Lessons from history that USA founders invoked in def. of Constitution

  1. In this article from City Journal, the writer Heather MacDonald states the following: "The American Founders drew on an astonishingly wide range of historical sources and an appropriately jaundiced view of human nature to craft the world's most stable and free republic. They invoked lessons learned from the Greek city-states, the Carolingian Dynasty and the Ottoman Empire in the Constitution's defense. And they assumed that the new nation's citizens would themselves be versed in history and political philosophy. "

    Do you agree with this excerpt from Heather MacDonald's article? If so, what specific lessons did the American Founders invoke from the Greek city-states, the Carolingian Dynasty, and the Ottoman Empire in the Constitution's defense? What are your sources that support your assertions?

    Here is a link to the article: http://m.us.wsj.com/article_email/SB...DQyWj?mobile=y
  2. jcsd
  3. russ_watters

    Staff: Mentor

    Sounds like a homework essay question. Is it?
  4. No, it is not a homework essay question.
  5. Greg Bernhardt

    Staff: Admin

    Why don't you give us your analysis first. What are your thoughts on this?
  6. Russ Waters,
    I'm not even in school. I'm a middle aged truck driver. I can't see why you would think my question seems like an effort to get answers for a homework essay assignment. When I went to school, teachers got homework essay questions from textbooks, not City Journal.
  7. Greg,

    My thoughts on what Heather MacDonald wrote is that it is interesting, but I can't say whether or not I agree or disagree with her since I've never seen any evidence supporting or going against the contention that the American Founders invoked lessons learned from the Greek city-states, the Carolingian Dynasty, or the Ottoman Empire in support of the US COnsitution. I can't really give an analysis. I'm not well read on the activities of the American Founders at the Constitutional Convention.
  8. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,248
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    Your link to the article doesn't work.

    But I don't see anything surprising in those historical references. Any "well educated" person would have learned about the Greek city states as part of their classical education. The Carolingian Dynasty was more or less the starting point of the history of "modern Europe" ("modern" from the perspective of 1776). Even though the Ottoman empire was beginning to stagnate and decline, at its peak it had extended over three continents, and its political significance in 1776 would have been comparable with the the current political significance of say the 20th century history of the USSR.
  9. SteamKing

    SteamKing 10,964
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    I think Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" was relatively current at the time. It contains a wealth of historical detail.

    If you want to know what the Founders thought during their debates, James Madison kept a diary during the Convention, and the Federalist Papers were written shortly after the draft constitution was signed and submitted to the states for ratification. The Federalist Papers were written to support ratification and to explain the new document to the people.
  10. SteamKing

    SteamKing 10,964
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  11. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,248
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    That link works, but (from the UK) I get to read about one sentence plus a request to "log in" - which I assume implies "subscribe" and "pay", since it doesn't explicitly say "free".
  12. SteamKing

    SteamKing 10,964
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    It's a weird paywall at the Wall Street Journal which comes up if you try to access the article directly with the link in Post #9.

    An alternate means of access is to google "Heather MacDonald lessons of the founders" and then click on the story, "The Humanities have forgotten their Humanity" at wsj.com (there's even a little picture by the link). That should get you thru the paywall.
  13. Astronuc

    Staff: Mentor

    In order to answer the questions, or provide an informed analysis, one would have to be familiar with those who drafted and revised the US Constitution, or participated in the arguments, debates or deliberations of the Convention. It would also be helpful to know that state of a classical education in the 1700's.

    Some insight into what influenced the authors of the Constitution may be found in their letters or writings, or in biographies.

    Apparently in the article is the statement "The 14th-century Florentine poet Francesco Petrarch triggered the explosion of knowledge known today as Renaissance humanism with his discovery of Livy’s monumental history of Rome and the letters of Cicero, the Roman statesman whose orations, with their crystalline Latin style, would inspire such philosophers of republicanism as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson." So one may infer that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were aware, if not familiar, with Roman history, or perhaps Roman republicanism.

    Regarding authorship of the Constitution, one may find

    Ref: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_q_and_a.html

    Apparently James Madison was a principal author of the Constitution.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Madison, which cites a biography of Madison "Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography, (1971)"
    In the Wikipedia article on Madison, one will find some mention of his early life and education.

    Also from the National Archives:
    Delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 1787

    So there is quite a range of age, education and experience.

    Individual Biographies of the Delegates to the Constitutional Convention
    I've read in the past that several of the 'founding fathers' had an interest in Persian poetry and social, political and moral thought.
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2014
    1 person likes this.
  14. As far as I'm concerned the WSJ is a propaganda outlet and I pay no attention to the contents. I tried to get the article, no luck.

    The US Constitution was based on Rome and England, with the main innovation being the office of President with a veto over legislation. I would believe that the other sources were mentioned in passing, but were hardly major influences. Now let's look at the WSJ's journalism with a critical eye.

    "world's most stable and free republic" would be Rome, which lasted a thousand years. If bygone regimes are excluded then the choice would be England, which became a republic before the US did. Thomas Jefferson wrote that Sir Francis Bacon's utopia was a big influence.

