Ancient America: Classical Influences on the Political and Ideological Development of the United States

Classical Influences on the Organization of the Federal Government
Mixed Government and a System of Checks and Balances

The Histories of Polybius taught the founding generation the need for a mixed government, one that was equipped w­ith an effective system of checks and balances. In order to decide upon the best form of mixed government, Polybius states that it is of the most importance to thoroughly study the different types of constitutions (διόπερ οὐ τῆς τυχούσης ἐπιστάσεως προσδεῖται καὶ θεωρίας, εἰ μέλλοι τις τὰ διαφέροντα καθαρίως ἐν αὐτῇ συνόψεσθαι, 6.3.4). This echoes the claims made by both the Federalists and the anti-Federalists concerning the need for a careful study of historical exempla as well as of the current proposed Constitution.

According to Polybius there are three different constitutions of interest: kingship, aristocracy, and democracy (ὧν τὸ μὲν καλοῦσι βασιλείαν, τὸ δ᾽ἀριστοκρατίαν, τὸ δὲ τρίτον δημοκρατίαν, 6.3.6), and when these three constitutions are mixed, the result is the best possible form of government. Rome—during the Hannibalic war—had an exemplary constitution and was nearly a perfect state due to its mixture of the monarchial, democratic, and aristocratic (Ὅτι ἀπὸ τῆς Ξέρξου διαβάσεως εἰς τὴν Ἑλλάδα **** καὶ τριάκοντα ἔτεσιν ὔστερον ἀπὸ τούτων τῶν καιρῶν ἀεὶ τῶν κατὰ μέρος προδιευκρινουμένων ἦν καὶ κάλλιστον καὶ τέλειον ἐν τοῖς Ἀννιβιακοῖς, 6.11.1). At the time of the war with Hannibal, the Roman government was headed by two consuls—each elected annually by the popular assembly (Comitia Centuriata). The consuls, one of patrician status and the other of plebeian rank, served as the heads of their own respective armies, proposed legislation, and were able to veto each other’s proposals and decisions. The members of the Senate were strictly of patrician rank and served a life term unless forcibly removed from office. Polybius tells of the Senate’s control of the treasury (ἔχει τὴν τοῦ ταμιείου κυρίαν, 6.13.1), and their power to preside over cases concerning crimes that were committed in Italy. They also held the authority to dispatch embassies outside of Italy (6.13.2-7). With regards to the role of the people, the Plebeian Tribunes had the sole power to give honors and judge in trials that concerned the highest officials. They were also able to veto laws and approve or reject both treaties and alliances.

Polybius claims that if one were to look solely at the consuls they would see a monarchial constitution; if at the Senate alone, they would see the constitution of an aristocracy. If one were only to examine the Plebeian Tribunes, they would see a solely democratic government. For the historian, the mixture of these three constitutions allowed for the Romans to live under a government that resided near perfection. This mixture of constitutions also fostered an effective and necessary system of checks and balances. If a consul wanted to go to war, he must have had the support of both the Senate and the Plebeian Tribunes (δοκεῖ μὲν αὐτοκράτωρ εἶναι πρὸς τὴν τῶν προκειμένων συντέλειαν, προσδεῖται δὲ τοῦ δήμου καὶ τῆς συγκλήτου, 6.15.3). Because the Senate was in charge of the state’s funds, it was necessary that they consent to the various financial requests of the consul so that the latter could receive the required capital. It is also imperative that the consuls remain in good favor with the Plebeian Tribunes, since they had the power to approve or deny the treaties and armistices ( γὰρ τὰς διαλύσεις καὶ συνθήκας ἀκύρους καὶ κυρίας ποιῶν, ὡς ἐπάνω προεῖπον, οὗτος ἐστιν, 6.15.10).

The Plebeian Tribunes provided checks on the Senate, for if the Senate desired to judge the crimes of which the highest officials of the state were accused, those which would result in the death or severe punishment of the accused, the Tribunes would then have been required to consent to a senatus consultum, allowing the Senate to have the judicial power (6.16.1-3). Moreover, on any decision that the Senate agreed upon, the Plebeian Tribunes had the ability to veto their conclusion; for the Plebeian Tribunes were meant to serve as representatives of the needs and wishes of the plebeian class (ὀφείλουσι δ᾽ἀεὶ ποιεῖν οἱ δήμαρχοι τὸ δοκοῦν τῷ δήμῳ καὶ μάλιστα στοχάζεσθαι τῆς τούτου βουλήσεως, 6.16.5). Finally, the Tribunes also needed to remain in the favor of the Senate, as the latter served as the judge in civil trials, and the plebeian class relied on the contracts from members of the Senate that allowed for maintenance and construction of public infrastructure. Polybius concludes this analysis of the checks and balances present in the Roman constitution by stating that because one part of the government was able to hinder or support another, as a unified whole they were able to best protect their citizens and state; therefore, one would find it difficult to find a better government (6.18.1-2):

