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CHAPTER IX.: ANCIENT MONARCHICAL REPUBLICS. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 4 (Novanglus, Thoughts on Government, Defence of the Constitution) 
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 4.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
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ANCIENT MONARCHICAL REPUBLICS.
The ancient German nations, mentioned by Tacitus, had among them at least two sort of government. One was monarchy; and the king was absolute, as appears by these words:—“Exceptis iis gentibus quæ regnantur; ibi enim et super ingenuos, et super nobiles, ascendunt libertini; apud ceteros, impares libertini libertatis argumentum sunt.”* The other species of government was aristocracy; for though there was a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, yet the power of the king and people was so feeble, and that of the nobles, as comprehended under the titles of princes, dukes, and counts, was so predominant, that the government must be denominated aristocratical. “De minoribus rebus principes consultant, de majoribus omnes; ita tamen, ut ea quoque, quorum penes plebem arbitrium est, apud principes pertractentur.” If those things which were most clearly in the power of the people, were first discussed among the nobles, the reference to the people afterwards seems to have been rather a communication to them of the result of the senate, than a submission of it to the popular judgment.1
The nature and extent of the royal dignity and authority appears from these words:—“Reges ex nobilitate sumunt; nec regibus infinita aut libera potestas.” Kings were taken1 from the nobility, or kings were chosen for their noble descent; so that ordinarily the office descended to the next of kin. But it is here expressly ascertained that their power was neither unlimited nor independent. They had no negative, and might in all things be overruled, at least by the nobles and people conjointly.
The nature and extent of the aristocratical dignities and authorities may be collected from what follows:—“Duces ex virtute sumunt; et duces exemplo potius quam imperio; si prompti, si conspicui, si ante aciem agant, admiratione præsunt.” The feudal hierarchy,2 even in these early times, was fully established, although it was afterwards enlarged. The titles of dukes and counts, the rank and power they conferred, descended in families, although there was the bare formality of an election in the grand council. “Arma sumere, non antè cuiquam moris, quàm civitas suffecturum probaverit; tum, in ipso consilio, vel principum aliquis, vel pater, vel propinquus, scuto frameâque juvenem ornant. Insignis nobilitas, aut magna patrum merita, principis dignationem etiam adolescentulis assignant.” “When the young men were first admitted into public society, it was in the great council; when some one of the dukes, or the father, or other relation, adorned the youth with arms. And if he is of very noble birth, or his father has great merit, the dignity of a duke is assigned to him, young as he is.” From this it is pretty clear that the crown, as well as the titles of dukes and counts, descended in the family line;1 although the formality of an admission into council was kept up. The nobles, among whom the king was little more than the first among equals, at least he was not more superior to the dukes than the dukes were to the counts, had the game in their own hands, and managed a rude people as they pleased. This will appear probable from other passages:—“Cæteri robustioribus, ac jampridem probatis, aggregantur; nec rubor inter comites aspici. Gradus quinetiam et ipse comitatus habet, judicio ejus, quem sectantur. Magnaque et comitum æmulatio, quibus primus apud principem suum locus; et principum, cui plurimi et acerrimi comites. Hæc dignitas, hæ vires, magno semper electorum juvenum globo circumdari, in pace decus, in bello præsidium; nec solùm in suâ gente cuique, sed apud finitimas quoque civitates, id nomen, ea gloria est, si numero ac virtute comitatus emineat; expetuntur enim legationibus, et muneribus ornantur, et ipsâ plerumque famâ bella profligant.
