When I originally conceived this essay in the fall of 2015 Donald Trump was merely one candidate for the Republican party nomination, and at the time perhaps not even the most outlandish. His surprising electoral college victory this fall prompted me to reconsider this essay, or rather some of its questions. In brief, my argument, or rather suggestion, is thus; If the Roosevelts are the American Gracchi, then, Whither an American Marius, or an American Sulla? At the close of the essay that follow I ask, What would a 21st century American Marius or Sulla look like? The election results, as well as the political and social atmosphere around the election have caused me to wonder, Might Donald Trump be an American Sulla?
As for a comparison between the men themselves, I think that would not come off. Donald Trump is a narcissistic short-fingered vulgarian whose scandal ridden, legally checkered career speaks for itself. What kind of analogy might we be able to make between Donald Trump and Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix? Well, we must first examine the political career of Sulla. Sulla was from a very blue-blooded Patrician family, but not a wealthy one. He made a late entrance into politics due to his penury, which he overcame thanks due to receiving a couple fortuitous inheritances. He then became a successful military commander serving prominently in important Roman wars. It is, for example, Sulla who actually tricks Jugurtha into surrendering. He also distinguishes himself in the Social wars, as well as the wars against Mythridates. Sulla is best remembered for leading his troops into Roman and establishing a dictatorship. A position he used to ruthlessly suppress his enemies, brutally slaughtering any who opposed him, as well as re-shape the Roman constitutional order in a way that restored the supremacy of the Senate, and thus, of the optimates.
The social and political consequences of the economic dynamics that had been playing out in Roman society since the Punic Wars had given birth, at a certain point, to a spectacularly new kind of politician in the Gracchi brothers. The populist tumult fostered by, and exploited by these revolutionary siblings was one of the main ingredients that eventually caused the fall of the Roman republic. The other big ingredient is the client army. The pioneer of the client army is a man taking a page from the Gracchi brothers’ book. This man is Marius. Sulla is best understood in comparison to Marius; for indeed, through much of their lives these men were political opponents. Sulla was an optimate with a power base in the Senate, while Marius was a popularis with a power base in the Assembly, and among the people. Marius, much like Napoleon centuries later, was endeared to his soldiers because of his egalitarian policies. Rome had been faring poorly in the Numidian War for years, due to a stubborn persistence of inappropriate tactics and policies. On big problem was the populating of officers positions from among the nobility without regard for military skill or experience. One of Marius most popular reforms was to base promotions on merit. This had the dual effect of making for a more effective fighting unit, but also, and not insignificantly, made his soldiers extremely loyal since under him they could achieve more social mobility through a more meritocratic system of promotions.
Sulla, like most of his Patrician counterparts, did not like the way Marius was so popular with the people, nor do they like that he was enabling the use of the army for social mobility. The last thing conservative elites tend to like is to see members of the lower classes rising in the social hierarchy. Sulla’s vision of reform then was one of restoring the senate to its traditional position of superiority. The main vehicle for achieving this end was the castrating of the office of Tribune, which Sulla was able to do in his capacity as dictator. His other main vehicle was proscription. Sulla adopted a practice of posting lists of people who he deemed enemies of Rome, and who then had twenty four hours to leave Rome or else be executed as a criminal. Most of these people killed themselves so that they could keep property in their families. Just to give a complete picture of Sulla, before adopting the practice of proscription he simply had his enemies arrested and summarily executed. He saw his work as to secure the superiority of the Senate over the Equites, and the Assembly by the most direct means. In fact, once he had done what he considered a sufficient job he retired as dictator and decamped to his country estate never again to interfere with politics in Rome.
Sulla is thus remembered as a brutal and reactionary figure. And, ultimately, a failure. This is because the constitution he put in place ended up lasting only a decade or so before being overthrown by former lieutenants of his. If anything, the bloody vigor that was required for Sulla to reform the Roman constitutional order as he did acted to accelerate the political decomposition that caused the ultimate collapse of the republic. Perhaps this then is the similarity between Trump and Sulla. Both represent violent outbursts of reactionary classes struggling to retain their grip on power as the society they preside over drifts out of their control. Indeed, in the end, the Roman Senatorial class was only able to retain its social power by sacrificing its political power under the Principiate and the Empire. In making himself primus inter pares Ceasar Augustus abolishes the republic in practice while retaining many of its forms and trappings. Might not Donald Trump’s election signal such a turning point in American history?
One might, as many do, see Trump’s victory as an outburst of an aging, angry, white America feeling itself being left behind; feeling itself losing grip on its monopoly of social, cultural, and political power; losing its grip on its ability to understand the forces at play that shape the course of modern life. Even in Trump’s very campaign slogan one hears echoes of the intentions of Sulla; “Make the Senate Great Again”. This then is the similarity, a society wracked by inequality and violence, & marred by poverty and deprivation in which traditional elites, against the tide of history, attempt to put the old order on newer, more solid footing, hoping vainly that it will withstand the forces of change. In the end, Sulla’s programme was doomed to fail, and the scale of the violence needed to do it was a major clue. In just the first few days after Trumps’ election we saw hundreds of incidents of hate-based intimidation, harassment, and attacks. Might this also be a futile struggle against historical, and economic forces that is doomed to be a mostly Pyrrhic victory? Can we see in the success and popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump alignments of political forces akin to those that marshaled behind Marius and Sulla respectively? If the Roosevelts are the American Gracchi, and Sanders and Trump are the Marius and Sulla, then Whither our American Ceasar? Is our American republic on a similarly downward trajectory as the Roman republic? Do we live in the age of a moribund republic?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I ask them because of the thought they provoke or inspire in the reader. This is, or at least ought to be, a sobering moment for citizens of all political ideologies given the immense unpopularity of both candidates. Given the many and repeated, and unabashed, instances of the President-elect saying or doing something grossly offensive or insensitive, mocking or dismissive, demeaning or bigoted against every group in America save white people during his entire campaign it is critical to reflect on the health of our republic. It is essential for all to reflect on what the results of this election mean for our country, and its future, and, perhaps most ominously, with the divisions laid bare in this election, whether or not it has one.
The crisis of 133 B.C. certainly seemed highly significant to those involved in it and those observing it. However, it was to take on much larger significance as time went on. For this crisis signaled the rising momentum of social, political, and economic forces that would undermine the Roman republic within a century. For only thirty years after the crisis of 133 B.C. (and even fewer years after the crisis of 121 B.C.) would be born the man who rode highest on the tide of these forces, and who would ultimately kill the republic, Gaius Julius Caesar. Thus, the crisis of 133 B.C. has come to be seen as the opening salvo in the process that results in the fall of the Roman republic, and the rise of the Roman Empire.
The great crisis of the 20th century, the Great Depression, also seemed a momentous event to those caught up in it. Might it not also come to take on a higher historical significance in decades not too distant from our own? Might not future generations of Americans come to see the first third of the 20thcentury A.D. as similar to the last thirty years of the 2nd century B.C.? Might perhaps a future American Marius look back and see in the Roosevelts, Teddy & Franklin, the American Gracchi?
When we look at the political careers of the Gracchi and the Roosevelts in parallel we will notice some striking similarities. Similarities that I think illuminate important aspects of the contemporary political landscape. Often, it is only with the clarity of hindsight, afforded by examination of history, that larger features of contemporary political reality can be put in a spotlight. Though analogies can, and should, only be pushed so far, the commonalities we will see ought to be somewhat unsettling, that is, if one is concerned for the fate of democracy and democratic citizenship in America.
I must note here the perilous nature of comparisons between modern America and Ancient Rome. Such comparisons are made often, and usually quite poorly. Most often such comparisons come down to a very broad analogy between the political, economic, and military hegemony each possessed in its era of dominance. We must, with Marx, emphasize the important differences between capitalist and pre-capitalist economic formations. Though a model of class struggle may be applicable to the ancient world, as G.E.M de St. Croix adroitly demonstrates, the Roman Empire is not capitalist. Though it may contain capitalistic elements, as indeed Marx was clear that some features of capitalist economies pre-date capitalism, one must not confuse the oligarchy of the wealthiest Romans with a bourgeoisie.
