Beinstein column: Closing ourselves off ensures our demise
Donald J. Trump rode to power on the premise that America has somehow lost its way, that those who make the decisions care more about their counterparts abroad than their own countrymen. This sentiment of course is far from unfounded — the spate of recent Chinese and Saudi deals in America should make people worry. And yet tapping into some mythical American past of inherent greatness is not only a lie but dangerous. The greatness of America lies not in anything inherent, but in the building blocks she has added to those who laid the original foundations of liberty.
The notion that sovereignty ultimately rests in the people emanates from Greece. Tired of living under tyrannical rule, its people overthrew their tyrants and started a system we now call democracy. Its people would use pebbles to cast their judgment on pending legislation, white ones for yes and blacks for no. An assembly of large space was set aside for its people to voice their concerns, the inspiration for the House of Commons in England and our House of Representatives here in America. Imagining that the people had any say in anything started in Athens.
The Republic of Rome would add to this Grecian tradition. Fearful of too much power concentrated in the hands of any particular person or group, the republic had a Constitution in which power was diffused. Yes, the people would have a say in an assembly, but the wealthiest families would control the Senate, and the military rulers would take positions in the highest offices of the land, consuls.
In short, Rome’s system was some combination, according to the historian Anthony Everitt, of democracy, oligarchy and monarchy. And this sense of a “mixed constitution” would become the basis of our own system. Inspired by the example of Lucis Cincinnatus, a Roman general who voluntarily relinquished power, George Washington, despite his popularity, quit the presidency after serving two terms.
And so enthralled with the leading statesman of its day, Marcus Cicero, John Adams refused to let his son Quincy carry on with his learning until the writings of Cicero were added to his curriculum. And finally, the greatest collection of letters ever written on the meaning of our Constitution, the Federalist Papers, were all written under the pseudonym Publius, the co-founder of the Roman Republic.
Great Britain added its mark to the history of liberty as well. The sense that a people would have definitive rights against their government, what we would later establish as our Bill of Rights, came from the mother country.
After overthrowing a monarch and reasserting the rights of Parliament in 1688, its Parliament passed a Bill of Rights in 1689. Included in these rights were the rights of Protestants to bear arms, freedom of speech against government, and a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. These rights, amongst others, would be the basis of James Madison’s Bill of Rights 102 years later.
Abraham Lincoln would also look to the British in his quest to abolish slavery. In an 1858 speech called “Fragment on the Struggle Against Slavery,” Lincoln looked to the British abolitionist Wilberforce for guidance. He would study all of the British arguments made against abolishing slavery and see how, despite them, the institution would eventually become abolished in 1833.
When the world looks crooked, it is easy to retreat inward and become insular. And yet if our founders did that after we secured victory in 1783 at Yorktown, we wouldn’t have been able to build our wonderful republic. And as the world leaders of Republicanism and liberty, we have a particular responsibility to put pressure on other countries that are hostile to concepts that strengthen human freedom. One of the reasons China has been so backward for so long is its resistance to absorbing the best traditions of other peoples around the world. Closing ourselves off like China has will ensure our own demise.
In lamenting the loss of the Roman Republic to tyrants and emperors, Cicero wrote, “The Republic, when it was handed down to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colors were already fading with age. Our own time has not only neglected to freshen it by renewing its original colors, but has not even gone to the trouble of preserving its design and portrayal of figures.” Let us, instead, avoid those same pitfalls and keep intact that beautiful painting our founders gave us. At the very least, that painting needs to be refreshened with its original colors of liberty and freedom.
Alex Beinstein of Carbondale was a Republican primary congressional candidate in 2016 challenging incumbent Scott Tipton. He is starting a monthly column in the Post Independent.