“Cum ventum in aciem, turpe principi virtute vinci; turpe comitatui, virtutem principis non adæquare. Jam verò infame in omnem vitam, ac probrosum, superstitem principi suo ex acie recessisse. Illum defendere, tueri, sua quoque fortia facta gloriæ ejus assignare, præcipuum sacramentum est. Principes pro victoriâ pugnant; comites pro principe. Si civitas, in quâ orti sunt, longâ pace et otio torpeat, plerique nobilium adolescentium petunt ultro eas nationes quæ tum bellum aliquod gerunt; quia et ingrata genti quies, et faciliùs inter ancipitia clarescunt, magnumque comitatum non nisi vi belloque tueare; exigunt enim principis sui liberalitate illum bellatorem equum, illam cruentam victricemque frameam. Nam epulæ, et quamquam incompti, largi tamen apparatus pro stipendio cedunt. Materia munificentiæ per bella et raptus. Nec arare terram, aut expectare annum, tam facilè persuaseris, quàm vocare hostes et vulnera mereri; pigrum quinimmo et iners videtur sudore acquirere, quod possis sanguine parare.”
When the foregoing ties, by which the people or the common soldiers were attached to the nobles, and the young and inferior nobles to the superior, are considered, a better judgment may be formed of the authority which the people really had in the grand council or national assembly.
The powers and privileges of the people, in assembly, appear from the following passages:—“Coeunt, nisi quid fortuitum et subitum inciderit, certis diebus, cùm aut inchoatur luna, aut impletur; nam agendis rebus hoc auspicatissimum initium credunt. Illud ex libertate vitium, quòd non simul nec ut jussi conveniunt, sed et alter et tertius dies cunctatione coeuntium absumitur.” By this it should seem that the people were so far from esteeming the privilege of meeting, that the king and nobles could scarcely get them together.1 They had such an aversion to these civil and political deliberations, that the chiefs could hardly collect them to receive their orders: “Ut turbæ placuit, considunt armati. Silentium per sacerdotes, quibus tum et coercendi jus est, imperatur. Mox rex, vel princeps, prout ætas cuique, prout nobilitas, prout decus bellorum, prout facundia est, audiuntur, auctoritate suadendi magis quàm jubendi potestate. Si displicuit sententia, fremitu aspernantur; sin placuit, frameas concutiunt.” Here is some appearance of popular liberty. But when it is considered that the nobles were probably all the speakers; that the numbers were not counted, nor voices distinctly taken; assent expressed by a clash of arms, and dissent by a murmur or a groan; and especially the dependence of the people on their leaders, and attachment to them by oath; we may consider these assemblies rather as called to receive the proclamation of the laws or minds of the nobles, than as any effectual democratical check. There was one thing, however, of great importance done in these assemblies,—judges, the posse comitatus, and juries were here appointed to administer justice. “Eliguntur in iisdem conciliis et principes, qui jura per pagos vicosque reddunt. Centeni singulis ex plebe comites,2 consilium simul et auctoritas, adsunt.” An hundred commoners attended the judge, and out of these were juries appointed to give their opinion, “consilium;” and others, or perhaps the same, to afford their assistance, “auctoritas,” in putting the sentences and judgment into execution.
From other particulars related by Tacitus, it is very probable there had been communications between Germany and Greece; from the worship of Hercules, Mars, Minerva, &c.; if not from the altar of Ulysses, and the name of Laertes, and the other monuments, and inscriptions in Greek letters, of which he speaks more doubtfully. However this may have been, there is a remarkable analogy between these political institutions of the Germans, and those described by Homer in the times of the Trojan war. It was, in both, the prerogative of the king to lead in war and to rule in peace; but it is probable he was not fond of deliberating, any more than of fighting, without company; and though he may have done both sometimes, yet numbers of his followers were ready to attend him in either. The nation acknowledged him for their leader; but they were accustomed, on great occasions, to assemble, and, without any studied form of democracy, took the sovereignty upon themselves, as often as their passions were strongly enough affected to unite them in a body. The superior classes, among themselves, came as naturally to hold their meetings apart; and assembled frequently, when the occasion was not sufficient to engage the attention of the whole. There is one remarkable difference between the Germans and the Greeks. Among the former, the priests were a distinct body, and seem to have had more decisive authority than the kings, nobles, or people in the general assemblies,—“Silentium per sacerdotes, quibus tum et coercendi jus est, imperatur;” whereas, among the latter, the kings were themselves at the head of the priesthood.