This note of caution registered, I must point out that what is at issue here is not a comparison between modern American and Ancient Rome as empires, or as the international hegemon, or even the nature of that hegemony. What I want to focus our attention on here is a comparison between economic and social dynamics, and the political forces they create or unleash. We’ll see that in different eras, dissimilar as they undoubtedly are, interesting similarities emerge that might incline us to see ourselves, and our modern conflicts, in the history of Ancient Rome. It is upon noting these similarities that we come to the unsettling questions about the future of democracy in America. If the Roosevelts are the American Gracchi, then is an American Marius, or more ominously an American Sulla, in our future? Indeed, just like Marius and Sulla, many former US Presidents have parlayed military success in war-time into political careers; perhaps most notably, Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower. And, in the heart of the Great Depression many Americans wondered aloud whether or not an American Mussolini, a man who modeled himself on Roman strong-men of the past, could lift the nation out of depression. Is the American republic declining? Do the similarities of the economic and political forces at play, and underlying, the crises of 133-121 B.C. & 1929-1945 A.D., signal that our republic is as sickened as the Roman republic? Is there a cure for what ails our republic?
I must pause here to make an important note. Though I have spoken of the “Roman republic”, and of “American democracy”, one must recognize that these terms are highly problematic. Ancient Rome was indeed a republic of free citizens, but, of course, citizenship was very heavily restricted. Modern America is a democracy, which co-exists with high levels of economic inequality, racial and gender injustice, widespread socio-political exclusion and alienation. I will continue to employ this terminology throughout, but always cognizant of the limited scope of their meaning within the economic and political contexts of their respective epochs.
Lex Sempronia Agraria
Yes, 133 B.C. was an eventful year for the Roman republic. But the crisis that was ignited that year, and which smoldered until flaring up again in 123-121 B.C., and then again from 50-44 B.C., did not just spring into existence. Rather, the crisis that erupted was the result of years, decades, of slowly accumulating forces and pressures. It will do us well then to take some stock of the situation the Romans faced in the years before, and leading up to, 133 B.C.. If we are to understand the political career of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, then we must know something of the texture of the economic and political scene into which he inserted himself.
The source of the economic and social problems that created such political tumult was, in a word, the latifundia. These very large, slave-worked estates owned by the wealthy Patrician elite of Rome. The growth of these displaced many small farmers, Plebians, who typically would re-locate to the city of Rome itself. Outside of the resident plebian population of Rome and the freedmen, they were the major contributing source of the classical Plebs Urbana. As part of the severance package from military service, troops were usually given land to farm as small farmers. The Roman ideal was that a Roman man would produce enough in the way of agricultural products on his small-farm to meet his families’ consumption needs, and hopefully a surplus to sell.
However, many former soldiers turned out to be terrible farmers; others found out they hated farming; others were pushed off their land against their will by more powerful neighbors; others lost their farms while away on extended military service in the Punic wars or the subsequent Roman wars of conquest. In any event, more and more good Roman land in the Italian peninsula was being consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer land-owners. This was all in spite of the Lex Lincinia Sextia, passed circa 367 B.C., which limited Roman citizens to the possession of not more than five hundred jugerum (one jugerum is approximately ½ acre). Aside from the illegal dispossession and displacement of small-holders, the latifundia grew larger and larger as a result of the illegal appropriation of public lands, the ager publicus, by wealthy aristocrats.
Thus, in the years up to 133 B.C. what one sees in Roman society is the growth of the large, slave-worked plantations, which causes increasing unemployment among a class of persons who are Roman citizens and veteran soldiers, and who flock in increasing numbers to Rome itself, swelling the ranks of the “urban mob”. These are the folks who come more and more to make up the ranks of the Plebian Assembly, the Concilium Plebis. This group became increasingly restive as their economic plight worsened. The spoils of military hegemony brought a flood of slaves into Rome, while Patricians used their social and legal privileges to illegally acquire very large, very profitable estates. As has been common throughout history, the tumult and disorder engendered by a century of warfare from the First Punic war in 264 B.C., through the end of the Third Punic war and the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 B.C., provided the opportunity for many wealthy Romans, Patricians and Plebians, to become even wealthier. In the wake of these wars, which saw Rome rise to preeminence in the Mediterranean world, it looked to many Roman citizens not among the Roman Patrico-Plebian oligarchy that the benefits of the conquests were going mainly to the elites, not to those who did the fighting and the dying.
This then is the environment into which Tiberius Gracchus emerges when he is elected Tribune of the Plebs in 133 B.C. But who is this Tiberius? First, he is of an old and distinguished Patrician family. His mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of the great Scipio Aemilianus, victorious general of the Third Punic war who destroyed Carthage. Thus, to be elected Tribune was deeply shocking to many, especially other Patricians. Remember that to be elected Tribune one must be a Plebian, and so Tiberius had to legally renounce his Patrician status in order to stand for the position at all. Had he been older he could have run for Consul, a more traditional position for someone of his background, but he apparently decided he could not wait to begin his political career, so urgent were the problems facing Roman society.
Second, he is a Popularis, that is, one of the Populares. This is to say that Tiberius’ political base was among the Plebians in the Assembly, and not among the optimates in the Senate. This was a fairly new development in Roman political life. Cynical observes will dismiss Tiberius as a political “adventurer”, a power-seeker. The upper-class bias found in much of the writing of and on classical history reaffirms this perception of the elder Gracchi. And yet, in fragments of the speech with which he introduced his bill paint a different picture. In describing the plight of dispossessed Roman citizens he says,
“Hearthless and homeless, they must take their wives and families and tramps the roads like beggars…They fight and fall to serve no other end but to multiply the possessions and comforts of the rich. They are called masters of the world but they possess not a clod of earth that is truly their own”.
As Tribune in 133 B.C. Tiberius undertook political action to address what he saw at the crisis in Roman society. In seeking solutions to this crisis he enacted measures that directly challenged the power of the established Senatorial elite. As a Popularis, he acted to bring more legal and political rights, economic benefits, and social privileges to Roman citizens, as well as working to extend citizenship rights to more of Rome’s Italian allies. He also acted to directly attack the basis of aristocratic power, land ownership. In the ancient world, when land was the main means of production, as well as the basis of economic independence, and with it social prestige. Tiberius was able, through much resistance, to pass his Lex Sempronia Agraria. This was a land-reform measure designed to break-up the illegal latifundia and redistribute land to dispossessed Roman citizens. Knowing that the aristocrats in the Senate would be hostile to his proposals Tiberius, much as a Popularis would, took the unorthodox action of appealing his case to the Plebian Assembly, which was much more receptive to his ideas. As a result of Lex Hortencia, passed circa 287 B.C., legislation passed by the Plebian Assembly was binding on Patricians too; which it had not been up to that point.
Then, late in the year, Tiberius caused a constitutional crisis with his appropriation of the legacy of Attalus III of Pergamum. Attalus, King of Pergamum, died without an heir and bequeathed his entire estate to the Roman people. Traditionally, this kind of matter was handled by the Senate. It was one thing to redistribute land, which even many elites grew to accept, but in order to give the re-settled farmers a chance they would need capital to stock the farms with the necessaries of farming. In order to pay for this, Tiberius decided to appropriate the Attalus’ legacy. He got the Plebian Assembly to vote to do so, and as a result of Lex Hortencia, there was nothing the Senate could do. This was, even for a person like Tiberius Gracchus, a stretch of constitutional authority, and indeed for many it was an outright breach. Tiberius had already acted haughtily in – probably illegally- dismissing a fellow Tribune, a man named Octavius, in order to remove the last obstacle to the passage of his land-reform bill.
