June 24, 2018
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A parallel between ancient Rome, modern America: a concentration of executive power

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Alan Boone, Special to the BDN

In A.D. 37, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, at 25 years old, became Roman emperor upon the death of his great uncle Tiberius. Gaius is better known to history by his nickname, Caligula.

It had not been long since the fall of the Roman Republic, ended by the historic revolt of Julius Caesar. The Republic, under which Rome became great, was noted for its jealously guarded system of elected dual consuls with limited powers, finite terms and a Senate. It had existed for five centuries after the fall of the ancient kingdom. Caesar’s dictatorship led to civil war and the establishment of the Empire, under Augustus, and one-man rule.

Tiberius was unpopular, so Caligula’s accession to the throne was greeted with joy. Many Romans referred to the new emperor as “our baby.” This adoration continued for several months, perhaps as a result of his sponsoring lavish spectacles. He also loved the theater and often danced the night away with friends. It eventually came to the exhaustion of the public treasury and resultant borrowing, punitive taxation and even auctioning off the lives of gladiators.

After his first few months as emperor, it became clear that all was not well. Caligula despised the Senate, and many were shamed, forced to wait on him and and run before his chariot. Some say he appointed his horse a senator. The excesses of his reign are legendary: ordering a bridge, two boats wide, across a broad stretch of the Bay of Naples so he could ride upon the waters, illuminated by thousands of torches. He proclaimed himself a god, and the crowds ate it up.

Fast-forward through 20 centuries, including countless tyrants, despots, dictators, absolute monarchs, and demagogues of all stripes, and it would seem that the usual condition of mankind has been to live as subjects.

Our heritage in the United States has been unusual. The founders of this country went to great lengths to design a constitution in which there is a strict separation of powers and provisions to protect us from the potential tyranny of a majority, or that of a chief executive.

That’s why it’s worrisome to see an ever increasing concentration of power in today’s executive branch of the federal government. A compliant Congress has abdicated its responsibility for the content of some far-reaching laws, such as Obamacare (“We have to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it,” then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in 2010) and Dodd-Frank, where page after page of regulations cite “as the Secretary shall determine.”

Problems with Congress not passing the DREAM Act? Enact it by executive order. No success in passing Cap-and-Trade? Crank out reams of Environmental Protection Agency regulations to the same effect. Don’t like present immigration statutes? Ignore them. And with every exception and waiver to Obamacare’s rules, we appreciate examples of “living” or “flexible” law.

There is also a disturbing trend recently toward an imperial lifestyle for our president. Granted, he needs protection in an age of terrorism, but does it require, in one of the latest of many vacations, a 16-car motorcade, including an ambulance, to accompany him on a Martha’s Vineyard holiday? What about a large entourage and government jetliner, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $467,585, to keep the first lady comfortable on a vacation trip to Spain?

And there’s another concern. Our obsequious press treats President Barack Obama like a deity. Criticism inevitably leads to charges of racism. Just ask that rodeo clown banned from the Missouri State Fair after an August skit in which he wore a mask of Obama.

Many voted for Obama in 2008 to put race, as an issue, behind us. How has that worked out?

Benjamin Franklin, when at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, was asked by a lady of Philadelphia, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?”

The revered Founding Father’s reply was profound: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Now in 2013, thousands sign a petition to have Obama remove Ben Affleck from his proposed role as Batman in the new film version of “The Dark Knight.”

Alan Boone is a retired physician living in Bangor.

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