From Athens BC to Washington DC
By Jack Kinsella
In the mid-eighteenth century, a Scottish lord named Alexander Fraser Tytler took upon himself the ponderous task of writing; ”The Universal History of the World; From the Creation of the World to the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century.”
That would be a ponderous task today, in the 21st century, even with the benefit of the internet, public libraries, and word processing and desktop publishing software. But when Lord Woodhouselee took on the project at the University of Edinburgh in the mid 18th century, he did so using featherpen and inkwell.
His “Universal History of the World” is so-called because it presents a broad overview of the history of mankind as viewed from a single perspective, in much the same way that the first five books of the Bible present the universal history of mankind as a whole, from creation to the time of Moses.
Having researched and studied the history of the world from creation to his own time, and having committed it to paper by pen and ink and in his own hand, Lord Alexander Fraser Tytler had, by the time his project was completed, as clear a view of the patterns of history as any man alive at the time.
Lord Woodhouselee studied the rise and fall of the great democracies of history from Athens to Rome and to the countless efforts throughout history from the Magna Carta forward and viewed the concept of democracy as;
“nothing better than an Utopian theory, a splendid chimera, descriptive of a state of society that never did, and never could exist; a republic not of men, but of angels.”
His point wasn’t that democracy was bad, but rather, that people are.
While man is being instigated by the love of power–a passion visible in an infant, and common to us even with the inferior animals–he will seek personal superiority in preference to every matter of a general concern; or at best, he will employ himself in advancing the public good, as the means of individual distinction and elevation: he will promote the interest of the state from the selfish but most useful passion of making himself considerable in that establishment which he labors to aggrandize. Such is the true picture of man as a political agent.
Tytler makes an observation here that for reasons that escape me completely, totally escapes the purveyors of “reason” as they argue the universal goodness of man. He notes that which is visible in an infant.
If goodness and morality is learned behavior, then it follows that man’s foundational state is one of complete depravity. It then follows, reasons Lord Woodhouselee, that while democracy is a wonderful theory, it’s fundamental flaw is that people aren’t good enough for it to flourish.
Tytler wasn’t an enemy of democracy, but rather, an observer of history. He recognized individual exceptions to the rule, and argued that democracy, although flawed, was “best adapted to produce, though not the most frequent, yet the most striking, examples of virtue in individuals,” no doubt referring to the newly-born Republic of the United States.
“The nature of a republican government gives to every member of the state an equal right to cherish views of ambition, and to aspire to the highest offices of the commonwealth; it gives to every individual of the same title with his fellows to aspire at the government of the whole.”
Tytler cited the historical examples of the Greeks and Romans. Both began as republics of equal virtue but gradually, as the people eased into periods of comfort and safety, the republican form of government began to slide into what became a pure democracy, comporting to the description of democracy given by the Lord Jesus of Laodicea in Revelation 3:14.
“Patriotism always exists in the greatest degree in rude nations, and in an early period of society. Like all other affections and passions, it operates with the greatest force where it meets with the greatest difficulties … but in a state of ease and safety, as if wanting its appropriate nourishment, it languishes and decays.” … “It is a law of nature to which no experience has ever furnished an exception, that the rising grander and opulence of a nation must be balanced by the decline of its heroic virtues.”
A republic is the forerunner of a democracy, says Tytler, and a democracy is a republic as it enters into its death throes.
The United States started life as a republic. William Blackstone was an 18th century British jurist whose commentaries set forth two main categories of common law; the law of nature and the law of revelation.
His “Commentaries on the Laws of England” established a sort of Common Law ‘Bible’ for the United States from the time of the Founding Fathers.
James Wilson, one of the signers of the Constitution and one of the first five Supreme Court justices, looked to Blackstone’s ‘Commentaries’ to form his decisions both in Congress and on the bench.
Blackstone explains that the law of nature establishes a rule of moral conduct based on God’s law, which recognizes man as created in the image of God.
This rule of moral conduct imposes a rule of action upon man that includes duties to God, self, and neighbor.
“And it is that rule of action, which is prescribed by some superior, and which the inferior is bound to obey.”
Government has the authority to pass laws that set forth a rule of civil conduct only, and such laws must be in accordance with the law of nature. Such laws would make certain actions ‘malum in se’ or, ‘bad in and of itself’.
Blackstone argues that the role of government is not to enumerate rights, but to protect those rights already imparted to every individual by God.
His common law model establishes that the duty of government is to commend what is right and prohibit what is wrong.
Blackstone states, “The principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature.”
Blackstone defined the word ‘law’ as it applies to government in his Commentaries, calling it,
“A rule of civil conduct prescribed by the Supreme power in a state, commanding what is right, and prohibiting what is wrong.”
Are you with me so far? Blackstone’s Commentaries outlined the duties and responsibilities of government in a Constitutional Republic.
The difference, Blackstone explains, is that the US Constitution creates the powers that exist according to Divine Revelation, whereas in other countries, the existing powers determine the nature of the constitution.
In the American republic, then, there were “principles which did not change” and which were “certain and universal in their operation upon all the members of the community”, which were the principles of Biblical natural law.
For example, Blackstone’s Commentaries explained:
“To instance in the case of murder: this is expressly forbidden by the Divine….If any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it we are bound to transgress that human law…But, with regard to matters that are…not commanded or forbidden by those superior laws such, for instance, as exporting of wool into foreign countries; here the…legislature has scope and opportunity to interpose.”
So, in the final analysis, a republic is a form of government ruled by the rule of human law as subordinate to Divine Law, whereas in a democracy the rule of the people is supreme.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what type of government the Constitution was bringing into existence. Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Originally Published: August 7, 2012.