Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Republics in History,” By John T. Flynn

This 1955 essay was authored by John Thomas Flynn. 

During the last 20 years America has suffered a succession of social and economic dislocations, including a great depression and a great war. We have been so absorbed in these difficulties that we have lost sight of a few simple, elementary principles upon which the free society of America was based. These principles mark the difference between our government and all others in history. And the essential feature of our government, which distinguished it from every other, was the formula we had discovered forcreating a government of great powers but so arranged that while they were adequate to protect us in all our rights they could not be used to exploit or enslave us.

Our first task, therefore, must be to understand clearly the precise nature of our Republic, which existed in its original form for 148 years. There have been other republics. But we must understand clearly that those other republics of history were utterly different from ours. We may see this readily enough by contrasting ours with other so-called republican governments.


Athens is the classic example of the ancient republic. Its authority was deposited in some of the people but not all. That authority was all embodied in a unitary state — a single governmental apparatus — known as the Republic of Athens. Whoever could get possession of the central republic would have in his, or their hands the total power of government.

There was a citizen body in which reposed the authority of the state. The people were divided into three classes — citizens, metics, and slaves. The citizen was one born in Athens of native parents. The metic was a mere inhabitant — one born in another country or born of metic parents. The slave was one captured in war and brought to Athens as a piece of property. Neither metics nor slaves had the right of suffrage. The citizens comprised less than half of the population.

The governing body was the Agora, a legislative institution with no limit upon its powers. It could deprive an Athenian of his citizenship and even reduce him to the condition of a slave. There were no limitations upon the power of a state in which half the population was disfranchised. The Agora was subject utterly to the rule of the majority. But this was in fact far less than the majority of the citizens. The citizen, to vote, had to be present in the Agora in Athens, which, as a practical matter, was not possible to great numbers of citizens who lived at a distance.

There was, indeed, freedom on a scale unknown in any other part of the ancient world — including Rome at a later date. And there was a kind of humane tolerance not common in that age. But we must not forget that Socrates, the first great philosopher of Athens, was compelled to drink the hemlock cup because his teachings ran counter to the prevailing ideas of the society.


Much is made in history and drama of the Roman Republic. But in fact that institution, such as it was, endured for but a brief period. And of course it never came to grips with the dangerous power of the state as the guardian or enemy of freedom. There was for a time a sort of parliamentary mechanism and always there were men in Rome who dreamed of or sought for freedom. During most of its early life Rome was a monarchy. There was a Senate; and a Comitia which was purely advisory. After the famous plebeian revolt the kingship was abolished. It was succeeded by a consulate with the Comitia as an advisory body elected by patricians only. In time the plebs were admitted to certain limited political rights, but only those who owned land were represented. There were grades of citizenship. There were first-class citizens and below them four inferior classes. In any locality they were arranged in five groups — in “centuries.” In the top century a few large landowners cast a single vote. In the second century, one vote was shared by a greater number of middle-sized landowners, and so on down to the lowest century where several hundred shared a single vote. Thus the largest landowners exercised a power wholly out of proportion to their numbers. But while the plebs thus gained a foothold in the electorate they were excluded from the administration. Marriage between a plebeian and a patrician was forbidden. Moreover, even this highly diluted share in government was limited to the city of Rome.

In the Italian peninsula outside Rome the people had no votes, though in time they were ceded some limited rights. There was the Civis Romanus — citizen of Rome — who owned an estate outside the City and who had to go to the City to exercise his franchise. The Nomen Latium — a sort of second-class citizen — had some part in local government but none in the nation, and Rome, as a result of her wars, was filling up with slaves who had no part at all in government. The rudimentary germs of a republic were there. But actually anything moderately resembling a republic appeared only in the last century before Christ, lasted for but a brief space during which time the enemies of freedom came upon the scene to make a mockery of liberty, culminating in that Caesar who brought the turbulent farce to an end.

