Rome: Adams ‘Defense’ No. 52

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 52

Ancient Aristocratical Republics: Rome. Plebians scrambling after Patricians; or Democracy hunting down Aristocracy; or Tribunes in chase of a Senate. 

My dear Sir,

WE have before seen, in the history of Rome, with what eagerness the aristocracy pursued and demolished the monarchy: the kings are commonly reproached with tyranny, and the nobles are applauded for resistance to it; but it is clear that the nobles were as tyrannical, and that their eternal plots and conspiracies against the kings, their power, their crowns, and their lives, were the cause and the provocation to that tyranny. It is imposslble to say which were worst, the nobles or kings; both certainly were bad enough in general, and both frequently violated the laws, as it will ever happen when there are but two branches. The people as yet had no adequate power to aid or controul either. By the institution of Romulus, indeed, the Roman people, even the lowest class of the citizens, instead of being prohibited to engage in all kinds of labour, after the example of the Spartans, were directed to apply themselves to pasturage, agriculture, and mechanic arts. This had its natural effect; and immediately after the revolution, by which the monarchy was abolished, and aristocracy set up, though we find the patricians at their usual game of encroaching on the people, yet we find there was a people, a numerous, hardy, courageous people, who were not disposed to submit: they soon began a resistance, and to demand more power to resist; and having obtained one concession, they required another, until they obtained an equality with the patricians. So far they were in the right; and if the two powers could have remained equal, justice, liberty, and happiness, the effect of equal laws, might have been enjoyed: but human nature can never rest — once in motion, it rolls, like the stone of Sisyphus, every instant when the resisting force is suspended. Diodorus Seculus is very right, lib. xix. when he says, “It is of the nature of man to aspire continually at something greater than his present condition, and to wish that his power might increase instead of decreasing, or resting as it is.” Dr. Ferguson, who follows very accurately Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, and Polybius, will furnish us with a good account of the steps by which the Roman people proceeded to augment their own power, and diminish that of the senate, until they obtained the whole. I shall give an abridgment of the story very nearly in Ferguson’s words. — In their career, however, the people lost their morals and their wisdom, as they ever will in such a course, and were ready to confer the sovereignty on the line of Cæsars, even before they had completely obtained it. Those irregularities, and that final catastrophe, were all occasioned by the imperfections in their balance. If the consuls had been possessed of a negative in the legislature, and of all the executive authority, and the senate and people had been made equal and independent in the first establishment of the commonwealth, it is impossible for any man to prove that the republic would not have remained in vigour and in glory at this hour.

The government of Rome, in the 244th year from the building of the city after the expulsion of Tarquin, was become wholly aristocratical: the nobles, exclusively, had the legislative, executive, and judicial power, without any third party to hold the balance between them and the people; for the consuls, although they were executive magistrates, united in their persons the dignities of the state: those of judges, magistrates, and military leaders, were understood to come in the place of kings, and performed all the functions of royalty; yet they were only parts and ministers of the senate. While the exiled king was endeavouring, by continual invasions, to recover his power, disputes arose between the parties who had united to expel him. Creditors, supported by the aristocracy, of which the nobles were now in full poslession, became severe in the exaction of debts, or the patrons laid claim to more than the clients were willing to pay. The state was distracted at once by its enemies from abroad, and by the dissension of parties at home. The authority of the new government not being sufficient to contend with these difficulties, the senate resolved to place themselves and the commonwealth for a limited time under the power of a single person, under the title of dictator.

