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The Invisible Founder

Posted: 01/25/2013 12:01 pm

Conservative radio host Mark Levin: "We do not accept bipartisanship in the pursuit of tyranny."

A senior Republican aide, quoted in Politico: "It is more likely you default [on the national debt] than you raise any taxes."

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers: "I think it is possible that we would shut down the government to make sure President Obama understands that we're serious."

Gun advocate Alex Jones: "I'm here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!"

There's no doubt that we're living through a destructive era of purity politics. November's election didn't end it: for a loud minority in American life, compromise is still treason. Nor is this the kind of problem that's solved in a single election. Purity politics have deep roots in American history, and we ought to look back much further than November to understand the real attractions, and the equally real pitfalls, of purism.

It's a tension that dates back to America's founding, and beyond. America's founders were dedicated students of history, and no period moved them more than the ancient Roman Republic. The pivotal player in the Republic's story is largely forgotten today, but he was a guiding light for the founders: the senator, soldier, and Stoic named Marcus Porcius Cato. Early Americans lionized Cato for defending liberty to the death. But Cato, through his influence on the founding, also left behind a tradition of unbending intransigence that shapes our politics to this day.

For revolutionaries facing impossible odds, there were few better role models than this bullheaded Roman martyr, who famously took his own life rather than bow to Caesar's dictatorship. George Washington staged an amateur play on Cato in the middle of the Valley Forge camp. Patrick Henry's famous line on "liberty or death," as well as Nathan Hale's parting words, came from the same play. Samuel Adams and General Washington himself were hailed as the "American Cato," and in the revolutionary era, there was little higher praise.

But while Cato carved immortality out of his refusal to compromise, up to and including his suicide, this same inflexibility damaged his causes in his lifetime and cast a shadow on his legacy.

The Founders missed a critical lesson of Cato's life: his overzealousness in defending Roman liberty hastened its demise. Long before Caesar showed any evidence of dictatorial ambitions, Cato had cast him as a tyrant in the making. In their first recorded encounter, Cato publicly, and falsely, accused Caesar of complicity in a terrorist plot to murder much of the Roman Senate. He goaded a violent mob to attack Caesar. And in the name of liberty, Cato repeatedly filibustered Caesar's popular and moderate land reform plans.

What is more, Cato's stubbornness alienated every ally who might have joined him to oppose Caesar through ordinary political means. Cato's admirable courage and personal uprightness brought him tremendous authority -- but, unfortunately for the Roman Republic, he also helped turn a reformer into a revolutionary.

Even if Caesar had harbored dreams of one-man rule, they would have been difficult to realize in a functioning Republic. But as that government broke down, thanks in large part to Cato, Caesar was free to claim that fractious times demanded a strongman. Cato struck the damning blow against his life's work, and the Republic, when he advised the Senate to reject a face-saving agreement with Caesar and embrace civil war. Dictatorship soon followed.

It would be one thing if the founders, in idolizing Cato, had dismissed his obstinacy as unimportant. To the contrary, they found it integral to Cato's legacy and worthy of emulation. Within years of independence, they were busy casting themselves in the role of Cato and their erstwhile allies in the role of the would-be dictator.

Three years after the Constitution took effect, Alexander Hamilton called the opposition Republicans "the Caesars of the community." Later, Hamilton wrote, "[I]f we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States, 'tis [Aaron] Burr." But when Burr killed Hamilton in a duel, John Adams called the killing as admirable as Caesar's assassination. Not to be left out, Thomas Jefferson passed on a story that Hamilton had privately admitted to admiring Caesar all along.

Cato's inflexible politics, which had seen the Founders through war, proved to be a destructive model in peacetime. The tendency to see our political opponents as enemies of liberty must be counted among the Founders' legacies: handed on from Cato, through them, to us.

Cato's purity won him lasting respect; it also undid his life's work. The Roman example teaches us that rigid principle has always been among the surest routes to authority. Such principle would wish away the complications, dissatisfactions, and occasional ugliness of politics. Purity can paralyze governments, radicalize opponents, and wear down even the strongest republics.

We should learn a more complete lesson from the ancient world than the founders did: prophesy the end of liberty long enough and loudly enough, and your prophecy can become self-fulfilling.

Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni are the co-authors of Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar.

 
 
 
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