Are Americans Running Down the Roman Road to Ruin?

Eminent historian Tom Holland (no, not the actor who plays Spiderman) quotes a tweet written by Bill Kristol bemoaning the blinding speed at which the United States is careering down the road that led ancient Rome to ruin.

“The speed with which we’re recapitulating the decline and fall of Rome is impressive. What took Rome centuries we’re achieving in months,” Kristol tweeted, as reported by Holland in The Spectator.

But Holland somewhat dismisses the claim. “For a millennium and a half now, one of the great pleasures of being a commentator on current affairs has been comparing a political crisis to the fall of the Roman Empire. Nothing recently has quite so turbo-charged this perennial trend like the presidency of Donald Trump,” Holland writes. And he should know: Tom Holland is the author of several engaging books chronicling the rise, rule, and ruin of the Caesars, including Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar and Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic.

Holland reminds readers worried that President Trump is a neo-Caligula or other such psychotic autocrat that similar comparisons have been made for decades, if not centuries by American media keen on demonstrating their erudition. “Back in 1919, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, it was the New York Times that was fretting about Huns and Vandals. ‘The Roman Empire and its civilization,’ it sternly warned then, ‘were destroyed by barbarian hordes,’” Holland writes.

Holland went on: “Nothing, perhaps, has been quite so enduringly American as the conviction that the country is on the verge of decline and fall.”

While Holland — again, an authority of ancient Rome nonpareil — muses that the comparisons may be “divorced from historical reality,” there is much to be learned from history, particularly the history of a once republican people (the Romans) whose exploits and excesses were known to the Founding Generation of America from their youngest days. And one thing to be learned is about how Roman society actually fell.

I’ve written thousands of words myself on this seemingly inexhaustible subject, but one particularly noteworthy recorder of Rome’s life and end was Algernon Sidney — a man who was admired by our Founding Fathers and whose own steadfast commitment to republican government cost him his life.

Briefly, Algernon Sidney (1623–1683) was the son of Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester. All extant evidence points toward Sidney’s early devotion to republican principles. So pure and deeply rooted was Sidney’s adherence to the principles of mixed government that he opposed the execution of English monarch Charles I for treason, and he distanced himself from former allies after becoming disillusioned with Oliver Cromwell, the 1st lord protector of the Commonwealth of England, for abandoning republican principles, including heavy-handedly side-stepping Parliament.

Sidney left England and was living in France when the English monarchy was restored in 1660. He spent the years of self-imposed exile trying to negotiate with the governments of Holland and France to back a republican invasion of England. Unsuccessful in his diplomatic efforts, Sidney returned to England in 1677 and immediately joined his fellow republicans in opposition to Charles II, who had ordered the dismissal of Parliament. Soon, Sidney was implicated on the flimsiest of evidence in the Rye House Plot, a scheme to assassinate Charles II and his brother, and was forthwith arrested. His arrest was chiefly a means to silence one known to be antithetical to despotism.

As the trial began, the king’s solicitors decried Sidney as a “false, seditious, and libelous traitor” whose writings fomented revolution by inciting the people to “rise up in arms against the King.”

While Sidney denied the charges of fomenting an uprising, he did not deny that he was an enemy of absolute monarchy. His study of history made it apparent that the best of all government was a mixed government wherein the royal prerogatives are limited and restrained, and are counterbalanced against the inviolable and natural right of a free people to be self-governing. A book of his beliefs, Discourses Concerning Government, was used against him by the prosecution.

Discourses Concerning Government was a response to Patriarcha, an apology of the divine right of absolute monarchy written by Robert Filmer. Filmer argued that the monarch was the father of the people and that as such he had a divine and unassailable right to rule as he saw fit. The people, as the children of the monarch, thrived best when they were obedient to the monarch’s sovereign rule, according to the philosophy of Filmer.

Sidney refuted Filmer, pointing out that monarchs are more apt to be despots than father figures. His work was a classic in political theory and a standard work in the canon of republicanism.

In fact, his work was lauded by some of the Founders. In their guidelines for students applying to study at the University of Virginia published n 1825, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson wrote that Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government “may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and of the US. and that on the distinctive principles of the gov[ern]m[en]t of our own state, and of that of the US. as understood and assented to when brought into union.” Higher praise from a more esteemed source seems nearly impossible.

Back to Rome and Sidney and the story of the decline and fall of the former as interpreted by the latter.

Sidney entitled Section 12 of Chapter Two of Discourses Concerning Government “The Glory, Virtue, and Power of the Romans began and ended with their Liberty.”

While the entire volume is recommended to all readers of The New American and all Americans with a sincere desire to understand better the minds of the Founding Fathers, this particular portion of Discourses Concerning Government speaks to the subject of Tom Holland’s article — is the current era reminiscent of a decadent and declining era in the history of Rome — and to the more general theme of the lessons to be learned by Americans from the history of Rome of the descent of her people and her princeps.

