Antalcidas Crushes Liberty by Deceit: Adams' Defense No. 42

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 42

Ancient Democratical Republics: ANTALCIDAS

Dear Sir,

IN the year 1774, a certain British officer, then at Boston, was often heard to say, “I wish I were Parliament: I would not send a ship or troop to this country; but would forthwith pass a statute, declaring every town in North America a free, sovereign, and independent commonwealth. This is what they all desire, and I would indulge them; I should soon have the pleasure to see them all at war with one another, from one end of the continent to the other.” — This was a gentleman of letters, and perhaps had learned his politics from Antalcidas, whose opinion concerning the government of a single assembly, is very remarkable; but the Greek and the Briton would both have found their artifices in America ineffectual. The Americans are very far from being desirous of such multiplications and divisions of states, and know too well the mischiefs that would follow from them: yet the natural and inevitable effect of Mr. Turgot’s system of government, would, in a course of time, be such a spirit among the people.

It is not very certain whether Antalcidas was a Spartan or not. If he was, he had violated the law of Lycurgus by travel, and had resided long in Persia, and maintained an intercourse and correspondence with several noble families. He was bold, subtle, insinuating, eloquent; but his vices and corruption were equal to his address. The stern Spartan senate thought him a proper instrument to execute an insidious commission at a profligate court. The institutions of his own country, Sparta, were the objects of his ridicule; but those of the democratical states of Greece, of his sovereign contempt. The ancient maxim of some of the Greeks, “That every thing is lawful to a man in the service of his country,” was now obsolete, and had given way to a purer morality; but Antalcidas was probably one of those philosophers, who thought every thing lawful to a man which could serve his private interest. — The Spartan senate never acted upon a principle much better; and therefore might, upon this occasion, have given their ambassador the instruction which he pretended, viz. to offer “to resign all pretensions to the Greek cities in Asia, which they would acknowledge to be dependencies of the Persian empire; and to declare all the cities and islands, small and great, totally independent of each other.” These articles, in consequence of which there would not be any republic powerful enough to disturb the tranquility of Persia, were more advantageous to them than the most insolent courtier would have ventured to propose. The ambassador was rewarded by a magnificent present; and the terms of peace transmitted to court, to be ratified by Artaxerxes. The negotiation however languished, and the war was carried on with violence for several years; and all the art, activity, and address of Antalcidas were put to the trial, before he obtained the ratification. The treaty was at last completed — That all the republics, small and great, should enjoy the independent government of their own hereditary laws; and whatever people rejected these conditions, so evidently calculated for preserving the public tranquility, must expect the utmost indignation of the Great King, who, in conjunction with the republic of Sparta, would make war on their perverse and dangerous obstinacy, by sea and land, with ships and money.”

Antalcidas, and Teribazus the Persian satrap, with whom he had concerted the treaty, had foreseen, that, as Thebes must resign her authority over the inferior cities of Boeotia — as Argos must withdraw her garrison from Corinth, and leave that capital in the power of the aristocratic or Lacedaeonian faction — and as Athens must abandon the fruits of her recent victories — there might be an opposition to the treaty made by these three states: to guard against which, they had provided powerful armaments by sea and land, which, with Spartan and Persian threats, so intimidated all, that all at last submitted.

This peace of Antalcidas forms a disgraceful era in the history of Greece. Their ancient confederacies were dissolved; the smaller towns were loosened from all connection with the large cities; all were weakened, by being disunited. — what infamy to the magistracies of Sparta, and their intriguing, unprincipled ambassador! But Athens, Thebes, and Argos, by the friendship of the democratical cities and confederacies, had become powerful, and excited their haughty jealousy. The article which declared the smaller cities independent, was peculiarly useful to the views of Sparta; it represented them as the patrons of liberty, among the free. The stern policy of Sparta had crushed, in all her secondary towns, the hope of independence. The authority of Athens, Thebes, Argos, and all the democratical confederacies, were less imperious; the sovereign and subject were more nearly on a footing of equality; and the Spartans knew, that men are disposed to reject the just rights of their equals, rather than revolt against the tyranny of their masters:” their own slaves and citizens had furnished them with constant proof of this.

