Tuesday, April 2, 2013

How could America have been more like Rome?

People love to compare the United States to Ancient Rome. The analogy is usually used to evoke concern about the direction of the United States, because if America is following in the footsteps of the Roman Republic overthrow of the Republic must be imminent. Right?

If you look at actual American history, the parallels to Rome become superficial, at best. But how could American history have tracked Roman history much more closely? That question I have attempted to explore below, keeping in mind that the exercise can only go so far before things stop making any sense.

The major struggle which informed most of the Republic's history could be termed a class struggle of sorts. First it was the patricians against the plebeians, and later the wealthy plebeians and remaining patricians (or optimates) against the masses. That interpretation of history echoes rather eerily the Marxist framework of class struggle. Patricians are nobles, wealthy plebeians are the bourgeoisie, and the masses are the proletariat. But how could a strong class system be imported to the thirteen colonies, which never had to contend with native nobility as European radicals in the 18th century did?

An easy solution to this problem involves the British parliament acquiescing to enough of the rebels' demands on the eve of the American Revolution. Perhaps a plan similar to the Albany Plan of Union originally proposed by Benjamin Franklin in 1759 would have been implemented, wherein a continental parliament would be created to govern continental affairs, though still answerable to the Crown. A parliamentary system, in the long run, would likely lead to a unitary system of government, rather than the federalist system which constrained the national government's authority, another change to make America resemble Rome more clearly. For this reason I will from now on refer to this state as the American Republic, rather than the United States.

The American parliament, a unicameral body whose members are elected by all the male landowners in the country, would have appeared very enlightened to Europe at the time. There are no titles of nobility, no analogue to the patrician class. However, by encoding a class divide in government, without a constitution proclaiming all men to be equal (in theory), the social situation matches Roman rivalry between the optimates and populares. When the American Republic begins to industrialize, it will experience an even stronger struggle between industrialists and workers, or the bourgeoisie and proletariat as Karl Marx would say.

If one follows the Roman metaphor to the fullest, a socialist party analogue to the Gracchi brothers would be elected to power. Their redistributive policies would be popular with the masses, but prompt an industrialist coup. The socialists would make a come back a decade later, but this time an agenda including giving equal rights to people of color would have lost them the support of the white working class, causing them to lose power for a second time. From here on, all of the forces which mobilize the working classes would be ambitious men with their own agendas. To put it succinctly, in this timeline the industrialists win; workers protections continue to be minimal, at best, into the 20th century.

This pattern of social unrest more closely resembles that of the Roman Republic. However, to be a faithful shadow of ancient Rome, the American Republic will need to expand even more, territorially. Rome ruled a huge expanse of territory with a government best suited to governing a city-state. This allowed ambitious men to raise support in the provinces and bully the senate into implementing their agenda, which became a theme of the last century or so of the Republic. The American Republic is already starting out larger, possessing all of Canada. However, to really outgrow their government, the American Republic will have to expand more. The obvious target is Latin America, but the United States conquering all of Latin America raises some serious plausibility issues.

Below is a rough time line of events which I hope respects plausibility while still resembling Roman territorial expansion.
  • 1773: Plan of Union is implemented, preventing the American Revolution and creating a continental parliament subject to the English crown.
  • 1789: French Revolution begins. Events follow a broadly similar course to our time line. However, butterflies alter the continental wars to avoid a Peninsular War. This causes the United Kingdom to shift its strategy and conquer the Spanish New World, setting up a series of British protectorates it traded with as opposed to the continent, due in part to a more successful Continental System. Thus France and the United Kingdom are in a near perpetual state of war for a decade longer than our timeline.
  • 1818: Fed up with having to continually contribute to a continental war, the American parliament rebels, instituting an American parliamentary Republic. The United Kingdom, occupied with European affairs, is unable to prevent them from succeeding, sending only a token force to stop them.
  • 1836: Mexico, a British protectorate, and the American Republic go to war over conflicting claims in the Louisiana territory. The gruelling war catalyzes the creation of a professional American army. That army is successful; in the peace treaty America gains all of northern Mexico and installs a governor in what is now the American protectorate of Mexico.
I won't continue with specifics, but the idea is that Mexico anglicizes to an extant, allowing it to become a component of the American empire. The empire, spanning the entire continent of North America, is certainly large enough. The unitary system of government means that all provincial officials would owe their position to Philadelphia, the capital of the American Republic, rather than the province they govern. So when violent political struggles break out, whether they be driven by class conflict or simple ambition, Philadelphia will always play the central role that Rome did two millennia ago. Perhaps crossing the Appalachian mountains will be similar to crossing the Rubicon.

I hope you enjoyed this stab at what a more Roman America would look like. Please comment on what you liked and what you didn't like. I feel like this idea could use a time line of its own, so comment if you would be interested in reading that also.

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of this. Care to write a story or even a book set in this world? I can advise you.

    (It's Matt Q, BTW.)