06/21/2011 02:10 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2011

The Measure of a Republic

In his magisterial work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, more quoted than read, made this one-of-many interesting observation: "In the commonwealths of Athens and Rome, the modest simplicity of private houses announced the equal condition of freedom; whilst the sovereignty of the people was represented in the majestic edifices designed to the public use." The publication of the six volumes of this history (1776-1788) coincided almost exactly with the establishment of the American Republic.

Contrast the situations of republican Athens and Rome with 21st century America where homelessness mounts while the gilded yachts arrive at the docks of magnificent private mansions, where private houses of tens of thousands of square feet are bought and sold while public libraries are closing, where public works deteriorate for lack of investment while investment bankers reward themselves magnificently.

The important factors in Gibbon's observation were these: first, he was describing the "commonwealths" of Athens and Rome, that is Rome as a republic before it sought empire; second, that wide-spread modest housing was a symbol of equality; and third, the "majestic edifices" were emblematic of the "sovereignty of the people."

Twenty-first century America has lost all sense of the commonwealth, what we the people own together. Conservative ideology does not like the sense of the commonwealth, so central to the nature of a republic. Grand housing is a symbol of the triumph of wealth, not equality of freedom. And public edifices for the use of all the people require investment of public revenue, condemned as well by conservative ideology.

Gibbon would find it difficult to identify America today with those early commonwealths which our Founders sought so diligently to emulate. Regrettably, he would find more in common with the Roman empire whose decline and fall he so brilliantly documented.

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