However, the important fact is that throughout the world and for more than a thousand years after Christ the apparatus of government remained in states possessing unlimited or almost unlimited power, held in the hands of despots. The apparatus of power was vast. Those who chose the administration were a small fraction of the people, and the administration when installed possessed an instrument of authority so great no citizen could cope with it save, perhaps, by violence or revolution.

There were, of course, men who yearned for freedom. But I have been unable to find in these ancient states any general understanding of the principle we are considering here. People hoped only for generous champions. It is a fact of some interest that the Roman state began to sink into the arms of its darkest absolutism more swiftly after the fortunate upper levels of the plebeians had attained the largest measure of freedom in their history.


In all these stages of organized society it is important, I repeat, to keep our attention fixed clearly upon the fact that they present a record of governments possessing absolute power and of monarchs, prime ministers and military dictators using this apparatus of power to exploit or oppress society. This is the story of nearly two thousand years of organized societies under the dominion, in varying degrees, of absolute or nearly absolute rulers, relieved here and there by violent and heroic struggles of men to gain small patches of freedom.

In France, up to the time of the Revolution in 1789, the government was absolute, all power residing in a monarch. There were no rights in the citizen save by a grant from the monarch. The French Revolution merely substituted for a brief interval a more frightful and convulsive tyranny until it was liquidated by Napoleon, who made the despotism more intelligent and more efficient and, at least, more orderly. After nearly 2,000 years of history in France, the first attempt at a free government was the constitution of the Third Republic following the downfall of Napoleon. But a majority of the men who framed that constitution were for a limited monarchy. They did not, indeed, reestablish the kingship, but only because they could not agree upon the king. The Assembly remained in session for five years before it adopted a constitution. But this consitution created a government which bore no resemblance to our own system. The parliament set up was authorized to alter the constitution at will. It defined no constitutional rights of the citizen. It created a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies to govern, but these two chambers could, by a simple majority, adjourn as a parliament in Paris and move to Versailles, reassemble as a national assembly and by a simple majority vote completely alter the structure of government. It was the supreme judge of its own rights. Under our form of government no alteration can be made in the Constitution save by going back to the source of its power — the people of the sovereign states.

Under our system, each state is a small republic, supreme over its internal affairs save where specifically restrained by the Constitution. The federal government is a severely restricted government. There is nothing in France resembling one of our states. There the national government is supreme. The parliament names the president and his ministers. It is the depository of all power, national, provincial and local. The nation is divided into departments, cantons, and communes — roughly paralleling our states, counties and cities. But they are completely dominated by the central government. The department — corresponding to our state — is a mere administrative division. It is headed by a prefect named by the national government. And his every act can be vetoed by the national government. It has a legislature deriving its powers from parliament; its sessions and powers are drastically limited and it can be dissolved at any time by the President of the republic. The mayor of a city is elected by a council, but he is responsible to the prefect of the department. The supreme power is in the national government of the republic, and that power reaches down to the affairs of the smallest village. Once elected, its authority is supreme. The powers it possesses, therefore, are such that they might well be used to oppress the people.

The only protection against this is to be found in a peculiar defect of French politics. There are a large number of parties none of which is able to elect a majority. The party which claims power must depend on a coalition with some other party or, for that matter, with several — often parties of opposite creeds united for the moment on some transient issue. The government of France, however, is such that if a revolutionary party could manage to obtain a solid working majority, the political power in its hands would be so great that it could be used for a swift and drastic alteration in the very nature and structure of the society. There is no effort, as in the United States, to distribute power between the federal government and the provinces — and within the federal government among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches with a series of constitutional limitations upon those powers.

Great Britain

After these commentaries on older or other republics, it is now possible, with Great Britain as an example, to make clear the idea at which we have been aiming. The great problem of men concerned with human freedom throughout the ages was the conquest of the state. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the history of England. The state, which had been established to protect men in a society, came to be the instrument used to oppress them. The vast powers of the state deposited in the hands of kings and their ministers were used to exploit society. It is only when we realize this that we can understand the curious cult which came into vogue in the late 18th and middle 19th century generally known as anarchism. It is only when we try to recapture life under those 18th-century monarchies that we can understand how otherwise intelligent men like William Godwin and Pierre Joseph Proudhon could reach the conclusion that government itself was the supreme evil. Godwin held that all evils in society stemmed from the state and its immense mechanisms for repression. After Godwin and Proudhon came writers like Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, the foremost of those philosophers who attributed to the state all the evils of society and who saw no hope for man’s redemption from its tyrannies save in anarchy.