In order to see why Tiberius’ appropriation of Attalus’ legacy caused a constitutional crisis we must take a look at the institution of the Roman Senate. In the period directly after the kings, the Roman senate, which had been merely an advisory body, seized control of the reigns of the Roman state. The Patrician and the Plebians had together expelled the odious Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome, and circa 509 B.C. founded what we now call the Roman republic. The slogan around which this new regime coalesced was “SPQR”, which translated into English means in essence, “the Senate and the Roman people are one”. On one level it announces the fact that Patrician and Plebian unity drove out the hated kings, and that their combined strength under-pinned the new regime, whose legitimacy was predicated on preventing kings from ever returning. On another level it very clearly announce that the Patricians, the Senatorial class, were a group separate from and superior to the “people of Rome”, i.e. the Plebians and freedmen. It also very clearly announces the order of precedence in the new regime. The Senate and the Roman people are one, but the Senate comes first. Thus, the Senate, or the Senatorial class, came to dominate all or most of the major positions in government, especially the consulship. Until the time of Tiberius Gracchus the political primacy of the Senate was little in doubt.
So, when news of Attalus’ bequest reached Rome in late 133 B.C., the Senate took its time discussing what to do at its own leisurely pace. It never occurred to them that someone would do what Tiberius Gracchus was about to do. They were just as shocked as they were earlier when Tiberius renounced his Patrician status to become Tribune, something it never occurred to anyone, Patrician or Plebian, that anyone would even think of doing. So, while the Senate dithered, Tiberius acted. But his action directly challenged the Senate’s traditional prerogatives, threatening to take away some, perhaps in the long term all, of their power. By the time of Tiberius Gracchus the example of democratic Athens was well known. Pericles, Ephialtes, and others had successfully broadened to scope of the power of the Assembly at the direct expense of that of the Athenian version of the Senate, the Areopagus, stripping it all functions save adjudicating murder trials by 462 B.C..
By these actions, and others, Tiberius Gracchus made plenty of enemies for himself, enemies with important positions in the Roman state. Once Tiberius was no longer Tribune, his enemies could, and in all likelihood would, exact some revenge on Tiberius; the direct and obvious implication being that they might murder him. As Tribune, Tiberius’ person was constitutionally sacrosanct. All Plebians swore an oath to protect the tribune from any physical attacks. So, when his term of office expired he would be vulnerable to his enemies, many of whom would likely be able to legally use state powers to pursue their ends. Thus, Tiberius forced further constitutional crisis on the Senate by running for re-election, the legality of which was by no means settled and obvious. Roman law at this time prohibited certain senior magistrates from being immediately re-elected to their post. Tiberius’ argument was that since the office of Tribune was an office of the Roman people, i.e. the plebs, not of the Roman state, i.e. the patricians, and thus this prohibition did not apply to him. Despite vigorous resistance to his re-election campaign from the optimates it looked likely that Tiberius would be re-elected Tribune.
On election-day, Tiberius was allegedly seen pointing to his head. This news was carried to the Senate, which was meeting close by, where it was universally agreed that Tiberius was attempting to make himself king. For, again, per Lex Hortencia, any bill the Plebian Assembly passed, was law. So, if they voted Tiberius king, then he would be king. And if “SPQR” meant anything, it very much meant, “no more kings”. Now Tiberius’ supporters have claimed that his pointing to his head was a pre-arranged signal to some of his closest allies that he felt his life in danger, and they should rally to him. In any event, the Senate was so enraged, and perhaps after under-estimating Tiberius more than once already, they decided to act swiftly to prevent the sentina urbis (the bilge or dregs of the city) from destroying their republic. The Senators broke up their furniture to make bludgeons, and stormed off as a group, around 300 persons armed with rocks and clubs, towards where Tiberius and his supporters were. They felt they had little choice as the sitting Consul refused to lead the Senatorial army against a sitting Tribune. When the dust cleared, Tiberius and hundreds of his followers, those who had not successfully fled the scene, had been clubbed to death in the street by the Senate.
The bitter irony is that, as provocative as Tiberius’ actions may have seemed to the optimates, the best men, the terms of his Lex Sempronia Agraria were fairly generous towards them. In fact, Tiberius inserted a compensation clause in his bill. He was going to have the state pay some of the illegal holders of public land to give it up. Senatorial elites, who monopolized land ownership, especially land in and around Rome itself, were going to be paid for land they had stolen in the first place. Not too bad a deal. And in hindsight, taking it might have been preferable to the century of internecine civil strife and violence that followed from not taking it.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first United States President to be born in a city, to go by his initials, first to leave the country during his term of office, he was the youngest President, he was the first to win the Nobel Peace prize, first American to win any Nobel Prize, first President to own and automobile, first to do down in a submarine, first to use transatlantic cable to send diplomatic messages, first to grasp the potential of publicity and the burgeoning mass media, and first to dine with an African-American in the White House, among many other firsts. He was an author, naturalist, historian, conservationist, hunter, imperialist, and progressive, among other things. Clearly, these were revolutionary times, and clearly Theodore Roosevelt represented a new force in American politics. The world was changing, that is, being changed, ever more radically and seemingly at an increasing pace, by the economic and political forces of capitalism and liberalism. The early part of the 20th century saw the emergence of a unified national market in America, mostly through the agency of the consolidation of firms. The world most of us today consider “modern” was quickly coming into being, with all the attendant social dislocation and duress for those on the bottom o the social hierarchy.
Teddy, like Tiberius Gracchus, had a Patrician upbringing, enjoying the benefits of upper-class privileges. They both entered politics in a time of high corruption, high economic prosperity, as well as constitutional transformation and crisis. Both also had a popular political orientation. Teddy Roosevelt championed many progressive causes during his tenure as President, resulting in many important benefits for working-class Americans. Teddy fought corrupt political machines, tired to get a “Square Deal” for the American people, who he saw as too often being taken advantage of by predatory capitalists. Lastly, like Tiberius Gracchus, Teddy’s main political nemesis can be summed up in a single word, trusts. This was the height of the age of the Robber Barons, and of the monopolistic consolidation of America’s largest industries. Much like the times of Tiberius Gracchus, the era of T.R. was one of economic prosperity, but mainly for the wealthy. There was a widespread sentiment that the benefits of industrial capitalist society were accruing principally to one class, namely, the capitalists. The predations and manipulations of the giant trusts, reported often in the increasingly frenzied world of competition between newspapers, were perhaps the most glaring symbols to many of this fact. That this problem of trusts and their growing power was recognized can be seen in the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890.
After the close of the Civil War, American capitalism came increasingly into maturity. It was in this period that some of the most famous as well as infamous names of American business history tread the scene. This was the era when the likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, Fisk, Gould, Vanderbilt, and later Ford, dominated the business world, and constructed their corporate empires. As American capitalism continued to mature, this process of maturation quickly became characterized by the large-scale consolidation of firms in many of the nations’ largest, and most important, industries; e.g. railroads, steel, banking, and oil. By the turn of the twentieth century this process was far along in its work, and yet still not finished. The consolidation of individual wealth at the apex of the income scale, and of the ownership of firms via ownership of stock, in the hands of the so-called “captains of industry” gave these men near total control of the American economy from top to bottom. These new large-scale monopolistic firms were able to determine, almost at will, workers’ wage hours, and benefits; they determined the prices consumers -especially urban ones- paid for almost everything they bought; they set the rates the farmers had to pay to ship their produce to market, thus determining in large part the earnings of farmers.
