The Signs of the Times, vol. 29- Contents
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February 24, 1904
“History of Government. VIII. The Decline of Self-government in Rome” The Signs of the Times 30, 8, pp. 4, 5.
VIII. THE DECLINE OF SELF-GOVERNMENT IN ROME
LAST week we studied the principle of government of the people, self-government, as illustrated in the government of Rome. In that study we found that government of the people was good, practical, and effectual, the best of all governments of ancient times, in all respects—so long as the people really governed themselves. Of all forms of government, that of government of the people depends most upon the integrity of the individual, upon the individual’s loyalty to the principle of governing himself. And just as soon as the individuals fail in governing themselves, government of the people is lost, and must be succeeded by some other form.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.1
This subject, as illustrated in the history of Rome, is worthy of further study, especially in the United States, because the United States was founded upon the principles of self-government, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” And the study of government of the people, amongst the very people who “possessed the faculty of self-government beyond all people of whom we have historical knowledge, except only the Anglo-Saxons, must, in the nature of things, supply most valuable lessons for the people of this nation, whose government was founded as a government of the people.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.2
Government of the people must, in the nature of things, be the best of all governments, when the people really govern themselves. Also, in the nature of things, government of the people must be the worst of all governments, when the people fail to govern themselves. For, when the government is of the people, and the people fail to govern, then there is practically no government; and the only alternative that then remains is: Either no government, indeed, which is anarchy; or else a government of such a character that will effectually govern a populace that will not govern themselves, which must be a despotism. It may be a despotism of the majority, it may be a despotism of the minority, it may be a despotism of a few, or even two or three, or it may be a despotism of only one; but whether of the majority, or the minority, of only two or three, or of only one, it must be, and it will inevitably be, a despotism. And through all these gradations the Roman Government of the people went in its degeneracy.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.3
The first of all elements in self-government is self-denial. The exclusion of self-indulgence is temperance in all things. This we find as a characteristic in the earliest government of the people of Rome. The next vital element in self-government is self-support. Self-support, equally with self-denial, is inseparable from self-government. This also was a characteristic of the earliest Roman Government of the people. Individual industry and frugality, therefore, are the essential elements in any system of practical self-government. And, as we have seen, the Roman people held in faithfulness both these essential elements of self-government. Their self-government was the greatest success, in every respect, of all human governments before the rise of that only other government of the people, the republic of the United States.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.4
In such a government of the people, a government where each governs himself, the formal government easily becomes of that sort which is acknowledged to be the best, and which has been most aptly described in the sentence, “The best government is the one which does the least governing.” In such a case, the formal government exists, and is exercised solely for protection of the individual in his rights of life and property, while the individual governs and supports himself and the government. For, upon the principle that government is of the people, the formal government is a creation of the people. It is but a device, a piece of political machinery, framed and set up by the people, by which they would make themselves secure in the enjoyment of the inalienable rights which they all possessed as men capable of governing themselves, and exercising that capability in the actual government of themselves. So, with the system complete, it stands: Individual government, and collective protection. And since individual government, self-government, involves self-support, the complete system stands: Self-help and governmental protection.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.5
Assuming to Govern Other People.
Such was the system of the Roman Government of the people at the first, and by virtue of which it was the freest government, therefore the best government, and by which it grew to be the greatest government, then in the world. But when that nation assumed the prerogative of governing other people than themselves, and, to do this, repudiated for itself its own original and vital principle; and when into the national treasury there came from conquered provinces and plundered peoples immense wealth in great, rolling streams of gold; and when the more fortunate individuals multiplied their wealth in boundless measure, and the positions, powers, and favors of the government were absorbed by these, as well as boundless luxury indulged by them,—when all this passed steadily before the eyes of all, the inevitable result was that the great mass of the less fortunate, the ones solely dependent upon their daily labor, and the poor—these followed the example of the rich and luxurious ones, and abandoned self-government, and with self-government abandoned self-help, and demanded governmental help. But when the government was a government of the people, the demand by the people for governmental support was merely the advocacy of Socialism.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.6
There was however at the first a condition, under cover of which governmental support could be pleaded without itself appearing to be socialistic. That condition was that the vast wealth of the public treasury was not gathered from the people by taxation; but came as tribute and by plunder from conquered nations. The plea and the campaign for governmental support was successful; not at first in having money or even provisions given direct to the people, but in the expenditure of the public money for the distribution of land to the people. Vast sums were thus spent. Then great numbers of people were, free of expense to themselves, placed upon well-improved lands. But this failed; because, when they were upon the land, they must support themselves by their own efforts, and they had all by far followed the example of the rich and luxurious, that their own work on the lands that were given them would not supply the means which they required to keep up the rate of living which they must maintain. And, living beyond their means, they incurred debt, then had to borrow from the rich to pay their debt; and, in borrowing what they must have, they mortgaged their claim upon the land. Accordingly, it was but a comparatively short time before their lands were all gone, and they were again clamoring for governmental support. Then, in answer to these clamors, the same thing was done by the government again, and with the same result again. Then, again, the clamors arose; against the government did the same thing, with again the same result.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.7
The Failure of Socialism.
