The Ancient Background of the American Constitution

By D.A. Bass

(This message was first given as a radio broadcast on KID 590 AM in the spring of 2003)

One of my favorite cartoons is by Gary Larson, of the Founding Fathers gathered around a blank piece of parchment, about to put pen to paper, and the caption reads, with one of the Founding Fathers piously exclaiming: “Is that ‘We the people’ or ‘Us the people?’”

This is funny precisely because it portrays the Founding Fathers as ignorant improvisers, men who fortuitously pulled a document of genius – the Constitution of the United States of America – out of the thin air. Did they just sit down and think the constitution up on the spur of the moment? Was there no preceding experience with the idea of republican government, or popular democracy? Of course not! Our Founding Fathers were true scholars and students of history and the heritage of civil government. They deliberately pulled their words out of their heads, not out of a hat!

In this brief, introductory article, I would like to sketch for you some of the major features of the ancient background to the United States Constitution, not because it is interesting as ancient history, but because it is of vital importance today, if we are going to survive as a free republic and, more importantly, as a nation which has regained its lost Christian consensus. There are important reasons why former governments and empires of the world stumbled and fell, and why it wasn’t until the noble experiment of our Constitution that liberty on a scale and of a quality never before seen was given the opportunity to flourish. I say “given the opportunity to flourish” because there is no guarantee that it will endure; the light of liberty is frail, and constantly wavers between tyranny and anarchy. Only an informed, Christian people can maintain and further the cause of true liberty. Noah Webster, that great Christian scholar who labored sacrificially to give us our first American dictionary, advised the free people of America that if they would remain free, they must place upon their dinner table a Bible and a newspaper and, fathers leading, all Americans be fully informed of both. From the Bible they draw the eternal verities that lead them to life eternal and establish principles of life and liberty in this pilgrim way, and from the newspaper they stay informed of the world about them, measuring the progress of liberty and checking the encroachments of tyrants.

America, you may mouth the words, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…” (as Lee Greenwood puts it) but are you actually free? How do you know you are free? Because some pop music singer makes you feel free? Because you do what you want? Do you know what genuine freedom and liberty is?

Most Americans have been raised clueless as to their heritage and principles. Most public schools and colleges no longer require government and civics courses in order to graduate. We take it for granted that we are free because we are told that we are free by politicians, talk show hosts, and entertainers. Meanwhile, genuine liberty and freedom erodes as more and more Americans see the government as the source of rights and powers, seeing the government as the beneficent solution to problems great and small, and mistake the fact that they can do what they want in gratifying their desires for real, bona fide liberty. The enemies of true liberty will use your own desires and wants to trap you; the drives which motivate us to satisfy our needs for food and clothing and shelter and pleasure are strong motivators, and the more we depend upon the government for them, the fewer liberties we will enjoy. Just note the ring through the nose of the slave class on the government dole, addicted to welfare payments for generations. They are led by their own Judas Goat leaders to the polls to elect the same pushers year after year who will keep the pipeline open to provide just enough of bread and circuses to sustain you in your poverty, but never that which will truly liberate you. It is the nature of government to metastasize and burgeon; “power seeks power”; the more the government provides for your general welfare and well-being, the more of your resources and freedoms it will require. Indeed, if you cannot govern yourself and maintain internal controls, then you will be governed by others via external controls.

Our Founding Fathers saw this clearly; they saw it reflected in human nature throughout its history and noted what was required for the preservation of liberty in America:

“Let divines and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age, by impressing the minds of men w. the importance of educating their little boys and girls, of inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy, and, in subordination to these great principles, the love of their country; of instructing them in the art of self-government without which they never can act a wise part in the government of societies, great or small; in short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system.” John Adams

Herein lies the key to genuine liberty regardless of the exact features of any government: “The Christian System,” i.e., biblical Christianity and all of the principles and virtues that derive from a sincere and heartfelt practice of it. Herein lies the key to understanding why, for instance, Greece and Rome never achieved the greatness to which we aspire, though there may be similarities in the form of government between the several empires. Secularists, for example, love to point to ancient Greece and not Christianity as the source for democracy. The Greek philosopher Democritus, from whom we derive the name democracy, very early on articulated some of the features of democracy that existed in his own day. Some – though by no means all or even the majority – of the Greek city-states were democracies. That is, all decisions were put to the direct vote of the people. What were the consequences of this practice, however? The history of such governments was one of passionate factions and mob rule. The majority of ignorant, pagan men were no better equipped to decide for themselves what was best for the community than were an elite class of tyrants or a single dictator. The majority often ran roughshod over the rights of the few and, as in the example of the Peloponnesian Wars on that peninsula, often plunged city-states into mindless, destructive conflict. Or, paradoxically, the extremes of democracy often drove the masses to despair over their plight and caused them to cry out for a savior or tyrant to rule over them. Thus you have the spectacle of Pericles, for example, plunging his people into a series of civil wars over his own personal vendettas and complaints.

