Rome’s fall, and ours

In 1787 America was a lightly populated strip of North America bordering the Atlantic Ocean.  But our Founding Fathers were planning on a continental empire of liberty, and designed the Constitution accordingly.

One of their principal inspirations was the Twelve Tables, the foundation of the law of Rome and the Roman state.  Adopted in final form in 499 B. C., it was, as Will Durant states, “… the first written form of that legal structure which was to be Rome’s most signal achievement and her greatest contribution to civilization.”  It was a Constitution.

At the time Rome was one of many small, ambitious city-states in Italy, and only 360 square miles in area.  Then, for over three and a half centuries Rome expanded.  Now a mighty empire, Rome still, to a very great extent,  remained true to its laws.

That changed in 132 B.C., when Tiberius Gracchus, an impatient liberal populist, openly  flouted the Constitution by forcibly removing his fellow tribune from office, and thus overrode his veto of reformist laws.  Tiberius compounded his disregard for the Roman Constitution by seeking reelection as tribune, in complete disregard of the term limits in the Constitution.

Tiberius was quickly murdered by the Senate, but his willingness to ignore the law of Rome was not forgotten.  The Social and Civil Wars which followed ended with the ascension of Sulla Felix, who became a dictator.  A bit later, with Julius Caesar, the Roman Republic, and Roman law, were only memories.

The American Founding Fathers were familiar with this history, and determined to avoid it.  The reforms advocated by Gracchus, and prevented by the Twelve Tables,  should have been adopted.  There were necessary to avoid the civil strife that followed.   But the Twelve Tables contained a fatal flaw, which the Framers knew they would have to correct.  The American Constitution, unlike the Roman, would include procedures for amendment.

The Romans did have 367 years of constitutional governance.  They went from a bunch of mud huts along the Tiber to the greatest power in  the world.  But a Constitution designed for a small city-state was wholly inadequate for a world power.  The Twelve Tables contained no provision for change.  It was their downfall.

So the Framers decided to allow Congress, by 2/3 vote, to propose amendments, with 3/4 of the states necessary to ratify.  Not easy, but done successfully 27 times, about once every ten years.  But some of the Framers, Madison and Mason in particular, weren’t satisfied.

The Romans, like the Americans, were violently opposed to monarchy and the concentration of power.  The system of government set out in the Twelve Tables is designed to preserve liberty by diffusing power.  A bewildering array of offices was created, with overlapping jurisdictions.  What they all had in common was term limits.  No citizen would be allowed to remain in power long enough to pose a threat.  Political power was widely dispersed.

Actually, it was a mess, which the Framers wished to avoid.  So they designed other mechanisms to widely distribute power  — federalism, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a Bill of Rights.  And, ultimately, Article V.

Article V is not just an alternative method of amending the Constitution.  It’s a fundamental statement of federalist principle:  the federal government is subservient to the States.  If the central government is deemed a threat to our freedom, the States, through Article V, have a means of controlling it.

Most Americans now fear the federal government has, indeed, become such a threat.  Once they realize the Founding Fathers gave us a tool to defend ourselves, they’ll use it.

The first Article V Amendment Convention will probably convene in 2017, once the necessary 34 State Resolutions have passed.  We have 27 Resolutions calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment today, and might even get seven more next year.

Whenever it comes  — and it is coming — this Convention will begin the resurrection of federalism, and the Constitution.

 

 

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