    "And they assumed that the new nation's citizens would themselves be versed in history and political philosophy." I don't believe that. Maybe they assumed that property owners would be versed in such things. Only property owners had the vote at first.
  15. Astronuc

    Staff: Mentor

    Perhaps the best places to look for sources are the writings of the authors and their libraries.

    Certainly those who took roles in government were relatively well read.

    As for the WSJ and Heather MacDonald, they are conservative, and one should expect a certain bias in their writing.

    Heather Mac Donald is a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

    "The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (renamed in 1981 from the International Center for Economic Policy Studies) is a conservative American think tank . . . " - Wikipedia

    Nothing wrong with that. Folks are entitled to their opinions and perspectives, but the reader should be aware.
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2014
  16. SteamKing

    SteamKing 10,964
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    When Rome was founded (traditionally in 753 B.C.), it was ruled by a king. The last king of Rome was deposed about 509 B.C. The Roman republic lasted until Julius Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. In between, there were periods of dictatorship during the Punic Wars and towards the latter years of the Republic. At most, the Roman republic lasted about 460 years. OTOH, the Roman empire, in its eastern and western versions, lasted considerably longer.

    The chief innovation of the U.S. Constitution was not the office of the President, but something much more basic: it was written down. The English constitution was never committed to paper, and the Roman republic was governed by tradition as much as by a definite set of rules. Legislation could be vetoed under the parliamentary system in England: the House of Lords had a veto power over the bills passed by the House of Commons until 1911 and the sovereign could always deny royal assent to a bill. The last time that the denial of royal assent to a parliamentary bill was seriously considered in the UK was 1914.
  17. Astronuc

    Staff: Mentor

    or emperor. It seems that one became emporor by deposing, usually by assination, the previous emperor. Apparently, a similar system worked in the Byzantine empire.

    While there is no specific or single document described at the "Constitution of England (or UK)", there is a body of literature of English constitutional law. How about the Magna Carta?


    Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_the_United_Kingdom

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_the_United_Kingdom#References (see 1 and 2)

    But let us not diverge or digress.
  18. SteamKing

    SteamKing 10,964
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    Traditionally, there were seven kings of Rome, starting with the founder Romulus. The other kings were thought to have origins in the nearby Etruscan civilization, but all of this is speculation, based on the legends which have come down to us through Roman literature.

    In the republic, two consuls were elected annually, with power being split between the consuls during the year. One consul would act as de facto head of state for a month, then the other consul would assume power for the following month. In the field, each consul was ex officio the head of an army.

    In times of dire emergency (such as when Rome was threatened by invasion from Carthage), a dictator could be appointed for six months, who had absolute authority over the state. An imperator was something which came after the republic was dissolved.
  19. SteamKing

    SteamKing 10,964
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    The Magna Carta forms a part of the constitutional documentation of the UK, much like the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which is an actual bill passed by Parliament.

    However, the English constitution subsumes these documents (and many other texts, including Acts of Parliament) along with various customs and traditions arising out of the history of England.


    Arising out of many different sources, the English constitution exhibited a certain flexibility in application and operation. Now that the UK has a Supreme Court, separate from the House of Lords, it will be interesting to see how things will operate in the future.
  20. Astronuc

    Staff: Mentor

    Perhaps we should acknowledge the Roman Kingdom (The Roman Kingdom (Latin: REGNVM ROMANVM) was the period of the ancient Roman civilization characterized by a monarchical form of government of the city of Rome and its territories.) as opposed to the Roman Republic (Res Pvblica Romana). Perhaps the history of both, in addition to the history of England, Europe and other republics, influenced the founding persons in the American colonies.



    I'm sure the founders were most interested in what seemed to work.

    Let us also not forget the Founding Mothers!
    Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation


    How about Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Deborah Franklin, . . . ?

    Possibly a useful source for one's inquiry. I'm going to purchase this one myself.
    The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2014
  21. SteamKing

    SteamKing 10,964
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    It's hard to say what principles of government can be gleaned from the history of the Roman kingdom, except 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket'.


    The king of Rome was originally an elected position. The king of Rome had at least six chief duties:

    1. Head of State
    2. Chief Executive
    3. Chief Judge
    4. Chief Priest
    5. Commander in Chief
    6. Chief Legislator.

    The kingdom of Rome was an absolute monarchy, and the king possessed powers that few modern absolute monarchs or autocrats could hope to amass, let alone exercise personally. Over time, the office of king ceased to be elective and became hereditary, although this state of affairs was short-lived before the last king was driven out of Rome and the Republic was founded. What little history there exists of this period in Rome comes mainly from legends handed down by various Roman authors.

    When the king of Rome died, the City lost more than a head of state: most of the government and civil life continued on a temporary basis until a replacement was elected, which is why a protracted gap in governments is now know as an 'interregnum'. The Senate appointed a temporary king ('interrex') for five days to run things and to nominate a permanent successor. If the Senate could not agree on a permanent replacement, a new interrex would take over duties for another five days, until a king was elected.
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