Tocqueville’s commentary on the Constitution

Our most recent reading for the Great Books of the Western World reading project is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or at least a few chapters of it. Here, after having read the Constitution and several of the Federalist Papers last month, we are treated to a commentary upon the Constitution by one of the great thinkers and observers of the early 19th century.

While it is difficult to choose just one aspect of Tocqueville’s observations and thoughts to comment upon, what stood out to me the most is Tocqueville’s assertion, near the end of the selection we read, that the sort of government the United States has, in particular the limited powers of its executive, is only possible in a country that, like the United States, is granted a certain degree of security by its geography. (Also, I want to commend myself for the excellence of that run-on sentence.) Tocqueville posits that if a European country were to adopt a constitution which so severely curtailed the privileges and prerogatives of its executive it could not last long.

There seems to me to be a great amount of truth to Tocqueville’s observations here. The United States has only been in a position in which it was forced to defend its very existence twice in its history (or thrice, if we count the Revolution as well, though I omit that from consideration here as this predates the Constitution). While the United States has fought several wars, only the Civil War and World War II could be accurately understood as wars for survival. In both instances, the government has found it necessary to vastly expand the powers of the executive and temporarily suspend the limits typically imposed upon the executive and legislative by law. Lincoln was the president who came closest to the powers of a monarch and Roosevelt the president who came closest to the length of a monarch’s reign.

All of this raises important questions for the future of democratic government in the United States. In the face of the ever-present threat of terrorism and the ever-decreasing size (so to speak) of the world, the geographic isolation of the United States seems less important now than at any previous time and will, undoubtedly, continue to lose significance. Is it, then, inevitable that the United States must change its system of government and social life through a reduction in the liberties of the people and an increase in the powers of the executive in order to ensure its very survival? The advocates of, for example, the Patriot Act would seem to say that this is the case. Yet, the United States has a very firmly entrenched culture of individual freedom and limited government. Will this culture survive? Can it? Should it?

The mind of the Founding Fathers

Our most recent readings for the Great Books of the Western World reading project are, I believe, among the most interesting that we have read this year as well as the most truly essential. Included in September’s readings are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a few of the Federalist Papers, the editorials published by Jay, Hamilton, and Madison in defense of the Constitution.

Each of these readings is essential reading for an American and each is an exhibition of a belief that I have come over the past several years to hold: namely, that the United States is, while not the exclusive representative of Western Civilization, its most pure and significant representative. The work of the Founding Fathers is, in its essence, a distillation of all of the previous history and thought of Western Civilization. They drew, through their own classical educations, upon the history of the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans of the ancient world as well as the Christians of the Middle Ages and later who brought these previous cultures into a great synthesis within their new ideological context.

In so doing, the Founders of the United States drew out of each of these aspects of the heritage of Western Civilization the best elements and avoided the worst errors. The subsequent history of the United States has, in large part, been the sorting out of what all of this means. The Civil War, the various social movements of the last 150 years, and so on each have at their heart the question of what it all of this heritage means and how it is to be lived out. Because of this, these works are essential readings for all Americans as well as the other denizens of Western Civilization.

The Prince: Brutality or Realism?

As I continue my journey to catch up in the reading for the Great Books Reading Project, I just completed the reading for May 2015, Machiavelli’s famous tract on leadership, The Prince. This is now the fourth time in my life that I have read The Prince and I was struck, as I have been in each reading since the first, in how different its effect upon was from previous readings.

The first time I read The Prince I was a teenager and, like all teenagers of an intellectual bent, a lover of Nietzsche. At that time, Machiavelli seemed to me to be a sort of proto-Nietzsche, and I loved it. I read The Prince again twice during my college years, for two different classes, one of which was while I was in my early 20s and the other while I was in my mid-20s. I think the line of separation that stands between these two readings is the experience of war. In the first, I was just beginning my time in the military. In the second, my stint in the Army was drawing to a close. As a result, in the first reading of the two college-era readings I saw in Machiavelli a brutal realist and in the second I saw in Machiavelli a realistic brutality.

It is only a thread that separates this brutal realism and realistic brutality from each other, but there is a world of difference in that thread. On the one hand, I think it is possible that Machiavelli is merely describing what he sees, and this was certainly my impression from my early college reading of him. On the other, he does seem to take some delight in describing and to turn his descriptions into prescriptions about how a prince should behave, which, in a sense, positions him as an advocate for a more brutal world.

I am undecided as to where I stand this time around, though I have to say that I like Machiavelli less each time I read him and this reading has been no exception. What are your thoughts? Is Machiavelli describing how to succeed in a brutal world or is there something brutal in Machiavelli himself that he prescribes for his prince? Or … ?

The Roman Republic (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.3)

After the overthrow of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BC, the Romans decided to get rid of monarchy altogether and become a republic. Whereas one person rules the whole nation under a monarchy, all of the people take part in government in a republic. The Roman Republic is very different from the Athenian democracy in some important ways, but what they had in common was a concern that all citizens have the opportunity to have their voice heard and to help make decisions.

Not everyone was considered equal, however, and some people played a bigger role in governing Rome than others. Under the Roman Republic, there were two main social classes. They were called the patricians and the plebeians.

The patricians were the wealthy and powerful upper class of Rome. They claimed to be the descendants of the 100 men whom Romulus had chosen to help him rule the new city after he founded it. Only patricians could hold the highest and most powerful positions in Rome.

The other social class, called plebeians, was made up of all of the common people. Not all of the plebeians were poor, but almost none were as rich as the patricians. And none at all were more powerful than the patricians. The plebeians participated in the government under the Roman Republic by voting for their leaders.