Efforts to Denigrate Robert E. Lee at Washington and Lee University Fail

President William Dudley of Washington and Lee University, after reviewing a commission’s 31 recommendations given to him in May, has opted to reject its suggested changes to Lee Chapel. The main recommendation was to convert Lee Chapel into a museum.

General Robert E. Lee is buried in Lee Chapel, on the campus of the college where he served as president and that now bears his name, along with fellow Virginian George Washington. With the continued agitation to knock down statues of Confederate heroes — of which there is no greater Confederate icon than Lee — many thought President Dudley would follow that pattern, and diminish Lee’s status at the school.

Stefani Evans, a third-year law student and member of the Coalition for Campus Change, was highly critical of Dudley’s decision to keep Lee Chapel as it is, insisting, “It’s like President Dudley is saying in one sense that he supports diversity, but in the same sentence he’s saying we are unwilling to change the fact that Lee is the centerpiece of campus.”

This is, of course, the definition of diversity for these American Taliban who want to airbrush history to suit themselves. They believe diversity is for everyone else to accept their version of history, while others surrender their beliefs and values.

“They don’t want to hear how diverse students want to be treated,” she added. The truth is that Dudley did hear the recommendations from the commission, but he just did not agree with their conclusions. That is why they are known as recommendations.

Another recommendation Dudley rejected was the suggestion that Washington and Lee hire a genealogist to find living descendants of the 84 slaves the school owned, so they can provide them with “reparations” via scholarships. It should be noted that whatever merit there is of the idea of scholarships for descendants of slaves owned by the college, they were owned before Lee was the school’s president. Lee did not take the job as school president until Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which officially ended slavery in the United States.

In other words, Lee had nothing to do with anything — including slaves — the school owned prior to 1865.

The Virginia Flaggers, a local Confederate group that often meets at Lee Chapel, expressed relief that Dudley had opted not to trash Lee’s memory. “President Dudley and the Board of Trustees flatly rejects committee’s recommendations that would shut down the Chapel and removed every trace of R.E. Lee from campus. #winning #GodBlessRELee.”

Washington and Lee has made some changes in the past to deal with criticisms from those who unfairly associate Lee with slavery. In 2014, they removed Confederate battle flags from Lee Chapel. In 2016, a plaque was added outside Robinson Hall, featuring the names of slaves who built it.

But, of course, it was not enough — because it never is.

Some faculty were critical of President Dudley’s response to the recommendations. English professor Lesley Wheeler said, “If we’re not willing to examine how we’re complicit in racism and think about changing our ways we’re just going to keep losing more people.”

Some faculty have expressed that they are now looking for other jobs. T.J. Tallie left the school last year. Tallie, who is black, and was a humanities professor, explained why he left. “I left because it [the school] is incapable and unwilling to reconcile its white supremacist past and make a more diverse future. I don’t want to be someone who hopes that one day it will get better. Ultimately, all of the academic rigor of the institution is not worth being at a place that makes you feel fundamentally alien.”

What is perplexing about this attitude is why Tallie ever took a job at Washington and Lee, if he did not like Robert E. Lee, or was at least not willing to tolerate his legacy? After all, Lee Chapel already existed when Tallie and other discontented faculty took their positions at the school.

Not everyone at Washington and Lee is disappointed at President Dudley’s refusal to diminish Lee. Hayden Daniel, who is the editor of The Spectator, a conservative newspaper at the school, expressed satisfaction at the rejection of the proposals.

When asked about Lee’s alleged role as the chief defender of slavery, and whether that supposed history should be included as part of Lee Chapel, Daniel said, “Juxtaposing the two together in that way would reignite the debate even more…. To me and most people the symbolism of Lee Chapel isn’t necessarily about slavery.”

It certainly should not be, if one is discussing Lee. Calling Lee the chief defender of slavery betrays gross historical ignorance. Such a proposition presumes that the Civil War was fought to abolish slavery. After seven states had left the Union by early 1861, eight states where slavery was still legal remained in the Union. If the war had really been fought to abolish slavery, one has to wonder why President Lincoln did not call for an invasion of those eight states, too.

Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress what he termed a “rebellion” in the seven seceded states is what precipitated more states, including Lee’s Virginia to leave the Union.

Lee opposed secession, but eventually, he reluctantly resigned his position in the U.S. Army rather than participate in an invasion of his home state. Once Virginia seceded, Lee offered his services to the new Confederate government. He certainly did not join Virginia to save slavery, as he freed his own slaves, which he had inherited from his father-in-law. In fact, Lee’s “emancipation proclamation” actually freed some slaves, unlike Lincoln’s war-time measure, which freed no slaves, at least not immediately.