I sometimes fear I am coming of age in a dying republic. Everywhere I turn the foundational values of America — open discourse, constitutional integrity, restricted government — seem to be eroding.
Elite universities have become repressively hostile toward speakers like Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose politically incorrect views make students “uncomfortable.” Influential thinkers like Louis Seidman, Andrew Burstein and Donna Brazile advocate overhauling the Constitution to serve their partisan agendas. Even the nation’s highest officials don’t seem to play by the nation’s rules: President Obama looks poised to bypass Congress to impose immigration reform. His Justice Department sidesteps laws of which it disapproves. The IRS appears to have systematically persecuted conservative dissenters.
What’s a young constitutionalist to do? I study ancient history, so I know nothing lasts forever: Republics have fallen before. But when they do, republicans like me have to fight back. That fight matters even if it’s destined to fail. I know that too, because when the ancient Roman Republic was dying, one man’s doomed defense of it transformed history. His name was Marcus Cicero, and he helped build America.
Cicero was a nerdy kid from a podunk town who became known, according to his biographer, Plutarch, “as the best orator ... of the Romans.” He was a true republican, dedicated to preserving Rome’s representative government. When Julius Caesar invited him to join a backroom political coalition, Cicero refused. He worried that conspiratorial demagogues were undermining the republic.
He was right. The republic was dying. Poverty and civil bloodshed were rampant. The government was bloated and corrupt. The people wanted peace and reform; they wanted relief from their crippling debt. Julius Caesar offered all those things — in return, he wanted unalloyed power. The senate consented: Caesar would become “dictator for life.”
Alone and defeated, Cicero retreated from politics “to literary pursuits.” He wrote his treatise “On the Republic” to defend his ideal of an elected government in three branches. He tried to fight for that government again, but in 43 BC, Antony and Octavian had Cicero beheaded for defying their new regime. With that, the lights went out on the Roman Republic.
As everyone knows, the lights came up on a new republic centuries later, in Philadelphia. What’s less well known is that decades before that, a Massachusetts schoolboy picked up a book that, according to David McCullough’s biography, “became one of his earliest, proudest possessions.” The book was Cicero’s “Orations.” The boy was John Adams.
Adams idolized Cicero — he pored over the little book until it was yellowed and dogeared. Gradually, he learned to imitate the force and flair of Cicero’s rhetorical genius. For guidance, he read aloud from the orations, admiring the “sweetness and grandeur” of Cicero’s words.
In July 1776, Adams rose to what may have been the occasion he was born for. After prolonged deliberation, the 13 colonies had to decide whether to declare independence. With British forces descending on New York, Adams delivered a two-hour tour de force proclamation declaring that Britain’s encroachment on God-given freedoms could not stand.
Thomas Jefferson later wrote that Adams’ “power of thought and expression ... moved us from our seats.” Adams’ compelling rhetoric won the day for independence. It was a triumph in the name of liberty.
Cicero would have been proud. And not least because it was his own manifesto, composed in Rome’s darkest hour, that would become the blueprint for the new republic.
Adams used the three branches from “On the Republic” to construct a template for America’s new government in his own writing. “All the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher” than Cicero, Adams wrote. “His authority should have great weight.”
Cicero died in disgrace, fanning the dying flame of liberty. He couldn’t have known that John Adams would pick up the torch and make the cause his own.
The story of freedom is long; it’s written by an author who plans millenniums in advance. Even if my worst fears are true and our chapter is over, republicans like me have a responsibility to the unborn generations that will open the next one. We owe it to them to leave a record of thinkers and statesmen who beat back against the tide of history to keep the idea of liberty alive. We have to be the Ciceros because someday, there’s going to be another Adams. And he’s going to need us.
Spencer Klavan is a graduate student in classics at Oxford. He runs the classics blog “The Forum: Old Ideas, New Translations, Modern Problems.” https://theforum-blog.com/
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