Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC) was a Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, orator and politician. His influence on the Latin language was immense: he wrote more than three-quarters of surviving Latin literature. Petrarch’s discovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance in public affairs, humanism, and classical Roman culture. Because of his mastery of Latin prose, it is sometimes said that “Cicero” was not the name of a man, but of eloquence itself.
Although he was accomplished in many fields, Cicero believed that his political career was his most important achievement. He inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States and the revolutionaries of the French Revolution. John Adams said, “All the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero” and Thomas Jefferson names Cicero as a major figure that informed his draft of the Declaration of Independence and shaped American understanding of “the common sense” basis for the right of revolution.
In his 2001 book, “Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician,” Anthony Everitt writes that no one influenced the founding fathers more than the Roman statesman Cicero:
“Nearly two thousand years after his time, [Cicero] became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives. For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of [Cicero] were the foundation of their education. John Adams’s first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.
“Cicero wrote about how a state should be organized, and decision makers of the eighteenth century read and digested what he had to say. His big idea, which he tirelessly publicized, was that of a mixed or balanced constitution. He favored not monarchy, nor oligarchy nor democracy, but a combination of all three. His model was Rome itself, but improved. Its executive had quasi-royal powers. It was restrained partly by widespread use of vetoes, and partly by a Senate, dominated by great political families. Politicians were elected to office by the people.
“This model is not so very distant from the original constitution of the United States with the careful balance it set between the executive and the legislature, and the constraints, now largely vanished, which it placed on pure untrammeled democracy.” America’s founding fathers were careful to avoid constructing the Constitution as a direct democracy, since they were concerned that direct democracy would be tantamount to mob rule. Instead, citizens of each state voted for electors, who in turn elected the president. Senators were selected by the state legislatures and members of the House of Representatives were directly elected.
Many aspects of the original model have changed over time. Now is a good time to revisit the political philosophy of Cicero not only defend our form of democracy but also to improve on it…that is, to rebalance the powers of our government and to change the structure of the electoral college.