Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sellers on Classical Influences on the Founders and on the French Revolution

Mortimer Newlin Stead Sellers, University of Baltimore School of Law, has posted two short essays will which appear in THE CLASSICAL TRADITION, Anthony Grafton, Glenn Most, Salvatore Settis, (eds.), Harvard, 2009. Here are the abstracts:

The American Revolution was a Whig revolution, which made it also a neo-Roman revolution from the start. Americans petitioned, remonstrated, and eventually fought to preserve neo-Roman conceptions of mixed government, liberty, and the rule of law that had dominated British political discourse since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Roman example gave Americans heroes, vocabulary, and a constitution for their revolutionary experiment in government without a king. The most important of the many classical influences on the American founding fathers was the political history of the Roman republic, because the American Revolution was political, and could neither have taken place nor succeeded as it did without classical learning to guide it. With the Revolution’s triumph in the federal constitution, the new American republic supplanted its ancient models. Subsequent revolutions would look to the United States and to its sister republic in France for political inspiration, just as Americans and their predecessors once imitated Rome.

The French Revolution was the last great political event to take its inspiration, iconography and institutions primarily from classical antiquity. French revolutionaries depended heavily on Roman and Greek history for ideas, and for the courage to apply them. But even if their understanding of history had been accurate (it seldom was) French politicians could never settle which ancient model to follow. Classical antiquity provides innumerable conflicting moral and political examples and the French came close to having tried them all, running through the whole of Roman history in fifteen years. Eighteenth-century Frenchmen postured as Romans, Athenians and Spartans, without ever achieving liberty against arbitrary power, or any consistent rule of law. The French Revolution’s ostentatious classicism, comprehensive experimentation, and obvious failure, discredited Roman and Greek antiquity as practical models for political reform. Future revolutions would need new models, including the experience of France itself, and the transatlantic successes of the United States of America. The French Revolution discredited classical antiquity, by following it too capriciously, too blindly and to the bitter end.