Theodore Roosevelt was without a doubt America’s most popular President since Abraham Lincoln. Not only did the development of mass media, and a national market for such media, make whomever was going to be a President in this era more accessible to journalists, and thus to the American people, but Teddy in particular connected with the American people in deeper way. Perhaps it was his blend of east and west, or his combination of patrician background and working-class energy, that endeared him so much to the populace. His legacy in the American imagination testifies to the lasting impact he made on the American social and political psyche. The sheer volume of his personal correspondence over his life also testifies to the interest, and indeed fascination, he inspired in many. His landslide victory in the 1904 election also shows how taken Americans, from all across the nation, were with Roosevelt.
And yet, Roosevelt was an avowed patrician. He was a seventh generation New Yorker whose family originally immigrated to New Amsterdam in the middle of the 17th century and prospered. Over generations Theodore’s forebears made a fortune, which they successfully passed on to their descendants. This money was made by practices, or in industries, which would be dis-tasteful to modern sensibilities, to say the least. In particular, the trade in sugar was the source of much profit for the early Roosevelts. The almost unfathomable human suffering entailed in the production of sugar on European sugar plantations in the Caribbean is well-documented. Teddy was educated at Harvard, where he had a servant to attend to him, and was elected to one of its most prestigious clubs. He was quite conscious of his elite status, refusing to allow journalists to photograph him playing tennis as he thought it a rich man’s pastime, or at least, thought voters would see it that way.
And, just like Tiberius Gracchus, this deeply patrician individual took up a popular political orientation, and challenged the political and economic power of established elites. Now, Roosevelt did not have to legally renounce his social status as Tiberius did, but he nonetheless faced vigorous resistance from elites whose power he was threatening. In the New York State Assembly, as Governor of New York, and as President of the United States, T.R. fought often for reforms which would benefit working-class people, often in the face of opposition from bosses in his own party. During his time in the New York State Assembly, that Roosevelt could be so aloof from the bosses that controlled the party political machines testifies again to his patrician status, as he did not need the pecuniary favors and inducements party bosses used to maintain discipline and loyalty. After his tenure in the Assembly, Teddy served as a civil service commissioner appointed by Benjamin Harrison, where he fought the spoils systems. So scrupulously did he do his work that Grover Cleveland asked him to stay on at his post, despite Roosevelt being a Republican. In 1895 he was appointed one of three commissioners charged with reforming the NYPD. In 1897 party bosses facilitated his appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy so as to prevent him from returning to politics in Albany.
As President, Roosevelt continued to champion progressive causes, and win important victories for those not of elite backgrounds, and with elite means. This was the essence of the “Square Deal” he campaigned on in 1904, favoring neither the rich nor the poor, neither capital nor labor. He thought that the government should certainly not redistribute wealth or property, but it also should not align itself with the elite and aid them in preying on the poor. It is in this spirit one can see his efforts towards legislation like the expansion of the national parks system and the creation of the United States Forrest Service, the Pure Food & Drug Act, the Antiquities Act, the Meat Inspection Act, and the Hepburn Act. Also in this spirit one must see T.R.’s trust-busting actions. During his term in office the old Rough Rider initiated at least forty anti-trust actions, the most notable of which being his break-up of J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Trust, which effectively controlled the nation’s railroads, and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust, which effectively controlled the refining of oil. Lastly, and very importantly, Roosevelt was the first President to formally recognize organized labor, by including the voice of organized labor in labor disputes; something which appalled the more patrician elements in American society.
Of course, Roosevelt’s progressivism had limits. He was not anti-business, he was not in principle against the large corporations. Roosevelt thought that large-scale firms, like the trusts, might be useful, but needed to be regulated so that they did not take advantage of consumers. He was a friend to business, and to transnational capital insofar as he successfully completed the Panama Canal, the importance of which to modern capitalist globalized world-economy cannot be overstated. Roosevelt’s actions in the case of the Brownsville riots demonstrate the limits of his racial progressivism. He may have invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House, but he discharged all the black soldiers accused despite a Texas grand jury not returning indictments against any for lack of evidence. T.R. was also an unabashed imperialist; fighting in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, supporting the subsequent U.S. occupation of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, as well as supporting the annexation of Hawaii, and announcing the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.
Also, similarly to the elder Gracchi brother, Theodore Roosevelt would resort to the threat of constitutional crisis to achieve his ends. One must note that unlike Tiberius, Teddy only threatened constitutional crisis, never quite pushing beyond the bounds of constitutional legality and forcing a full-blown political crisis. And, like Tiberius, Teddy was accused of expanding executive authority at the expense of more constitutionally appropriate bodies. The title of Edmund Morris’ biography, Theodore Rex, testifies in part to this perception of Teddy as a usurper of Congress’ powers, as someone acting more like a classical Greek Tyrannos, as opposed to a Basileus. One salient example is found in the Coal Strike of 1902. Heading into the winter coal miners’ went out on strike for better wages and hours, and recognition of their union. The mine owners refused to meet with the miners, or even listen to their demands. A national crisis of immense proportion was clearly in the offing if no resolution could be found.
Expanding the role of government, Teddy decided to intervene in the dispute. Intervening at all in a labor dispute in this era meant doing so in support of the workers, as the lassiez-faire policy which had dominated was an implicit, if not sometimes very explicit, choice to side with owners. Thus, intervention at all in this case meant the de facto recognition of organized labor’s political legitimacy. In the face of the owners’ continued recalcitrance T.R. threatened to turn an economic and political crisis, into a full-blown constitutional crisis. If the mine owners would not accede to Teddy’s request to submit the dispute to federal mediation, Teddy claimed he would take over the mines and use the army to run them. Roosevelt did not have the explicit constitutional power to do this, even if he could have in practice carried out this threat, which he probably could have. The issue with this move was the appropriation of private property for public purposes without due process, or without just compensation, as required by the constitution. Whether or not Roosevelt could have gotten away with this move if it had made it to the Supreme court, which it almost certainly would have had Teddy followed through on his threat, is unclear and beside the point.
In the face of Roosevelt’s threat, the mine-owners caved in and accepted federal mediation. The resulting settlement averted a national crisis, and saw the workers win a 10% pay increase and a nine-hour day. In the end, the threat of a constitutional crisis was enough for Teddy to achieve what he wanted despite the organized resistance of an economically, and thus also politically, powerful clique. Two years later, after Roosevelt’s re-election, he once again threatened a constitutional crisis, but not intentionally. His resounding victory in 1904, and his continuing national popularity, gave many observers a good reason to think he could handily win another election in 1908. The issue in this case being that of the political precedent of Presidential term limits, which was an informal constitutional practice until codified into law after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. T.R. could have argued that since he merely finished out the term of the assassinated William McKinley, his first term was not really his, and thus he could run for President in 1908 perfectly legally. Whether this argument would have stood up with the Supreme Court, or with American voters, we will never know. Rather than force such a constitutional crisis, Roosevelt committed political suicide by announcing on election-night that he would not seek another term as President.
During his 1912 run for President under the Bull Moose banner there was an attempt on Teddy’s life;. However, unlike that against Tiberius Gracchus in 133 B.C., it was not was not organized, lacked elite support, and thus was not successful; indeed, the attempted assassination was carried out by a man, John Flammang Schrank, who claimed to be inspired by the ghost of William McKinley. The potential mental instability of the would-be assassin notwithstanding, he was angered by what he saw as Roosevelt’s tyrannical hunger for power, as evidenced in his bid for an unconstitutional third term. Despite having certainly made enemies among the wealthy and propertied elite of America, however, as much as he stretched the law or the limits of his powers, he didn’t push the existing order into full-blown crisis. Like most other early 20th century ‘progressives’, Teddy was for gradual reform as a way of preventing a larger, potentially disastrous, social revolution. Though he fought against the abuses of the capitalist system, its replacement was nowhere on his agenda. Like Tiberius Gracchus with his land reform, Theodore Roosevelt sought not to radically alter an economic and social system, but to alter it so as to make it generate a more broadly-based prosperity. This was the aim of T.R.’s anti-trust actions, as well as the progressive items on his domestic policy agenda.
