No great writer has emphasized more powerfully the importance of civic responsibility and good citizenship to the well-being of a people than historian Edward Gibbon.
It was one of those marriages made in heaven, Edward Gibbon's great history of ancient Rome and the American Republic. The first volume of Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of the American struggle for independence and liberty.
The last volume of Gibbon's history, the sixth, was published in 1788, the year Americans were beginning to draw up their own Constitution, which they hoped would solve the problems of statecraft that had been eluding them: How to design a system of government that would allow men a maximum amount of freedom to exercise those creative powers that God had given them.
Gibbon, who lived between 1737 and 1794, shared many of the views that guided the Founding Fathers of the American republic: the importance of freedom, for example, and the emphasis on individual responsibility. Like the Founding Fathers, Gibbon was a realist, a man who recognized that human nature was corrupt but who still could maintain an idealist's hope that improvement was possible despite mankind's fallen nature. "Human freedom is the first wish of our heart; freedom is the first blessing of our nature" he wrote.
Conservative by temperament, Gibbon saw in history a story of what man might do despite his own worst inclinations and that his achievement might be great despite his folly. The big question Gibbon addressed in his historic work was how Rome had dominated the ancient world for more than 1,000 years, and his answer was twofold: First, Rome was a major power because it always made certain its own military prowess was preeminent. And second, what made Rome great, and what made it great for the many years it was great, was the superb quality of Roman leadership: There were great men in Rome throughout its history.
Our own Founding Fathers saw much to admire among the Romans. University of Alabama historian Forrest MacDonald, for example, tells Insight that George Washington saw on several occasions Joseph Addison's play, Cato, which deals with ancient Roman virtue and which Washington admired enormously. In his introduction to his play, Addison had described the distinction he wanted to make in the play between good deeds done out of obligation and good deeds done as the best Romans had done them: "The religious man fears, the man of honour scorns to do an ill action."
One of the factors that makes Gibbon's book so readable is that it has great heroes -- not only great heroes such as Julian and Constantine who are Romans themselves, but also such figures as Genghis Khan, who were not. Gibbon's compelling history, read by our Founding Fathers when it was hot off the press, is magnificent reading. A superb stylist, Gibbon also tells compelling stories.
Very important in Gibbon's scheme of things is the character of the ancient Romans: Without their qualities of honor and civic virtue, without their notions of good behavior and what it means to be a good citizen, Gibbon says, Rome could not have existed for the long time that it did and it certainly could not have been as great as it was.
With words now politically incorrect but still elegant, Gibbon defines the era as nearly perfect: "In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the the most civilized portion of mankind."
But martial power was only a part of the equation. What was far more important for the history of Rome and for our own history was that Rome had evolved a system of government that prized civic virtue and the participation of the best men and women in politics and society. It was this fact of Roman history more than its own military preeminence in the ancient world that for Gibbon made Rome great. …