Every generation or so, the theme of American exceptionalism becomes a hot topic on both sides of the aisle. Many thinkers and public figures (conservatives and liberals alike) seek to distinguish “the American way” from the “Old World,” usually implying the superiority of the modern world (though occasionally reversed). The roots of America’s republican form of government, though, are deeper than the eighteenth century, bearing strong resemblance to the Greek, Roman and English forms that preceded it.
Several Greek thinkers developed ways of describing and thinking about government, Socrates and Plato among them. Aristotle’s structural approach is perhaps most helpful, though. He saw three essential forms of government, which could be either good or bad: rule by the one, the few or the many. In his Politics, Aristotle outlines both the strengths and weaknesses of each approach in maintaining eunomia (good order or laws). Consolidated rule has great energy and effectiveness; rule by the few emphasizes virtue and tradition; and rule by the many allows for greater civic virtue and equality. Each, however, can be corrupted when the interests of the ruler(s) outweigh the interests of the ruled: monarchies become tyrannies, aristocracies become oligarchies, and polities become democracies. Aristotle, however, was never fully convinced of the ultimate superiority of any of these forms (thought he leaned toward polities), instead emphasizing that the character of the rulers and the people was the most important characteristic of human government.
The Romans, however, took this Aristotelian framework and employed it to develop a mixed government that would both (1) mitigate the risks of each of these forms, and (2) allow the government to develop from the polis (town, community) to the res publica (republic or commonwealth). The Roman Republic thus combined what they viewed as the best of all three forms: Consuls (two of them) and other executives, the Senate and the Assemblies, all determined by class and election. It was this Republic that was praised by Cicero and Cato, and supported by the concept of public virtue. This form served them well for two centuries before being transformed by the reigns of Julius Caesar and his nephew, Octavian. The Republican constitution allowed for the appointment of a dictator during times of crisis, but first Caesar and later Octavian used this position to consolidate the governance of independent executives under their authority, resulting in the ultimate crowning of Octavian as Augustus and Imperator.
Classical republicans, with Cato at their head opposed monarchical overreach as violations of the ancient order of things and called Rome back to her republican roots. And after the fall of the Western Empire, Europe (due to both necessity and principle) largely adopted the view of these republicans, returning to a local or regional level of government with a basically mixed form. And yet good order was nowhere to be found. The rising influence of the Papacy had a stabilizing effect on the continent throughout the Middle Ages, but vicious political battles were often fought on the local level. Because of this, by the Renaissance Rome (as well as the rest of Italy) began to see some of the advantages of the Imperial model. Dante and Machiavelli were among this group. Both had sympathies with various local factions of their day, but also saw the need for a powerful central executive who could create the conditions for internal and external peace, by force if necessary. The unity and stability of Italy seemed to demand it.
The effects of these streams of thought were seen in Great Britain as well. In both England and Scotland, kings (the Stuarts) and parliaments (Cromwell and the Long Parliament) sought to establish absolute rule, only to be reminded of their responsibilities to abide by and uphold the common law. In spite of these challenges and because of them, England maintained a strong but balanced model of king, Lords (including religious and legal) and Commons, united under a constitution never written but stable nonetheless. It is this organically original and developing constitution that both British (Locke, Smith, Burke) and French (Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire) thinkers could refer to as a “social contract.”
The question then becomes whether America’s Founders sought a clean break with the past or something more complex. A brief look at the colonial and state constitutions under both the Crown and the Confederation militate against a radical break. Thus while Montesquieu was urging the French to better “divide their powers” and Locke was writing on the “social contract,” Americans were living out what had by then become common sense: a mixed government of legislative, executive and judicial powers, responsible to the people. Our federal Constitution, then, is great, precisely because it applies in a new context the lessons learned from centuries of political thought and practice. As M.N.S. Sellers points out in his work, American Republicanism, the greatest shift in early American thought was not a rejection of the English form of government as much as an acceptance of Greco-Roman terms as more expedient for America’s unique situation. We had no king, but we do have a federal presidency (based on German feudalism); we had no landed Lords, but we do have Senators of character and wisdom; and we had no shared political structure across state lines, but we do have a federal system of representation.
America is indeed an exceptional country, in that we have more consistently and overtly applied the wisdom of the ages to our form of government. And yet, the materials of our Constitution are not our own. Instead, we borrowed from the Greeks, the Romans, the English and even the Germans, producing a form of government most conducive to the “Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness” sought by our Founders.