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Benjamin Rush and Early Federalist Republicanism: Fear of Democracy, Moral Degradation, and Corruption

Fear of Mob Democracy and the Roman republic’s fate of corruption

The stories of Marius, Tacitus, Livy and Sallust stress importance of morals, reason and the rule of law in a virtuous republic; also corruption of these through avarice, luxury, parties, factions and venality. According to the Roman statesman, Sallust, a republic should be free of party animosities (invidia partium). The people and Senate together govern the republic with moderation, preserves good morals and liberty. This genuine concern with political corruption and moral degradation of government and the inner soul or mind of the people is a concern the student comes across in reading the classical thinkers.

To understand the context of the thoughts of Benjamin Rush, often called “The Father of American Psychiatry,” his idea of morals comes strictly from the Bible, through what he considers the moral perfection of the gospels. Religion, Dr. Benjamin Rush argued was a necessary foundation for a successful republic (see John Adams on Religion in the United States, Quakers, Jesuitism, and Machiavellianism).

The founders and framers established a republican America on the spirit and language of republican Rome, echoing Roman fears of parties, corruption, the whims of the mob (demos), tyranny, licentiousness, and the depravity of individuals unchecked by proper restraints. Democracy by itself was not sufficient. A republican and representative government and philosophy was developed to construct a mixed system, which attempted to learn from what the European Revolutions, the Jacobins, the Roman Republic, and others failed at.

The concept of liberty today is different from the classical and republican idea. After the sixties cultural revolution, liberal became equated with libertinism. This idea of liberty became as it is now, an excuse to argue an immature and vague notion, that people ought to do as they please. The old concept of liberty in republicanism however, yet recognized morality, authority, responsibility and duty. It did not refer to libertinism. The moral restraints of the people, and our understanding of the basis of our union and order, the rule of law, and the responsibility and duty of the citizen has greatly faded. With these fading, some hence believe erodes the republic. The rule of law, or any establishment of rule and authority has nearly become synonymous with Fascism, Authoritarianism, and Patriarchy.

Fearing the Roman republic’s fate of corruption, many measures were set in place, that gave birth to a unique kind of republic (rather republics) in the United States. Politically active during the American Revolution, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Pennsylvanian statesmen Benjamin Rush explained, that Power is not seated in the people, as it is imagined in the present-day’s clash between left-wing and right-wing populism. All power is [derived from] the people. They possess that power on the day of elections, when we elect our rulers (representatives), whose power exists so long as they do not abuse it. Rush adds that anything other would lead the republic through two doors of tyranny: the mob (demos), or a Caesar.

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