their first approaches, and to vilify and abuse—as turbulent destroyers of the public peace, as factious, envious, malicious pretenders to patriotism, as sowers and stirrers of sedition” (Adams).
We read something of an extremely similar sentiment in Discourses on Livy: Rome “could have used no greater fraud than was involved in her method above noted of making for herself companions; since under this name she made for herself subjects…the Latins never knew that they were enslaved until they saw the Samnites twice routed and forced to make terms.”
I can imagine that Adams would have felt like a Trojan Cassandra at times, cursed to see the future, and yet doubly cursed to never have anybody believe her. He felt he saw the first signs of a tyranny that would soon come to enslave Americans. And he was certainly familiar with the Roman principle of constant government renewal to keep a state free and thriving. And as Machiavelli said, “We have seen how necessary it was that Rome should be taken by the Gauls, that being thus in a manner reborn, she might recover life and vigor, and resume the observances of religion and justice which she had suffered to grow rusted by neglect.” The same sentiment was aptly expressed by Thomas Jefferson: “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
But what if only about 10% of the populace agrees with you that revolution is necessary? Here enters mythology. Adams outright uses the Puritan mythology as a justification for his own actions, much like Augustus used Aeneas. Adams writes of the Puritans: “They were from the very beginning enemies to monarchy…they saw clearly, that popular powers must be placed as a guard, a control to the powers of the monarch and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon.”
It is true that they chose to limit the power of the clergy, but given that Rhode Island was founded by those ostracized from Massachusetts I think we can hardly say that our modern conception of brotherly love was a principle practice among the Puritans. In other words, they were separatists but had their own kind of tyranny that would later inspire such works as The Crucible and The Scarlett Letter.
Another illustrative quote: “[Americans] are a people whom no character can flatter or transmit in any expressions equal to their merit and virtue; with the high sentiments of Romans, in the most prosperous and virtuous times of that commonwealth, they have the tender feelings of humanity, and the noble benevolence of Christians; they have the most habitual, radical sense of liberty, and the highest reverence for virtue; they are descended from a race of heroes, who, placing their confidence in Providence alone, set the seas and skies, monsters and savages, tyrants and devils, at defiance for the sake of religion and liberty.”
Compare this to a quote from the Aeneid:
To them no bounds of empire I assign
Nor terms of years to their immortal line.
Even haughty Juno, who, with endless broils,
Earth, seas, and heaven and Jove himself turmoils’
At length, atoned, her friendly power shall join,
To cherish and advance the Trojan line.
The subject world shall Rome’s dominion own
And, prostrate, shall adore the nation of the gown.
Then dire debate and impious war shall cease,
And the stern age be softened into peace
The myth goes deeper as we see him raise the issue beyond the legal arguments and into a “cosmic event.” “Let it be known, that British liberties are not the grants of princes or parliaments, but original rights, conditions of original contracts, coequal with prerogative and coeval with government; that many of our rights are inherent and essential, agreed on as maxims, and established as preliminaries, even before a parliament existed.”
Fundamentally, then, I think he was aware that the tyrannies committed by the British crown were not actually that tyrannical, but were signs of much worse to come. Like the Romans upon seeing Tarquinus the Proud dare run over his father’s body with a chariot, and his son rape a noblewoman, they felt that they were growing progressively worse. Noble blood would soon be spilled on a large scale, and Americans feared something similar.
To summarize, we clearly see both sentiments present in the Americans as well—a sense of their rights being undermined by a newly imperialistic Britain and also feeling that Britain was in the nascent stages of spiraling out of control into a tyranny, a tyranny that should be resisted with violence as Brutus and Publius resisted Tarquin the Proud. And, like Caesar unto Pompey, they asked for terms that could not be complied with. The British could do no other than go to war; an Oedipal struggle would ensue.
As Patrick Henry said, “Is life so dear, our peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God.” Paul Johnson writes that in saying these words he “got to his knees, in the posture of a manacled slave…he then bent to the earth with his hands still crossed for a few seconds, and suddenly sprang to his feet, shouting, “Give me liberty!’ and flung wide his arms, paused, lowered his arms, clenched his right hand as if holding a dagger at his breast, and said in sepulchral tones: ‘Or give me death!’” He would later compare Americans to sailors being lured by sirens to great disaster.
Interestingly, once the revolution was carried through and a new government established, Patrick Henry became a marginal figure and for this I admire him. Like the Roman practice of retiring quietly once leaving office, he abandoned his ambitions for a quieter life having once made their mark upon the world.
I want to clarify that though I admire many of these men, I believe that they also kick-started a long-standing trend of American entitlement and ingratitude–they would never have had their “New Jerusalem” or “New Rome” if not for what Britain did for them. Instead of analyzing these things, I believe, they were possessed with a single-mindedness, high on the holy water of freedom. But we would be wise to remember that everything once given can be taken away.
As many have pointed out before me, the whole series of events is quite bizarre when put into their proper context. A vast colony revolting against a fledgling empire to secure freedom untold, based on classical ideals. And yet very quickly after they got it, betrayed their foundations—escape from the trappings of empire we did not. They did not forge new souls for men. Technology, politics, the invasions from other cultures, were all too big for the intentions of a few men.
One of the grossest atrocities of human treatment was developing in the form of chattel slavery, worse than the institutions of slavery already in Africa, and worse than in Rome (in general) in this extreme form of capitalism. Zinn even reports that “James Madison told a British visitor shortly after the American Revolution that he could make $257 on every Negro in a year, and spend only $12 or $13 on his keep.” In Rome, also, slavery was not nearly the institution under the kingdom as it was in the Republic.
It had a more equality-centered culture as the years went on, but it cannot be denied that injustice has always existed. There has always been at least one group who bore the brunt of public mistreatment. Slaves (free or otherwise), women, Chinese, Japanese, communists, and the list goes on. This does not mean that some of these men didn’t have righteous intentions. These righteous intentions just didn’t outlive them very long. Similarly, in Rome after the Republic was established there developed a centuries-long clash between the plebs and the patricians.
However, through these myths and the culture they generated, Rome physically conquered their entire known world, at least everything they considered worth conquering. The Americans have culturally conquered everything that they deem worth conquering (except some of the Islamic states, which I guess are our equivalent to the Visigoths and such). And the myths of John Adams are the ones we remember, just like of Greece we remember Achilles, as we remember Romulus and Remus. Our myths seem to have outlived the truth.
For all their flaws, I’d rather live under John Adam’s America of civic virtue and introspection than our current America. Imagine having a President who would take his private time to reflect on matters such as the following.
The most abandoned minds are ingenious in contriving excuses for their crimes,
from constraint, necessity, the strength or suddenness of temptation, or the violence
of passion, which serve to soften the remordings of their own consciences, and to
render them by degrees insensible equally to the charms of virtue and the turpitude
This same sentiment is reflected in Livy when he writes that in modern times we can no longer endure our vices, or their remedies.
Alea iacta est. The die is cast.
Adams, John The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams
Andrews, Charles The Colonial Background of the American Revolution
Davies, Norman Europe
Durant, Will Caesar and Christ
Kennedy, Paul The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
MacCullough, Diarmaid The Reformation
Machiavelli, Nicolo Discourses on Livy
Virgil, Aeneid (Two translations: Billson, and Dryden)
Winterer, Caroline Culture of Classicism
Zinn, Howard A People’s History of the United States
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