Item of the Day: A Fragment out of the sixth book of Polybius (1743)

Full Title: A Fragment out of the sixth book of Polybius, containing a dissertation upon government in general, particularly applied to that of the Romans, together with a description of the several powers of the consuls, Senate, and people of Rome, Translated from the Greek with notes. To which is prefixed a preface, wherein the system of Polybius is applied to the government of England: and, to the above-mentioned Fragment concerning the powers of the Senate, is annexed a Dissertation upon the constitution of it. By a Gentleman [Edward Spelman]. London: Printed by J. Bettenham, and sold by W. Meyer, 1743.

[Elements of the political beliefs of the 2nd-century historian Polybius are evident in the writings of the John Adams and in the debates among the delegates at the Constitutional Convention. These would include the importance to a republic of a mixed government and a system of checks and balances. The text immediately below is taken from the preface of Spelman’s preface to the Fragment, and is followed by a translated excerpt of Polybius. This 1743 volume contains both the Greek and the English translation.]


Several Considerations led me to lay before the Publick a Translation of the following Fragment of Polybius: The Principal of which was, the very great Satisfaction I received, as an Englishman, in finding the whole Reasoning of that excellent Author as applicable to our own Constitution, as to That, for which it was intended.The great Advantages flowing from the happy Temper, and equal Mixture of the three Orders, for which he so justly celebrates the Roman Government, are all to be found in our own; with this Circumstance in our Favour, that our Situation, as an Island, forbids us either to fear, or aim at Conquests; by the gaining, as well as the suffering of which, that political Harmony is in Danger of being destroyed: By the Spoils of conquered Nations Caesar was enabled to corrupt the Roman People, and bribe them to be the Instruments of their own Ruin, by erecting an absolute Monarchy in his Favour; which, growing, afterwards, wanton for Want of a Check from the other Orders, weak for Want of their Assistance, became, at last, a Prey to a barbarous Invader, often vanquished, and always despised, while the Balance of all Three was preserved.

If my Countrymen will attentively consider every Argument, made Use of by Polybius, to shew the Excellence of a Government founded on an equal Mixture of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, they will, I dare say, have the same Satisfaction I enjoyed; that is, they will find the System of Policy, laid down by that great Man, in the following Dissertation of the Constitution of the Romans, to be a Description of the Advantages enjoyed under That of England.

I would not be thought to say this in Flattery to the Government, under which I was born, and hope to pass the Remainder of my Life; not only my own Reason, but, what is of much greater Weight, even to my self, the Authority of the grates of Men of antiquity convinces me that a Government mixed like Those of Sparta, Rome and England, is, of all other, the easiest, the securest, and the happiest to live under. If any of us are insensible of the Blessings we enjoy, I must think it owing to our being accustomed to them; custom, I know, can both deaden the Sense of the greatest Misfortunes, and pall the Enjoyment of the greatest Blessings; and Custom may, possibly, make us view that State with Indifference, which all other Nations look upon with Envy. But this Indifference is far from being Epidemical; the Fears, the Jealousies of Innovations, all pardonable in a free Sate, however groundless, are to me a Proof, beyond Contradiction, that we love what we so much fear to lose. And how general must those Fears be, when it is popular only to pretend to fear? . . .
[Edward Spelman]

. . . What, therefore, are the Beginnings of Government, and from whence do they originally spring? When, either by a Deluge, a Pestilence, a Famine, or the like Calamity, such as we know have happened, and Reason teaches us will often happen again, the Race of Mankind is well night destroyed, and all their Institutions and Arts destroyed with them; from the few that are left, as from so many Seeds, a new Generation, in Process of Time, encreases [sic] to a Multitude; then it comes to pass, as in other Animals, so in Men, when they are got together (which it is reasonable to suppose they would be, as they are of the same Kind, by Reason of their natural weakness) that he, who excels in Strength of Body and Courage, must, of Necessity, gain the Command and Authority over the rest: And, as in Animals of other Kinds also, which are not influenced by Opinions, but by the Instinct of Nature alone, we observe the same Thing commonly falls out, This ought to be looked upon as the most genuine Work of Nature: Among these the strongest are, by common Consent, allowed to be the Masters; such as Bulls, wild Boars, Cocks, and Animals of the like Nature: In the same Manner, it is probable that Men also, when they first get together, like a Herd, are governed by those of the greatest Strength an Courage; the Measure of whose Power is Strength, and their Government, Monarchy. When the Individuals, thus assembled, by living together, become, through Time, habituated to one another, then is the Foundation laid for Kingly Government, and then do Mankind receive the first Tincture of Honour and Justice, and of their Opposites: the Notions of which are first formed in the following Manner. . . .


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Filed under 1740's, History, Legal, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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