The classics and the Constitution: The smokescreen of republicanism and the creation of the Republic – OUPblog

Neither Adams nor the authors of the Federalist Papers were classical republicans in either the Aristotelian, Sallustian, or Machiavellian sense of the term. In a way you could say, therefore, that the political theory of the Constitution and the ratification debates left classical republicanism behind. But the Federalist and Adams relied on a long tradition of writers, from Cicero to Jean Bodin to Trenchard and Gordon to Montesquieu, who were fascinated by the crisis of the Roman Republic and who drew similar conclusions from its fall—namely, that virtue could not be relied upon for stable government, and that the solution would have to be institutional.

The solution, they thought, should be sought in what the Founders called a “compounded republic.” Virtue and self-denial, by contrast, were considered “cant-words” (Cato’s Letters). Adams agreed: it was “by no means” luxury or ambition which had brought down the Roman Republic, but lack of constitutional entrenchment and the usurpation of constitutional rights. Adams very much doubted that “any people ever existed who loved the public better than themselves,” and he based his Ciceronian constitutionalism on an Epicurean political psychology (borrowed from Polybius, Cicero himself, or Hobbes).

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