The inferior class of the people, almost excluded from any share in the new government, soon found, that under its influence they had more oppression to fear from their patrons than they had ever experienced from the prince they had banished. So long as the king and the senate shared in the powers of the state, the one took part with the people, when the other attempted to oppress them; and it was the ordinary interest and policy of the prince to weaken the nobles, by supporting the plebeians against them. This effect of the monarchy still, in some measure, remained, so long as the exiled king was alive, maintained his pretensions, and made the united services of the people necessary to the senate; but, upon the death of the king, the nobles availed themselves of their power, and enforced their claims on the people with extreme severity. In the capacity of creditors, they imprisoned, stripped, and enslaved those who were indebted to them, and held the liberties and lives of their fellow-citizens at their mercy. The whole body of plebeians was alarmed; they saw more formidable enemies in the persons of their own nobility, than in the armies of any nation whatever. Many who had already suffered under the rod of their creditors, when called upon to enlist, shewed their limbs galled with fetters, or torn with stripes which they had received by command of their rnerciless patrons. These distractions obliged the senate to have recourse to another dictator; and Valerius, who was appointed for his popularity, repelled the enemy. The senate, upon his return, not fulfilling his promises to the people, they retired to the Sacred Mountain. The senate was obliged to negotiate, to mitigate the severities against insolvent debtors, and consent to the appointment of tribunes: this was in the year 260, sixteen years after the revolution. Had the plebeians discontinued their collective assemblies for every purpose but elections, and increased their tribunes to four or five hundred representatives, even this would not have been a radical cure, without separating the consuls from the senate, and giving them, or one of them, the executive power, and a negative both upon the senate and popular assembly in the legislature: but there was too much prejudice, and too little knowledge, for so great an improvement. The people contented themselves with the appointment of a leader under the name of Tribune, who, without power to protect them effectually, had enough to head every popular tumult, and blow up every spark to a flame. An assembly of representatives would have had an equal right with the senate to propose laws, to deliberate, debate, alter, amend, improve: but the tribunes were authorized only to forbid any measure they thought injurious; but not to propose any law, or move any resolution. Not permitted to mix with the senators, they had places at the door of the senate house, as their office was felt to be a dangerous one. Their persons were made sacred; and every one was devoted to the infernal gods who should even strike them. An oath was to be taken to observe this law; and the idea of the sanctity of a tribune took such deep root, that the emperors afterwards were protected from assassins by this sacred title of Tribune. The college of tribunes at first was not limited to any number; but in process of time they increased from three to ten. Patricians could not by law be elected; yet the people, to shew that they never will be steady to any law, even to those most directly contrived for their benefit, sometimes departed from this. The tribunes were at first elected in the curiæ, where the vote of the poorest citizen was equal to that of the most wealthy. But even here the patricians, besides their great influence, had even a negative on all proceedings by holding the auspices. For this reason it was thought necessary to alter the form of the assembly, in which the tribunes were elected, to that of the tribes; and by this means to enable the people to make their election without any controul from the nobles, either in virtue of the authority of the senate, or the interposition of the augurs. These would have been real improvements of the constitution, if they had proportionally augmented the authority of the consuls at the same time; but probably there would have been as many prejudices against such a proposal among the people, as in the senate. All the popular jealousies and alarms at regal authority, would have been excited by demagogues in the senate as well as in the comitia; for there are in all nations aristocratical demagogues as well as democratical. These expedients were adopted by the senate to quiet the animosities of parties; but tended, in fact, only to render the contest between them more equal, and to multiply the subjects of dispute. The tribunes being vested with power to assemble the people, could not long be confined to the mere negative with which they were first entrusted. The party of the plebeians, with these magistrates at their head, were then in a posture not only to preserve their right, but likewise to gain to their order continual accessions of power. Happily for the state there was yet much ground to be gained, without transgressing the bounds of order, or the authority of equitable government. The bar of hereditary distinction was the strongest obstacle which the popular leaders in this career had to break through. The nobles among the Romans, as well as among the Greeks, generally traced back their lineage, in some manner or other, to gods and goddesses; and the divine original of nobility, and the essential distinction between the two orders of nobles and commons, the one being believed a superior order of beings to the other, was founded in their institutions of religion, and in popular belief: and although some pretensions are set up still, in many parts of Europe, to the divine right of nobility, yet they are generally held in so little estimation, that a modern can hardly form an idea of the difficulty the tribunes must have found to overcome this inveterate prejudice of superstition. No personal merit, no actual service, no measure of ability or virtue, could remove, as it was pretended, the disqualification of plebeian birth. One of the first steps towards abolishing this distinction, was to preclude every other power in the state from a negative on their proceedings. For this purpose it was enacted by the tribes, that no one, under pain of death, or of a fine at discretion, should interrupt a tribune while he was speaking to the people. Nothing