In this second kind of German governments, we see the three orders, of king, nobles, and commons, distinctly marked; but no balance fixed; no delineation of the powers of each; which left room for each to claim the sovereignty, as we know they afterwards did; at least the king and the nobles claimed and contended for it for many ages; the people sometimes claimed it, but at last gave it up to the king, as the least evil of the two, in every country except England.
Before we proceed to the Greeks, we may even mention the savages. Every nation in North America has a king, a senate, and a people. The royal office is elective, but it is for life; his sachems are his ordinary council, where all the national affairs are deliberated and resolved in the first instance; but in the greatest of all, which is declaring war, the king and sachems call a national assembly round a great council fire, communicate to the people their resolution, and sacrifice an animal. Those of the people who approve the war, partake of the sacrifice; throw the hatchet into a tree, after the example of the king; and join in the subsequent war songs and dances. Those who disapprove, take no part of the sacrifice, but retire.
In the kingdom, or rather aristocracy, of Phæacia, as represented in the Odyssey, we have a picture at full length of those forms of government which at that time prevailed in Greece.
There is a king Alcinous; there is a council of twelve other kings, princes, archons, or peers, for they are called by all these names; and there is a multitude; but the last do not appear to have any regular, legal, or customary part in the government. They might be summoned together by the heralds, or called by the sound of trumpet, or a horn, to receive information of the results of their chiefs; to assist at a sacrifice or procession; to see a stranger, or a show, or to partake of a feast; or they might assemble of themselves in a rage against an oppressor, from enthusiasm for the royal sceptre, or other causes. And the kings had often much dependence on their attachment to their hereditary right, their descent from the gods, and the sacred authority of the poets, who were generally royalists. The archons, too, were often afraid of the superstition of their people for the king, and his regal popularity. But the legal power of the people was very far from being a constitutional check; and the struggle lay between the kings and nobles. The last finally prevailed, as they ever will, against a king who is not supported by an adequate popular power. The authority in Phæacia was collected into one centre, and that centre was thirteen kings, confederated together under a president only. Each archon was a king in his own island, state, or district, in which his dignity and power were hereditary; and, in case of a foreign war, he commanded his own division in the general camp.
Ulysses is represented, at his first entrance into the Phæacian dominions, as observing and admiring the palaces of the archons, after having surveyed the gardens, palace, and particular territory of Alcinous:—
Alcinous is afterwards represented as describing the form of government to Ulysses:—
Mr. Pope, indeed, in this translation, has given him the air of a sovereign; but there is nothing like it in the original. There, Alcinous, with all possible simplicity and modesty, only says,—“Twelve illustrious kings, or archons, rule over the people, and I myself am the thirteenth.” Alcinous and his twelve archons were all present at this interview:—
We must not forget the poet, who, with his inspiration from the Muses, was a principal support of every Grecian king. It was the bard who sung the praises of the king, and propagated the opinion that he was sprung from Jupiter, and instructed as well as dearly beloved by him.
Every peer, in his own district or state, had another subordinate council and a people; so that the three powers, of the one, the few, and the many, appeared in every archonship; and every archon, in his own district, claimed his office to be hereditary in his family; and all the archons agreed together to support each other in this claim, even by arms. This, therefore, was rather a confederacy of thirteen little kingdoms, than one great one. The first archon of the confederation was called king of all the people, and claimed his office as hereditary, and often as absolute. The other archons were always disposed to dispute the hereditary descent, and to make it elective. The subordinate councils of the archons, in their several districts, were probably often disposed to deny their offices to be hereditary, and to insist upon elections. Ulysses, who was himself one of the greatest and ablest of the Grecian kings, discovers his perfect knowledge of the hearts of Alcinous, his queen, and nobles, in the compliment he makes them. Addressing himself to the queen, the daughter of great Rhexenor:—
This supplication was addressed to the king and queen, the princes, archons, dukes, counts, barons, peers, call them by what name you please, and it concludes with a compliment very flattering to all. Ulysses knew the ruling passion of Grecian kings and nobles to be, that their dignities, even such as had been conferred by the election of the people, should become hereditary. Mr. Pope has disguised this sentiment, and made it conformable to the notions of Englishmen and Americans; but has departed from the sense of Homer and from the fact.
