August 05, 2004

Alternate History: The Cincinnati

The Constitutional Convention essentially reproduced the late-eighteenth century division of power in the British government at the time: instead of King, Lords, and Commons we had President, Senate, and House of Representatives. There were some tweaks--individual Presidents were weakened by making them stand for four-yeaer terms while the Presidency was strengthened by giving it a mighty plebiscitary base; Congress was weakened by depriving it of the power to pass Bills of Attainder and Ex Post Facto laws; the Presidency was weakened by depriving it of the ability to bribe members of Congress by offering them posts of trust and profit; and the government was weakened by the Bill of Rights. But for the most part it was the late eighteenth-century British Constitution, dry-cleaned, brushed, and patched.

What if things had gone differently? What if the Founders had taken as their model not late eighteenth-century Britain, but that other great example of good government: the Antonine dynasty of the Roman Empire, in which each Emperor "adopted" the leading military politician of the next generation as his successor?

My brother Chris sketches out what might then have happened:

OK. Each Imperator--chosen by the Cincinnati--serves for no more than two 10 year terms, with the mandate of the Cincinnati being to choose the most impressive available military politician. Then we get:

1790-1800: Washington
1800-1810: Hamilton
1810-1820: "Light Horse" Harry Lee
1820-1830: Andrew Jackson
1830-1840: Andrew Jackson
1840-1850: James K. Polk (a stretch)
1850-1860: Zachary Taylor
1860-1870: Robert E. Lee (struggles to find a good general as successor)
1870-1880: U.S. Grant
1880-1890: Phil Sheridan
1890-1900: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
1900-1910: Teddy Roosevelt
1910-1920: Teddy Roosevelt
1920-1930: John Pershing
1930-1940: Douglas MacArthur (uh-oh)
1940-1950: George Marshall
1950-1960: Dwight Eisenhower
1960-1970: Maxwell Taylor
1970-1980: Matthew Ridgeway
1980-1990: Alexander Haig (uh-oh)
1990-2000: Colin Powell
2000-2010: Colin Powell

Well, I've seen worse lists of rulers, but I'm not sure we make it through the Great Depression with MacArthur.

Perhaps the Republic falls in 1935 to an insurrection led by Huey Long in the role of the Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Perhaps not. Certainly a very different United States. An inferior one? Again, perhaps.

Posted by DeLong at August 5, 2004 01:46 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

Tiberius Gracchus operated within the republican constitution proposing bill to the assemblaea tribunata as provided by the Lex Hortenzia. Neither he nor his big brother Gaius can fairly be compared to Huey Long.

Now as to Gaius Marius however, that is another story. Actually Gaius Julius seems to me to have been a bit of a Huey Long although rather more learned and eloquent.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on August 5, 2004 02:35 PM


If there's a Civil War as in our time line you won't have Lee. If there isn't one you won't have Grant, Sheridan (ahead of Sherman?)...

Posted by: Jim Glass on August 5, 2004 02:41 PM


Oh and how did Christopher Lord De Long get his list. Polk was not a general. Furthermore in 1840 the US did elect a general William Henry Harrison (or maybe William Henry Harrison's grandfather). A problem with an elective monarchy is what to do when the monarch gives a long inaugural address on a cold day, catches pneumonia and dies.

The Cincinnati look OK because they easily outdo the American Voter so far in the 21st century, however, what makes Lord De Long think that they would have chosen Powell not stormin Norman ?

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on August 5, 2004 02:48 PM


There were plenty of other alternative conceptions of democratic/republican government available at the time.

Ben Franklin's 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution is just one example. Woe betide the meddling of John Adams and his monrachist Federalists.

Posted by: Dave Meyer on August 5, 2004 04:09 PM


Since I made the point last week that Burke at the end of "Reflections" was expressing a strong preference for the British Constitution because he was not completely comfortable with the US one, Brad's post will send me off to research.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on August 5, 2004 04:16 PM


The alternative republican model available to the Founders was Venice. A reasonably large oligarchy forming the political nation, constantly replacing each other in very short-termed offices and selecting their doge by an indirect election mechanism that puts the US electoral college to shame. The plebs kept (mostly) uncomplainingly out of politics by the opportunity to make money. What's to dislike? By the time the Founders met, Venice had been a republic for several hundred years.