can be more curious than these popular efforts to get the better of their own superstitious prejudices: they could not depend upon their own firmness to support their own peculiar magistrate, till they made themselves believe that his person was sacred, as well as the other magistrates. Being thus provided against interruption, as they were by a former law against violence to their persons, they not only took up the complaints of their constituents, but suggested new claims to be made by them; and at every succession to office, endeavoured to signalize their term by some additional establishment for the benefit of the people. They interrupted the state in its councils and wars, and hung upon the wheels of government until the grievances they complained of were redressed, or the demands they made were complied with. In order to increase the number of plebeian officers, whose aid the tribunes alleged was necessary to themselves, they, soon after their own institution, procured that of the ædiles, who were to inspect the marker and have charge of the public buildings and public mows. The qualifications of candidates for the office of consul, furnished, during some ages, the subject of continual debates: civil and military transactions were constantly blended together. The senate frequently involved the state in war, in order to suspend its intestine divisions; and the people as often took occasion, from the difficulties in which the community was involved by its enemies, to extort a compliance with their own demands. The first subject of contention was the distribution of the corn which the senate had purchased as a provision against the famine, which the late interruption of industry and agriculture, by the secession of the people, had occasioned. Coriolanus was for compelling the people, by hunger, to part with their tribunes, and the other concessions which had been extorted from the senate. The younger nobility applauded his sentiments; but the majority were afraid of another storm, and agreed to deliver corn from the public granaries at a moderate price. The people, however, were not appeased; they were greatly incensed against Coriolanus; and the tribunes cited him to appear before the tribunal of the people, to answer for the insult he had offered them. The senate and patricians were disposed to protect him; but expected to be able to acquit him in the comitia of the centuries, the only tribunal before which any capital accusation of a citizen had ever been tried. The tribunes, however, determined to introduce an innovation, and insisted that the people should assemble in their tribes. Coriolanus, seeing himself already condemned by this method of proceeding, withdrew, and joined the enemies of his country. This novelty made a total change in the constitution; for the assembly of the centuries formed an aristocracy, that of the tribes a democracy. As it was not with any precision determined by law what business should be done in one assembly, and what in the other, the patricians and plebeians, instead of balancing each other by regular checks, were in danger of rendering the administration of the state a continual scene of contradictions, which served to the last hour of the republic as an object of popular zeal, and furnished a specious pretence to ambitious and designing men. This very uncertainty, producing continual altercations and wars, produced great statesmen and warriors, no doubt: but a regular, well-ordered constitution will never fail to bring forth men capable of conducting the national councils and arms; and it is of infinitely more importance to the national happiness, to abound in good merchants, farmers, and manufacturers — good lawyers, priests, and physicians — and great philosophers, than it is to multiply what are called great statesmen and great generals. It is a miserable servitude, whether you call it a republic or a despotism, where the law is uncertain and unknown; and it is only under the security of certain and known laws, that arts, sciences, agriculture, commerce, and trades can ever be made to flourish. Another subject of dispute was soon introduced, which served to the last hour of the republic as an object of popular zeal, and furnished a specious pretence to ambitious and designing men to captivate the ears of the populace — an equal division of land, known by the name of an Agrarian Law. By this was by no means meant a community of goods and lands, or an equal division of all the lands and goods; the Roman people had too much sense and honesty ever to think of introducing into practice such an absurd figment of the brain: but the Romans, during the late aristocratical times, and the wars against Tarquin, had suffered the conquered lands to pass by connivance, occupancy, or purchase into the hands or powerful citizens, instead of dividing them equally among the people. Sp. Cassius, the consul, who was in favour with the people, and affected still farther popularity by flattering the passions of the inferior classes, foreseeing that the tribunes would soon think of this object, determined to make a merit to himself by anticipating them. Possessing himself of some of these lands, he ostentatiously made a division of them among the more indigent citizens; and obtained an appointment of three commissioners, to enquire into the evil, and consider of a remedy. The patricians were alarmed; but Camus had numbers on his side, and was so confident of success, that he betrayed too soon his ambitious design, by offering the freedom of the city to aliens, who at his invitation crowded from all parts to vote in the assemblies of the Roman people. This convinced all parties that his views were, by the means of aliens and indigent citizens, to usurp the government. All parties combined against him, and he was condemned for treason. The tribunes had no sooner destroyed Cassius, than they adopted his project, and insisted on the law for the nomination of three commissioners: from this time commences a struggle between the tribunes and senate, patricians and plebeians, the various operations of which would take up too much space to relate. The tribunes were honoured in proportion to the part they took in support of the popular cause, and their animosity against the senate. Every new tribune endeavoured to signalize his year, by suggesting some new point to be gained by the people. One law was obtained to substitute the assembly of the tribes for that of the curiæ, in the election of tribunes; another to exclude the patricians entirely from the assembly