Patrick Henry, an American politician and orator said, in his speech “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.” This quintessential remark by Henry is the essence on which the American republic was founded. The Founding Fathers undoubtedly believed that history was a herald of the future and that by studying both the Greek and Roman republics, they could find a way to safeguard America from that which destroyed those ancient societies. The knowledge base of the past helped and inspired the Founders to create a republic that the world had never seen before. It also provided them with the blueprints for circumstances that they could use in their own unique situations and in the avoidance of tyranny. Alexander Hamilton, in “Federalist No. 1,” stated, “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” The Founding Fathers, educated in the classics, created a constitution that established a modern republic with the framework or foundation of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Accordingly, it is evident that the Founding Fathers were influenced heavily by thinkers such as Rousseau, Locke, and Montesquieu, all of whom, in some part, have been influenced by ancient thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, to name a few. To this effect, the Framers looked for instances from ancient times as they journeyed on this new experiment called the Constitution of the United States of America. Their writings demonstrate intimate knowledge of the ancients’ mindsets of politics and governance. An example of this is the doctrine of separation of powers, wherein Madison states that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” In his book, Histories, Polybius, an ancient Greek historian, outlines the varying forms of constitutions, including monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. He determines that as these institutions become corrupt over time, creating their own forms of mob-rule, oligarchy, or tyranny, a revolution of decline sets in on what he calls anacyclosis.
Without a doubt, the contributions of ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Polybius played a pivotal role in the American Revolution, and, subsequently, the forming of a new republic. While the works of these ancient thinkers predate those of Locke or Montesquieu, for example, their influence is, without question, the basis behind the Constitution’s verbiage and the rule of law. Doctrines, such as the separation of powers compared with the mixed constitution doctrine, formulate a connection between America and the civilizations of times past. Polybius’s contributions cannot be underscored here in terms of the impact he had on the mindsets of late eighteenth-century philosophers and politicians.
Michael Deel lives in Fort Smith, AR, and currently attends Johns Hopkins University in the Master of Arts in Government program. He can be reached on Twitter @MDeel2022 or by e-mail at email@example.com.