But Sparta, by this master piece of roguery, meant not only to hold still all her own subordinate cities in subjection, not only to detach the inferior communities from her rivals, but to add them to her own confederacy. To this end she, by her emissaries, intrigued in all the subordinate cities. How? by promoting liberty, popular government, or proper mixtures of a well-ordered commonwealth? By no means; but by supporting the aristocratical factions in all of them, fomenting animosities among the people against each other, and especially against their capitals. Complaints, occasioned by these cabals, were referred to the Spartan senate, which had acquired the reputation of the patron of the free, the weak, and the injured, and always decided in their own favor. But the ambition of Spartans, cool and cunning as it was, had not patience to remain long satisfied with such legal usurpations; they determined to mix the terror of their arms with the seduction of policy. Before we proceed to an account of their operations, we must develop a little more fully the policy of Antalcidas. — Besides the free republics of Attica, Thebes, and Argos, which consisted of several cities, governed by their first magistrate, senate, and people, in which the subordinate cities always complained of the inordinate influence of the capital; there were several republics reputed still more popular, because they were governed by single assemblies, like Biscay, the Grisons, Appenzel, Underwald, Glaris, &c. These republics consisted of several towns, each governed by its own first magistrate, council, and people; but confederated together, under the superintendance of a single diplomatical assembly, in which certain common laws were agreed on, and certain common magistrates appointed, by deputies from each town. These confederacies are the only examples of governments by a single assembly which were known in Greece. Antalcidas knew that each of these towns was discontented with the administration of their common assembly, and in their hearts wished for independence. It was to this foible of the people that he addressed that policy, in his Persian treaty, by which he twisted to atoms, as if it had been a rope of sand, every democratical city and confederacy, and every one in which democracy and aristocracy were mixed, throughout all Greece. The first victim of this ambitious policy was Arcadia, in the center of Peloponnesus, whose principal town was Mantinaea. Arcadia was a fertile and beautiful valley, surrounded by lofty mountains: the scattered villages of shepherds, inhabiting these hills and vales, had grown into cities, by the names of Tegea, Stymphalis, Heræa, Orchomonus, and Mantinæa. The inhabitants were distinguished by their innocence, and the simplicity of their manners; but, whenever they had been obliged, from necessity, to engage in war, they had displayed such vigor, energy, and intrepidity, as made their alliance very desirable. The dangerous neighborhood of Sparta had obliged them to fortify their towns, and maintain garrisons; but jealousies arose between Tegea and Mantinæa, and emulations to be the capital. The year after the treaty of Antalcidas, ambassadors were sent by the Spartan senate to the assembly at Mantinæa, to command them to demolish the walls of their proud city, and return to their peaceful villages. The reasons assigned were, that the Mandnæans had discovered their hatred to Sparta, envied her prosperity, rejoiced in her misfortunes, and, in the late war, had furnished some corn to the Argives. The Mantinæans received the proposal with indignation; the ambassadors retired in disgust: the Spartans proclaimed war, demanded the aid of their allies, and marched a powerful army under their king Agesipolis, and invaded the territory. After the most destructive ravages of the country, and a long siege of Mantinæa, they were not able to subdue the spirit of this people, until they turned the course of the river Ophis, and laid the walls of the city under water; these, being of raw bricks, dissolved, and fell. The inhabitants, intimidated, offered to demolish the walls, and follow Sparta in peace and war, upon condition they might be allowed to continue and live in the city. — Agesipolis replied, that while they lived together in one city, their numbers exposed them to the delusions of seditious demagogues, whose address and eloquence seduced the multitude from their true interest, and destroyed the influence of their superiors in rank, wealth, and wisdom, on whose attachment alone the Lacedæmonians could depend; and therefore, that they must destroy their houses in the city, separate into four communities, and return to those villages which their ancestors had inhabited. The terror of an immediate assault made it necessary to comply; and the Spartans made a mighty merit of suffering sixty of the most zealous partisans of democracy to fly, unmurdered, from their country.

The little republic of Phlius too, like every other where a balance is not known and preserved, was distracted by parties. The popular party prevailed, and banished their opponents, the friends of aristocracy. The Spartans threatened, and the ruling party permitted the exiles to return; but not meeting with respectful treatment enough, they complained, and the Spartans, under Agesilaus, appointed commissioners to try and condemn to death the obnoxious leaders of the people in Phlius. This odious office was executed with such unexampled severity, as terrified those who survived into an invariable attachment to Sparta.

The confederacy of Olynthus was next attempted. A number of towns, of which Olynthus was the principal, between two rivers, had been incorporated or associated together, and grown into some power, and greater hopes. This was enough to arouse the jealousy of Sparta. They sent four or five successive armies, under their ablest kings, to take the part of the aristocratical faction, and conquer this league. Such was the spirit and resources of this little spot, that they defended themselves for four or five campaigns, and then were forced to submit.

Thebes had been torn with aristocratic and democratic factions, in consequence of the peace of Antalcidas, and Sparta joined the latter, which ultimately produced long and obstinate wars, and the exalted characters of Pelopidas and Epaminondas, who, however, with all their virtues, were not able finally to establish the independency of their country, though both perished in the attempt; Epaminondas, to the last, refusing to the several communities of Boeotia their hereditary laws and government, although he was one of the democratical party.

Sparta, in the next place, sent a detachment to support the partisans of aristocracy in Argolis, Achaia, and Arcadia, but were obliged to evacuate that country by Pelopidas and Epaminondas; but the latter supported aristocratic government. As loon as he retired; the Arcadians complained against him, that a people, who knew by their own experience the nature of aristocracy, should have confirmed that severe form of government in an allied or dependent province. The multitude in Thebes condemned the proceedings of Epaminondas, and sent commissioners into Achaia, who assisted the populace, and a body of mercenaries, to dissolve the aristocracy, and banish or put to death the nobles, and institute a democracy. The foreign troops were scarcely departed, when the exiles, who were very numerous and powerful, returned, and, after a desperate and bloody struggle, recovered their ancient influence: the leaders of the populace were now, in their turn, put to death or expelled; the aristocracy re-established; and the magistrates craved the protection of Sparta, which was readily granted.

It would be endless to pursue the consequences of the peace of Antalcidas: uninterrupted contests and wars in every democratical state in Greece were the consequence of it; aristocratical and democratical factions eternally disputing for superiority, mutually banishing and butchering each other; proscriptions, assassinations (of which even Pelopidas was not innocent), treacheries, cruelties without number and without end. — But no man, no party, ever thought of introducing an effectual balance, by creating a king, with an equal power, to balance the other two. The Romans began to think of this expedient, but it was reserved for England to be the first to reduce it to practice.

Would Mr. Turgot have said, that if Thebes, Athens, Argos, and the Achæan, Arcadian, and Olynthian leagues, had been each of them governed by a legislature composed of a king, senate, and assembly, with equal authority, and each a decisive negative, that the cause of liberty, in all Greece, would have been thus crumbled to dust by such a paltry trick of Antalcidas? Would the childish humor of separating into as many states as towns have ever been indulged or permitted? Most certainly they would not. And if the power of negotiation and treaties, and the whole executive, had been in one man, could the perfidious ambassadors of Sparta, and the other states, have intrigued, and embroiled every thing as they did?

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, by John Adams

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