By Kimiko Adler
During the Constitutional ratification debates, Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike appealed to the ancient Roman Republic, a government successful in ruling without a monarch. However, the opposing sides pointed to the Roman Republic for different reasons: one example highlighted the glory and freedom that can come with a republic, while the other warned of the dangers of tyranny.
The Federalists viewed the Roman Republic through a positive lens. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay invoked the successes of the Roman Republic with the pseudonym Publius. Publius symbolized the hope of the newly formed Roman Republic. Reflecting the positive traits of the Roman Republic, Harriet Flower writes, “The importance of Rome’s republican model for… American revolutionaries lay in the courage it gave them to contemplate government without a king by providing politicians with a rival set of political institutions opposed to the hereditary principle.”1 The Roman Republic provided Americans with an example of a republican government, operating without a monarchy. Yet, as the Anti-Federalists pointed out, the Roman Republic was inherently flawed because it ultimately collapsed. Plutarch acknowledged this flaw while detailing the biography of Julius Caesar: “Some were so bold as to declare openly, that the government was incurable by a monarchy….”2
After decades of civil war, the Republic ceased to exist at the end of the first
century BCE, giving way first to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and then ultimately to the Roman Empire. Thus, by using the pseudonym “Brutus,” the Anti-Federalists recalled the last days of the Republic, fanning concerns about the extended powers the Constitution gave to the national government. They also recalled one of the Republic’s last defenders; a man committed to standing up against tyranny at a momentous point in Roman history.
The Anti-Federalists made a compelling point about the downsides of the Roman Republic. For example, the Roman Republic did not even remotely represent an equal political system. Instead, politics and government were exclusively the domains of the educated, wealthy elite. Running for office was a highly competitive and cutthroat process. In order to be successful, one needed to already have come from wealth and have established connections in Rome. Bribes were especially common. Since much of the political influence was consolidated into a small portion of the Roman population, the term “oligarchy” seems to suit the Roman Republican system best. The Roman Republic was deeply flawed, but the Federalists and post-Revolutionary generation instead looked upon its honorable principles. Hence, they alluded to the virtues that Publius exhibited: living free from a tyrant’s rule, providing liberty to the people, and representing the best interests of society at large. Ultimately, the Federalists made a strong case for looking toward the ideals on which the Roman Republic was built rather than the corruption and flaws that ended it.
1 “The Roman Republic and the French and American Revolutions”, 350, in Harriet Flower, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic (Cambridge UP, 2014).
2 Plutarch, 796.