of the tribes. The agrarian law they frequently moved in the interval of other pretensions, or together with other claims, in order to alarm the senate, and force them to a compromise. The powers and artifices of both parties were soon exerted in another contest, in which the people were in the right, and pursued the most rational and necessary object imaginable — a new code of laws which should regulate the forms of judicial proceedings; yet even this was not pursued so much from the love of justice, or the spirit of liberty, as to gain a point from the patricians, whole power was greatly supported by the discretionary judicial powers they had in their hands. This great object, which the English nation have pursued for so long a course of time, under the names of Folcright or Common Law, they alone have had the wisdom to accompany with prerogatives to the crown, and privileges to the nobility, which have secured those two branches of the constitution; at the same time that, by establishing a body of laws, and regular formal proceedings in the courts of justice, they have secured their own rights and liberties. The Roman people were not so wise; by neglecting to give any adequate prerogatives to the consuls; and by undermining the power of the senate in proportion as they introduced regular law to protect their own rights, they undermined every other power in the constitution, and devolved the whole upon themselves. In the career they lost all their integrity and morals: they opposed an ardour not to be cooled or discouraged, or restrained by scruples in the choice of means, to the great authority and address of the nobles. A popular party are apt to think that the rules of veracity and candour may be dispensed with, and that deceit and violence may without any scruple be employed in their own favour. With less honour and dignity to maintain than their adversaries, they are less afraid of imputations that detract from either; and their leaders, supported by the voice of the more numerous party, are less apprehensive of evil fame. In this contest, accordingly, fictitious plots and conspiracies were fabricated by the popular side, and fictitious designs against the liberties of the people were imputed to the patricians, in order to render them odious, and to deter them from appearing in support of their real pretensions. The senate at last agreed to the nomination of three commissioners, to be sent to Greece, and make a collection of laws. The report they made was accepted, and the decemvirs appointed by senate and people to compile a body of laws. These ten were intended only as a committee to prepare a draught for the consideration of the senate and people: yet they had so much credit with the people as to be vested with a temporary sovereignty; and superseded the authority of the senate as well as the consuls; and had unlimited power over the lives and fortunes of their fellow-citizens. They presented a number of laws, engraven on ten tables or plates, containing a summary of the privileges of the people, the crimes to be punished, and the forms of judicial proceedings. They said their plan was unfinished; and, desiring a renewal of their powers, obtained it for another year: two more tables were added, which, with the former ten, made the Law of the Twelve Tables. In these laws the distinction of patrician and plebeian was so great, that persons of these different orders were not permitted to intermarry. Bankruptcy was made a crime; and, without any distinction between fraud and misfortune, exposed the insolvent debtor to the mercy of his creditors, who might put him to death, dined, or quarter him, and distribute his members among them. This law was brought from Greece, and shews the atrocious ideas and manners of the age. Although we have no account of the law being executed in its utmost extent, we know that, in consequence of it, debtors were, by the courts of law, delivered bound into the hands of creditors, and frequently scourged and whipped in a most cruel and unmerciful manner. Giving to fathers the power of magistrates, or the power of life and death, over their children, may have some reasons assigned for it: but nothing can ever account for the people’s accepting such a law of debtor and creditor among the Greeks or Romans, but the supposition that property was entirely in the hands of patricians; and that the people had the blindest superstitious opinion, that the patricians, as descendants of gods, were a superior order of beings. It is no wonder that the people, after this, often clamoured for an abolition or diminution of debts: why they never demanded an abolition of the law, is another question. — One other of these laws deserves particular notice. In private, every family were free to worship the gods in their own way; and in public, though certain forms were required, yet there was not any penalty annexed to the omission of them, as the punishment of offences in this matter was left to the offended god. This, probably, was the source of that wise and humane toleration which does so much honour to the Romans, and reflects disgrace on almost every Christian nation. The ardour of the people to obtain this code had nearly cost them their liberties. The power of a magistrate was supposed to determine only by his own resignation. The decemvirs, taking advantage of this defect in the constitution, continued the exercise of their power; and the people, to shew that they never can be jealous of men who are in possession of their confidence, acquiesced in their usurpation; until the father of Virginia, by exercising his lawful authority in defence of his daughters honour, exhibited a spectacle of horror which gave a turn to the imaginations, and aroused all the passions of the people to the expulsion of the decemvirs, as such another event had before given occasion to the abolition of monarchy. — Patricians and plebeians now united, and a tide of mutual confidence began to flow. Two very popular persons were chosen consuls: the consecration of the tribunes was renewed, and extended to the ædiles, and other inferior officers who acted under the tribunes in preserving the rights of the people. The patricians consented to have the acts of the senate formally recorded, placed in the temple of Ceres, and committed to the care of the ædiles. As the consuls had been hitherto the keepers and interpreters of their decrees, and had often suppressed or carried into execution their acts at their pleasure, this was a considerable diminution of the power of the consuls.