When this had been followed in the same round several times, it became apparent to the public authority that such a course was practically useless. Also the beneficiaries were heartily tired of it, because it did not relieve them from the necessity of work with their hands in self-support. Therefore, the scheme was discontinued. But those who insisted upon governmental support did not cease the demands for governmental support. They next required that the government should establish public granaries from which the people should be supplied with grain at a merely nominal sum. It was argued that this would be in nowise different in principle from that which had already been done in the supplying of land. It could hardly be more expensive, and being much more direct, would be much less complicated. There were always plenty of demagogues to urge these claims of the populace, and so to lift themselves to popular favor and governmental place.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.8
With the enthusiastic clapping of every pair of poor hand in Rome, a law was secured which decreed that public granaries should be established in Rome, to be filled and maintained at the cost of the State, and that from these the wheat should be sold to the poor citizens at a merely nominal price. This was practically governmental support of the populace, because the immediate “effect was to gather into the city a mob of needy, unemployed voters, living on the charity of the State, to crowd the circus, and to clamor at the elections, available, no doubt, immediately to strengthen the hands of the popular tribune, but certain, in the long run, to sell themselves to those who could bid highest for their voices.” And each voter could sell his vote for a sum sufficient to keep him constantly well supplied with provisions form the public granaries. Then, as the populace existed in practical idleness, the next thing was that the State must supply games and spectacles to fill the time of the idle crowd sufficiently to prevent mischievous designs that would threaten the government.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.9
As before remarked, the open practise of Socialism could be avoided, so long as the public treasury was supplied with money from conquered nations; but when all the nations had been conquered, and the supply was not sufficient, then it was found that the scheme was absolutely socialistic in practice, as in the beginning it was in principle. For when the supply of money in the public treasury from conquered provinces proved insufficient, by public devices and decrees the needed sums were simply taken by confiscation from those who had money.SITI February 24, 1904, page 4.10
Conflicts between Capital and Labor.
But, while events were reaching this final point, other accompanying and strictly logical in which had gained a permanent hold upon the government, and, with this had carried it utterly away from government of the people. In the progress of this socialistic principle, there was a constant struggle between the rich and the poor, between capital and labor, between governmental order and anarchy. When the rich, or capital, held the power, the poor and laboring classes were oppressed. When the populace held the power, the rich were oppressed.SITI February 24, 1904, page 133.1
In this see-saw for the possession of power capital had the advantage, because the senate was always on the side of capital, and the senate was always in existence, and, therefore, in possession of power. Besides, owing to the fact that the elections were annual, the ascendancy of the people was but spasmodic at the best. When some leader, who could carry the multitude with him, arose, the people would arise, and carry everything before them. But when the particular occasion was passed, or the leader fallen, the people would drop back into the old, easy way. The elections were never without riot, but the senate would gradually regain all its former power, which it would use still more oppressively in revenge for the checks which had been put upon it, and the insults which it had received when the populace was in power.SITI February 24, 1904, page 133.2
Thus, when the populace was in power, it was a despotism of the majority; and when the senatorial party was in power, it was a despotism of the minority. Yet, it must in justice be observed that the despotism of the senatorial party, the party of property, was not so great as was the despotism of the majority. And in justice it must also be admitted that the violence and excesses in defiance of law and order, of the populace, whether in power or out, compelled despotism on the part of the government. For instance: The senate absolutely abolished the trades-union; but to this the senate was driven by the fact that, tho these unions had been originally formed only for mutual benefit, yet in the times which we are now considering they had become nothing but political clubs, and had become so dangerous to property and even to life, that, for the security of both property and life, it was essential that they should be absolutely abolished. And this but illustrates the truth that, tho the government was a despotism, whether the majority (the populace) or the minority (the senatorial party) was in power; yet, the despotism of the minority was, in a degree, less heavy than was that of the majority; for the majority, possessing nothing, had no kind of respect, or any consideration, whatever, for the rights of property. All that they cared for was to get what they could. With the populace the chief consideration was how to get more, and whatever means they could employ for this purpose was to them perfectly proper. On the other hand, the senatorial party was preeminently the party of property. Therefore, even their own instincts of self-preservation required of them that they should have respect to the rights of property. And this principle also acted as a check on the temper and despotism of that party. Yet, with this exception, the minority could no more be trusted than could the majority.SITI February 24, 1904, page 133.3
