Friday, June 8, 2012

Are We Following the Republics That Failed?

I was reminded lately of the Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, a treatise  written by Justice Joseph Story and published in 1833.  A quote from this work appeared as the preamble to a commentary ( on Zero Hedge: 

Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens. They fall, when the wise are banished from the public councils because they dare to be honest and the profligate are rewarded because they flatter the people in order to betray them.

We are heirs to the wisdom of the ages from many quarters -- and who is listening?

Being aware of Justice Story's scholarly tome, which was the seminal work on our Constitution for many decades, I resolved to find it on the Internet and identify more of his words of wisdom.  

The entire work appears at

His Concluding Remarks, the final short chapter of the three-volume treatise, are well worth reading; but the first and last paragraphs, which end with the above-quote, are especially pertinent to our political environment today:

§ 1903. We have now reviewed all the provisions of the original constitution of the United States, and all the amendments, which have been incorporated into it. And, here, the task originally proposed in these Commentaries is brought to a close. Many reflections naturally crowd upon the mind at such a moment; many grateful recollections of the past; and many anxious thoughts of the future. The past is secure. It is unalterable. The seal of eternity is upon it. The wisdom, which it has displayed, and the blessings, which it has bestowed, cannot be obscured; neither can they be debased by human folly, or human infirmity. The future is that which may well awaken the most earnest solicitude, both for the virtue and the permanence of our republic. The fate of other republics, their rise, their progress, their decline, and their fall, are written but too legibly on the pages of history, if indeed they were not continually before us in the startling fragments of their ruins. They have perished; and perished by their own hands. Prosperity has enervated them, corruption has debased them, and a venal populace has consummated their destruction. Alternately the prey of military chieftains at home, and of ambitious invaders from abroad, they have been some cheated out of their liberties by servile demagogues; sometimes betrayed into a surrender of them by false patriots; and sometimes they have willingly sold them for a price to the despot, who has bidden highest for his victims. They have disregarded the warning voice of their best statesmen; and have persecuted, and driven from office their truest friends. They have listened to the fawning sycophant, and the base calumniator of the wise and the good. They have reverenced power more in its high abuses and summary movements, than in its calm and constitutional energy, when it dispensed blessings with an unseen, but liberal hand. They have surrendered to faction, what belonged to the country. Patronage and party, the triumph of a leader, and the discontents of a day, have outweighed all solid principles and institutions of government. Such are the melancholy lessons of the past history of republics down to our own.


§ 1907. If these Commentaries shall but inspire in the rising generation a more ardent love of their country, an unquenchable thirst for liberty, and a profound reverence for the constitution and the Union, then they will have accomplished all, that their author ought to desire. Let the American youth never forget, that they possess a noble inheritance, bought by the toils, and sufferings, and blood of their ancestors; and capable, if wisely improved, and faithfully guarded, of transmitting to their latest posterity all the substantial blessings of life, the peaceful enjoyment of liberty, property, religion, and independence. The structure has been erected by architects of consummate skill and fidelity; its foundations are solid; its compartments are beautiful, as well as useful; its arrangements are full of wisdom and order; and its defences are impregnable from without. It has been reared for immortality, if the work of man may justly aspire to such a title. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, THE PEOPLE. Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens. They fall when the wise are banished from the public councils, because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded because they flatter the people in order to betray them.

How do we measure up after 180 years? Are we living up to the principles bequeathed to us by the Founders or are we following the republics which failed?