God only knows what would have happened if the Convention had adopted the Venetian model.

Posted by: jam on August 5, 2004 04:30 PM


"Light Horse" is a little dubious. He was one of those guys who inspires strong positive and negative feelings, and he had poor judgment in his personal finances. But he did win election as Governor of Virginia around 1790. In the 1810-20 period, he might have avoided the War of 1812.
If Light Horse Harry" were President, Robert E. might not have been a General. He attended West Point because his father's financial reverses meant he couldn't afford his first choice, Harvard. It's difficult to see how the Civil War could have have been avoided, but he'd have had as good a chance as anyone of negotiating a resolution.
A Harrison is a possibility. It's of interest only to genealogists, but the Harrisons produced a long line of able guys before and after the two Presidents.
Marshall, for sure. It's a testament to how good our leadership was in 1940-50 that having him in charge the whole time wouldn't have changed much. But I shudder to think of the mess he'd have inherited from MacArthur in the preceding decade.

Posted by: Roger Bigod on August 5, 2004 04:53 PM


The plebs kept (mostly) uncomplainingly out of politics by the opportunity to make money.

One day at the Constitutional Convention, the Founders had a discussion about how far to extend the franchise. Gouverneur Morris remarked that it didn't matter, because the rich would always find some way of buying up the votes of the poor.

Posted by: Roger Bigod on August 5, 2004 05:02 PM


Ti. Gracchus was actually a reactionary, attempting to resurrect the class if sturdy farmer-soldiers who had conquered Italy.

Posted by: Brian Boru on August 5, 2004 05:18 PM


Why does Douglas MacArthur get such a bad rap?

Why Eisenhower instead of George Patton? In an alternate universe Patton may not have been killed. Patton had also married well.

Posted by: Ed on August 5, 2004 05:37 PM


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"Ti. Gracchus was actually a reactionary, attempting to resurrect the class if sturdy farmer-soldiers who had conquered Italy."

Still, better that than the rise of latifundia stacked with slaves locked up at night in little holes in the ground, right, amicus? All that the (illegal) concentration of land in the hands of the senatorial class achieved was to create an urban mob in Rome that was to grow ever increasingly dependent on the extraction of Egypt's agricultural surplus for its sustenance. Not all forms of "progress" are worth having.

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Posted by: Abiola Lapite on August 5, 2004 06:44 PM


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Ack, that should have read "latifundiae", not that anyone would notice nowadays ... As for the slave quarters I had in mind, if anyone does care, the proper Latin term is "ergastulum."

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Posted by: Abiola Lapite on August 5, 2004 06:49 PM


No way does Robert E Lee even make the list. Winfield Scott would have been 1860. Lee was not even the best Civil War General or the best in 1870. That title would go to the first modern general, Sherman (If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve) who ran the army for about 2 decades after the Civil war.

Also, he is leaving out all those underrated Navy guys like Nimitz and Rickover. 2000 would not have been Powell but Wesley Clark, the successful commander in Bosnia.

Posted by: bakho on August 5, 2004 06:53 PM


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Argh! I take that back - "latifundia" was the right declension for the nominative plural case of "latifundium." It's clearly well past time for me to get some sleep.

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Posted by: Abiola Lapite on August 5, 2004 06:56 PM


Maxwell Taylor was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he pushed strongly for called for an all-out air assault be followed by an invasion of Cuba by U.S. forces -

So, would the world have even made it out of the 1960s unincinerated if Taylor had been leader?

Posted by: David Carroll on August 5, 2004 09:00 PM


Wesley Clark? Ugh, the guy thinks the Kosovo War was a success. Kosovo has been destabilized, and Islamofascist terrorists are now targeting Serbs with genodice in that region.

Posted by: Alan K. Henderson on August 5, 2004 09:13 PM


Refresh my memory, but who is Ridgeway? Like the Maxwell Taylor example, in a *nuclear* age, on which crucial points in history did he take a view opposed to what was actually done? Just curious.