The comitia were of three sorts — the curiæ, the centuries, and the tribes. The centuries alone, in which the patricians had an undoubted majority as well as in the senate, had as yet the authority of making laws for the commonwealth: this still preserved the aristocratical character of the republic. Now the plebeians denied the legislative authority of the senate; and the senate denied the right of the tribes to make laws. Equity required that the plebeians should have a voice in the legislature; but instead of becoming a branch of it, instead of aiming at a deliberative or negative voice in it, by which they might concur with the senate and comitia of the centuries, or, which would have been infinitely better, with the senate and consuls as two independent branches, they obtained a separate and independent power of legislation. Hence the intricacy of this constitution; hence three distinct sources of laws — decrees of the senate, ads of the centuries, and resolutions of the tribes — senatus consulta, leges, plebiscita: a source of division, distraction, and tumult, which never ceased to issue streams till the authority of the senate was wholly destroyed, and a dominatio plebis began. The plebeians, having removed these inequalities, grew so much the more impatient of those which remained. They were still excluded from the office of consul, from that of the priesthood, and were forbidden intermarriage with the nobles, In the year of the city 308, Canuleius, a plebeian and a tribune, moved to repeal the law of the twelve tables, which prohibited the intermarriage of patricians and plebeians; and the nine other tribunes claimed that the office of consul should be held by plebeians as well as patricians.

The senate, and the whole order of nobles, by studied delays, and by the usual artifice of involving the state in foreign wars, suspended the determination of these questions; but at length were obliged to gratify the people with the intermarriages of different ranks, in order to pacify them on the refusal of their claim on the consulate. To elude this demand, it was said that the sacrifices and other duties of the priesthood, many of which were to be performed by the consul, could not, by the sacred laws of religion, be performed without profanation by persons of plebeian extraction, or by any but those of noble birth. This argument silenced the people for some time; but neither superstition nor the true religion, any more than education, oaths, morals, or any other tie, will long retrain an unbalanced party, urged by its interest, and stimulated by a growing passion for power: an evasion, a mere change of a word, will answer the purpose of eluding superstitious fears, and even the dictates of conscience. The title of Consul was changed for that of Military Tribune; and no sacerdotal function being included in the duties of this office, plebeians, though not qualified to be consuls, were elected military tribunes, with consular power. The military and sacerdotal functions had before been united; they were now separated, and, as the people thought, without profanation. But another office remained to tempt the people and their tribunes, that of Censor. The census had been a principal object of the executive power; the kings had always held it, and after them the consuls: at every period of five years, they could dispose of every man’s rank, assign him his class, place him in the rolls of the senate or the knights, or strike him off of either, degrade or disfranchise him, as they thought proper. A power so important, although it had not been hitherto flagrantly abused, might easily be so; and the senate would naturally dread the admission of the plebeians to it. While they admitted them, therefore, to be elected tribunes with consular power, they stipulated that the census should be separated from it, and that this charge should remain with persons of patrician birth. — The invasion of the Gauls had burnt the city, and, it was thought, extinguished the republic for ever; Manlius saved the capitol, and Camillus restored the commonwealth. During a period of one hundred and seventeen years which followed, the Romans were involved in perpetual wars against the Equi, the Volsci, the Hernici, the Etruscans, and some of their own Latin confederates; yet these did not wholly suspend their internal convulsions, which gave birth to new political institutions. The plebeians, far from being satisfied with their past acquisitions, made continual efforts to extend their privileges. The tribunes, by traducing the senate, and by displaying in their harangues the severities of the patrician creditor, and the sufferings of the plebeian debtor, still inflamed the animosity of the popular party. The republic itself was so feebly established, that ambitious citizens were encouraged, by means of factions raised among persons of the lower class, to entertain thoughts of subverting the government. In this manner Manlius, the champion of the capitol, presuming on his merit, thought himself above the laws, and incurred the imputation of aspiring to be king. Four hundred citizens, whom he had redeemed from their creditors, and released from chains — the spoils of thirty enemies slain by himself in battle — forty badges of honour, conferred on him by generals under whom he had served — many citizens whom he had rescued from the enemy, among whom was Servilius, the second in command to the dictator — could not save him from being thrown from the rock on which he had so lately signalized his valour. Such was the influence of the senate; such “the treasons for which the friends of the people were to be sacrificed to the senate,” as he said; and such the popular prejudice against the name of a king. Yet it is certain that the best