Great Republics don't fall. They're just given away.
Consider France. In 1799, facing a crisis of internal corruption and external military threat, the democratic leaders of France modified their constitution to create stronger leadership, and then elected military hero Napoleon Bonaparte as their First Consul. Napoleon did not disappoint. He dazzled the French people by being - in the modern parlance - a "war president," immediately attacking and defeating Austria.
And the people cheered.
Then, while his popularity soared, Napoleon worked to
erode - slowly and almost imperceptibly - the
constitutional restrictions on his power. The people
and politicians of France being afraid of democracy's uncertainties, and being afraid of vague foreign military threats, readily agreed to some restrictions on their liberty, on their fraternity, and on their equality. And they readily agreed to vest greater authority in their First Consul. And, soon, the people grew comfortable with Napoleon's paternal protection.
Of course, Napoleon did have his detractors. Some
accused him of invading nations for military glory and
gain, but he claimed he brought these nations freedom
from tyranny. Some accused him of being a brutal
dictator, but he claimed he was a humble liberator. "I
closed the gulf of anarchy and brought order out of
chaos," Napoleon once said of his efforts. "I purified
And the people cheered.
So when, in January of 1804, a feeble terrorist threat
emerged against Napoleon by minions of the former
Bourbon Kings, Napoleon told the people he needed
greater authority to protect them and to protect
France from harm.
And the people agreed.
In March of that year, the French Senate - the
democratic representatives of the French people -
simply gave away the French Republic by offering
Napoleon the title of Emperor. There was no dramatic
fall, no grand laments, no spilled blood. Just
nineteen words affirmed by the French Senate - "The
government of the Republic is vested in an Emperor,
who takes the title of Emperor of the French" - and
the great French Republic just faded away to formal
And the people? They cheered.
Some two hundred years later, watching the slow
erosion of American democratic rights, and watching
the slow consolidation of American presidential power,
it is difficult not to recall the ease with which the
French Republic became the French Empire.
Consider: President Bush has already made clear his paternalism. "I'm the Decider," he has said, "and I decide what is best."
Consider: slowly and almost imperceptibly, citizens'
rights and restrictions on presidential power have
been eroded from the U.S. Constitution. Of the
twenty-seven present Constitutional amendments,
President Bush has already ignored, without
consequence, at least eight of them: Amendment I, the
freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly;
Amendment IV, the freedom against illegal search and
seizure; Amendment V, the right to due process of the
law; Amendment VI, the right to counsel and the right
to face one's accuser; Amendment IX, the right not to
have the Constitution used to deny or disparage rights
retained by the people; Amendment XII, the right of
the people to elect the President; Amendment XV, the
right not to be denied rights on account of race; and
Amendment XXIV, the right of all U.S. citizens to vote
for the President.
Consider: when citizens have dared to ask about this
steady erosion, rather than being cheered as defenders
of the American Republic and of the U.S. Constitution,
these citizens are dismissed by the president's
minions as un-American. Even the president himself
seems unconcerned by any challenge to his increasingly
imperial actions and comments, saying, "I'm the
commander, see? I do not need to explain why I say
Back in December of 1804, on the day of Napoleon's
coronation, a huge, unmanned hot air balloon was
launched in celebration from the front of Notre Dame
Cathedral. On it were affixed some 3,000 burning
lights in the shape of a crown. First traveling high
above Paris, it then drifted slowly across the French countryside, dazzling the people as a potent symbol of Empire. But it didn't last. Apocryphally, and perhaps prophetically, some forty-six hours later, the balloon fell back to Earth outside of Rome, crashing roughly into a long ignored statue - a statue of Roman Emperor Nero.
As with all Empires, the French Empire ultimately
destroyed itself on absolute power. But what remained
in the ashes of Empire was not a rising phoenix of the
new Republic. No, for a generation after the fall of
Napoleon, France was mired in the despotism of
second-rate Kings. Only time and the spilling of
patriot blood brought the rediscovery of the French
As we watch the dark changes taking place in our
country and in our Constitution, we must seriously ask
ourselves: will we crown an American Emperor - our
"Napoleon in rags"? Or will we grasp the hand of our
fast eroding Republic, before it slips away, and
recommit ourselves to the democratic principles
outlined in the Constitution of the United States?
The choice - for the moment - is still ours.
Steven Laffoley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an American writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the author of "Mr. Bush, Angus and Me: Notes of An American-Canadian in the Age of Unreason."