Facing the Forum
In 123 B.C., ten years after the assassination of his brother Tiberius, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus embarked on a political career by following closely in his brother’s footsteps. Gaius renounced his Patrician status, by a legal process called transitio ad plebem, in order to be elected Tribune. As Tribune, just like his brother, Gaius was a Popularis, continuing Tiberius’ un-finished programme of land re-distribution. Also like Tiberius, Gaius’ actions as Tribune made for him many enemies among the optimates of the Senate, whose distaste for Tiberius would have ill-disposed them to Gaius from the beginning. And lastly, just like his brother, when Gaius pushed the Senate too far, threatened their power and privilege too much, they accused him of trying to become king, Rex, and they assassinated him.
Picking up the political legacy established by Tiberius, Gaius was a reform-minded politician who advocated for the needs of ‘the Roman people’, the same people referenced in the slogan “SPQR”. Gaius supported increasing the rights of Plebian Roman citizens, as well as granting citizenship rights to more of the Italian allies. He continued to work of the land commission established by his brother. That Gaius could make political hay with the same economic and political issues as Tiberius had, shows that the fundamental problems in Roman society had not be addressed in the decade between the Tribunates of the Gracchi brothers. Indeed,
“The ten years which separate the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus from his brother form a sort of twilight interval, such as sometimes separates two important periods of history, full of half-articulate cries, broken lights, and shadows of great events to come. Much is begun, nothing is ended, and the course of events seems to hang in suspense, as if in waiting for some master-hand to give the decisive impulse”. 
Gaius popular political orientation can be seen in his effort to found a colony on or near the site of the former Carthage, a colony he was to call Junonia, after the goddess Juno. While Tiberius mostly confined himself to the issue of the monopolization of land, and his programme of land redistribution, Gaius was far more wide-ranging in his attempts at reform. He introduced significant reform measures into the judiciary, the military, and the economy. He tried to limit the power of the Senatorial class by transferring some of their judicial powers to the Equites, or Knights, trying to drive a wedge between these classes. In the military, Gaius passed laws requiring the state to clothe and equip soldiers, reduce their term of service, and he forbade the conscription of boys under the age of seventeen. He also introduced price-controls for wheat, in effort to limit and regularize the price of bread, the main staple of the diet of the Plebs Urbana. Indeed, as if the Senate would not be hostile to Gaius already on account of their disgust with his brother, as well as the reforms he himself proposed, Gaius introduced what seems to us on its face a minor reform. This was a reform whereby, against long-established custom, speeches would now be delivered while facing leftward instead of rightward. By having speeches delivered while facing the Forum, the meeting place of the Plebian Assembly, instead of the curia, the Senate’s meeting house, Gaius was delivering a none too subtle message to the Senate about where he thought power in the Roman state resided.
That the Senate felt threatened by Gaius after his first term as Tribune can be seen clearly in their recruitment of a political stooge to do their bidding in the Plebian Assembly, one Marcus Livius Drusus. It can also be immediately perceived in their use of propaganda – a new development at this time- against Gaius Gracchus by the optimate class, while he was away supervising his colony at Junonia. In the first case, the Senate used Drusus to out-do, or one-up any legislation proposed by Gaius Gracchus. If, for example, Gaius proposed to get increased rights for the Italian allies, the Drusus would propose a bill with even more generous rights and privileges, e.g. immunity from ‘scourging’, i.e. flogging, by a Roman military commander, or ability to appeal the sentence of a Roman magistrate. If Gaius wanted to settle 1,000 people in colonies, then Drusus would propose settling 3,000 people in colonies, et cetera. Drusus even passes a law cancelling rents.
In the second case, the Senate’s hostility to Gaius can be seen in the malicious rumors playing on Romans’ superstitions that were spread far and wide in effort to cast Gaius’ colony, as well as his person, as cursed. Gaius’ enemies wanted to try to turn the people away from Gaius, to make him less popular, and therefore less powerful, by making him out to be impious, by insinuating that the many ill omens surrounding Junonia were clear signs of the dis-favor of the Gods. One might see this aggressive push against Gaius by the Senate as their having learned something of a lesson in under-estimating Tiberius’ audacity and ambition, and being conscious about not making the same mistake with Gaius. They feared, and perhaps not so unreasonably, that Gaius might be planning to use his new North African colony to stage and then launch an invasion of Rome, in revenge for the Senate’s murder of his brother; for which only a few nominal executions of relatively minor Senators took place.
Gaius, like his brother Tiberius, pushed the Senatorial elite too far, and forced a violent reaction from them. Arch-Patrician Scipio Aemilianus intervened in the early part of Gaius career to undermine the Gracchan land commission by transferring the commissions’ powers to the Consul, effectively ending land re-distribution. Senatorial hostility and use of propaganda rendered the long-term success of the Gracchan colony at Junonia doubtful at best; indeed, the colony only survived for 30 years. Questions about the feasibility of practicability of Drusus’ proposals notwithstanding, for it is unclear where he would or could have acquired the land necessary to settle such a large number of colonists, the people took the bait, and Gaius found that his power had been diminished. Upon his return to Rome, Gaius mis-read the political climate and took the provocative action of moving his residence to the Aventine hill in Rome, the well-known long-time strong-hold of the Populare faction. After he failed to win a third Tribunate, largely through the machination of his political enemies, many of whom held important political posts, the stage was set for a confrontation.
After his return to Rome in 121 B.C., and the deterioration of his political position, Gaius became increasingly wary about his personal safety and hired a bodyguard. The Senate would have seen both Gaius’ moving to the Aventine and his hiring a body-guard as highly provocative actions. To the Senate, they were certainly not the kind of honorable actions befitting an up-standing and law-abiding Patrician Roman citizen. They looked like the action of a dangerous radical, who, like his brother before him, threatened to cause disruption to the pattern of business as usual for the Senatorial aristocracy. For Gaius, cognizant of his brother’s fate, these were reasonable measures of self-protection. Unfortunately for Gaius, his bodyguard got into a drunken fight with a slave, who happened to be a servant of the sitting Consul, as a result of which the slave was killed. The Senatorial elites lost no time in spinning this incident into a conspiracy to kill the Consul which had only barely missed its target. This obviously could only further exacerbate the hysterical paranoia among the Senate directed against Gaius Gracchus, and deepened the elite’s sentiment that this was a dangerous individual.
With a number of his political enemies elected to prominent political positions, including one Lucius Opimius elected Consul, in addition to Livius Drusus as Tribune, the time had come for the elites to try to un-do the mischief wrought by Gaius Gracchus. On the day set for the repeal of much of his reforms, this Opimius sent an attendant to perform a sacrifice. Let us not forget that religion and politics were far less divorced than they are now. On his way back this servant, Quintus Antyllius, carrying the entrails of the sacrifice tried to push his way through a crowd. Most accounts agree that it was Quintus Antyllius’ efforts to get through the crowd, composed of supporters of both Gaius Gracchus’ faction and Opimius’ faction that sparked a row between the groups resulting in Quintus’ death. On Plutarch’s account, it was Quintus’ rudeness in pushing through the crowd that caused the Gracchan supporters to attack him. According to Appian, Gaius’ supporters mis-understood his dis-approving countenance when approached by Quintus as a sign to act.
The death of Quintus Antyllius gave Opimius and his optimate faction all the pre-text they needed to mobilize against Gaius Gracchus. Here was a man who, like his brother before him, had renounced his Patrician status to obtain a political career pandering to the Plebians and freedmen. He had rocked the boat by continuing his brother’s land reform project, but then moved much beyond that issue to make sweeping changes to the Roman constitution in many areas. He had founded a colony on cursed land and persisted in building it despite many ill omens – a potential staging point for an invasion aiming at an anti-Senatorial coup de etat. Gaius had shown his contempt for the Senate in giving speech facing left, and moving to the Aventine hill. He had acted openly, through his political reforms, to acquire power for himself at the expense of the Senate. He had allegedly plotted to kill the Consul with his bodyguard, was rumored to be involved in the death of Scipio Aemilianus, had appeared to sanction the impious action of his followers in killing Quintus Antyllius. In the eyes of the Senatorial aristocracy, Gaius Gracchus was clearly a very dangerous man, from a now suspect family.
