The Danger Is Not Yet Past

We shall only recognize virtue in our candidates for public office if we know and practice it ourselves.

I

“It is quite impossible to think of glory. Both mind and feelings are exhausted. I am wretched even at the moment of victory, and I always say that next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” —The Duke of Wellington, after the Battle of Waterloo

Mr. Trump has left the Presidency, and thus the most immediate and dire menace to our Republic has departed from the stage. But he leaves behind a broken scene.

The Capitol was overrun, and the city of Washington turned into a military camp; cities across the Union smolder after a summer of protest collapsed into the smoke of anarchy and reprisals; four hundred thousand lie dead from disease; and many millions more have been drawn into a sinister delusion that assails the very basis of republican government, confidence in a free and fair election.

Extremists, once obscure, have risen to prominence: on the right, depraved militants laying a false and perverted claim to the traditions and principles of these United States strive after civil war, seeking to intimidate elected officials and do violence to lawful government; on the left, would-be-revolutionaries inculcated with an unforgiving and absolutist ideology seek to purge from public life and private employment all those who fail to recite their slogans.

None of these calamities were present in such strength in 2016. They gathered force during the presidency of Mr. Trump, and in 2020 they crashed down upon us. His selfish malice drove those demons on as they danced in our Union’s fields and streets, until he himself, exposed as the tyrant he always wished to become, stood at the head of an insurrection against the elected representatives of these United States.

Yet our Republic still stands, and, as Mr. Trump fades, the Covid-19 epidemic recedes, and some measure of prosperity and competent governance returns, it may soon appear to recover.

However—

II

“For it [the Roman agrarian law] found the power of its adversaries redoubled, and because of this it inflamed so much hatred between the plebs and the Senate that they came to arms and bloodshed, beyond every civil mode and custom. So, since the public magistrates could not remedy it, and none of the factions could put hope in them, they had recourse to private remedies, and each one of the parties was thinking of how to make itself a head to defend it.”

“In this scandal and disorder the plebs came first and gave reputation to Marius, so that it made him consul four times; and he continued in his consulate, with a few intervals, so long that he was able to make himself consul three other times. As the nobility had no remedy against such a plague, it turned to favoring Sulla; and when he had been made head of its party, they came to civil wars. After much bloodshed and changing of fortune, the nobility was left on top.”

“Later, these humors were revived at the time of Caesar and Pompey; for after Caesar had made himself head of Marius’s party, and Pompey that of Sulla, in coming to grips Caesar was left on top. He was the first tyrant in Rome, such that never again was that city free.” —Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Titus Livy

The Roman Republic did not fall in a day, nor upon the first attempt to overthrow it. It began to decay after its final triumph over Carthage, in 146 B.C. At that moment, Rome stood mighty and unchallenged, but its leaders grew arrogant and its people complacent. They quarreled more bitterly amongst themselves and became frightened whenever some passing foreign menace appeared on the horizon; thus, they began to disregard their customs in their search for safety or advantage.[1] In 91 B.C., unrest and revolt broke out across Italy amongst those Rome had neglected in its years of triumph, and the Romans only with difficulty suppressed them.[2]

But it was in the decade after 88 B.C. that the pillars of the Republic took the first of the blows that would fell them. Marius and Sulla, each at the head of a faction and each in their turn, briefly grasped at unchecked power and attempted the wholesale destruction of their enemies. The old traditions and customs that upheld the Roman constitution buckled under their ceaseless assaults. The law became a dead letter, discarded when it did not suit their purposes. They demanded absolute and abject loyalty from their fellow senators, the tribunes of the people, and other distinguished citizens; they purged those who did not give it.

Their rule did not last, but neither was held accountable. Marius died of old age while still clinging to power. Sulla, to the surprise of all, laid down his dictatorship, retired to his villa, and, after a year of debauchery, died in his bed. His fade from power and public life was swift, and for nearly twenty years the Republic appeared restored.

But two young men had witnessed his example, that selfishness and force opened a path to power. Caesar and Pompey were more intelligent, diligent, and disciplined than Marius and Sulla; and so, when they clashed, Rome shook even more violently. Caesar emerged victorious, but in 44 B.C. he was assassinated by a fallen Senate desperate to reclaim its lawful powers.

