Some people spend a lot of time arguing for the “Christian” nature of our nation’s founding. They are missing the point. The Founders may have been “Christian” but their outlook was very, very Pagan…
If you listen to stupid people, the founding fathers of the United States were all about Jesus. As with most popular lies, there is a grain of truth here. Many of them were probably more into their Christianity than most folks here in the 21st Century. But their version of Religion was a lot more sophisticated than that of the Michelle Bachmann’s and Mike Huckabee’s of this world. Their historical world was also much broader.
When they sat down to set up this country’s institutions, they weren’t focused on the guy in the Middle. They were Focused on Rome. From the 1500s through to about 50 years ago, you couldn’t call yourself an educated person without a deep knowledge of the history of Roman civilization, preferably in the original Latin. The Founders may have been Christian, but they were mostly inspired by pagan Romans. You can see this influence everywhere in our Iconography. Everything from our taste for Latin phrases, to our choice of national bird has roman roots.
Beyond the superficial stuff, the history of Rome gave the Founders a great cautionary tale, one that was much more important to their thinking than the Bible was.
Rome has appealed to centuries of lovers of freedom because it reached its greatest power and influence as a Republic, not as a kingdom or an Empire. For centuries it was ruled by elected citizen soldiers who defended their city, and expanded its reach. Success eventually killed the Roman Republic. The Roman territories got too big, and the victorious generals that brought about that expansion got too powerful to be content with merely being equals. For generations larger than life figures like Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony battled for power over the length of the known world. The terror of these decades of civil strife eventually wore down the Roman people’s commitment to the Republic. We hear a lot about Julius Caesar because he was the adoptive father of Augustus, the guy who eventually won and set up the Empire in 27 BC.
The Emperors managed to lead for 500 years in the West, and almost 1500 in the East, but the corruption and brutality of these leaders was legendary. There is an 82 year period in the 2nd Century known as the “Five Good Emperors”. This should indicate how rare decent emperors were.
Some enjoy the peace that the early emperors created, and see some glory in the empire. The Founders, however, noticed three things about the switch From Republic to Empire.
1. Empires can’t adapt.
As a Republic the small Italian City-State of Rome managed to force the known world in to a single administrative system in a few short centuries. After the switch to Empire, some small territories were added, but the story was mostly one of endless power struggles and slow decline. The empire couldn’t change to save itself.
2. Military adventuring is a problem.
Imperial overreach, and too much land to govern caused the Roman transition to Empire, and that Empire’s eventual fall. This is why the United States are divided up into individual state governments to this day, and why American statesmen used to be very suspicious of standing armies.
3. Emperors kill people.
They start with the weak and “enemies”, but they ended up killing elites, over and over and over again. Within 100 years of the founding of the Roman Empire, the families who had run the Republic for 500 years had all been murdered for their wealth. As elites themselves, the Founding Fathers would have been very interested in avoiding this result. The lessons of Rome were foremost in the minds of the Founders, and in the minds of their 19th century successors. These lessons have faded in the 20th and the 21st Centuries. In the coming weeks we may spend some time looking at why that is…
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