The Senate mobilized the next day behind the Consul Opimius, to pass a declaration of martial law, called a senatus consultum ultimum, and to seize Gaius Gracchus and put him on trial; the eventual outcome of which no one, least of all Gaius, would have been in doubt about. After a few unsuccessful attempts at making peace, unsuccessful largely because the Senatorial faction refused anything but unconditional surrender, Opimius led a well-armed group to confront Gaius and his supporters, who had barricaded themselves on the Aventine hill. After a brief skirmish most of Gaius’ supporters fled or were killed. The encounter was so brief largely because Gaius’ supporters were mostly Plebians, and they were very likely to be less well armed, and especially less well-armored, than their opponents. We are told that Gaius’ supporters were armed mainly with the spoils of the Gallic campaign of the former consul, and Gracchi supporter, Marcus Fulvius Flaccus. Having not taken part in the fighting, and having refused to arm himself with anything but a small dagger, Gaius fled the scene. After being hotly pursued as he tried to make a desperate escape across the Tiber River, and with no options remaining, Gaius instructed his slave to kill him rather than be taken alive by his enemies; suicide being a more honorable death in the eyes of an upper-class Roman like Gaius Gracchus.
A final note about the Gracchi is important. Like many popular politicians there are questions about whether the Gracchi were real reformers, or whether they were simply using the power of the Plebian Assembly to advance their own political careers and objectives. Are the Gracchi simply power-seekers, or were they more akin to social revolutionaries? Most likely, they are somewhere in between. The Gracchi provide another first in this regard. They form one of the earliest links in a long chain of aristocratic elements taking the lead in the fights of slaves, serfs, and proletarians over the ages for a society based on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Individuals in this lineage have always faced such charges. For example, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary cohort in Cuba faced such charges in the 20th century.
A New Deal and a Second Bill of Rights
We could easily imagine, and not unreasonably so, that Gaius Gracchus looked up to and was inspired by his elder brother Tiberius and his political career. We know for certain, thanks to documentary evidence, that Franklin Roosevelt looked up to and was inspired by his fifth cousin Theodore and his political career. And, just as the younger Gracchi took up the spirit of his brother’s political ideals, so too did the younger Roosevelt adopt the spirit of his cousin’s progressive political ideals. Where T.R. offered Americans overwhelmed by the size, scope, and pace of modern industrial society and the enormous corporate entities that controlled and profited from it a “Square Deal”, F.D.R. offered Americans crushed under the weight of the most colossal episode of market failure yet recorded, the Great Depression, a “New Deal”. The metaphorical deal had to be new with F.D.R. since the political and economic environment had changed so dramatically in the interval between his cousin’s Presidency and his own. In offering such a deal, Franklin became the most popular President since his cousin; even winning the largest electoral victory in American history up to that point in 1936, taking forty six out of forty eight states.
Like his cousin Theodore, Franklin Roosevelt had a distinguished Patrician pedigree. He was raised on his family’s aristocratic country estate, Springwood, in Hyde Park New York. Franklin received the kind of education one expects for the scion of a Patrician family. He was first educated by private tutors at home, then attended the prestigious Groton School, and after that, Harvard. His ancestors on his mother’s side, the Delano family, were a very wealthy Huguenot family that had been in, and prospered in, America even longer than the Roosevelts. Even his childhood pastimes, much like T.R., bear the marks of upper-class privilege. The young Franklin collected stamps, coins, and books; did photography; hunted and collected bird specimens. And yet, also like his cousin Teddy, Franklin adopted a distinctly popular political orientation, challenging the power of elites, and threatening constitutional crises in order to push through legislation he thought necessary. The many public works and employment programs enacted, and experimented with, during the New Deal era demonstrate this concern for the plight of working Americans. F.D.R.’s lasting political legacy, adored by some and loathed by others, testifies to the significance of his impact on American society. It was under his watch that Congress passed, for example, the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act, the Glass-Steagall Act, the Wealth Tax Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. He also created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Reserve Board.
Franklin Roosevelt, idolizing his cousin T.R. as he did, followed closely in his political footsteps, just as the younger Gracchi brother had. Franklin was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1910, where tried to emulate his cousin’s anti-establishment politics, fighting the Tammany Hall machine bosses that still dominated New York politics. He followed Teddy again when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Then in 1920 he was tapped by the Democratic Party to be the nominee for Vice President. As his political career was gathering much momentum, despite the Democrats losing the 1920 election, F.D.R. was to leave the scene, much as T.R. had done after the death of his mother and wife. Where Teddy headed west to be a cattle rancher, Franklin was to be afflicted with polio. In this way, Franklin once again imitated his cousin and hero by enduring a period of, metaphorical, political exile. F.D.R emerged again later to win the Governorship of New York in 1928. It was in part his term as Governor, and part the effects of the Great Depression, that positioned Franklin Roosevelt to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1932.
In 1929, the Great Crash, as it came to be known, changed the political and economic landscape of America in ways no one was prepared for. In the aftermath of the Crash there was however near universal agreement about who had caused it, and who was to blame. Wall-Street, the banks, and speculators were all the target of a raging torrent of public obloquy. The scope of this tsunami of condemnation is in its own way a measure of the scope of the crash itself, and the social an economic dislocation that followed in its wake. In 1929 unemployment in the US was about 3%; by the later part of 1932 it was 25%. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined precipitously. It was $87.4 billion in 1929, but by 1933 it had fallen to $39.7 billion. Workers’ earning fell from $50.8 billion in 1929, to 29.3 billion in 1933. In 1929 there were 25,000 banks in the US, but by 1933 there were less than 15,000. Between 1929 and 1932 farmers lost about 2/3rds of their income. Most strikingly 3/4th of the people eligible for assistance were unable to obtain any.  Homelessness, starvation were widespread, suicide rates rose dramatically. These figures provide some idea of the scale of the crisis produced by the Crash of 1929 and its aftermath.
As if the economic crisis was not enough, Roosevelt also had to confront the growing threat posed by fascism. This threat posed more than one problem for Roosevelt. Not only did the militarism of Italy, Germany, and Japan threaten peace and security, but their example threatened further political instability in America. At a time when the American economy was in dire straits, as were many of the leading European industrial economies, the economies of fascist Germany and Italy, and of the communist Soviet Union, were performing much better. These examples, combined with the economic and political tumult brought on by the effects of the Depression, made fascism and communism, seem like very real alternatives for America. The idea of dictatorship, or of dictatorial powers, was not universally, or unambiguously negative in the eyes of many Americans. Before the out-break of the war, Italy and Germany were not reviled enemies, but potent competitors with a radical new model of political-economic organization, one that was turning in a better performance than the economies of the leading democracies in a time of globalized economic depression. A reporter is said to have commented to F.D.R. about the New Deal that because of it he’d go down in American history as the best President or the worst President. F.D.R. is said to have replied something to the effect of, “no, if I fail, I’ll be the last President”. This statement provides some insight into how real the threat of fascism and communism felt, even in the highest reaches of American government.
