The Founders' Reading of Ancient History

by David B. Kopel

Feb. 2000, Chronicles magazine, pp. 47-48. More by Kopel on the Founding Era.

Why is the Second Amendment, like much of the rest of the constitutional limitations on abuse of government power, under such consistent attack? One of the most important reasons is depressing historical ignorance of most Americans, even those with a college education.

When the new semester begins at your local liberal arts college, count the number of classes where the ultra-p.c. autobiography "I Rigoberta Menchu" will be required; compare this with the number of classes where Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, or any other classical historian, will be required reading.

The Menchu book has been proven to be a hoax; for example, she claims that she became a Communist because the Guatemalan army stole her father's land. It turns out that her father just lost a boundary dispute with one of his relatives. She claims that she was a dirt-poor illiterate peasant.

Actually, her family was far from poor, and she learned how to read at the private school her family sent her to. Yet American professors continue to insist that students, in order to acquire a well-rounded understanding of the human condition, must read lies from a Communist rather than true accounts of the story of Western civilization.

But suppose that modern education was turned upside-down, and students were required to read Tacitus and Livy and other classical historians, rather than modern prevaricators. The Founders of the American Republic had all learned the sad story of the Roman Republic. What the Founders knew, and what very few current college students will ever learn, are lessons that illustrate the importance of a virtuous armed populace, as an essential check on the inevitable depredations of a central government and its standing army.

Although the fact that almost all the Founders had a classical education is well known, Carl Richard's excellent book The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment is the first book to examine exactly what the Founders learned from ancient history. Let's look at some of the lessons which illuminate the Second Amendment.

While the gun prohibition mentality declares the Second Amendment obsolete, the Founders understood that events of many years past could provide useful guidance for the present. John Adams wrote that whenever he read Thucydides and Tacitus, "I seem to be only reading the History of my own Times and my own Life."

While virtuous Romans and Greeks were models to the Founders, the anti-models were no less important.

And no-one stood was worse than Julius Caesar, the murderer of the Roman republic.

Nor did the founders believe that tyranny should be resisted only passively. Sarah Brady's lead attorney, Dennis Henigan, claims that anyone who believes that illegitimate government can be resisted by force under the Second Amendment is an "insurrectionist."

Actually, the Founders carefully distinguished between legitimate resistance to tyranny, and illegitimate insurrection against lawful authority. In the Founders' eyes, the former was clearly appropriate.

For example, after the imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765, John Adams praised "the same great spirit which once gave Caesar so warm a reception" and "which first seated the great grandfather" of King George III on the throne of England Caesar's assassin Brutus was venerated, as was the much earlier Lucius Brutus, who was credited with leading the overthrow of the Rome's Tarquin monarchy in 510 B.C.

Thomas Jefferson lamented that so many good Romans chose suicide rather than life under an Emperor, when "the better remedy" would be "a poignard [a small dagger] in the breast of the tyrant." 

Caesar's use of the standing army to subdue Rome, after Caesar had subdued Gaul, was used by anti-federalists to show that even an army drawn from the best and most faithful and most honorable parts of society (in contrast to the British Redcoats, whose lower ranks were from the dregs of society) could still be used to enslave their country.

Even those, such as James Madison, who felt at least a small standing army to be necessary were aware of the dangers. As Madison wrote in Federalist 41, "the liberties of Rome proved the final victim to her military triumphs."

Denunciations of the perils of standing armies frequently pointed to the many coups perpetrated by Imperial Rome's standing armies. During the final months of Watergate, many citizens worried that President Nixon would mobilize the 82d Airborne Division, in order to retain power.

This was precisely the fear of the imperial presidency articulated by George Mason: "When he is arraigned for treason, he has the command of the army and navy, and may surround the Senate with thirty thousand troops. It brings to recollection the remarkable trial of Milo at Rome."

Here, Mason was referring to the famous trial of T. Annius Milo in 52 B.C. Milo and Clodius were rival demagogues and gang leaders in the decaying Roman Republic. When Milo and his gang an into Clodius and his gang on the Appian Way (the main intercity road), Clodius ended up dead.

Milo was put on trial, with the great orator Cicero serving as his defense attorney. But while Cicero wrote a brilliant argument in Milo's defense, he was intimidated into not delivering it as written, after Milo's enemy Pompey surrounded the courtroom with troops.

Although Milo was deprived of the benefits of Cicero's eloquence, history was not. The written version of the speech survived, and was studied by the many high school and grammar school students in colonial America who were expected to read Cicero in the original in order to master the Latin language:

"There exists a law, not written down anywhere, but inborn in our hearts; a law which comes to us not by training or custom or reading but by derivation and absorption and adoption from nature itself; a law which has come to us not from theory but from practice, not by instruction but by natural intuition. I refer to the law which lays it down that, if our lives are endangered by plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies, any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right. When weapons reduce them to silence, the laws no longer expect one to wait their pronouncements. For people who decide to wait for these will have to wait for justice, too--and meanwhile they must suffer injustice first. Indeed, even the wisdom of a law itself, by sort of tacit implication, permits self-defense, because it is not actually forbidden to kill; what it does, instead, is to forbid the bearing of a weapon with the intention to kill. When, therefore, inquiry passes on the mere question of the weapon and starts to consider the motive, a man who is used arms in self-defense is not regard is having carried with a homicidal aim."

Thus, natural law and common sense make it "morally right" to use deadly force to defend against a deadly attack.

