Most of us have a sense of the relationship between the Roman Republic and the government of the United States. For example, our Senate is named for the senior legislative body of the ancient republic. But there is more to the relationship than names as you will see below as we describe how the founders viewed ancient political systems in their efforts to fashion a government for America.
The founders of our country were educated men. Most could read Latin and Greek -- most had studied the history of governments and were well versed in ancient history. The Romans stood out as their chosen model for a political system, not the Greeks. The Athenian and Spartan systems were seen as inappropriate for the new country – the former because it gave too much power to the people and the latter because it operated in a non-economic model (a closed society with no trade).
The founders were guided by four basic principles which were applied to the design of the new government: 1) the need to protect life, liberty, and property, 2) a commitment to republicanism, 3) the lessons of history, as seen in the ancient world and modern Europe, and 4) contemporary political theory including the philosophy of Locke and the checks and balances system of Montesquieu.
They believed that only a republican model would be acceptable to the American people because only it operated without the hereditary monarchy and aristocracy so abhorrent to them. Beyond that unifying principle, the framers had varying beliefs about the definition of “republic”. Prior to 1776, most would have defined a republic as something like their current colonial governments which typically contained two legislative bodies and a chief magistrate.
As the Constitutional Convention approached, however, the founders did additional research to refine their understanding of a republican political system. Two nuanced definitions emerged from this thought process which are commonly labeled puritan and agrarian. Both attempted to address the mortality of republics, that is understanding the causes of their eventual decline. The puritan view, popular in the north, was based almost completely on ancient political theory and held that the longevity of a political system needed to be based on morality – create good citizens and you will create a better government. Men should adhere to a public virtue encompassing firmness, endurance, industry, and dedication to the public good like the Greeks.
The agrarian view, popular in the south, held that a prosperous socio-economic system would create wealth and happiness for all, resulting in a stable and long lasting political system. If a man owned land, he would be free from the trials of life which could cause him to be impoverished. This philosophy was dovish in its militancy – believing that a landowning class was a kind of utopia that did not need to protect itself from decay.
As the convention opened, delegates were faced with the decision of how best to adapt the Roman system to a modern Unites States. There were certainly fundamental differences between America and the Roman Republic and these influenced by the span of time and the evolution of western culture over two millennia.
Rome had two houses in its legislature: the Senate and the Assembly. The Senate was a aristocratic body made up of patrician families who held a connection to the three ancient tribes of Rome. The assembly (there were several of these over time) was a public gathering of the people who voted individually for candidates or laws. The Senate had 300 members for most of its existence, while the assembly comprised all property owning citizens who attended its meetings. The chief magistrates of the Republic were the consuls. Two were elected for a one year term and had the right of veto over each other. This veto right was designed to prevent an abuse of power.
As the American Constitutional Convention approached, two camps of framers developed – nationalists who believed that a central government was essential to the longevity of America and republican ideologues who were only willing to grant federal control under certain restrictions such as separation of powers. These polarizing views formed the battle line of the convention and dictated the way the new American political system would be designed. The majority of the debates were centered on the seat of power – whether it would be with the people, with the government, or somewhere in between.
The longest (over a month) and most contentious debate involved the structure of the legislature. Although a consensus on the bicameral model was achieved fairly quickly, the convention bogged down over the method of representation . The original proposal had both houses elected based on population districts. This plan was opposed by the small states who felt their interests would be dominated by the large states. On the opposite side were those who pointed out the failings of the Articles of Confederation due to deadlocks created from a system which allowed only one vote per state. A compromise was eventually reached when the delegates agreed to set up an equal number of senators for each state and only use the district method for electing representatives.
The Roman Assembly used a direct voting system, impractical in the United States because of the vast geography and the difficulty of assembling the people. Instead the convention opted for a representational system featuring elected officials as representatives of the people. The founders felt that representatives trained to serve in the government would be better equipped to take care of the needs of the public than the people themselves.
With the structure of the legislative branch finalized, the convention when on to debate the office of chief magistrate or president. Some advocated a dual president like the Roman consuls; some wanted one executive per region to protect the interests of each region; others were opposed to any executive because he would represent a dangerous concentration of power.
Again, as in the case of the legislature, the convention got into a heated debate about the length of the president’s term and the method of electing him. An early proposal argued for the president to be elected to one term of seven years, and the delegates labored to balance the time needed by the president to achieve his goals with avoiding a concentration of power in the office. Many term lengths were debated from four years to sixteen years before the convention decided to let the president serve for terms of four years. Then the debate moved to the method of election. Three choices were initially offered: letting the Congress pick the president, letter the state legislatures pick the president, and letting electors chosen by the people elect the president. The latter won out as being the fairest way to allow the people to control who would become president of the land.
Let us now summarize how the model of government described in the Constitution compares to the Roman Republic:
Two houses in the legislature – both.
A senior body of experienced men and a junior body close to the people – both
Senators elected by the people - neither
A senior magistrate as executive – United States one; Rome two.
One male landholders can vote – both
At the time of the Constitution’s ratification, our government was as close to the Roman Republic as it would ever be. And then things began to change as we moved in the direction of a democracy. The property qualification was steadily reduced until about 1850 when it was removed completely; the electors came to be chosen by the people instead of the state legislatures, giving the people a direct say in electing the president; and finally, in 1910, the law for electing senators was changed to allow the people to elect them directly.
The differences between the two Republics was dictated by the difference in culture and time, but our attraction to the ancient system because it had no monarch led us to the creation of a new version designed to withstand the modern age.