IT has been said of the early Romans that “they possessed the faculty of self-government beyond any people of whom we have historical knowledge,” with the sole exception of the Anglo-Saxons. By virtue of this faculty, in the very nature of things, they became the most powerful nation of all ancient times.
But their extensive conquests filled Rome with gold. “Money poured in upon them in rolling streams of gold.” With wealth came luxury. “Wealth poured in more and more, and luxury grew more unbounded. Palaces sprang up in the city, castles in the country, villas at pleasant places by the sea, and parks, and fish-ponds, and game preserves, and gardens, and vast retinues of servants” everywhere.
To get money by any means lawful or unlawful, became the universal passion. “Money was the one thought form the highest senator to the poorest wretch who sold his vote in the Comitia. For money Judges gave unjust decrees, and juries gave corrupt verdicts.” “The elections were managed by clubs and coteries; and, except on occasions of national danger or political excitement, those who spent most freely were most certain of success. Under these conditions the chief powers in the commonwealth necessarily centered in the rich. The door of promotion was open to all who had the golden key. The highest offices of State were open in theory to the meanest citizen; they were confined in fact to those who had the longest purses, or the most ready use of the tongue on popular platforms. Distinctions of birth had been exchanged for distinctions of wealth. The struggle between plebeians and patricians for equality of privilege was over, and a new division had been formed between the party of property and a party who desired a change in the structure of society.”
As the power which wealth gave was used only to increase the wealth of those who had it, the sure result was the growth of envy on the part of the populace, and presently a demand which grew louder and still more urgent that there should be a more equable distribution of the plenty that was monopolized by the few. “All orders in a society may be wise and virtuous, but all cannot be rich. Wealth which is used only for idle luxury is always envied, and envy soon curdles into hate. It is easy to persuade the masses that the good things of this world are unjustly divided, especially when it happens to be the exact truth.”
As these two classes were constantly growing farther apart—the rich growing richer and the poor poorer—there ceased to be any middle class to maintain order in government and society by holding the balance of power. There remained then only the two classes, the rich and the poor, and of these the rich despised the poor, and the poor envied the rich. And there were not wanting men to stir up the discontent of the masses, and present schemes for the reorganization of government and society.
Some of these were well-meaning men, men who really had in view the good of their fellowmen and the bettering of society and government; but the far greater number were mere demagogues—ambitious schemers who used the discontent of the populace only to lift themselves into positions of wealth and power which they envied others, and which, when they had secured, they employed as selfishly and oppressively as had any of those against whom they clamored. But whether they were well-meaning men or only demagogues, in order to hold the populace against the persuasions and bribes of the wealthy, they were compelled to make promises and concessions, which were only in the nature of larger bribes, and which in the end were as destructive of free government and the republic as were the worst acts of the aristocracy of wealth itself.
After considerable see-sawing between the two parties for the possession of the governmental power, it was taken from both by the First Triumvirate—Pompey, Crassus and Cesar. These three men covenanted together “that no proceedings should be allowed to take place in the commonwealth without the consent of each of the three contracting parties.” In eleven years the sole power fell to Cesar alone. In four years more, pretended patriots assassinated Cesar “to save the republic” from what they supposed was threatened in him, and thereby made only the more certain the very thing that they professed to fear from him, and which in fact was realized shortly from those who were worse than he.
Affairs had reached the point in the republic where a Cesar was inevitable, and though in the attempt to escape it they had killed the greatest Roman who ever lived, it was only hastened by the very means which they had employed to avoid it. This they themselves realized as soon as they awoke from the dream in which they had done the desperate deed. Cicero exactly defined the situation, and gave a perfect outline of the whole history of the times when he exclaimed, “We have killed the king; but the kingdom is with us still. We have taken away the tyrant; the tyranny survives.” That tyranny survived in the breast of every man in Rome. And in just thirteen and a half years from that time, the State having gone again over precisely the same course, came again to the same point where the sole power was in the hands of a Cesar where it remained until both the monarchy and the empire of Rome perished forever.
Thus in the Roman republic, by the inseparable train of wealth, luxury, and vice, self-restraint was broken down, the power of self-government was lost, and that republic failed. And so every other republic must fail when the faculty of self-government fails by virtue of which alone a republic is possible. The Romans ceased to govern themselves, and they had to be governed. They lost the faculty of self-government. With that vanished the republic, and its place was supplied by a one-man power, an imperial tyranny supported by a military despotism.
We have thus sketched the history of the Roman republic. To sketch the history of the first French republic would be but to repeat the story almost point by point. No man can fail to see that up to a certain point the parallel is complete between that and the republic of the United States of America to-day. Is it at all strange then, indeed is it not the most natural thing in the world, that disinterested thinkers should raise the query whether the United States, in one hundred and fifty years, is really going to pass “through all the stages to be found in the history of Rome”? And further ask, “Are the Americans in quest of a Napoleon? Are they moving in the direction of a dictatorship, the precursor of demagogic, or military despotism?”
We are not alarmists. We do not propose to be alarmists. We simply ask for sober thinking. It is our duty to present facts, and to call attention to the things which those facts with unfailing certainty indicate. And there can be no possible room for question that from the facts which are patent to-day to every one who will look about, it is time for every person in the United States to engage in the sober thinking to which we simply invite him.