“May you transmit to your children your possessions in your houses, and whatever gifts, rewards, or honors the people hath given you.”
It is plain the kings claimed a hereditary right; yet the succession was sometimes set aside in favor of some other noble, or branch of the royal blood; and perhaps it was always set aside, when any one of the nobles had more power than the heir apparent. The nobles, too, claimed their honors to be hereditary, and they generally were so; but the people were sometimes bold enough to set up competitors, and give them trouble. But perhaps there were never any very formal elections.1 Presenting a successor, in presence of the king and the other nobles, to the people for their acclamations, was probably the most that was done; for, as there were no records, nor written constitution, or laws, the right of kings, archons, and people, must have been very loose and undefined.
The court of Ithaca, in the absence of Ulysses, is an admirable example of the intrigues of the archons, and their insatiable ambition. The throne of Ithaca, and the sceptre of Laertes and former kings, were the objects which had so many charms in the eyes of the suitors; and Penelope’s hand was chiefly courted, because that would reconcile the archon who should possess her to the superstition of the people, and enable him to wield the sceptre. The suitors deny the sceptre to be hereditary; and Telemachus himself is doubtful. He threatens, indeed, to call a council or assembly of the people; but is afraid to trust them, for fear they should set up some other Grecian prince, whose blood might be nearer that of their ancient kings.
It is thus agreed, on all hands, that, as one of the archons, his hereditary title to his estates, vassals, and government, was indisputable. This was the common cause of all the archons, and they would arm in support of the claim of any one. But the throne and sceptre of Ithaca were to be disposed of by augury, by the will of Jove, signified by some omen. To this Telemachus pays some respect; but still insists on his right of blood, and says, that if the omen should be unfavorable to him, it would not promote the hopes of any of the archons of Ithaca; but some other Greeks, nearer of kin to the royal blood, would set up their claims. The archons, not likely to succeed in their scheme of getting the sceptre by the marriage of Penelope, nor by persuading Telemachus to submit the question to Jupiter and his omens, and afraid to appeal to the people, or to call them out in arms to dispute the succession, knowing the family of Laertes and Ulysses to be more popular than themselves, take the resolution to assassinate the young prince:—
Telemachus had before declared, that, if any archon of Ithaca, or any other Greek, obtained the sceptre, he would no longer remain in the confederation, but would reign separately over his paternal domain. Now, Antinous declares, that, if the rest of the archons submit to the boy, he will not, but will retire to his native archonship.
Neither in Poland nor in Venice was the aristocratical rage to render weak, unsteady, and uncertain the royal authority, more conspicuous than it was here. They were afraid of the people and the auguries; but neither was a legal check; and we shall see, hereafter, that these struggles of the archons very soon abolished every monarchy in Greece, even that of Sparta, until it was renewed, upon another plan, by Lycurgus. And the same progress of passions, through seditions, rebellions, and massacres, must forever take place in a body of nobles against the crown, where they are not effectually restrained by an independent people, known and established in the legislature, collectively or by representation.
That the Grecian kings, claiming from Jupiter, and supported by their auguries and bards, thought themselves absolute, and often punished the crimes of the archons very tyrannically, is true. Ulysses is an example of it. Instead of bringing the suitors to trial before the nation, or their peers, he shoots them all, without judge or jury, with his own bow. A more remarkable assertion of a claim to absolute monarchy cannot be imagined.
Antinous would retire to his native district, and spend his revenues among his own people, not consume his royal wealth by attendance at a court of a confederation which would be no longer to his taste. This was a popular sentiment in his own dominions; his people wished to have their king reside among them, and were very willing to have the confederacy broken. This principle it was that afterwards crumbled all the Greek confederations to dust.