And could someone please comment on the *actual*, broad-based prosperity of Venice once it became "democratic".

(Dr. Delong, could you please have a semi-regular "alt hist" feature? Quarterly, at least?)

--James S. W.

Posted by: James S. W. on August 5, 2004 09:19 PM


[Sorry, this is kinda longish.] My copy of Federalist Papers is packed away stateside, so I'm unprepared to investigate thoroughly. But to me it seems unlikely that the Framers would consider an appointive system inherited from the Roman Empire as a "great example of good government," even if it had not ended with Commodus:

"Marcus Aurelius chose his son, Commodus, as his successor, _a choice that reverted to dynastic principle_. [my emphasis] It was Commodus who successfully made peace on the northern frontier, but in the end his misrule and corruption were devastating for the empire. His death ushered in a new period of civil wars."

As for the "what if?" list - these are always fun but rather silly exercises. Because obviously each selection affects all those after it. And the event of new wars, or the postponement or cancellation of historical ones, changes the cast of characters available (Grant would have died broke as a junior partner in a leather store). But consider the following:

The Civil War started with the election of Lincoln - the nominee of a sectional Northern party, the Republicans. The South's political power, and therefore their (slavery-based) economy, had persisted due to their disproportional Senate representation, and the 3/5 Compromise, resulting in disproportional representation in the House and Presidential elections.

From Charles Hodge, _Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review_,"England and America," 1862 (no link):

"Until now, the South has controlled the
Union. Less than 1/3 of the population and wealth, but:
11 Presidents out of 16
17 Supreme Court Justices out of 28
14 Attorney-Generals out of 19
61 Presidents of the Senate out of 77
21 Speakers of the House out of 33
80 Foreign Ministers out of 134
"The South has always been treated as a spoilt child...."

The Antonine system removes the benefit to the South of the 3/5 Compromise regarding the elections of Presidents, substituting a system that's vulnerable to bribery and extortion of the executive or his named successor. At the start, the Northern states would be quite motivated to ensure that the first executive would not be Washington or any other Southerner, because once in place the executives can be expected to appoint successors with the same regional loyalties - i.e., a continuing train of Southern executives. Without a Northern executive, there's no Civil War.

One more thing - a President Philip ("The only good Indians I know are dead Indians") Sheridan would have been very, very bad news for Native Americans.

Posted by: William in Shanghai on August 5, 2004 09:41 PM


James S. W.: "Refresh my memory, but who is Ridgeway?"

Ridgeway commanded the 8th Army in Korea beginning in late 1950. He was the cleanup guy after MacArthur's removal. Here's his bio:

Posted by: William in Shanghai on August 5, 2004 10:00 PM


I don't quite understand this:

"the Presidency was strengthened by giving it a mighty plebiscitary base"

Just because more people vote for that office, that makes it stronger?

Posted by: Noumenon on August 6, 2004 12:55 AM


You might try if you like this sort of thing. There is at least one person who knows far, far, more than you do about any subject that you are posting on. He will cheerfully suggest reference works on that subject if you argue with him, so as to give you better ammunition for the debate.
It's also the worst time suck I know.

Posted by: walter willis on August 6, 2004 12:58 AM


Venetian justice was of the Ashcroft / Pinochet variety; troublemakers disappeared into the lagoon (they found the skeletons recently). At least Roman justice and injustice was reasonably public.

Posted by: JamesW on August 6, 2004 01:00 AM


The list assumes that earlier changes in the leadership of the USA have no impact on the early life/career of those further down the list, a point alluded to in earlier comments suggesting that the Civil War might not happen.

Posted by: Simstim on August 6, 2004 01:57 AM


Concerning the disproportionate representation of the South before the Civil War, the aggregates are a little misleading. Up until about 1830 or so, the political parties didn't split along sectional lines. Of prominent Virginians, John Marshall and "Light Horse" were Federalist, along with Washington. So the overrepresentation of the South (for practical purposes Virginia) wasn't seen as thwarting the will of the majority. By the 1850's the issues had changed. In particular, the South was overrepresented on the Court that decided Dred Scott. But for the first few decades, regional bias didn't lead to policy bias.

