Ancient America: The Influences of Greece and Rome on the Political and Ideological Development of the United States

The Need for a Unified Central Government

Alexander Hamilton

In order to illustrate America’s need for one central government, as opposed to thirteen independent governments, the Federalists turned to the examples provided by the ancient Greek states.

In Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton argues that to think that the American republic could survive in a state of division, free of warfare and dissention, would be to ignore the course of events of human history. Hamilton then draws his first example from Plutarch’s Life of Pericles. Pericles, an Athenian general, led his army in a battle against the Samians, a fellow Greek city-state, in what is now known as the Samian War. The general was living with a concubine, Aspasia of Miletus, whom Plutarch describes as a prostitute; according to Plutarch, Pericles urged this attack in order to please his beloved. In chapter twenty-five, Plutarch writes, “They accuse Pericles of getting the assembly to vote in favor of the war against the Samians on behalf of the Milesians, since Aspasia begged,” (τὸν δὲ πρὸς Σαμίους πόλεμον αἰτιῶνται μάλιστα τὸν Περικλέα ψηφίσασθαι διὰ Μιλησίους Ἀσπασίας δεηθείσης.) Hamilton recalls this example when he says, “The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the Samnians” (Federalist No. 6). Hamilton proceeds to further utilize his knowledge of Pericles:
“The same man, stimulated by private pique against the Megarensians, another nation of Greece, or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened as an accomplice in a supposed theft of the statuary of Phidias, or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity, or from a combination of all these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the Peloponnesian war; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth.”

Hamilton paints a picture of Pericles that highlights his avariciousness, his preoccupation with his own self and gain, and it was these characteristics that caused the ultimate demise of Athens. These vices are only natural in man, and Hamilton argues that they would certainly occur amongst the various leaders of the separate American governments, thus causing them to go to war with one another if there were no strong federal government.

In Federalist No. 9, Alexander Hamilton again illustrates America’s need for a unified and strong central government. He validates this need by claiming:
“It is impossible to read this history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.”

Fortunately, the American colonists had knowledge that the ancients did not, which would allow them to avoid making those same political mistakes.

James Madison

However, the Federalists were aware that establishing one unified government would not quell all sources of faction between the states of the new Republic. James Madison states that the seeds of faction are inherent to the nature of man, and that they will always manifest themselves in various circumstances (Federalist No. 10). Man is naturally greedy, jealous, and filled with passions that, at times, are not able to be controlled; according to Hamilton in Federalist No. 15, these inherent vices are why a government is needed at all; for history proves that without a strong unitary and unified governmental system, those defects in character naturally lead to internal dissension.

The Federalists, once more, turn to the Greek city states and their experiences with leagues and alliances. They compared both to their current political situation in order to prove why the current government of the United States—under the Articles of Confederation— would not be able to sustain the nation, and that in order to ensure its longevity, they needed a strong central government. In ancient practice, each city-state retained the notion of its independence and was allotted “equal votes in the federal council” (Federalist No. 18). However, according to Publius in Federalist No. 18:
“The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities; and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest. Athens as we learn from Demosthenes, was the arbiter of Greece seventy-three years. The Lacedaemonians next governed it twenty-nine years; at a subsequent period, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans had their turn of domination. It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgement went in favor of the most powerful party.”

Any reprieve from war was filled with that internal dissension of which Federalist No. 10 initially warned. In fact, “Athens and Sparta, inflated with the victories and the glory they had acquired, became first rivals and then enemies; and did each other infinitely more mischief than they had suffered from Xerxes” (Federalist No. 18). For the Federalists, the leagues of Greek city-states clearly illustrated how the governments of the larger states, if each were to remain independent, would be ruled by their own ambition and jealousy; in turn, they would then rule over the smaller states.

Not only would there exist continual internal dissension amongst the states if America were to remain under the Articles of Confederation, but the states, as a whole, would be more susceptible to external attacks, which proved to be the reason for Greece falling under the dominion of Macedon and then Rome. According to Publius, the Achaean League provides a good example, although there seemed to exist “infinitely more moderation and justice in the administration of its government, and less violence and sedition in the people” (Federalist No. 18). However, each city eventually became primarily interested in its own interests, which resulted in the dissolution of the league. “Some of the cities fell under the tyranny of Macedonian garrisons; others under that of usurpers springing out of their own confusions” (Federalist No. 18). Publius then claims that this division eventually invited the tyranny of Rome, and that she “found little difficulty in completing the ruin which their arts had commenced” (Federalist No. 18).

America did not have to rely solely on the example of the ancient Greek republics, for by the time that Publius had published the Federalist, America had already seen its own internal strife. As a result of the economic turmoil experienced by America following the Revolution, the rural farmers of Massachusetts (amongst others) found themselves unable to pay back their debts, as well as the taxes that were imposed upon them by the state government, a situation that was only exacerbated since many individuals who had fought in the war were not able to receive the pay that they had earned. In turn, many farmers either had their entire farm repossessed or were jailed by law enforcement for lack of payment. This resulted in Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolution, leading other debt-ridden citizens in an armed uprising against the government of Massachusetts. Alexander Hamilton reflects upon Shay’s Rebellion in Federalist No. 21: “The tempestuous situation from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged, evinces that dangers of this kind are not merely speculative. Who can determine what might have been the issue of her late convulsions, if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or by a Cromwell? Who can predict what effect a despotism, established in Massachusetts, would have upon the liberties of New Hampshire or Rhode Island, of Connecticut or New York”?