As President, Franklin Roosevelt inherited a chaotic, and indeed dire, social and economic situation. In response, he undertook decisive, and in the eyes of critics radical, action in order to lift the economy out of the depression. In so doing he saw himself as trying to save American capitalism from itself, and thereby save American democracy. Though in the end it was war production that brought the American economy back to life, and to prosperity, Roosevelts’ pre-war efforts to combat the Great Depression are not one bit less heroic. Though he enjoyed unprecedented popular support, he also faced much resistance to his proposals from established elites. Like his cousin, Franklin was accused to over-reaching executive authority, of radically altering the constitutionally ordained relationship between the state and the economy, and between the state and its citizens. Many in the American aristocracy felt that the “New Deal” Franklin Roosevelt was offering the American people was far too generous, and involved far too much government intervention, to the point that he was accused of being a communist, or a dictator. This is especially true in regards to the National Labor Relations Act, which created the National Labor Relations Board, and the Social Security Act. The first provided a federal guarantee of workers’ right to organize and to bargain collectively, the second provided important benefits for the retired and the unemployed. This conviction that Roosevelt was a despotic tyrant was only confirmed when he stood for and won a third, and then later a fourth, term as President, in contravention of one of America’s most revered informal political traditions.
Under the influence of new thinking in economics, especially in macro-economics, in particular the work of John Maynard Keynes, Roosevelt and his advisors designed a myriad of programs and initiatives designed to prime the economic pump by putting money in the hands of workers. Where T.R.’s “Square Deal” aimed only to prevent business from unfairly trampling the consumer, Franklin’s “New Deal” aimed beyond just assuring fairness, and towards more directly improving workers’ level of material welfare. The alphabet soup of New Deal agencies and administrations testifies to the extent of the efforts undertaken by the Roosevelt administration to fight-off the Great Depression. Thus we have, for example, the T.V.A., the P.W.A. the W.P.A., the C.C.C., the F.E.R.A., the C.W.A., the F.S.A., and the R.E.A., among many others. Some programs or policies were more successful than others, and F.D.R. showed a great deal of pragmatism in moving from one to another, and when one failed, he simply tried something else. His radical expansion of government, in terms of its size, the scope of its powers, and the fields of its action, earned Roosevelt and his “New Deal” the undying enmity of many American capitalists. They saw his expansion of the scope and scale of government intervention in society as unconstitutional, as un-American, and even as a communist take-over. His New Deal employment programs were seen as re-distribution of wealth and his push for increased regulation as an abrogation of private property.
In order to enact his reform programme F.D.R. had to threaten a constitutional crisis, his well-known “court-packing” plan, that is, formally, the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. The Supreme Court had been working to undermine his attempts to enact the kind of legislation needed to being economic recovery, relying heavily on its decision in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital. In response, Roosevelt threatened to add several new justices to the court, one for every current justice over 70 years of age. The implication was very clear. If the court did not stop undermining Roosevelt, he would pack the court with judges who would vote the way he wanted, and thus over-ruling the recalcitrant conservative jurists. If seems very clear that Roosevelt could have followed through on his threat, and had such legislation passed through the Congress if he needed to. The issue in this case is less Roosevelts’ ability to do what he threatened, or even the legality of this tactic. The issue has more to do with the spirit of democracy and of the constitution. The threat Roosevelt made certainly appears inconsistent with the spirit of democratic governance, and respect for its mechanisms. His ends may have justified his means in this case, as the threat of fascism was indeed very real at the time, but his threat certainly would seem to violate the spirit of fair play in a democratic polity. We will never know now what might have happened if Roosevelt had carried out his threat. The Supreme Court would no doubt have weighed in, and thus the stage would have been set for a confrontation between the executive and legislative branches and the judicial branch.
Out of this experience, both his own and the nation’s, with the Depression and then the war, came Roosevelt’s commitment to the idea of a second Bill of Rights. This would have been Roosevelt’s most significant reform to the U.S. constitution, the introduction of social and economic rights into the American constitutional order. Had he lived longer he might have seen more of his idea brought to life. As it is, several aspects of his proposal for a second Bill of Rights have become part of the American constitutional order in the form of what Cass Sunstein calls “constitutive commitments”. For example, social security is not a constitutional right, and yet any politician, from any either current party, would be hard pressed to get elected calling for such a policy, or, if elected, to get such a policy passed through the Congress. Discrimination on the basis of sex, for instance, is not explicitly forbidden in the Constitution. However, the constitution has been so interpreted that such a prohibition is today considered consistent with, necessary for, or even implied by, the rights enumerated in it. Indeed, as Sunstein argues, if not for the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 the American constitutional order would contain social and economic rights. Nixon, as President, was able to appoint several justices to the Supreme Court, and as a result, to stop the Warren Court’s momentum toward recognition of the kind of social and economic rights outlined in Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights.
Part of Roosevelt’s vision with the second Bill of Rights was to guarantee the exercise of democratic citizenship. The age-old republican principle that economic dependence make for political subjugation, was clearly at work in F.D.R.’s thinking. “Necessitous men are not free men”, Roosevelt once said, thus, providing for all citizens to have access to the most basic necessaries of life is the essential pre-requisite for the exercise of democratic citizenship. In order for a democracy to truly flourish, citizens must be liberated from what F.D.R. called “fear” and “want”. Persons who do not enjoy the freedom from fear or freedom from want could never fully realize the ideal of democratic citizenship. Such a Bill of Rights, the inclusion of social and economic rights in the constitutional order, would very obviously be anathema to American oligarchs, who would deride such an inclusion as socialist re-distribution of wealth, as the subsidization of the idleness of the lazy by the industriousness of the productive. That many American aristocrats, and optimate politicians, still decry the New Deal as the death of the American republic, shows just how radical were Roosevelt’s actions, and how radical they were perceived as being by contemporaries. We know, for example, how shocked and traumatized the Athenians were during the Second Peloponnesian War, because in the surviving literary sources, it is constantly referred to as the worst thing to have ever happened to anyone.  The continuing enmity against Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal from some elite quarters likewise demonstrates the depth of feeling of people at the time. The same could be said about Southern elites in regard to Abraham Lincoln and his actions during the war and for imposing the Reconstruction regime.
In thinking about the political legacies of both the Grachhi and the Roosevelts, one, I think, very striking similarity that jumps to mind is that all of them left their political work unfinished. All envisioned, and attempted to enact -with varying success- significant changes in the constitutions of their societies. All reacted strongly against large concentrations of wealth and power -both economic and political- that left the vast majority destitute and all but formally disenfranchised. In the case of the Gracchi since the problem was caused by the latifundia their reforms was focused first on land redistribution, and only later on about issues like extension of citizenship rights.
In the time of the Roosevelts, the problem was the trusts, the large corporations, and the immense concentrations of financial and productive assets they controlled; and also with the social, political, and economic power that control bestowed. Thus, the Roosevelts’ reforms were focused in the first phase on trust-busting and consumer protections, and then in the second phase on unemployment relief, social security, and labor rights. While Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to give organized labor a voice at the bargaining table. Franklin Roosevelt formally codified labor rights into law as President. Yet, despite the success both pairs of politicians undoubtedly did have, they all left – or were forced off- the scene before their work could be completed.
We know Tiberius’ work was left undone, given that he was violently assassinated, and his land commission effectively neutered after his death. Moreover, that his brother Gaius could make a political career, ten years later, on many of the same issues, shows very clearly that the same problems existed, and that Tiberius’ reforms were not sufficient to address the full scale of the problem. Much of the reason for this was that Tiberius’ reforms were systematically undermined by the optimatefaction after his assassination. Though it would have been politically dangerous for the elites to immediately abolish Tiberius’ land commission, they did the next best thing, they defunded the project. The Senate was able to deprive Tiberius of sufficient funds to effectively administer the project while he was alive, and then to tighten the purse strings even further after his murder. Later on, in 129 B.C., most of the powers of the commission were transferred to the Consul. The dithering allowed by this maneuver enabled the Senatorial elites to in-practice halt the work of the land commission.
