How to Lose a Constitution—Lessons from Roman History

FEE President Lawrence W. Reed delivered these remarks, compiled from other articles and speeches, to mark the final event at FEE’s original headquarters in Irvington, New York, on Saturday, August 23, 2014.

I begin with this remark of the celebrated Roman historian Livy, written 2,000 years ago:

There is an exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past. There you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you can select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its consequences, you should avoid.

The history of ancient Rome spans a thousand years—roughly 500 as a republic and 500 as an imperial autocracy, with the birth of Christ occurring almost precisely in the middle. The closest parallels between Roman and American civilizations are to be found in Rome’s first half-millennium as a republic. We in our day can derive the most instructive lessons from that period. The tyranny of the empire came after the republic was destroyed and that’s the truly awful consequence of decay that America can yet avoid.

Both Rome and America were born in revolt against monarchy—Americans against the British and Romans against the Etruscans. Wary of concentrated authority, both established republics with checks and balances, separation of powers and protection of certain rights of at least many people, if not all. Despite shortcomings, the establishment of the Roman Republic in the sixth century B.C. and the American Republic in the eighteenth century A.D. represented the greatest advances for individual liberty in the history of the world. Unparalleled prosperity and influence resulted in both cases. Both established constitutions intended to preserve the liberties bestowed on large numbers of people—the Americans a written one, the Romans, like the British, an unwritten one that was nonetheless revered for centuries as precedent not to be violated and definitely worth fighting and even dying for.

Upon winning their freedom, Romans split the top position of power between two men—the consuls. One was to be a check upon the other and neither, except in emergency situations, was to serve more than one year. Legislative bodies—the Senate and assemblies of elected representatives—were established. Incidentally, the Senate was retained in name, though not in power, for the entire thousand years of Roman history. Even as freedom vanished, the later tyrants couldn’t quite bring themselves to abolish the symbols of republicanism. So if America ever loses its Republic, it wouldn’t be surprising if it kept its House and Senate. As in the case of Rome, our legislative bodies may even formally ratify the final extinction of the freedom they’ve been voting against for decades.

Let me share with you what I call, “The Three Most Stubborn Lessons of History,” and then I’ll go back and briefly relate each to the Roman Republic:

Number One: No people who lost their character kept their liberties.

Number Two: Power that is shackled and dispersed is preferable to power that is unrestrained and centralized.

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The speech begins at 26:00 on the video

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