What further dissension amongst the states would Shay have caused if his revolt had been successful? What other wars would have ensued throughout the states? How long would it have been before another country preyed upon the weakness of American faction, causing this new nation to follow in the footsteps of her ancient Greek predecessors?

Supporting Publius and his arguments made in the Federalist, John Dickinson wrote and published his own letters under the pseudonym Fabius, in which he supported the ratification of the proposed Constitution and the need for a strong central government. In his first letter—published in 1788—Fabius argues that those who oppose the call for a strong unitary government have erred: “Probably nothing would operate so much for the correction of these errors, as the perusal of the accounts transmitted to us by the ancients, of the calamities occasioned in Greece by a conduct founded on similar mistakes. They are expressly ascribed to this cause—that each city meditated a part on its own profit and ends—insomuch that those who seemed to contend for union, could never relinquish their own interests and advancement, while they deliberated for the public.”

Like the Greek city-states, if the American states each had their own government, they could easily appear to promote the union of the nation, but each would remain primarily interested in their own “interests and advancements.”

John Dickinson

The natural result would be the demise of the American republic. For Fabius, history teaches us —if allowed—that the nature of man has been and will continue to be the cause of the destruction of republics. A strong central government, however, would safeguard the liberties of the people against the detrimental forces of man’s vices. In his third letter, Fabius writes, “It is more pleasing, and may be more profitable to reflect, that their tranquility and prosperity have commonly been promoted, in proportion to the strength of their government for protecting the worthy against the licentious.”

In opposition to the notion that America needed a strong central government were the anti-Federalists, whose primary argument rested on the notion that a consolidated government would strip the states of their individual liberties, and that this one central government would eventually morph into a tyranny ruling over a powerless people. In a speech that was first published on June 5, 1788, Patrick Henry spoke at the Virginia Convention of 1788 in an attempt to show the dangers of ratifying the proposed Constitution. At the forefront of his speech, Henry claimed, “Here is a revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain. It is as radical, if in this transition our rights and privileges are endangered, and the sovereignty of the States be relinquished: And cannot we plainly see, that this is actually the case?” He then goes on to state that his audience only has to look at the examples of ancient Greece and Rome in order to find similar situations where individuals have lost “their liberty by their own carelessness and the ambition of a few.” Henry does not provide the specific examples to which he alludes, signifying that he expects his audience to be well acquainted with the histories of the ancient republics. In a speech published two days later from the Virginia Convention, Henry continues to argue that the proposed Constitution will, in fact, allow for a monarchy, and that the President will become a king. Therefore, the independence from monarchial rule for which the American people had just fought would be for naught: “Away with your President, we shall have a King: The army will salute him Monarch; your militia will leave you and assist in making him King, and fight against you: And what have you to oppose this force? What will then become of you and your rights?” It is clear that the speeches of Patrick Henry echo the sentiments found in the “Centinel” articles, the first of which was published on October 5, 1787. Henry utilizes similar rhetoric to that used by Centinel, who, writing to the freemen of Pennsylvania, warns that if they are to adopt the proposed Constitution as is, then they will certainly lose all of the individual liberties that are granted to them under the Articles of Confederation.

In a piece first published under the classical pseudonym Brutus on October 18, 1787, the author addresses the “Citizens of the State of New York”—just as each paper of the Federalist was addressed to “the People of the State of New York”— highlighting the importance of the decision that is to be made concerning the proposed Constitution, and the lasting impact that it will have for generations to come. He then proceeds to the purpose of his first letter, which is to object to the need for a strong central government. Brutus does this by employing the same argumentation used by Henry and the Centinel, claiming that the ratification of the Constitution would immediately void the liberties of the states, who would then no longer have a President, but instead be forced under the rule of a tyrant. However, Brutus further develops his argument and states that one central government would not be able to rule over a territory as vast as the United States. For this he refers back to the republics of ancient Greece and Rome: “History furnishes no example of a free republic, any thing like the extent of the United States. The Grecian republics were of small extent; so also was that of the Romans. Both of these, it is true, in process of time, extended their conquests over large territories of country; and the consequence was, that their governments were changed from that of free governments to those of the most tyrannical that ever existed in the world.”

For Brutus it was the size of the Greek and Roman republics that caused their respective downfalls. A true free government is only able to govern over a small territory, such as that of an individual state, and if the Constitution were to be ratified, there would be too many representatives, who are expressing too many different opinions, with the result that “there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other.”

There existed a need not only to refer back to the ancient exempla but also to understand the present circumstances in their entirety in order to make a well-informed and a subjectively correct decision. The examples of the ancient Greek and Roman governments provided the founding generation both a way to critically analyze their current reality, and a way by which to predict the future. They all were aware that the decisions that they were asked to make concerning the government of the United States would not only result in immediate impact, but also affect the generations to come.