Students of the founding who make much of the influence of the ancients on that generation (after all, didn’t Jefferson once mention Aristotle and Cicero?) should repair to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist No. 9, where it becomes clear that when it came to the design of actual institutions, the framers were proudly modern. Hamilton gazes on the “history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy” with “sensations of horror and disgust,” because their unstable institutions kept them “in a state of perpetual vibration, between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.”
Those histories would make anyone take a gloomy view of the prospects for republicanism anywhere, at any time. But wait. “The science of politics, however, like most other sciences has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients.” Saving republicanism won’t be easy, but it can be done, by a generation wiser about republican institutions than were the Romans and the Athenians.
Hamilton does not see History marching onward, progressively unfolding greater wisdom accessible to each succeeding generation. As James Ceaser notes in his wonderful recent book, Nature and History in American Political Development, the temptation to view History that way (with a capital H) was more characteristic of Jefferson at times. Hamilton sees history (with a small h) with a gimlet eye, not as promising sunny uplands unfolding before us, but as a series of cautionary tales from which we can take hard lessons about human nature and the realistic institutions needed to deal with nature. This made Hamilton the truer conservative than Jefferson ever was. The modern wisdom he proudly claims in Federalist No. 9 was gotten the hard way, by reflection on successive failures (and “momentary rays of glory”) in political history.
Jefferson once wrote in high dudgeon to a correspondent that Hamilton had calmly proclaimed, in his presence, that Julius Caesar was the greatest man who ever lived. I have always thought that Hamilton half-believed this. The other half of him just wanted to see Thomas Jefferson’s hair stand on end. You gotta love the guy.
For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.