The government of the Roman Republic had three layers. At the top were the consuls. Under the Republic, two elected consuls shared the highest and most powerful position in government. Consuls were members of the Senate who had been elected to serve one year terms as consul. The consuls’ most important power was that they controlled the army. No decision could be made by one consul without the other consul agreeing to it. Both consuls held the right to veto the decisions of the other.

The Senate consisted of 300 men, all of whom were from the patrician class. Senators were appointed by the consuls and, once appointed, served as senators for life. The senators were the lawmakers of the Roman Republic. They controlled all spending and approved other decisions made by the consuls.

The largest layer in the government of the Roman Republic was the Assembly. The Assembly was composed of all the plebeian citizens of Rome. The Assembly did not have a building to meet in like the Senate. Instead, the plebeians who wanted to vote gathered at the Forum, an open area near the center of the city of Rome. For the most part, the Assembly’s power was very limited. They could vote for or suggest laws, but the Senate could block their decisions. The Assembly could also vote to declare war but the Senate could override them on this also.

The Assembly did, however, have one right that made them very powerful. It was the members of the Assembly who voted each year on which two members of the Senate would serve as consuls. As a noble, if you wanted to rise to the level of Consul, the highest position in government under the Republic, you needed to gain the support of the plebeian class. Since it was the Consuls who filled empty seats in the Senate, if the Assembly chose their consuls well, they could slowly gain power in government by putting people in charge who were sympathetic to their needs. As a result, plebeians gained more rights over time and some of them even became very powerful and wealthy. A few plebeians were even able to become members of the patrician class!

Above all else, what made a person powerful and influential in Rome their ability to speak well. The Romans loved a good orator more than almost anything else. When the Assembly met at the Forum, many speeches were going on at the same time. One speaker might say, “Rome’s roads need repair!” Another speaker might say, “We need to stop crime in the streets.” If you wanted your speech to have an impact, it did not matter how rich or poor you were. What mattered was how persuasive you were as a speaker.


Review Questions

 1. What were the two social classes of the Roman Republic? Describe each social class.

2. What were the three layers of government under the Roman Republic? What was the job of each?


Vocabulary Words

 Orator – a public speaker, especially one who is eloquent or skilled.

Veto – Latin word meaning “I forbid;” the power to stop the enactment of a law

The Beginning of Rome (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.2)

Like most ancient civilizations, the Romans did not remember how their civilization had started. Instead, they told a legend about twin brothers named Romulus and Remus. According to the Roman legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of a princess and Mars, the god of war. Because the king, the father of the princess, feared that the two brothers, who were half-god and half-human, would try to take his power from him, he ordered them to be drowned in the Tiber River. The brothers were saved by a she-wolf, however, who took care of the babies until they were old enough to take care of themselves. When they became adults, they decided to found a new city. They disagreed, however, on where to found the city. As a result of their disagreement, they fought each other and Romulus murdered his brother Remus. Romulus then founded and became the first king of the city of Rome.

After the death of Romulus, a man named Numa Pompilius was selected by the Romans as their new king. Numa reigned for 43 years.. Numa spent much of his reign as king building large and beautiful buildings in Rome, such as a temple dedicated to the god Janus. During his time as king, the tradition developed of closing the doors to the temple during times of peace and keeping them open during times of war. Numa was able to keep the doors closed for almost his entire time as king by keeping peace with Rome’s neighbors.

A total of seven kings would reign over the Roman Kingdom. Unfortunately, not all of them were as wise and peaceful as Numa Pompilius. The seventh and final king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, for example, came to power by assassinating the king before him. Once he became king, he engaged Rome in wars with its neighbors and mistreated his own people. He was a tyrant who used violence and intimidation to make the Roman people obey his orders. He also showed disrespect to Roman customs and treated the leading men of Rome badly. The result was a revolution in 509 BC.

Although not everything always went well during the reigns of the seven kings, it was during this time that much of Roman culture took shape. Much of Roman culture came from an imitation of the Etruscans, a tribe who lived just north of Rome on the Italian peninsula. The Etruscans had a close relationship with the Greeks and resembled them in many ways, including their clothing styles, their art, and their religion. The Romans then adopted these parts of Greek culture from the Etruscans. It was during this period that Romans began to worship the Greek gods, though with different names, began to wear togas, and began to make statues and other art like the Greeks.

Rome eventually decided to put an end to its monarchy. The stories of its kings, though, continued to inspire the Roman people for many generations to come. The culture that the Romans had absorbed and developed during this period also became important to their way of life. It was when Rome became a republic, however, that their greatest success began.


Review Questions

 1. What are the names of the legendary founders of Rome? What is their relationship to each other?

2. What kind of government did Rome have at first? How many rulers did it have during this time?


Vocabulary Words

 Monarchy – rule by a king; in a monarchy, just one person has all of the power

Republic – rule by the people; in a republic, people vote for their leaders

Tyrant – a leader who uses his power for his own good and mistreats the people he rules over

A Chinese Buddhist monk visits India under the Guptas

The people are numerous and happy; they have not to register their households, or attend to any magistrates and their rules; only those who cultivate the royal land have to pay (a portion of) the grain from it. If they want to go, they go; if they want to stay on, they stay. The king governs without decapitation or (other) corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances (of each case). Even in cases of repeated attempts at wicked rebellion, they only have their right hands cut off. The king’s body-guards and attendants all have salaries. Throughout the whole country the people do not kill any living creature, nor drink intoxicating liquor, nor eat onions or garlic.

Faxian (circa 400-412), quoted in Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, p. 26