Posted by: Roger Bigod on August 6, 2004 05:58 AM


Curtis LeMay in 1960?

Posted by: dave heasman on August 6, 2004 06:15 AM


"Still, better that than the rise of latifundia stacked with slaves locked up at night in little holes in the ground, right, amicus?"

That's 'amice', in the vocative, IIRC.

Posted by: Otto on August 6, 2004 07:12 AM


Since Brad went to both Rome and Venice on his recent enviable trip, I thought I'd add that if you had proposed to the Founders that the President be selected by the conclave of a small unelected group from among themselves, the first comparison which came to mind would not have been Antonine Rome, but the papacy.

In the 18th century, under the Clements and Benedicts, the Papal States were almost universally agreed to be the worst governed states in Europe.

The proposal wouldn't have gone very far.

Posted by: jam on August 6, 2004 07:46 AM


Only one mention of Winfield Scott in this whole discussion? He was the United States' leading soldier from 1820-1860. His Mexico City campaign was praised by the Duke of Wellington as one of the most brilliant campaigns of the age. Even though he was "past it" by 1860, his "anaconda plan" for defeating the Confederacy (naval blockade and seizing control of the Mississippi River) was in large part the strategy used.

Put him down for 1830-40 and 1840-50 (at least).

Posted by: Wombat on August 6, 2004 07:49 AM


Dave Meyer: "Woe betide the meddling of John Adams and his monrachist Federalists."

I always found it curious that the contemporaries of Adams who were most vociferous with the 'monarchist' charge (except for Hamilton), were people who lived lives of private monarchy. How else could you describe a slave plantation?

Posted by: Adams Fan on August 6, 2004 07:28 PM


How about um er "a slave plantation"? The plantation owners considered themselves members of the British gentry, and they had the same social constraints. They had to stay on the right side of the Governor, who handed out titles to land. That meant spending time in the capital, e.g. Williamsburg, serving in an assembly. They had to sit on the vestry of the parish church if they wanted a say in local improvements like roads and levees. The slaves were managed by overseers, who were indentured servants when there was a supply, and they had detailed employment contracts which could be enforced by a local court. The planters could be hauled into court for criminal charges, as the sister of Jefferson's son-in law-was. Kings don't send their sons back to school in the mother country where they will be snubbed as nouveau riche hick provincials (William Byrd II), or have them educated as lawyers (Jefferson, Marshall, several Randolphs).

In Virginia, all this rested on the supply, demand and yearly price flucuations of a commodity that was steadily losing its scarcity premium. By the time of the Revolution, the planters were up to their ears in debt to Scottish factors.

The Adamses were much more likeable than the somewhat formal Virginians, especially the Randolphs. But there was a crudely autocratic side to Federalist policy that they were right to oppose.

Posted by: Roger Bigod on August 7, 2004 06:35 AM


Ed- Why does McArthur get such a bad rap? Admiral Nimitz kept a picture of McArthur on his wall. When asked, Nimitz said he kept it to remind himself not to be a horse's ass.

McArthur- where to begin. He commissioned his own glowing biography to gloss over his mistakes.

#1 Intelligence thought the Japanese attack would be on the Philippines, not Pearl. After Pearl was hit, McArthur had about 24 h to use his planes to retaliate against Japan or move them to the south islands out of harms way. He did neither. The next day, the Japanese destroyed his airplanes, parked on the ground. Short and Kimmel were cashiered, even though they had no warning. McArthur had plenty of warning, but he was never questioned.

#2 McArthur originally opposed Nimitz brilliant strategy of island hopping (later he claimed to have thought of it). General Sherman's strategy applied to the Navy.

#3 There was no need to go to the Phillipines on the way to Japan. That diverted key resources and prolonged the war.

#4 He showed bad politics in Korea.

Posted by: bakho on August 7, 2004 09:04 PM


MacArthur didn't do too bad a job running Japan. Then again, democratizing a feudal state isn't quite the same thing as running an already-existing representative republic.

What about John Abizaid? He was a hero in the liberation of Grenada.

Posted by: Alan K. Henderson on August 8, 2004 12:00 AM


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