Yet two more young men were watching. Antony and Octavian rose to power and then came to blows. Octavian, like Caesar his uncle, was disciplined and brilliant; unlike Caesar, he was wholly ruthless. In 27 B.C., he became the Emperor Augustus and reigned for forty years. Only then did the Roman Republic cease finally to exist.

III

“…consider whether in a corrupt city one can maintain a free state, if there is one, or, if it has not been there, whether one can order it. On this thing I say that it is very difficult to do either the one or the other… For as good customs have need of laws to maintain themselves, so laws have need of good customs so as to be observed. Besides this, the orders and laws made in a republic at its birth, when men were good, are no longer to the purpose later, when they have become wicked.” —Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Titus Livy

The politics of the Roman Republic were generally bloodier and more tumultuous than our own, and Rome had a much different constitution; thus, any comparison between the two is necessarily imperfect. Yet it would be foolhardy not to contemplate the possibility that Mr. Trump was our Sulla. He disregarded every law, custom, and tradition that stood in his path; he proscribed anyone who crossed him; and he recklessly stoked the violence of the mob. Then he left office, still living. And, most crucially, he has so far not been held to account.

Congress, had it any vigor or authority remaining to it, would have impeached and removed Mr. Trump on January 6th, immediately upon reclaiming the Capitol. The Senate may still limp to such a conclusion, months later; though it appears to me that each passing day makes this outcome less likely, as what little resolve was summoned on that night dissolves into cowardice and irresolution. Whichever young men and women would be our Caesar and Octavian, more diligent and ruthless than Mr. Trump, are watching this scene. They will take note of how it ends.

Yet the failures of the people’s representatives must ultimately be laid at the feet of the people themselves. We elect our leaders, and, if we wish to avert the fate that befell Rome, so must we be the ones to demand virtue from them and uphold it with our votes. And we shall only recognize virtue in our candidates for public office if we know and practice it ourselves. Do you? Do I?

IV

“A republic has need of new acts of foresight every day if one wishes to maintain it free.” —Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Titus Livy

Although our national stage is battered, the inauguration of Mr. Biden, should he carry through the assurances of moderation that he has made on campaign, offers us citizens an opportunity to pause and take our eyes away from it. His actions there will neither save nor destroy the Republic. That will hinge on whether we, in this interim, can rediscover civic virtue.

The place to do so is in our towns, counties, cities, and States. In writing the series of essays that form the core of this website, I came to the theoretical conclusion that we as citizens can take part in and see our hand in the results of local government far more than we can the government of the Union.

Subsequent experience has, for me, confirmed the truth of that proposition. This website, which deals with national issues, is but a drop in the ocean; few have visited it, and few shall read what is here, because there exist thousands of other written works that, for good or ill, ponder the challenges of the United States. Yet in the span of little more than a year, and despite the obstacle of Covid-19, I have already found a modest place in the civic life of my adopted town.

It is there, at the level of government that is accessible to us, that we may take an active part in governing and so become reacquainted with, and practiced in, civic virtue: attachment, respect, duty, honor, foresight, patience, hard work, collaboration, persuasion, compromise, leadership. Once we have taught ourselves these qualities in the gymnasium of local government, then we may apply them to our national contests and so repair our Republic.

So, let us relax our minds during the next few weeks, as the tension of the past four years gradually unwinds. Then let us seize the opportunity now offered and begin to work.


“Nor is it out of place to mention such testimonies in the case of a man said to have been by nature so fond of raillery, that when he was still young and obscure he spent much time with actors and buffoons and shared their dissolute life; and when he had made himself supreme master, he would daily assemble the most reckless stage and theatre folk to drink and bandy jests with them, although men thought that he disgraced his years, and although he not only dishonoured his high office, but neglected much that required attention.”

“…In others he seems to have been of very uneven character, and at variance with himself; he robbed much, but gave more; bestowed his honours unexpectedly, as unexpectedly his insults; fawned on those he needed, but gave himself airs towards those who needed him; so that one cannot tell whether he was more inclined by nature to disdain or flattery.” —Plutarch, Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans, writing of Sulla.

[1] Such as when Marius was awarded four consecutive consulships when the Cimbri and the Teutones appeared to menace Italy.

[2] The Social War, from 91-87 B.C.

No. 1 – On Fundamental Liberties

No. 2 – On Federalism

No. 3 – On Representative Government