Τοιαύτης δ᾽οὔσης τῆς ἑκάστου τῶν μερῶν δυνάμεως εἰς τὸ καὶ βλάπτειν καὶ συνεργεῖν ἀλλήλοις, πρὸς πάσας συμβαίνει τὰς περιστάσεις δεόντως ἔχειν τὴν ἁρμογὴν αὐτῶν, ὥστε μὴ οἷόν τ᾽εἶναι ταύτης εὑρεῖν ἀμείνω πολιτείας σύστασιν.

Polybius influenced the founding generation to such a degree that, according to Richard M. Gummere, Thomas Jefferson would ship “copies of Polybius and sets of ancient authors” to James Madison and George Wythe from Paris (Wythe 4). For the colonists, Polybius served as the primary source of information concerning the Greek city-states, and—as has already been shown—the perfect mixture of government, equipped with the necessary checks and balances, employed by the Romans during the war with Hannibal. In Federalist No. 51, Publius argues for this same division of power in order to perpetuate the American Republic. In order to effectively divide the power between the three branches, they must construct “the interior structure of the government as that its several constituents parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper place” (Federalist No. 51). This system of checks and balances was argued as imperative for safeguarding the people’s liberties.

However, there was not unanimous agreement to a tripartite governmental system. At the Constitutional Convention, James Wilson argued that, “A plurality in the Executive Government would probably produce a tyranny as bad as the thirty Tyrants of Athens, or as the Decemvirs of Rome” (Farrand, I.74). Edmund Randolph also voiced his objections, questioning whether “a Council would be sufficient to check the improper views of an ambitious Man” (Farrand I.74). Would the liberties of the Americans even be protected by the proposed system of checks and balances?

The Legislative Branch

Of the three branches of government, the construction of the legislative branch was most influenced by the ancient republics of Greece and Rome. The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of both a Senate and a House of Representatives, echoes the division of legislative power that existed between the Senate and the Plebeian Tribunes in that of Rome. In his thirty-fourth Federalist paper, Publius speaks of the coexistence of the Comitia Centuriata and the Comitia Tributa, which allowed the Roman republic to attain “the utmost height of human greatness.” According to Federalist No. 52, the primary concern of the House of Representatives—similar to that of the Plebeian Tribunes—rests in the interests of the American citizens, “so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.” The Senate, serving as the second body of the legislative branch, is meant to be a “salutary check on the government” (Federalist No. 62).

Writing under the pseudonym “Fabius,” John Dickinson argues in favor of the establishment of a Senate and argues that it must be strong in order to preserve the American Republic. Utilizing his knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, Dickinson states (Fabius Letters No. 5): “In Carthage and Rome, there was a very numerous senate, strengthened by prodigious attachments, and in a great degree independent of the people. In Athens, there was a senate strongly supported by the powerful court of Areopagus. In each of these republics, their affairs at length became convulsed, and their liberty was subverted. What cause produced these effects? Encroachments of the senate upon the authority of the people? No! but directly the reverse, according to the unanimous voice of the historians; that is, encroachments of the people upon the authority of the senate.”

While there existed a strong senatorial structure, the Roman and Greek republics prospered; however, once the strength of that necessary component began to dissolve, so did their independent political structures. Yet the Senate itself was not at fault; instead, it was the citizens themselves, and they were only delayed in their destruction due to the “remnants of senatorial authority” (Fabius Letters No. 5). Here, Dickinson is thinking specifically of Julius Caesar. He quotes Francis Bacon in a footnote, who wrote, “His [Caesar’s] first artifice was to break the strength of the Senate, for while that remained safe, there was no opening for any person to immoderate or extraordinary power,— ‘Nam initio sibi erant frangendae senatus opes et auctoritas qua salva nemini ad immodica et extra ordinaria imperia aditus erat.’” It was an external force that caused the dissolution of the Roman Senate, and it was only while there remained a small portion of the congressional body that Rome was protected from Caesar’s tyrannical force.

Throughout his fifth letter, Dickinson continues to draw his historical information directly from Polybius, citing and echoing the historian in his analysis of the congressional bodies of both the Amphictyonic council and the Achaean League. With regard to the former, their “authority was very great: But, the parts were not sufficiently combined, to guard against the ambitious, avaricious, and selfish projects of some of them” (Fabius Letters No. 5). On the contrary, the Congress of the Achaean League was consistent throughout to such a degree that the League seemed to be just one state. Quoting Polybius, Dickinson states:

From their incorporation” says Polybius, “may be dated the birth of that greatness, that by a constant augmentation, at length arrived to a marvelous height of prosperity. The fame of their wise laws and mild government reached the Greek colonies in Italy, where the Grotoniates, the Sybarites, and the Cauloniates, agreed to adopt them, and to govern their states comfortably.”

Because its members established a strong congressional body, the Achaean League was far more prosperous than the Amphictyonic Council. Dickinson does not deny that the League had its faults; however, despite its defects, it was because of the League’s Congress and the representation that it offered the people that their overall happiness and success was increased (Fabius Letters No. 5): “With all its defects, with all its disorders, yet such was the life and vigor communicated through the whole, by the popular representation of each part, and the close combination of all, that the true spirit of republicanism predominated, and thereby advanced the happiness and glory of the people to so pre-eminent a state that our ideas upon the pleasing theme cannot be too elevated.”

The congressional body of the Achaean League had its flaws and was not designed in a manner that would foster its longevity; however, because the American colonists were thoroughly aware of the errors made by the Achaean League, they were able to avoid them in their own plan for a congressional body. It is important to note that this proves to be the framework in which the founding generation commonly analyzed and discussed the ancient republics of both Greece and Rome. There exist many positive aspects of both polities; however, the founding generation must not forget that all of the republics that are under analysis eventually reached their demise. Not only was it imperative to study these examples, but it was equally important that they knew their nature to such a degree that allowed the founding generation to effectively learn from their mistakes.

In opposition to the Federalist agenda and the establishment of a Senate, a series of letters, published under the pseudonym “Brutus,” appeared in the New York Journal during the months of October 1787 and April 1788. In his sixth letter, published on December 27, 1787, Brutus continues his argument that Congress, as defined in the Constitution, is allotted too much power that will go unchecked. In fact, it will destroy the liberty and power of the state governments. He argues that the people will become overburdened with having to pay taxes to both the federal and their respective state governments. As a result, Congress will have to eliminate the power of the state governments to tax their citizens. According to Brutus, “The conclusion therefore is inevitable, that the respective state governments will not have the power to raise one shilling in any way, but by the permission of the Congress” (Brutus Letters No. 6). If the state governments are not able to raise their own money, then they will naturally become “dependent on the will of the general government for their existence” (Brutus Letters No. 6). In other words, the state governments will each become subject to the tyrannical rule of the Senate. In a lengthy passage, Brutus characterizes the powers of the Senate: “This power, exercised without limitation, will introduce itself into every corner of the city, and country—It will wait upon the ladies as their toilett, and will not leave them in any of their domestic concerns; it will accompany them to the ball, the play, and the assembly; it will go with them when they visit, and will, on all occasions, sit beside them in their carriages, nor will it desert them even at church; it will enter the house of every gentleman, watch over his cellar, wait upon his cook in the kitchen, follow the servants into the parlour, preside over the table, and note down all he eats or drinks; it will attend him to his bed-chamber, and watch him while he sleeps; it will take cognizance of the professional man in his office, or his study; it will watch the merchant in the counting-house, or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to his shop, and in his work, and will haunt him in his family, and in his bed; it will be a constant companion of the industrious farmer in all his labour, it will be with him in the house, and in the field, observe the toil of his hands, and the sweat of his brow; it will penetrate into the most obscure cottage; and finally, it will light upon the head of every person in the United States. To all these different classes of people, and in all these circumstances, in which it will attend them, the language in which it will address them, will be GIVE! GIVE!”

Brutus’ characterization of the Senate reveals that he is playing to his readers’ fears of the avaricious nature of man. If the Constitution is ratified, then the liberties belonging to the state governments will be annihilated, and a tyrant will subsequently assume power. However, if the people were to heed the warnings of Brutus, they could rely on him to assassinate Julius Caesar and protect them from a despotic congressional body.

The Executive and Judicial Branches

With respect to the executive and judicial branches of the government, the argument for direct influence by the ancient Greek and Roman republics becomes more complicated. David J. Bederman states that “…there was no true separation of powers in the sense we understand today” (Bederman 81). He then proceeds to argue, “Powers in the idealized Roman Constitution may have been allocated to different offices and councils, but there was no separation of executive, legislative, judicial functions, and certainly no prohibition on the same magistrate or body exercising more than one of those prerogatives” (Bederman 81). It was not uncommon for one political body to infringe on the defined rights and authority of another, thus blurring the boundaries between the consuls, the Senate, and the Plebeian Tribunes.