Our Founding Fathers were students of the Greek city-states and this early version of democracy and, in keeping with the verdict of history, condemned pure democracy. James Madison, in Federalist Paper #10, for example, after reviewing the history of democracy in the ancient Greek city-states, said:

“It may be concluded that a pure democracy…can admit of no cure for all the mischiefs of faction…democracies have always been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Do not be fooled: the ancient, pagan democracies were not the idylic paradises they are made out to be by modern idealists. Our Founding Fathers understood this and provided safeguards against its abuses.

Rome, as well, is often cited as the premier source for American constitutionalism and law, rather than the Bible and Christian principle derived from it. Can this be maintained, however? Several primary features were the object of study by our Founding Fathers when they looked at Rome:

1. Rome provided an early model of a Republic – America is a republic, not a democracy. Rome was governed by a representative form of government, embodied in the Roman Senate. Our own Senate is modeled and named after it. There were 2 houses in the Roman Senate, the Senate proper (primarily the patrician, wealthy, landed class) and the Assembly of Tribunes (where the common man found a representative voice, more or less). “It was the legislature, executive, and judiciary in one. It acted as judge in crimes like treason, conspiracy, or assassination.” Will Durant, Caesar and Christ. All thru the period of the Republic, for better or worse, weaker or stronger, the Senate exercised authority over the expanding Empire.

2. Rome provided an early model for the rule of law – as early as 450 BC, Rome had the 12 Tablets, which codified an objective standard of law to which the people submitted. Through the centuries, Rome added to her body of law until she developed 2 broad streams of law: civil law for Roman citizens (specific and privileged) and the law of nations for Rome’s conquered peoples (general and restrictive). In Rome’s early struggles to apply the rule of law to all men we have, in seed form, the concept of natural law, a tradition we still find exerting a strong influence in legal theory today. Rome’s contribution to the rule of law reaches its culmination in the magisterial ordering of that tradition under the hand of the Christian Emperor Justinian I (AD 482 – 565), who promulgated the Justinian Code.

What happened,then? Why has not Rome provided the end-all be-all for the American Constitution? Our Founding Fathers clearly saw the fatal flaws of the Roman Republic. At its heart, despite its aspirations to govern by a rule of law, Rome was an abject pagan state that had no higher law than that of the state. The state was ultimate and thus god; from it derived the good and powerful; men made up the government and strove to be gods. It did not take long to move from idealistic servants of the republic like Cincinnatus to dictators like Julius Caesar, 1st of the Roman Emperors. From there, of course, the face of tyranny and wickedness begins to show through the mere mask of the rule of law as these Emperors demand more and more, until they require the worship and reverence due a god (a la Augustus, Nero, Caligula, etc).

On the other hand, the Christian model of government requires a higher law than the state, a higher law than that made by a god-king. Each and every man – including the king – is subject to Yahweh, the Trinitarian God of the Bible. He is The Creator of the universe and the Founder of human government. By its very nature, the Christian Republic aspires to something higher than itself: God Almighty and his eternal Kingdom. Therefore, the Christian magistrate acts in light of that Kingdom and its absolutes and does not make of this life and this temporal government an absolute! He will subordinate his aspirations and ambitions in this life for those of an eternal life. He will not sacrifice morality and integrity for the expedient of achieving power in this realm when it jeopardizes life in the realm to come, seeing that morality and integrity form the very basis upon which he will inherit a place in that life to come. For every other alternative imagined by the mind of the reprobate creature, why should the man who rejects the Christian Republic compromise anything in this life for the grasp of power, seeing that nothing exists and obtains in the life beyond? Why should a moral structure stop him from seizing power when he sees no day but the present? Why should he not hold with Machiavelli that “The end justifies the means?” This is precisely why, in the absence of a Christian moral framework, the government of man degenerates into tyranny at every point. It is the “default setting” of every human soul apart from Christ. Our Founding Fathers, however, realized the necessity of “The Christian System” to the success of America. May its salutary effects continue to bless the political, cultural, and religious life of its people for centuries to come!

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