Even in the England of 1776 there were men who nursed this fear of the state. There, men had made the greatest advances in the art of social order. The Englishman had, by 1776, come under the protection of Magna Carta and a whole series of established rights, all of which were later embedded in our own Bill of Rights. But the British subject was very far from having an effective voice in the government of himself. Until the 19th century, Britain’s government was a class government, with a monarch and with one branch of the Parliament representing the aristocracy. Gradually, however, in the last 50 years, the power of ultimate representative government was lodged in the people, but with a large measure remaining in the aristocracy.

But all the sovereignty possessed by the people of England is entrusted to one central state. It is in one vast pool of power controlled by one central administration. There are county and local governments, but these are mere agencies of the central government; are created by and can be altered by the central government. The Lords can still interpose delays in action, but the ultimate power is in the Commons as the immediate agency of the people. There is, of course, a great inheritance of fundamental ideas embedded in the affections, the habits and the mores of the people, many defined in statutes and court decisions. These exercise a powerful influence over the conduct of the government. But they are not embedded in a written charter which is free from change save in the manner set out in the charter.

The British constitution is in no wise comparable to the American Constitution. Every right the Englishman has is at the mercy of a mere majority. When, 50 years ago, the socialists set out to alter completely the base of British economic life there was no barrier that stood in the way but a majority of the Parliament. The socialists have since woven over the British people a complexity of laws and controls, backed by authoritarian compulsions, which would startle the Englishman of Edward VII’s day if he could revisit the halls of Westminster. All this has been possible only because of the immense and definitive power of the Commons, subject only to a majority of the electorate.

However, at the time of the American Revolution, the Commons was not the real organ of power. Its members were chosen by an electorate, but no person could vote who did not have a prescribed income and only those towns chartered by the king could send representatives to the Commons. The Tudor kings had created borough constituencies in which the members were named by the king. By 1776 many such boroughs had ceased to exist but were still represented in Parliament, while great cities like Birmingham and Manchester had no representatives in the Commons. In some of these ancient boroughs the bailiffs and a dozen burgesses were the only voters. In Edinburgh and Glasgow there were but a dozen citizens who could vote. There were 75 members of Parliament elected from 35 places literally without inhabitants, go from places with less than 50 votes each. These “rotten boroughs” were in fact the property of individual members of the House of Lords, who as patrons designated the members sent to the Commons. In a population of 8 million, there were no more than 200,000 persons who could vote for members of Parliament. The monarch was head of the established church and the bishops of that church sat, as they still do, among the Lords.

When our Constitution was adopted, men in every land were ruled by a small fraction of the population grouped around a monarch who held his place by inheritance or conquest and who headed a government which knew no effective restraints save such as proceeded from the good will of a humane ruler or the fears of a timid one. Everywhere the great enemy of man’s freedom was government. It is essential to understand clearly that the long struggle of men in the Western world to have an effective part in shaping their own lives has been the struggle against Big Government.

It is of the first importance for the American to grasp the full seriousness of this fact — that the great boon of human freedom has, in the long record of thousands of years, been enjoyed by a mere fraction of the people and for only a brief moment in history. And this great boon attained its furthest advance here on this continent. That advance must be described as the victory of the people over the dread power of Big Government.

An institution such as our Republic, of such recent vintage and on only a small patch of the earth, cannot be taken for granted. Particularly is this true when all over Europe we see the limited gains made there disappearing before our eyes. Europe seems to be fatigued by the sacrifices needed to remain free. Even before the final goal is reached, she sinks again behind the dark curtain of government power, her frustrated people forsaking liberty and seeking for security in tyranny.

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