Monday, March 28, 2011

How the Framers of Our Constitution Debated the Roman Republic

The American Constitutional Convention was authorized on February 21st, 1787, for the sole and express purpose of modifying the Articles of Confederation. By the time of the initial committee meetings on May 6th, however, the delegate’s philosophy had shifted toward a completely new government for the United States. Opinions had changed because the lawlessness of Shay’s Rebellion had emphasized the weaknesses in the Articles.

During the committee meetings and the full convention there was extensive discussion about the political systems of antiquity and their usefulness as models for the new government. The delegates considered the British Constitution, Roman Republic, and, to a lesser extent, the Greek Democracy as relevant political systems. They were also influenced by the philosopher Locke and the political theorist Montesquieu. The framers saw the monarch as the major problem with the British system; a tyrant imposing his will on the people. The Roman Republic, as the greatest political system with no monarch, would be better because the executive magistrate was elected and not born to his position.

Committee meetings were held until June 19th, for the purpose of creating a governmental model that could be presented to the whole convention. The entire committee agreed that two legislative bodies should be created: an Assembly and Senate modeling the Roman Republic. Debate on the method of electing members from these two bodies proved to be long and difficult, however. One extreme favored members of both bodies be selected by the states; the other favored members be elected by the people.

On June 6th, Madison argued for direct election of the assembly by the people, using the example of Rome and its factions to show how power could be accumulated for selfish purposes. Madison argued that the only way to avoid the accumulation of power is to divide power into small pieces by letting the people vote directly. No consensus was reached that day, and the discussion of assembly elections was tabled.

As the debate moved on to the model of the Senate, a proposal was made to have Senators elected by the people like the assembly. Small states immediately objected to the unfairness of the proposal and insisted that the Senate consist of equal numbers from each state. Early in the debate, a large number was considered, but Madison spoke against this describing how the number of Tribunes in Rome was enlarged, and the office became corrupt. All finally agreed that the number of Senators from each state should be a small number, and they settled on the number one.

On June 11th, the great Connecticut Compromise was submitted to the committee. It offered to break the deadlock on how to elect the legislature by calling for the people’s election of the assembly by apportioned districts and the states election of Senators. This creative solution removed the major roadblock to the continuation of the convention.

On June 16th, the committee took up its discussion regarding the executive magistrate’s position (President). Most delegates agreed that an executive was needed, because they had suffered through the gridlock of a leaderless Articles of Confederation. All feared tyranny, which could result if a single executive were able to accumulate power, so a dozen members proposed the two executive system of the Roman Consuls. After much debate, the number of was fixed at one based on concerns that two presidents with veto power would stifle government action.

The Convention began on June 20th, and five days later debate began on article four, which was the method of election of Senators. Mr. Pinkney of South Carolina made an impassioned speech about why the Senate should not be a copy of the English House of Lords because there were no titled classes in the United States. Portions of his speech follow:

“The people of the United States are more equal in their circumstances than the people of any other country – and they have few rich men among them.”

“The people of this country are not only very different from the inhabitants of any state we are acquainted with in the modern world; but I assert that their situation is different from either the people of Greece and Rome, or any other state we are acquainted with among the ancients. Can the orders introduced by Solon be found in the United States? Can the military habits and manners of Sparta be resembled in our habits and manners? Are the distinctions of Patrician and Plebian known among us? I apprehend not – because they are perfectly different.”

“Our true situation appears to me to be this – we are a new extensive country containing within itself the materials for forming a government capable of extending to its citizens civil and Religious liberty.”

“This is the great end of Republican establishments.”

Pinkney was right. The United States was unique. It had come together as thirteen colonies with mutual interests, and different agendas. In the end all agreed to create a political system combining the states with a federal government that would act for the good of the whole.

A couple of facts need additional clarification. The name Assembly was changed to House of Representatives in the August 6th revision of the Articles of the Constitution. I found no evidence of the name change being suggested during debate, so I'm not sure of the origin. The number of Senators from each state was changed to two on July 23rd. The convention debated two versus three, but decided three would be too expensive.

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