The Spartan Tradition in European Thought

By Elizabeth Rawson | Go to book overview
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ONE does not get the impression that references by American writers to Sparta, considered apart from other ancient states, have ever been very prominent or formed a clear pattern. The agitation leading up to the Declaration of Independence concerned itself either with the colonists' rights within the established order or ultimately with their natural rights; and subsequent euphoria reinforced the antiquity had been left far behind. Nor, representation being so much admired, was a single lawgiver in demand. Even the comparatively conservative John Adams, an admirer of Montesquieu and the English tradition, thinks a few political advances have been made since Lycurgus' day, while disliking Spartan manners (except for the military exercises incorporated in education).1 The debates at the time of the Federal Convention in 1787, which was to reform and strengthen the federal government, occasionally seek ancient precedent; usually in the Greek leagues, and in these Sparta's role had been most often objectionably dominant or disruptive. The smaller states could find confirmation in this of their fear that even equal voting powers for all, irrespective of size, in the central councils would not be sufficient protection. Supporters of the new constitution retorted that it was not Sparta's large size but her intrigues that did the damage, or else that it was her inadequately republican system that prevented co-operation with the Greek democracies. The Federalist, recommending the constitution, does advert to the stability which a senate gave Rome, Sparta, and Carthage; Hamilton appeals to ephors and tribunes to show that the people could trust even a smallish body of representatives. But any division of the executive powers, as in Rome or Sparta, was deprecated, and Sparta's 'habits and manners 'were considered particularly irrelevant to America.

The subsequent movement towards democracy was suspicious of centralized government and strongly individualistic. The French Revolution helped to strengthen the vogue of antiquity, but not of Sparta in particular, while the more conservative and anglicized party, at least, was possibly confirmed in mistrust of her. But there were certainly Americans who were named Leonidas, and a number of

John Adams, Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America against the attack of M. Turgot ( 1787), Letter xl.


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