thing the Roman people could have done at that time, would have been to have made him a king, with a negative; preserving at the same time their own negative, and that of the senate. The plebeians had been now above forty years in possession of a title to hold the office of consular tribune, but had not been able to prevail over the influence of the patricians at any election: by the increase of their numbers in the first and second classes, by their intermarriages with patrician families, and by the assiduity and influence of individuals who aspired to the office, they at last obtained the dignity of consular tribune for one of their own order, and from thenceforward began to divide the votes of the centuries with the patrician candidates. — They soon aspired to the title of consuls. Stolo and Sextius were placed in the college of tribunes, to urge this point. They proposed three laws: — 1st. For relief of insolvent debtors, by cheating their creditors of part of their debts. 2dly. To limit estates in land to five hundred jugera, about three hundred acres. 3dly. To restore the election of consuls, in place of consular tribunes, with an express provision that at least one of the consuls should be of plebeian descent. The patricians prevailed upon some of the tribunes to dissent from their colleagues, and suspend, by their negatives, all proceedings upon these laws. Licinius and Sextius, in their turn, suspended the usual election of magistrates, and put a stop to all the ordinary affairs of state. An anarchy of five years ensued. The patricians still insisted on the sacrilege and profanation that would be incurred by suffering the rites usually performed by the consuls to pass into plebeian hands. The tribunes, to elude this mysterious objection, which laid fast hold on the superstitious minds of the people, contrived a shift. They moved, that the ordinary attendants on the sacred rights should be augmented from two to ten; and that of these one half should be named of plebeian extraction. The patricians struggled as long as they could, but were at last obliged to give way — 1st. To the acts in favour of insolvent debtors. 2dly. To the agrarian law, or limitation of property in land. 3dly. To the new establishment relating to the priesthood, and to the communication of the consulate itself to persons of plebeian rank. The plebeian party prevailed in all their points, and raised Sextius, the tribune, to the office of consul: and, from one step to another, they obtained that all the offices, whether of prætor or ædile, of dictator or censor, were in process of time filled with persons of either rank, and the distinction of patrician or plebeian became merely nominal. The only effect it now had was favourable to the plebeians, as it limited the choice of tribunes to their own order; while, in common with the patricians, they had access to every other dignity in the state. In this account of the Roman constitution, we are now come nearly to that state of its maturity, at which Polybius began to admire the felicity of its institutions, arid the order of its administration. The mass, however, was far from being to well compacted, or the unity of power so well established, as it is in the English constitution; the senate and the popular assemblies, in their legislative capacities, counteracted one another. However, from this time forward, through a long period of wars, with Greeks, Gauls, Italians, and Carthaginians, the domestic policy of the state appears to be wise and orderly. The distinction between patrician and plebeian was become altogether nominal; the descendants of those who had held the higher offices of state were, in consequence of the preferments of their ancestors, considered as noble; and, as the plebeians now found no difficulty in obtaining the offices of state, they were continually opening the way of their posterity to the rank of nobles. The plebeians were entitled by law to claim one of the consul’s seats, and frequently occupied both. The authority of the senate, the dignity of the equestrian order, and the manners of the people in general, were guarded, and in a great measure preserved, by the integrity and strict exercise of the censorial. power. The wisest and most respected of the citizens, from every condition, were raised into office; and the assemblies, whether of the senate or the people, without envy and without jealousy, suffered themselves to be governed by the counsels of a few able and virtuous men. The spirit of the people was, however, in a high degree democratical; and though they suffered themselves to be governed by the silent influence of personal authority in a few of their citizens, yet they could not endure any species of uncommon pre-eminence, even that which arose from the lustre and well-founded pretensions of distinguished merit.

The conduct of the Romans towards the Greeks should not be forgotten; since it appears to have been copied from the policy of Antalcidas in his Persian treaty. The states of the Achæan league, already on the decline, hastened, by the temerity and distractions of their own councils, the career of their fortunes to its termination. The Romans, even while they suffered this famous republic to retain the shew of its independence, had treated its members, in many particulars, as subjects. At the close of the war with Perseus, they had cited to appear at Rome, or taken into custody as prisoners of state, many citizens of Achaia: of these they had detained about a thousand in different prisons of Italy. After a period of seventeen years, three hundred who remained alive were set at liberty. Polybius was one of them: he attached himself to Scipio, the son of Emilius, and no doubt contributed much to his education and great character.

