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When I last “spoke” here I tried to put emphasis on how battles and movements can turn at critical moments. There are always examples of hope for those with the will to engage the endless battle. But it is equally important to soberly realize how dark and dangerous this moment happens to be for our republic. History can be a demanding teacher. And in arrogance, we have either forgotten or disregarded its lessons for republics.
Being a simple critter, my understandings are simple. Some may well believe too much so. The “insights” I am about to stumble through might not be exact parallels, but they are close enough to make a point. Even if only a simple-minded one.
The saying goes that Rome lasted 1,000 years. If we are talking about republics, that is only about half right. Maybe just half of a half, honestly. The Roman Republic “only” lasted about 500 years. By the time the first emperor emerged from a bloody three-sided struggle for power, the republican ways had already been diluted and the more noble beginnings centered around citizen farmers and merchants were in the distant past. Its last half-life would be spent as the Roman Empire but Rome had lost the simpler vestiges of republicanism long before Octavian became Caesar Augustus.
The over-simplified, thumbnail version sees Rome growing in influence and spreading its power into surrounding regions on the strength of its society that is fed and protected by citizen farmers and merchants who are also citizen soldiers. The hills and fields belonging to the private land-holder supplied the growing republic.
Most know that there were two classes of Roman citizens known as plebeians and patricians. Both of these were hereditary. During the first stages of the republic, the plebeian class had two divisions depending on if they were urban or rural. The small- to medium-sized citizen farmers fed the growing Roman Republic.
Although the patrician class was the ruling class and charged with protecting not just their own interests but also the plebeians’, there seems to be some evidence that in the very early days there were also plebeian administrators as well.
There grew political offices whose stated purpose was to give voice to the concerns and needs of the plebeian class. The offices were mostly elected by plebeians but still held by patricians. As the republic spread out through warfare, it brought more and more wealth from subjugated lands, cheaper grain taken by force or taxation, physical goods acquired not by the production of Roman natives but the successes of Roman armies. The patrician class prospered with the import of all these new riches. And, for a while, the plebeians seemed to feed off of the foreign fat as well. Their lives were made easier, it seemed, from what had always been a product of human warfare and would remain so for over another thousand years, slaves taken from conquered peoples.
Seemingly easy trade riches, cheap labor, and declining domestic production saw both the patrician and plebeian classes grow farther from their early roots. The plebeians were more and more dependent on their government spreading the acquired wealth (acquired – taken – wealth, not wealth they produced) among them for one new excuse or another. Small- and medium-sized farmers became fewer and fewer as they failed to compete with cheap, imported grain, and patricians wealthy from trade and political corruption bought their land for their own country pleasure villa estates. And then the displaced “moved to town” to seek their share of the government pie.
I am sure it would be a simple-minded over-simplification (is that too much simple talk?) to conclude that a political class with no or little accountability to any but themselves and a citizen class not actively responsible for the issues directly affecting it both became lazy, corrupted, distracted and disconnected from their simpler but foundational roots that had begun their climb in the world.
Now with a corrupted, self-interested patrician class and a plebeian class accustomed to governmental pandering and less and less responsible production, Romans began to discover there were barbarians in the world. Actually, they had known it all along. But now they had to begin to confront them, or at least be confronted by them.
I know I might have skipped a detail or two, or even a century now and then. But don’t let that make you miss the point about elites, plebeians who become subjects instead of citizens, and the ever-present barbarians of the world.
Patricians didn’t mind plebeians as long as they stayed in their place and let the decisions affecting them be left to the “experts” who had an entitlement to do so. But, as it turns out, patricians are a lot more concerned with how patricians are affected than the impact on plebeians unless they are forced to.
Barbarians want to take and destroy without a lot of respect for tradition or class. Oh, they will use them both as it fits their destruction. And they will use the greed and/or weakness of either class without hesitation. Barbarians are always just beyond the river, or the forest – or among you. They are always watching for a moment of opportunity to strike for the kill or to bargain for a deceptive inroad.
The barbarians have always been there. They always will be.
Our Founders/Framers knew the history of republics and what had befallen them all. They also believed that republics offered the surest way for a wise and moral free people to govern themselves. So they worked on a system that would avoid as many of the historical pitfalls as possible. They could not foresee everything, any more than we can. But they left the ability to adjust thoughtfully, deliberately.
What was left to us was insight of circumstance, clarity of purpose, commitment beyond comfort or emotional convenience, and courage.
What the Founders/Framers left us was a system in which, in theory and hopefully in practice, we were all plebeians. We have now allowed a varied group of patricians to develop among us, all lording power over our lives and feeling entitled to do it. And they are aided by a variety of plebs, some simply wanting to survive off of what is taken from others, some gullibly believing the patrician self-interested scam, and some wanna-be patricians.