The Consuls

With respect to the executive branch, the office of the consules bears a resemblance to the office of the President of the United States. The two Roman consuls, both elected annually by the comitia centuriata, possessed the highest executive power (imperium), which allowed them to preside over both the Senate and the Plebeian Tribunes. While the Senate had the authority to declare war, the consuls served as the commanders-in-chief of their own armies. The two consuls also had the authority to veto one another’s proposed laws, to appoint a dictator during a state of emergency, and to fill any vacancies that arose in the Senate.

The Process of Election

Similar to the restrictions on the presidency of the United States, there existed both an age limit and citizenship requirement. In order to be elected, the consul had to be at least forty-two years of age, hold Roman citizenship, and have previously served in other governmental offices. The process of their election began when one who wanted to become consul made a professio, “a preliminary announcement of one’s candidacy” (Abbott 170). Having announced that he was running for consul, the candidate would then begin to canvass in order to secure votes (the petitio). According to Frank Frost Abbott (Abbott 170):

Candidates for office appeared in the forum clad in a new whitened toga. They shook hands with voters, and took care to have a well-attended salutatio, and to be accompanied by large escorts in going to and fro. They sometimes gave largesses, contributed money out of their own pockets for the public games, and aimed at securing the support of guilds and political clubs.

As citizenship was extended to peoples outside of Rome, the candidate’s campaign trail spread across Italy.

The Office of the President and What Not to Do

While it is clear that those who outlined the powers invested in the office of the President were influenced to some degree by that of the Roman consuls, they also looked to the consules in order to learn what not to implement in their own executive branch. As has been illustrated, the Roman constitution called for two consuls. In an attempt to avoid conflict between the two authorities, it was required that “the consuls took turns month by month in exercising the right of the initiative” (Abbott 176). The consul who held the power for the given month was—at times—referred to as the consul maior. In Federalist No. 70, Alexander Hamilton as Publius argued that the United States should not have a plurality in the executive branch. Utilizing examples from both the Greek and Roman republics, he states, “We have seen that the Achaeans, on an experiment of two Praetors, were induced to abolish one. The Roman history records many instances of mischiefs to the republic from the dissensions between the Consuls, and between the military Tribunes, who were at times substituted for Consuls” (Federalist No. 70). If the United States were to have a dual presidency, the ambitious nature of man would certainly cause the destruction of their own republic. Both would be in a continuous battle for sole power, diminishing and ultimately hurting the executive branch. Furthermore, the two other branches and the American people could more easily watch and hold accountable one single president as opposed to two. As an example, Hamilton states, “The Decemvirs of Rome, whose name denotes their number, were more to be dreaded in their usurpation than any ONE of them would have been” (Federalist No. 70).

The Judicial Branch

Unlike the United States Constitution, the Roman constitution did not outline a unique and separate judicial branch. As Bederman states, “There was no real structural concept of judicial independence in ancient Rome. The crucial judicial office of the republic—the praetor—was an executive function” (Bederman 79). The office of the praetor was established by means of stripping the consules of specific judicial authority that they initially held. This specific office became necessary due to the increase in duties of the consuls, and the situation was exacerbated by the constant absence of the two consuls from Rome due to both their duty as commanders-in-chief and the constant warfare in which Rome frequently found herself (Abbott 37). Initially there was a sole praetor, but that changed with the establishment of a second (praetor urbanus). The office of praetor was then increased again in 227 BCE to four, and then to six in 197 BCE (Abbott 188). Ultimately, the number of praetors reached sixteen. In contrast to the judicial branch of the United States government, the Roman praetors were not solely judges. The praetor “acted as a judge, as a provincial governor, and as an administrative officer” (Abbott 189).

Concerning the judicial branch in relation to the executive and legislative branches, Publius states in Federalist No. 70: “the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either a sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatsoever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgement; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgements.”

The proposed Constitution limits the judicial branch to such an extent that it is therefore argued by the Federalists to be the weakest branch of the government. The Supreme Court is only able to judge on whether laws that are made and passed by Congress are constitutional or not. However, the judicial branch is invested with complete judicial authority that cannot be imposed upon by the other two branches. In contrast, the Roman constitution allowed the Senate to serve as the “supreme judicial body” (Bederman 107). The American Congress, however, does have judicial power when it impeaches and tries a standing president.

Ultimately, unlike the copious ancient exempla that existed for the construction of the executive and legislative branches of the United States government, there existed very few ancient examples of a distinct judicial body to which the founding generation could refer. The ancient republics of Greece and Rome primarily influenced the founding generation in their construction of the legislative and executive branches.