The Romans, while they detained so many Greek prisoners, assumed the administration of affairs in Greece, disposed of every distinction, whether of fortune or power, to their own tools. They received appeals from the judgment of the Achæan council, and encouraged its members, contrary to the express conditions of their league, to send separate embassies to Rome. The Spartans, having been forced into the Achæan confederacy, continued refractory in most of its councils. By some of their complaints at Rome, they obtained a deputation from the senate, to hear parties on the spot, and to adjust their differences. The Achæan council, incensed at this insult which was offered to their authority, proceeded to enforce their own decrees against the republic of Sparta, marched an army, and defeated the inhabitants of that city who ventured to oppose them. The Roman commissioners arriving after these hostilities, summoned the parties to assemble at Corinth, and, in the name of the senate, gave sentence — That Lacedæmon, Corinth, Argos, Heraclea, and Orchomenos, not having been original members of the Achæan confederacy, should now be disjoined from it; and that all the cities which had been rescued from the dominion of Philip should be left in full possession of their freedom and independency. A war ensued, in which Metellus and Mummius defeated the Greeks, and the Achæan league was dissolved.

The enmity and the friendship of the Romans was equally fatal. As the Achæan league was dissolved, on having incurred their resentment; to the remnant of the Spartan republic perished, in having accepted their protection: and nothing could be more just than that the Spartans should perish under an insidious policy, which they themselves had first invented, practised, and suggested to the Romans; who, under the command of Flaminius, about fifty years before this date, in order to detach the Grecian cities from Philip, proclaimed with so much ostentation, at the Isthmus of Corinth, general independence and the free exercise of their own laws, to all the republics of Greece. The Achæan league was dissolved, and all their conventions annulled. The states which had composed it were deprived of their sovereignty, subjected to pay a tribute, and placed under the government of a person annually sent from Rome with the title of Prætor of Achaia. — But the success of the Roman arms abroad, became the source of a ruinous corruption at home. In the state itself, the governing and the governed felt separate interests, and were at variance from motives of avarice, as well as ambition. Two hundred and thirty years had elapsed since the animosities of patrician and plebeian were extinguished by the equal participation of public honours. This distinction itself was, in a great measure, obliterated, and gave way to a new one, which, under the denomination of nobles and commons, or illustrious and obscure, without involving any legal disparity of privileges, gave rise to an aristocracy, which was partly hereditary, founded on the repeated succession to honours in the same family; and partly personal, founded on the habits of high station, and in the advantages of education, such as never fail to distinguish the conditions of men in every great and prosperous state. These circumstances conferred a power on the nobles, which, though less invidious, was not less real than that which had been possessed by the ancient patricians. The exercise of this power was lodged with the senate, a body which, though by the emulation of its members too much disposed to war, and ambitious of conquest, was never surpassed in magnanimity, ability, or in steadiness, by any council of state whatever. The people had submitted to the senate, as possessed of an authority which was founded in the prevailing opinion of their superior worth; and even the most aspiring of the commons allowed themselves to be governed by an order of men, amongst whom they themselves, by proper efforts and suitable merit, might hope to ascend. The knights, or the equestrian order, being persons possessed of estates or effects of a certain valuation, and secluded from the pursuit of political emolument or honour, formed, between the senate and the people, an intermediate rank, who, in consequence of their having a capital, and being less engaged than the senators in affairs of state, became traders, contractors, farmers of the revenue, and constituted a species of moneyed interest. Circumstances which appear to be fixed in the political state of nations, are often no more than a passage in the shifting of scenes, or a transition from that which a people have been, to what they are about to become. The nobles began to avail themselves of the high authority and advantages of their station, and to accumulate property as well as honours. Citizens contended for offices in the state, as the road to lucrative appointments abroad; and when they had obtained this end, and had reigned for a while in some province, they brought back from their government a profusion of wealth ill acquired, and the habit of arbitrary and uncontrouled command. When disappointed in the pursuits of fortune abroad, they became the leaders of dangerous factions at home; or, when suddenly possessed of great wealth, they became the agents of corruption, to disseminate idleness and the love of ruinous amusements in the minds of the people. The city was gradually crowded with a populace, who, tempted with the cheap or gratuitous distribution of corn, by the frequency of public shows, by the consequence they enjoyed as members of the popular assemblies, flocked to Rome. There they were corrupted by idleness and indigence; and the order itself was continually debated by the frequent accession of emancipated slaves. A turbulent populace tyrannized, in their turn, over the masters of the world, and wreaked on the conquerors of so many nations the evils which they themselves had so freely inflicted on mankind. Citizens of this extraction could not for ages arrive at any places of trust, in which they could, by their personal defects, injure the commonwealth; but they increased, by their numbers and their vices, the weight of that dreg, which, in great and prosperous cities, ever sinks, by the tendency of vice and misconduct, to the lowest condition. They