That Gaius was forced, in the end, to choose between suicide and a violent assassination, shows that he was also forced off the scene while his reforming project was not fully consolidated, let alone finished with its work. Again, moreover, that Gaius Julius Caesar later on also made a political career with many of the same political issues as the younger Gracchi, shows once again that the underlying dynamics causing the problem had not been remedied. Perhaps, if the Gracchi had been successful their reform project, there never would have been a Caesar. Nonetheless, it was not until 118 B.C. that Tiberius’ land commission was formally dissolved. Then in 111 B.C. even the rents that owners of public land were supposed to pay were abolished, effectively completing the privatization of the ager publicus. Thus, the legislation of both the Gracchi was in the main repealed formally, or informally undermined. All Gracchan reforms were ultimately cancelled under the ultra-conservative constitution imposed by Sulla and his proscriptions, and enforced by his client-army.
Teddy Roosevelt himself thought he left his work unfinished, and that he quit the scene too soon. He regretted almost immediately his decision on election-night in 1904 to not seek another term. In exchange, his party did allow him to pick his successor. T.R. had much confidence in William Howard Taft when the latter took office. Taft would however prove a disappointment to Teddy. This was one reason, among others, that Theodore Roosevelt decided to run for President again in 1912, his now famous “Bull Moose” campaign. T.R. may be remembered as a trust-busting President, and indeed he was quite active; at least relative to other Presidential administrations, both before and after. However, T.R. was not an anti-business politician, not even an anti- corporate politician. He was a progressive, and fought business leaders, and the “captains of industry”, but he was not anti-capitalist. He may have busted some trusts, may have slowed the development of some others for a time. But, that the Crash of 1929 happened shows very clearly that the reforming work of T.R. was not finished; even if it was capable of adequately addressing the problems in the American economy that ultimately caused the Crash.
That right-wing politicians today continue to gripe about the New Deal, and the “welfare state” it created, demonstrates without a doubt that F.D.R.’s work was left unfinished. Towards the end of his Presidency he advocated for a second Bill of Rights, which would include social and economic rights. Though this proposal formed one the major bases of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and as a result an important part of dozens of national constitutions around the world, only small parts were adopted in the United States. His experience with the Great Depression had convinced Franklin Roosevelt that these social and economic rights were essential. They were needed to alleviate the massive human suffering caused by Depression induced unemployment and deprivation. They were also necessary to guarantee a secure foundation upon which citizens could depend, and thus achieve the kind of liberty needed to exercise democratic citizenship. This, very obviously, has not developed; quite the opposite in fact. But that the legacy of the New Deal and the proposal for a second Bill of Rights are still controversial shows that the transformative work F.D.R. begun had also not yet been fully consolidated, and was not yet fully finished.
The crisis of 1929-1945 was a watershed event, not only in American history, but in world history. It was responsible for unleashing perhaps the largest wave of suffering the human world has ever seen; I am including in this wave the Cold War of the subsequent period, and its attendant proxy wars and “disappeared” dissidents; I am also including in this wave the undeclared war of “underdevelopment” that kills through malnutrition and treatable diseases. This crisis occasioned some of the largest movements and exchanges of populations, both voluntary and involuntary, and their attendant cultural mixing. These were extraordinary times, unprecedented times, to the people living through them.
In 1932 A.D. Franklin Delano Roosevelt began a project of radical constitutional change, expanding the powers of the federal government and the executive branch, in response to an extreme crisis. This is much the same as what Tiberius Gracchus did in 133 B.C. in response to the economic crisis of the Roman republic after the Punic Wars. Both were derided as dictators during their careers. Both had their work attacked by factions of the aristocratic elites of their societies. In the long-run, both had big parts of their work undone by political opponents. Like the Grachhi then, could the Roosevelts’ political careers be the signal of a new phase in the development of the American republic? Are we heading, like the Romans of the Gracchi’s era, towards the destruction of the republic?
If we can venture one broad conclusion, it is that plutocracy and extreme concentrations of wealth foment crisis. And, it is out of moments of crisis that revolutions emerge. Often times, revolutions which are not successful are followed by reaction. Reaction, especially in the ancient world, could be extremely cruel, as the aftermath of the repression of the Gracchan revolution demonstrates. Worries about vast accumulations of wealth undermining democracy also underlay the ‘progressive’ political agendas of both Roosevelts. And, just like the Gracchi, attacking these concentrations brought unceasing scorn upon both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt from the elites, but adoration from the masses.
Ancient historians like Plutarch, Livy, Dio Cassius, Cicero, Appian, Tacitus, and Polybius all have distinct upper-class biases. And all roundly condemn the Gracchi as political ‘adventurers’, as radicals using unconstitutional methods, and as largely responsible for getting themselves murdered. Modern historians, who typically share an upper-class bias, differ more in opinion, but there remain many who decry the Roosevelts as closet-socialists who radically changed the American constitutional order for the worse, in effect undermining the American republic. Conversely, just as the Roman people had erected statutes of the Gracchi brothers throughout Rome, so too during the Depression did people -often with few material possessions and living in ramshackle housing- hang up pictures of F.D.R.. Moreover, Franklin Roosevelt’s role as victorious wartime leader – in a war that made his nation a super-power – blunted much of the vitriol some had had toward Roosevelt because of his New Deal policies before the war.
This bring us back to our original question, or questions: Are the Roosevelts the American Grachhi?; If they are, What does this mean for the American republic?; Should we be looking out for an American Marius, or an American Sulla? What would either of these even look like in the 21st century? It was less than a century after the death of Gaius Gracchus that Caesar was himself assassinated, and we are now drawing up closely towards a century since the New Deal era. Perhaps the ancient world and the modern world are too different to draw meaningful parallels? I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions. My main goal was simply to pose the first question about the American Gracchi. I leave the rest of the questions be conjectured about by the reader.
 For excellent resources on Roman history for this period see; Havell. H.L.. Republican Rome. 1914. Oracle Publishing, 1996. Also see; Scullard, H.H.. From the Gracchi to Nero. 1959. 5th edition. Routledge, 1982. Also see; Parenti, Michael. The Assassination of Julius Caesar. The New Press, 2003. Also see; Titchener, Frances. “To Rule Mankind and Make the World Obey”. Portable Professor Series. Barnes & Noble Audio; 2004.
 Quoted in; Parenti (2003), 61.
 For excellent resources on the life and political career of Theodore Roosevelt see; Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. Random House, 2002. Also see; The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Dir. Ken Burns. PBS, 2014. Also see; Brands, H.W.. T.R.: The Last Romantic. Basic Books, 1998.
 For an excellent history of this period, up to 1900, see Brands, H.W.. American Colossus. Anchor Books, 2011.
 See; Abbott, Elizabeth. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. The Overlook Press, 2011.
 Colonies were a great tool for the Romans to relieve social pressure accumulating among the Plebs Urbana at Rome. Being re-settled in a colony gave the colonist a second chance, which many wanted, even at the cost of re-settlement far from Rome, the idea of which would have abhorred a true Roman. This was thus an easy way for politicians to win acclaim and popularity with the people.
 These stats come from Sunstein, Cass. The Second Bill of Rights. Basic Books, (2004): 36-38.
 I mean “republican” in the classical political sense here. The republican tradition has a long history in political philosophy. Excellent modern work in this tradition has been done by Philip Petit. See Republicanism. Oxford University Press, 1997.
 Sunstein (2004), 90.
 These are two of F.D.R.’s “four freedoms”. See Sunstein (2004), 80.
 See; Hanson, Victor Davis. The Other Greeks. 1995. University of California Press,1999. Also see; Hanson, V.D.. Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece. University of California Press, 1998.
 Proscription is a process whereby Roman citizens were declared ‘outlaws’, ‘traitors’, or ‘criminals’ by the state, i.e. the Senate. Once a citizen was declared a criminal they effectively had a bounty put out on their head. If one was a victim of proscription, one would have twenty hour hours to either flee or face trial; the outcome of this trial would not be much in doubt. In response to proscription many Roman citizens chose suicide. This was because if they either fled or were convicted in court their property would be forfeited to the state. Thus, in order to keep property in the family, many proscribed individuals chose suicide to exile or execution.