America’s Long Journey: Plato and the American revolution

Plato and the American revolution

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

The classically-educated men who were at the core of the American revolution knew what they were up against. They did their best to try to beat the odds, and died wondering if they had succeeded. In the short run, clearly, they had not failed. But had they found a formula for long-range success? They rather suspected that they had not. They all knew the cycle that Plato had described: Monarchy. Aristocracy. Republic. Democracy. Plutocracy. Dictatorship, and begin again with Monarchy.

They had been born into a world of monarchy. In all of Europe, with relatively trivial exceptions – the Netherlands. Switzerland, Venice – kings and queens were accepted as an inevitable, even a desirable, feature of government. The monarch’s interests were thought to be identical to those of his realm as a whole, and thus the very essence of monarchy – to turn Adams’ definition of a republic on its head – was an empire of men. and not of laws.

Remove the monarch, and a small group of men could govern, and perhaps govern pretty well. Knowing each other’s strengths and limitations, bound to each other with numerous ties of kinship and shared experience, they in effect – or anyway in theory – formed a governing class small enough to remain personal and large enough to be beyond the whims of any one individual. In a way, that is the situation these men were born into, for their king was always far away, dependent upon men who governed in his name but were somewhat dependent upon those they governed. The weakness of an aristocracy, of course, is the same as its strength. Its class limitations are likely to limit its understanding of, and its ability to represent, society as a whole.

Widen control of the government from the aristocracy to the electorate at large, and you created your empire of laws, and not of men. To the founding fathers, this was the ideal state. But what did this mean, under close examination? It didn’t mean universal suffrage, even where (as in New England) the unusual circumstance of universal literacy existed. It meant rule by those who were considered to have a stake in society, which in practice meant rule by those who owned property and could be considered to be independent of another man’s influence. Establishing the republic upon this basis was possible. But how would you prevent it from moving to Plato’s next stage, democracy? Moving from rule by one man to rule by a small interconnected group of men to rule by a qualified electorate creates a continual pressure to expand that electorate. And every such expansion leads toward rule by counting noses. Although we have been raised to think that full expansion of the electorate is the ideal, the founding fathers saw that the larger the percentage of men who voted, the smaller would be the percentage of voters who actually knew the candidates.

(Suffrage was originally restricted to white men who owned a certain minimum amount of property and had been resident in the country a certain minimum time. This excluded non-citizens, of course, and immigrants more recent than whatever limit was set, for they were assumed to have acquired too little a stake in the society to be trusted to help direct its course. Nor did it include women, for they were considered to be under the authority of their fathers or husbands; Nor mere wage earners, for they were dependent upon their employers and thus, in an age of public rather than private-ballot voting, presumably would vote as he directed. Not indentured servants, for the same reason, and not slaves or Indians because they were not considered to be part of the community. Free black men might or might not be given the vote, depending on where they lived.)

Rule by popular majority implied a descent into less stable rule, because it implied that the representatives would become increasingly responsive to the people, which meant, increasingly responsive to the people’s impulses, and whims, and prejudices, and their other short-sightedness. Worse, it implied that those with enough money to buy votes and to buy voter allegiance would obtain control of government, and rule by law would become rule by gold (plutocracy), at one remove.

Once a democracy becomes plutocracy, people don’t take a long time to become disillusioned. Once they realize that their republic has become a republic in name only, they lose their incentive to defend it, for it is no longer theirs. Thus, sooner or later, plutocracies breed dictatorship, either because one of the plutocrats beats the others to the draw or because some insider-outsider like Caesar uses the army to overthrow them before they can overthrow him.

At that point it is only a matter of time and manner before the dictator, or his successor, or his supplanter, declares himself king and the cycle begins again.

Only a very naïve observer could think that the new American republic would be immune to these dangers and tendencies, and naïve is one thing the founding fathers were not. Their attempted remedy was ingenious. Take into account the one, the few, and the many. Have a powerful executive (the one) and a bicameral legislature divided into an upper house (the few) and lower house (the many), and set an judiciary to watch them, and hope that in their mutual suspicions and fears and jealousies, they would keep each other in check.

How long it would work, only God knew, but they had done their best, and even they were divided among themselves in their opinions of how well they had done. Hamiltonians feared chaos; Jeffersonians feared tyranny. They all feared each other, and the secret forces that might be fermenting unseen. But – almost unique to revolutions – they didn’t set to killing each other. They set the machinery into motion and hoped for the best.

A republic, if you can keep it..

2 thoughts on “America’s Long Journey: Plato and the American revolution

  1. What a brilliant and illuminating piece of writing, Frank. I am impressed by your ability to elucidate and convey the ideas you’ve presented. (((((((applause)))))))

  2. Wow….I sure wish I had been exposed to this in school when I was young….but hey, it’s never too late. Thanks, Frank!

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