Finally the contention between these two parties became so continuous and so violent that, for the very existence of society, there had to be created a power which would be a check on both; and, under the circumstances, upon the principle of government of the people, even extra-governmental. Under the circumstances of the alternate despotism of the majority and of the minority, it was essential that there should be organized a power which should be constantly active, and so balance the power of the senate, and hold in check its despotic tendencies, and also be able to hold in check the despotic sway of the majority. Already it had appeared more than once that this power lay in the veterans of the triumphant, but disbanded, armies; but it was impossible, at the first, to rule openly by the power of the army. And since this feature must be shaded, the logic of the situation was that a coalition should in some way be formed, representing the contending parties, with the understanding that it could depend upon the army for support. And the logic of the situation was met by the formation, B. C. 60, ofSITI February 24, 1904, page 133.4
Cesar was the idol of the populace, and had the confidence of the trades-union, which, after having been abolished by the senate, were fully restored when, in the turn of the political wheel, the populace held governmental power. Crassus was the riches individual in the Roman world, and he represented the combinations of capital, the farmers of the taxes, and the moneyed class, generally, who were not of the nobility. Pompey, one of the mightiest leaders of her armies that Rome had yet known, was the idol of the soldiers, who, tho not at the moment organized in legions with arms in their hands, were, nevertheless, a mighty political power; and, if necessity should demand, could be made, in a day, a mighty military power.SITI February 24, 1904, page 133.6
These three men, representing labor, capital, and the soldiery, covenanted together “that no proceedings should be allowed to take place in the commonwealth without the consent of each of the three contracting parties. United, they constituted a power beyond all the resources of the commonwealth to cope with.” Thus the first triumvirate became an accomplished fact. And, tho there were a few expiring struggles, the power of the Roman senate, and also of the Roman people, was at that moment virtually gone forever. Government of the people had been utterly wasted, and government was now merged in three individuals, with one controlling mind among the three, and that mind the mind of Julius Cesar.SITI February 24, 1904, page 133.7
But the government did not long remain in this form. Crassus, in an expedition against the Parthians, was slain, and, instead of the triumvirate being preserved by the selection of another in the place of Crassus, the two that remained, separated, and the only question and the contest was as to which of these two should alone be the government. The senate stood with Pompey, the populace supported Cesar, the army was divided, the more powerful part supporting Cesar. Civil war followed, in which Cesar was everywhere successful. Pompey was defeated and slain, and Cesar stood alone as head of the Roman world, himself alone the government. Not only wasSITI February 24, 1904, page 133.8
Government of the People Gone,
The senate, seeing what had come, formed a conspiracy “to save the republic” in the destruction of the government by the assassination of him who, by the direct logic of affairs, was alone the government. For affairs had reached that point in the Roman State where a one-man power was inevitable. And, tho to avoid this the senate had killed the one man who was that power, and the one man who, of all the Roman nation, was most capable of exercising that power, the reality and permanency of a one-man power, and that by one worse than he, was only the more hastened by the very means which they had employed for the purpose of preventing it. This they themselves realized, as soon as they awoke from the dream in which they had done the desperate deed. Cicero exactly defined the situation, and gave a perfect outline of the whole history of the times, when, shortly after the time of the murder of Cesar, he bitterly exclaimed: “We have killed the king; but the kingdom is with us still. We have taken away the tyrant; the tyranny survives.” That tyranny survived in the breast of every man in Rome; and the only question was, which one should be the tyrant to such a degree that he could dominate the tyranny of all the others.SITI February 24, 1904, page 133.10
This was very soon decided; for, immediately upon the murder of Cesar, a second triumvirate was formed—Mark Antony; Cesar’s general of cavalry, who was at the head of his troops. This was, however, a mere shuffle on the part of the two principals, Antony and Octavius, to gain time and get their bearings. And as soon as this was done, Lepidus was eliminated, and the sole question and contest was repeated as to which of these two men should be the one man, who should be the Roman Government. Again there was war; Octavius was successful; Antony, with Cleopatra, committed suicide; and now, just thirteen and one-half years after the murder of Cesar, again, and this time in permanency, one man was the Roman Government, and that one man a man who could not govern himself; and that government a furious and crushing despotism, only a single degree removed from sheer anarchy. And such it remained, with only slight amelioration, until it sunk in annihilating ruin.SITI February 24, 1904, page 133.11