The similitude between the ancient Greek monarchies, as they are generally called, though the predominance of aristocracy in all of them is very manifest, and the feudal aristocracies described by Tacitus, is very obvious. The democratical power is nevertheless much more regular, though not independent, in the latter; for, in addition to what is before quoted, it appears that the judicial authority was commonly exercised in national assemblies:—“Licet apud concilium accusare quoque, et discrimen capitis intendere. Distinctio pœnarum ex delicto; proditores et transfugas arboribus suspendunt; ignavos, et imbelles, et corpore infames, cœno ac palude, injectá insuper crate, mergunt. Diversitas supplicii illuc respicit, tanquam scelera ostendi opporteat dum puniuntur, flagitia abscondi. Sed et levioribus delictis, pro modo, pœna; equorum pecorumque numero convicti multantur; pars multæ regi, vel civitati, pars ipsi qui vindicatur, vel propinquis ejus exsolvitur.”*
Although the mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, is visible in the republic of Phæacia, yet the king appears little more among the archons than the first among equals, and the authority of the people is still more faint and feeble. In Ithaca, there appears a strong claim of sovereignty in the king, and as strong a pretension to it in the archons; and, although the people are dreaded by both, and their claim to interfere in the disposition of the crown is implicitly acknowledged, yet it seems to be as judges of certain religious ceremonies, by which the will of Jupiter was to be collected, rather than as any regular civil authority.
Homer was a royalist, at least as much as Plato and Aristotle.
The name of a republic is not found in any of his writings. Yet, in every Grecian government described by him, we find a mixture, not only of an aristocracy, consisting in a council of princes; but of a democracy, in an assembly of the people.
Agamemnon, in the second Iliad, calls together the whole body.
It appears from the whole narration, that the great body of the people were discontented and desirous of raising the siege. The king alarmed, was obliged to call them together, with an artful design to obtain their consent to persevere. He feigns an intention to return home; the people were rejoiced at it. Then Ulysses, in concert with Agamemnon, receives the sceptre of command, and endeavors to persuade the people to make another effort. To this end Ulysses harangues them.
If from this only, and the subsequent harangue of Thersites, we were to form a judgment, we should conclude that popular assemblies were very frequent, and that the freedom of speech in them was far advanced and well established; but the furious answer of Ulysses, and the unmerciful flogging he gives him for his boldness, in the face of the whole assembly, which is applauded universally, shows that the demagogues had yet but very little influence, very little courage, and that popular assemblies had as yet very little constitutional power.
The principles of government were very little understood, and all the political institutions extremely confused, in the time of the Trojan war, and from thence to Homer’s time. Nothing was precisely defined; no laws were written. The most distinct rules, which are now to be traced, were a supremacy of kings, in religion and war. Sometimes they exercised judicial power. Monarchies were generally hereditary; yet a right of the nation to interfere and alter the succession is admitted. The right of the sons of the archons, to succeed to their estates and districts, was an agreed point among them; but these very archons chose to keep open to competition the succession to the throne, so that there might always be room for the pretensions of the most powerful, who would easily make themselves thought the most worthy. The most celebrated kings, when advanced in years and unable to sustain the fatigues of war and cares of government, were obliged to resign their power. The anxiety of Achilles, expressed to Ulysses in the Shades, is a proof of this.
Kings and their families, claiming their descent and power from Jupiter, contended very naturally and consistently that the one was hereditary and the other absolute; and, accordingly, when the prince who swayed the sceptre was active, brave, and able, he kept the archons in awe, and governed as he pleased. But when he was feeble, the archons grew ambitious, disputed the succession, and limited the royal power. To this end, both they and the kings, or heirs of kings, sometimes looked to the people, and seemed to admit in them a right to be present at the religious ceremonies, by which the will of Jupiter was to be declared; for all parties agree, that the will of Jupiter confers the sceptre, not the mere election of the people.
The right of primogeniture was favored by popular opinion, as well as hereditary descent, because the family was the family of Jupiter, related to him, and descended from him by blood; and it was natural to suppose that Jupiter’s inclinations for descent and primogeniture resembled those of other fathers of families.
The chiefs, who are all called kings, as well as the head of them, or archons, were like the Teutonic counts or feudal barons, who exercised royal rights within their own districts, states, or separate territories. This principle preserved the real and legal power chiefly in their hands, and constituted the whole government more properly an aristocracy than a royalty. This gave an uncontrollable pride to these nobles, which could not willingly submit to the pretensions of the kings, (as representatives of Jupiter,) to omnipotence, at least to unlimited power. Hence the continual struggle between the kings and archons, from Homer’s time to that great and memorable revolution throughout Greece, from monarchy to aristocracy; that is, from kings to archons. The people not yet possessing nor claiming an authority sufficiently regular and independent to be a check to monarchy or aristocracy, the latter at last prevailed over the former, as it ever did and ever will, where the contest is merely between these two.
The people, only in extraordinary cases, in the most essential matters, and when the chiefs were greatly divided, were at all consulted; yet, in the course of the struggle between the kings and archons, the multitude were so often called upon, and so much courted, that they came by degrees to claim the whole power, and prepared the way in many of the Grecian states for another subsequent revolution from aristocracy to democracy.
Through the whole of Tacitus and Homer, the three orders are visible both in Germany and Greece; and the continual fluctuations of law, the uncertainty of life, liberty, and property, and the contradictory claims and continual revolutions, arose entirely from the want of having the prerogatives and privileges of those orders defined, from the want of independence in each of them, and a balance between them.
[* ]There cannot be a stronger proof than this, that the monarchy was of the most absolute kind, that it was indeed a simple despotism; and Tacitus himself gives the explanation of it, in his account of the origin of this kind of slavery: “Aleam sobrii inter seria exercent, tanta lucrandi perdendive temeritate, ut, cum omnia defecerunt, extremo ac novissimo jactu, de libertate et de corpore contendant. Victus voluntariam servitutem adit; quamvis junior, quamvis robustior, alligari se ac venire patitur. Ea est in re pravà pervicacia; ipsi fidem vocant. Servos conditionis hujus per commercia tradunt, ut se quoque pudore victoriæ exsolvant.
[1 ]“But then it could not be ‘penes plebem arbitrium,’ for this proves that the business was still according to the people’s will, after the great men or principes had debated the matter. The princes had a right to advise, but not to determine for the people; for the arbitrium was penes plebem, in the people’s own power.”
[1 ]“Not ‘were taken,’ nor ‘were chosen,’ for the verb is active, not passive, and must, therefore, have a very different construction; so that the nobilitas here mentioned must mean mental nobility, or personal virtue and honor; and not hereditary honor.” S.
[2 ]“The word hierarchy seems improperly applied in this place; but with respect to the supposed hereditary nobility or dukes of those times, the preceding Latin quotation proves a contrary doctrine; the duces surely were not dukes, that is, not hereditary titled dukes, but mere leaders, by the example of their valor, rather than their authority.” S.
[1 ]“And the counts have as little foundation as the dukes. The comites and comitatus mean here the whole body of companions, or the whole band or company of each leader. See the next page, which shows the sense of comitatus, and p. 565 shows the sense of comites.”
[1 ]“On the contrary, the text declares that they are not summoned at all.”
[2 ]“The comites mentioned in the preceding page were equally commoners, or else he might as well have deemed these counts.” S.
[* ]Od. vii. 57.
[* ]Od. viii. 425.
[† ]Od. vii. 182-194.
[‡ ]Od. viii. 421-459.
[* ]Od. viii. 515-532.
[† ]Od. vii. 196-205.
[1 ]“But perhaps otherwise; it is as good an argument, and weighs as much.”
[* ]Od. i. 315-508.
[† ]Od. ii. 83-88.
[‡ ]Od. i. 509-514.
[* ]Od. xvi. 386-405.
[† ]Od. xvi. 409-419.
[* ]Germania, c. xii.
[* ]Il. ii. 233-244.
[* ]Il. ii. 61-174.
[* ]Il. ii. 224-272.
[* ]Od. xi. 605.