Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Delanceyplace.com 12/11/07-Cicero

In today's excerpt--the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC). America's founding fathers were careful to avoid constructing the constitution as a direct democracy, since they were concerned that direct democracy would be tantamount to mob rule. Instead, citizens of each state voted for, or those states could otherwise appoint, electors, who in turn elected the president. Senators were selected by the state legislatures--not the people. Only members of the House of Representatives were directly elected. The founding fathers looked to the past for guidance on how to construct a balanced government--one with carefully constructed limitations and checks and balances--and no one influenced their thinking more than Cicero:

"Nearly two thousand years after his time, [Cicero] became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives. For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of [Cicero] were the foundation of their education. John Adams's first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.

"Cicero wrote about how a state should best be organized and decisionmakers of the eighteenth century read and digested what he had to say. His big idea, which he tirelessly publicized, was that of a mixed or balanced constitution. He favored not monarchy nor oligarchy nor democracy, but a combination of all three. His model was Rome itself, but improved. Its executives had quasi-royal powers. It was restrained partly by widespread use of vetoes and partly by a Senate, dominated by great political families. Politicians were elected to office by the people.

"This model is not so very distant from the original constitution of the United States with the careful balance it set between the executive and the legislature, and the constraints, now largely vanished, which it placed on pure, untrammeled democracy. When George Washington, meditating on the difficulty of ensuring stable government, said, 'What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious,' he could have been quoting Cicero."

Anthony Everitt, Cicero, Random House, Copyright 2001 by Anthony Everitt, pp. vii.

With thanks to Steve Clemons


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