Past and Present Great Republics of the World

Transcription of Primary Source

The growth of the republic, the developments of the constitution, the conflict of opposing interests, and the threats of secession which we witness daily around us carry our thoughts frequently back to the story of the Roman republic after the banishment of the kings. “Arms and the man” have been the constant and almost only theme of the pen of history; and it is only by careful comparison and inference that we can trace in the far past the growth of commerce, the development of society, and the progressive influence of great material interests in shaping its institutions and forms of government.

This is eminently the case with that mighty old Roman republic, which, rising on the banks of the Tiber in the midst of hostile communities, came in the progress of time to rule the civilized world and to change its face. Yet if we divest Roman history of the cloudy forms which fiction has hung upon it, we shall find certain great facts standing forth, that even in their nakedness read as a lesson which we may not inaptly apply to ourselves. In sober truth, we believe that the history of the Roman republic has yet to be laid open by an American writer. Europeans cannot read those old records with the same instincts and feelings that we can. Educated and trained in their modes of thought, under institutions which sprang from and have been modeled on the forms of the Roman Empire, they have no sympathy with the growth of this republic; and, judging by precepts and principles that belong to a very different order of things, they are continually led astray by the bias of their own minds. The philosophic American, on the other hand, will find in the gradual development of the Roman republic causes and effects which are continually paralleled in our own history. It is not years, but epochs, which must be taken, and allowance must be made for the more rapid development of ideas in the present era, from the combined influence of the press and the greater command of mind over matter.

Throwing aside the period of the kings of Rome, and its accompanying legends, the first great fact that strikes us is that the republic in the first year of its existence made a treaty of commerce and amity with Carthage. By this treaty the Romans engaged not to sail along the African shore beyond a given point, while the Carthaginians agreed to establish no trading factories on certain portions of the coast of Italy. This proves conclusively the growth and aspirations of the industrial and commercial interests of the new republic. But Rome was an oligarchy, in which commerce and industry had grown up as a third social element. The original society consisted only of patrons and clients, or as we call them today, masters and slaves. The client was bound to the service of the family of the patron; he tilled its lands, performed its domestic labors, and was its shoemaker, tailor, hatter and blacksmith. The patrons only had political existence in the State, and among these power was restricted to a few patrician families. With the growth of society came the struggle of the orders for political representation, and it was not until the balance was adjusted between the great contending interests that the Roman republics entered upon that career of conquest which, while it eventually made her mistress of the world, ultimately destroyed the balance of interests, and with it the forms of the republic.

The industrial interests were classed under the general term of plebeians. Their first strike was for a change in the law relative to debt. This being refused by the patricians, the entire community seceded to the Sacred Mount, with the avowed intention of founding another city. A compromise was made, for both parties saw the advantage of union, and from this time the history of the republic for a long series of years is a continued narrative of political contests and compromises, during which the Sacred Mount and the Aventine Hill became famous as the resort of the seceders. As long as the contest lasted Rome was subject to frequent invasion from the neighboring Powers, and even from the Gauls, and history chronicles little but poetic legends and internal contests. At last the wavering balance was adjusted, and from that time new ideas animated the State. The equalization of the patricians and plebeians was marked by a second commercial treaty with Carthage and though the historians tell us little of the growth of the commercial and industrial elements, we know that the Punic wars were really contests for supremacy in the trade of the Mediterranean, which was then the trade of the world.

If now we turn to our own history, we shall find the parallel struggles of growing interests for participation in the power of the State. At first we were like Rome, a community exclusively of patrons and clients, or masters and slaves. Slavery existed in all the States. But the industrial and commercial elements have grown up in the North and the exclusively landed class, with its institution of family services, is limited to the South. We have talked of secession on former occasions; but the conviction that neither could do without the other has prevailed and the Union, like the State of Rome, has been saved by compromise. As in Rome, so with us, minor conflicts of interests have marked the eras between the great secession processions to the sacred mount—the conflicts of 1820 and 1850. The tariff and bank contest of 1833, and the subsequent struggle for internal improvements grew out of the commerce and manufactures, and that of the West in population and wealth. Each demanded to be considered in the political scheme, and though the parties fought long and stoutly, if we look closely at the present condition of affairs we shall find that great changes in parties have taken place. Many protectionists and bank men are now free traders, and the democratic party, that rejected so strongly the policy of internal improvements, now practice it on a wide scale.

This conflict of material interests is what is still going on with us; but it is for the balance of powers in the State and not for mutual destruction. Neither can dispense with either of the others. The North loses all when it loses the South. The South is thrown back a century when it loses the North, and its own future becomes dubious; the Valley of the West requires and is a benefit to both South and East; and the great Pacific interest is growing up to bring its contest into the arena before the great balance of the material interests of the Union is finally adjusted. Whoever believes that in those contests his duty is to seek the destruction of his neighbor, does not comprehend the philosophy of the epoch in which we live, nor the elements of greatness which are here combining to produce a great, prosperous, and free republic. Let him turn to the dusty records of the past; let him read aright the lessons of the Roman republic, and he will find there the books of America, and the pages of both the past and the future of his country's history. We are still in our era of compromises and balances. Our Punic Wars for the supremacy of commerce have yet to come, and the true laurels of the republic are still to be gathered.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
"The Past and Present Great Republics of the World - The Secession Movement - Lessons of History"
New York Herald
Probable Date: 
January 1, 1861
Place of Publication: 
New York City, NY
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: