Sources of American Republicanism: ancient models in the U.S. Capitol.

Author:Brand, Steele

The American people have collectively channeled ancient models through the building that houses their lawmakers. The U. S. Capitol was first conceived in the 1790s, and its current footprint was completed by the 1860s. During those eight decades it underwent substantial changes, and it remains an evolving building to the current day. Its ongoing alterations reflect the shifting civic sentiments of the American people as they have attempted to capture what their republic embodies. Its design and decoration showcase the models that inspired America, especially those from ancient history. The ancient polities emphasized in the Capitol are the Hebraic Republic, Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. The Capitol portrays aspects of these ancient polities--their moral character, institutional strengths, and civic virtues--but it also hints at the corrupting influences that can undermine republics both ancient and modern. The building thus provides the discerning citizen with a choice based on the examples of ancient history. Though the models presented have been portrayed historically as offering a straightforward choice--i.e., America is a new Jerusalem, a new Sparta, or a new Rome--I will suggest that it is more helpful to understand the ancient examples as providing a choice between two broader alternatives. The United States can either be: (1) a limited republic of self-reliant citizens or (2) a consolidated, magisterial republic worthy of glorification.

Historical analogies are a tricky business, but modern nations such as the United States have demonstrated a penchant for them, which, for historically conscious observers, deserve more reflection. Playing with history like this may make professional historians justifiably uncomfortable, but employing historical models is a time-honored use of the past that keeps history alive and applicable. Using the muse of the Capitol, I will summarize how the ancient models were applied by the founders and modified by later generations. First, I will examine the influence of the Hebraic Republic, which was transferred from early modern Europe to the American colonies. Second, I will explore the application of the classical models, especially Rome. Third, I will tease out the tensions in these ancient polities as displayed in the Capitol. Its architecture and decoration raise the question of which qualities should inspire American republicans the most. I will conclude by recommending that the best way to heed the Capitol's best features is to promote the United States as a limited republic of self-reliant citizens.

A New Jerusalem?

From his perch in the rear of the U.S. House Chamber, Moses oversees the lower body of America's legislature. As in the famous statue by Michelangelo in Rome, the legendary Israelite is etched with the charisma of a young face and the wisdom of a flowing beard. His is also the only artistically disfigured among the 23 reliefs of lawgivers because the artists of the 1949-50 House Chamber remodel followed Michelangelo in giving him the famous divine "horns." These horns reflected the residual spark of divinity that remained on Moses when he met YHWH face to face. Moses' relief is given pride of place in the House Chamber. He resides in the center of the north wall, directly across from the speaker's platform. And he is the only lawgiver privileged with a frontal profile, with each of the other 22 lawgivers featured in side profile.

The Architect of the Capitol's official website mistakenly explains that all the side profiles look back to Moses, which would be a remarkable artistic choice because the history of human law, including American law, would all hearken back to Moses. In fact, each of the lawgivers instead faces a quotation from the nineteenth-century U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Webster asks America's lawgivers to remember the legal models of history and strive to "see whether we also in our day and generation may not perform something worthy to be remembered." (1) The artistic meaning is still potent, however, because American law finds its most important precedent in Moses, who rests directly opposite the Speaker or President when he speaks in the House. The reliefs chronologically misplace Moses before Hammurabi in order to highlight ancient Israel's role as the most important legal model for America to emulate. The House Chamber Moses earned his home in the middle of the twentieth century, meaning that Israel's legacy in America was still strong less than a century ago. The designers in 1949 had not only captured a sentiment of early Americans, from John Winthrop to John Adams, but they also asserted the ongoing relevance of Israelite history and biblical law for modern American civics.

Like all historical contests about who is great or what is a wonder of the world, there was controversy about who belonged in the House Chamber reliefs. Democratic representative John E. Rankin, for example, proposed a bill to rid the House of so many foreigners, lest good Americans be so ashamed they deliver speeches blindfolded (there were only two Americans out of the 23 reliefs). The "ancient caricatures," Rankin exclaimed, must be replaced by "distinguished Americans." He was particularly annoyed by the Catholic and European monarchs. Middle Eastern figures such as Hammurabi and Maimonides surely stirred him into a frenzy. The debate identified two aspects of the Capitol's ongoing mission to define American civic culture. On the one hand, Americans were celebrating the Western legal traditions that distinguished their republicanism from fascism and communism. On the other hand, many were gripped by Cold War xenophobia that condemned anything un-American. (2)

Despite the brouhaha stirred up by flamboyant critics like Rankin, the selection of Jewish figures like Moses and Maimonides were appropriate representations of how the Old Testament remained a powerful influence on law and culture well into the twentieth century. The Bible had influenced American thinking from the beginning. A key factor in the colonial church-state relations that laid the foundation for America's constitution was that many colonists sought a new place of worship as religious dissenters. Some of them sought toleration among Christians, like William Penn and Roger Williams. Many others did not. They wanted to build a new sort of Christendom.

The Puritan lawyer and Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, for example, famously described the experiment across the Atlantic as erecting a "city upon a hill." Winthrop's reference was biblical, referring to Matthew 5:14, which follows the beatitudes. Christ describes the character and ethics of those who belong to the Kingdom of God. The "city upon a hill" is one of a series of metaphors illustrating the radical nature of Christ's spiritual disciples in the heavenly kingdom. (3) It is an interesting passage in this sense because Winthrop, and those Americans who have followed his use of the phrase, such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, referred to a temporal, political community. George W. Bush went even further and compared America to Christ who is the light in the darkness. (4)

Winthrop's sermon uplifting the Puritan colonists as the next "city upon a hill" was appropriately timed. It was recorded aboard the Arbella in 1630 during the transatlantic journey of Puritans en route to New England. The Puritans sought religious freedom and political opportunities in the new world. The Pilgrims who preceded Winthrop by a decade were Separatists who went a step further and broke from the Church of England. When they arrived in North America the language they used in the Mayflower Compact was that they would "covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic." The term "covenant" was a biblical one where God served as a witness--and, in the Israelite context, as a party--to the civil and spiritual constituting of a people.

The idea of a "civil body politic" was a biblical concept as well. In its ancient context, Israelite covenantalism offered some novel political ideas. The biblical writers emphasized constitutional features such as the rule of law, popular consent, divided sovereignty, and civic participation. The Pentateuch paved a separate path that avoided the well-trodden institutions related to the imperial monarchies, patriarchal tribalism, and city-state military aristocracies of the day. The Sinai narrative in Exodus, Numbers, and the Deuteronomic "speech of Moses" both followed the Hittite treaty structure. Their purpose was similar to Hittite treaties--normalize relations between a sovereign and vassal and stipulate the terms of the new relationship. The Israelite covenant went further, however, and established a political system that many have properly described as a constitutional order. (5)

Israelite covenanters were unified by pan-tribal monotheism, their own political power, and every man's need to defend this community. The biblical covenant thus used a contemporary treaty format to tweak the Israelites' default tribalism into a unique political system in which common farmers were turned into empowered citizens and citizen-soldiers. This proto-republican arrangement was hardly an early modern republic, but that didn't prevent later generations in the Judeo-Christian tradition from using it as an inspiration.

In the eighteenth century the notion of ancient Israel's historical "Hebraic Republic" had just reached the peak of its fame as a model. The seventeenth century, often called the "Biblical Century," saw an explosion of the Bible's use for political theory. The printing press and Protestant Reformation combined to spread the biblical text throughout Europe, and Protestants were keen to see ancient Israel as governed by a political constitution that provided valuable lessons for their own political...

To continue reading