Can We Keep Our Republic?

Can We Keep Our Republic?

By Maggie Gallagher - July 7, 2011

"What form of government have you given us?" a lady is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin as he left Independence Hall on Sept. 17, 1787 -- that other great day in American history, when the Constitution was promulgated if not yet ratified.

"A republic, madam, if you can keep it," Franklin is said to have replied.

A republic: What is that? And how do we keep it?

Over the long Independence Day weekend, I re-read Tom Holland's "Rubicon" -- a history of the fall of the Roman Republic.

More than any history of the period I have read, Holland's narrative illuminates Friedrich Hayek's great truth that we all, even the most practical hard-headed realist among us, are prisoners of dead thinkers.

The Roman Republic, like any republic, any nation, is simply an idea in the heads of people. An idea that is strong enough to influence people's ideals, how they strive to achieve them and, as important, what they are not willing to do to achieve them.

All our institutions are made up of air -- of symbols, dreams, stories, mere nothings created by poets, dreamers, intellectuals, novelists and speechwriters, and fashioned into enduring modes of living by the airiest of bonds: the bonds of meaning in the heads of living human beings.

Why is it, Holland thinks to ask, that most Americans never stop to wonder: Why on a continent the ancient Romans never even knew existed there stands a new Senate, upon another Capitol Hill?

Like our Founding Fathers, we have much to learn from Rome: how to achieve a republic that lasts for 400 years --and then how in the space of a generation or two, to lose it.

Holland points out the great world-conquering warriors of the Roman Empire were unique: However much they conquered and ruled and pillaged abroad, they did so primarily in order to impress their fellow citizens, to win stature as a hero of Rome. The myths of the Roman Republic held, bound and captivated them. They saw their wars not as ends in themselves, but as defensive strikes to serve the glory, honor and safety of the one thing that mattered most to them: a free republic in Rome.

Rome was not an egalitarian society. On the contrary, even its aristocrats had to compete for honors and glory, while individual achievement could lift a plebian to the highest honors of the republic. All men competed continously for honor, which was conferred only by fellow citizens.

Live free or die is still the motto of New Hampshire, borrowed from Rome and its last great hero, Cato, who, when he knew the republic was dead, as a man unrestrained by Christian ideals, slew himself -- thus shaming in their own eyes every Roman man content to live under tyranny rather than die.

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Copyright 2011, Maggie Gallagher

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