became a part of that faction, who are ever actuated by envy to their superiors, by mercenary views, or by abject fear; who are ever ready to espouse the cause of any leader, against the restraints of public order; disposed to vilify the more respectable ranks of men, and, by their indifference on the subjects of justice or honour, to frustrate every principle that may be employed for the government of mankind, besides fear and compulsion. Although citizens of this description were yet far from being the majority at Rome, yet it is probable that they were in numbers sufficient to contaminate the whole body of the people; and if enrolled promiscuously in all the tribes, might have had a great weight in turning the scale of political councils. This effect, however, was happily prevented, by the wise precaution which the centers had taken, to confine all citizens of mean or slavish extraction to four of the tribes. These were called the tribes of the city, and formed but a small proportion of the whole. Notwithstanding this precaution, we must suppose them to have been very improper parties in the participation of sovereignty, and likely enough to disturb the place of assembly with disorders and tumults. While the inferior people sunk in their characters, or were debased by the circumstances mentioned, the superior ranks, by their application to affairs of state, by their education, by the ideas of high birth and family distinction, by the superiority of fortune, began to rise in their estimation, in their pretensions, and in their power; and they entertained some degree of contempt for persons, whom the laws still required them to admit as their fellow-citizens and equals. In this disposition of parties, so dangerous in a commonwealth, and amidst materials so likely to catch the flame, some sparks were thrown, that soon kindled up anew all the popular animosities which seemed to have been so long extinguished. Tiberius Gracchus, born of a plebeian family, but ennobled by the honours of his father, by his descent, on the side of his mother, from the first Scipio Africanus, and by his alliance with the second Scipio, who had married his sister, being now a tribune of the people, and possessed of all the accomplishments required in a popular leader, great ardour, resolution, and eloquence, formed a project in itself extremely alarming, and in its consequences dangerous to the peace of the republic. Being called to account for his conduct as quæstor in Spain, the severity he experienced from the senate, and the protection he obtained from the people, filled his breast with animosity to the one, and a prepossession in favour of the other. Actuated by these dispositions, or by an idea not uncommon to enthusiastic minds, that the unequal distribution of property, so favourable to the rich, is an injury to the poor, he proposed a revival of the law or Licinius, by which Roman citizens had been restrained from accumulating estates in land above the value of five hundred jugera, little more than half as many acres. This was become impracticable, and even dangerous, in the present state of the republic. The distinctions of poor and rich are as necessary, in states of considerable extent, as labour and good government. The poor are destined to labour; and the rich, by the advantages of education, independence, and leisure, are qualified for superior stations. The empire was now greatly extended, and owed its safety, and the order of its government, to a respectable aristocracy, founded on the possession of fortune, as well as personal qualities and public honours. The rich were not, without some violent convulsion, to be stript of estates which they themselves had bought, or which they had inherited from their ancestors. The poor were not qualified at once to be raised to a state of equality with persons inured to a better condition. The project seemed to be as ruinous to government as it was to the security of property, and tended to place the members of the commonwealth, by one rash and precipitate step, in situations in which they were not at all qualified to act. For these reasons, as well as from motives of private interest affecting the majority of the nobles, the project of Tiberius was strenuously opposed by the senate; and, from motives of envy, interest, or mistaken zeal for justice, as warmly supported by the opposite party. Acting in concert with Appius Claudius, whose daughter he had married, a senator of the family of Crassus, who was then at the head of the priesthood, and Mutius Scævola the consul, he exhausted all his art, and displayed all his eloquence in declamation; but when he came to propose that the law should be read, he found that his opponents had procured M. Octavius, one of his colleagues, to interpose his negative, and forbid any further proceeding in the business. Here, according to the law and the constitution, the matter should have dropped: but inflamed and unbalanced parties are not to be restrained by laws and constitutions. The tribunes were instituted to defend their own party, not to attack their opponents; and to prevent, not to promote innovations. Every single tribune had a negative on the whole. — The rest of the story I must leave. — The constitution thus violated, Gracchus next violated the sacred character of his colleague the tribune. The senate were transported with indignation; violence ensued, and the two Gracchi fell. Afterwards Marius carried the popular pretentions still higher; and Sylla might, if he would, have been emperor. Cæsar followed, and completed the catastrophe.

This commonwealth, by the splendor of its actions, the extent of its empire, the wisdom of its councils, the talents, integrity, and courage of a multitude of characters, exhibits the fairest prospect of our species, and is the most signal example, excepting England, of the wisdom and utility of a mixture of the three powers in a commonwealth: on the other hand, the various vicissitudes of its fortune, its perpetual domestic contests, and internal revolutions, are the clearest proofs of the evils arising from the want of complete independence in each branch, and from an ineffectual balance.

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States

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