In our case, prosperity didn’t come from continual war and conquest. It was mostly built from within. I know, there was expansion that took in most of North America but I will argue that another day. The growth that fueled that expansion sprang from economic Liberty, a competitive economy that favored the bold, hard-working, the inventive, and the determined. That Liberty had its rough edges but time, practiced rights, and the system handed to us allowed for a steady improvement. There were, of course, patricians. They quickly took their place among the political parties that developed and patricians are always self-interested if nothing else. But we had allowed for not just the voice of the plebs but their full participation and there have been cycles of their political muscle being used to check the patricians from time to time. But human nature being what it is, the 20th century saw major steps to not just subjugating the plebs but to destroy the culture of Liberty which put them at the center of our advancement for over a century.
One might say that we now are in an era in which the barbarians have pretty well taken over one of those political parties and have been steadily advancing aided by the trepid patricians of the other party, all in the name of bipartisanship. Surely, one set of patricians wouldn’t deliberately feed another set of patricians (as well as a whole nation and its culture) to the barbarians simply for their own momentary survival. Would they?
Over time Rome found that its supporting institutions were corrupted. Those institutions and the plebeian class were the foundation. The seeds of Roman destruction were sown before Julius Caesar ever crossed the Rubicon. In fact, the Punic Wars which saw the conquest of Carthage and the Mediterranean becoming a “Roman lake” probably sealed the deal even if the Seven Hills still called itself a republic.
The fellow patricians who put the blade to Ol’ Julius on the Ides of March were much more interested in preserving their own power in the Senate than saving a republic of plebs. But that still didn’t keep Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son from becoming the first Emperor. The die had been cast years before.
There were, of course, individuals of vision who saw it coming and tried to turn the tide at different stages. But they were mostly efforts of patricians simply trying to either lead or, at least, influence the plebeians. The plebeians were actually the strength of early Rome and their acceptance of the hand of government over their values left the Roman fate to play out over the next centuries.
With all the volumes that Gibbon wrote about The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, probably none of his words were more profound than the observation of a loss of “public courage” and a “love of independence” in the Roman people. These are eternal lessons for any who would aspire to be a successful republic.
Earlier I stated we were established in theory to be a plebeian nation as much as possible. Being human, we have not always traveled a straight path in that regard. But in most cases, our course corrections (imperfect as they may have been) have come from the plebs raising their voices to restrict the power of patrician elements taking themselves too seriously. Our national strength comes from the voices of the plebs.
These moments have been given a variety of historical titles but the so-called Jacksonian Era of the “common man” was such a moment that at least reminded us of the roots from which we came and the vision which founded us. The Civil War Era moved us closer to the ideal of equality. It was not fueled by the voice of the elites constantly seeking compromised solutions to avoid looking evil in the face but by a more common thread in the conscience of the people. The great growth of the last third of the 19th century came from the plebs of the world coming here for an independence that early Romans had forsaken and from our native plebs expanding their horizons. Almost all of the industrial giants and “robber barons” rose up from their ranks.
Since the social upheaval of the 1960s forward there have been a few moments of plebeian assertiveness that have offered us chances for course correction. The Reagan administration, the Contract with America, the Tea Party Movement, and the Trump administration.
Although Rome was called a republic for close to 500 years, its fate as a republic was sealed before the 200-year mark. The rest just had to play out. There might well have been opportunities for real reversals but “public courage” and “love of independence” had seen their day in the hearts of the Roman institutions.
I sense we are on the cusp of one of those historical decision points. There is a whole culture (or is it a lack of culture) “out there” more than willing to accept a secure role in a “perfect” society that can never happen.
The politicos will always compromise away pieces of our Liberty. But there are some battles which have to be fought today or the tomorrows will be too late. The strength of our national purpose is found in the voices of the plebeians. Oh, they can be a rowdy bunch. But it will be found that what they hold in common is the fiber required for not just the moment but the centuries to come. The point is not to abandon that fiber for the moment. That “love of independence” can be a unifying force. Family, faith, work ethic, self-determination, desire to control the direction of one’s own life, and divinely gifted rights are all human feelings that reach across color and class. They are unifying, not divisive. And they don’t have to be compromised just for some assurances today or fears about an election cycle.
The American plebeians were given an action agenda built around those common concerns in 2016 and for the first time in a long time saw them fought for and dramatically advanced. There is no reason to accept anything less ever again.
If this republic is to survive and then grow in Liberty as it was designed, the patricians have to be guided by the plebeians. The republic itself has to be accountable to the plebeians. And that begins with the GOP.
The day has come for “public courage”.Published in