James Wilson quoted the above words of Cicero, in full,  in a lecture series he gave to the law students at the College of Philadelphia (later named "Penn") in 1790. The lectures were attended by President Washington, Vice-President Adams, Secretary of State Jefferson, and other leaders.

Today, more than half of all Americans live in states where an adult with a clean record can obtain a permit to carry a firearm for lawful protection. Handgun Control, Inc., which opposes armed self-defense in all circumstances, naturally opposes these laws, and claims that they will lead to murder. But Cicero points out the logical distinction in Roman law: carrying a weapon for lawful defense was perfectly lawful; only carrying with malign intent was a crime.

Later in the written speech, Cicero declared, "Civilized people are taught by logic, barbarians by necessity, communities by tradition; and the lesson is inculcated even in wild beasts by nature itself. They learn that that they have to defend their own bodies and persons and lives from violence of any and every kind by all the means within their power."

This lesson, unfortunately, has been unlearned by too many modern Americans who live in what attorney Jeffrey Snyder, in his brilliant Public Interest essay, terms "A Nation of Cowards."

The Founders greatly feared the vicious cycle of corruption of the citizenry fostered by Rome's ever-expanding government.

The Roman free bread program produced a vast body of citizens too lazy to work to earn their daily bread.

Similarly, modern American police chiefs who warn citizens not to use force to protect themselves from force "have created a population of millions of people without the courage or character to protect themselves or their families from deadly assault."

The Roman historian Livy wrote a 142 volume history of Rome; 35 of the volumes survived to be available to the American Founders. Despite pressure from the Emperor Augustus Caesar, Livy refused to revise his history, which strongly supported Rome's honorable past a republic, rather than its degraded present as an Empire.

Livy tells us that in the days before the Republic was established, under the Roman King Servius Tullius (578-535 BC) "the right to bear arms had belonged solely to the patricians." But then "plebeians were given a place in the army, which was to be re-classified according to every man's property, i.e., his ability to provide himself a more less complete equipment for the field..." Thus, all citizens "capable of bearing arms were required to provide" their own weapons.

This was obviously a militia.

But when Rome moved away from a militia system, toward a mercenary standing army, the character of the citizenry began to decay, so that they eventually became unfit for self-government. Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire explains: "In the purer ages of the [Roman] commonwealth, the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws which it was their interest, as well as duty to maintain.

But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade."

As the Roman standing army secured the vast Roman Empire against barbarian incursions, the people of the Empire, having lost their martial valor, lost their capacity for self-government. "They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army," Gibbon explained. The once-great Romans became, morally speaking, "a race of pigmies," and an easy target for the German tribes whose conquest of decrepit Rome finally "restored a manly spirit of freedom."

From the destruction of the Roman republic by Julius and Augustus Caesar, to the later conquest of the degenerate Roman people by the barbarians, what was the lesson drawn by Gibbon? "A martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against the enterprises of an aspiring prince."

To the American Founders, private ownership of the tools of liberty (such as firearms and printing presses) was important, but even more important than owning tools of liberty was understanding liberty's importance. In the 1772 annual oration in memory of the Boston Massacre, Joseph Warren recalled Roman history: "It was this noble attachment to a free constitution which raised ancient Rome from the smallest beginnings to the bright summit of happiness and glory to which she arrived; it was the loss of this which plunged her from that summit into the black gulph of infamy and slavery."

As Carl Richard summarizes, "The founders' immersion in ancient history had a profound effect upon their style of thought. They developed from the classics a suspicious cast of mind. They learned from the Greeks and Romans to fear conspiracies against that liberty. Steeped in a literature whose perpetual theme was the steady encroachment of tyranny on liberty, the founders became virtually obsessed with spotting its approach, so they might avoid the fate of their classical heroes. It is been said of the American Revolution that never was there a revolution with so little cause. Whatever his faults, George III was hardly Caligula or Nero; however illegitimate, the moderate British taxes were hardly equivalent to the mass executions of the emperors. But since the founders believed that the central lesson of the classics was the every illegitimate power, however small, ended in slavery, they were determined to resist such power."

The Second Amendment, besides its practical effect in ensuring that physical power will not be a government monopoly, helps to preserve a "noble attachment to a free constitution" by teaching the people that resistance to tyranny is not "insurrection," but is the command of the Constitution.

The ownership of firearms by modern Americans is important not just for practical reasons (such as protecting homes from criminal invaders) but for moral ones. A homeowner who never has to use his gun for self-defense still possesses something that his unarmed next-door neighbor does not: he has made the decision that he, personally, will take responsibility for defending his family. The armed homeowner's self-reliance has powerful moral consequences, as does the disarmed neighbor's decision that his family's safety will depend exclusively on the government, and not on himself.

The moral, character-building aspect of defensive firearms ownership is one of the most important reasons why tyrants--as well as more benign people who believe in the supremacy of the state--are so determined to disarm as many people as possible.

Not only does firearms ownership interfere (as a practical matter) with government domination of society, firearms ownership creates a population which is independent and self-reliant, and which does not see itself as dependent on the state.

Weapons prohibition has deadly practical consequences. The moral consequences are even worse, as our Founding Fathers learned from their study of the sad fate of the Roman people.

Share this page:

Kopel RSS feed Click the icon to get RSS/XML updates of this website, and of Dave's articles.

Follow Dave on Twitter.

Kopel's Law & Liberty News. Twice-daily web newspaper collecting articles from Kopel and those whom he follows on Twitter.

Author page on Amazon.

Search Kopel website:

Make a donation to support Dave Kopel's work in defense of constitutional rights and public safety.
Donate Now!

Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @

Copyright © 2018