It is clear, though, that victorious generals could be very dangerous in classical antiquity. I confess, I have now begun Fortune's Favorites, which makes clear that one military dictatorship sets a very bad precedent. As soon as one victorious general marches on Rome and seizes power by force, all the others are tempted to do the same. It was such generals who were the undoing of the Roman Republic. In Greece, victorious generals seizing power took place much earlier on. Aristotle, writing well after such dictatorships had ended, speculated on why dictatorships had become so much less common in his day, attributed it to a separation of civil and military authority:
Of old, the demagogue was also a general, and then democracies changed into tyrannies. Most of the ancient tyrants were originally demagogues. They are not so now, but they were then; and the reason is that they were generals and not orators, for oratory had not yet come into fashion. Whereas in our day, when the art of rhetoric has made such progress, the orators lead the people, but their ignorance of military matters prevents them from usurping power; at any rate instances to the contrary are few and slight.This history was well known by the Founding Fathers when they started this country. Contrary to what I learned in school, they were not in the least bit worried about the U.S. turning into a European-style hereditary monarchy. What they were worried about was a military dictatorship, which they considered worse than a hereditary monarchy. The record of victorious generals in ancient Greece and Rome was not reassuring. Events in France would soon prove that such fears were not idle. At the same time, the Founders knew that victorious generals were not necessarily dangerous. Before the time of Marius and Sulla, Rome had many victorious generals who held high office and respected the Republic. And they had before their own eyes a shining example in the person of George Washington, whose respect for civilian control of the military was beyond dispute. Certainly, in school we learned about Washington's popularity and prestige. Not emphasized was that his popularity and prestige were no different than any other victorious general's. What made him stand out was his refusal to use that popularity and prestige to usurp unconstitutional powers. So, what made George Washington different from Napoleon Bonaparte? Was it simply greater restraint on the part of Washington, or are victorious generals only dangerous under certain conditions?
Suffice it to say that when Andrew Jackson became President, he had several traits that made people nervous. His populist style was alarming to people who saw populist politicians as the undoing of the Roman Republic. His emphasis on executive power and the President and embodiment of the will of the people smacked of a charismatic dictator. And his war hero status reminded a lot of people more of Bonaparte than Washington. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, rather cynically commented:
The Americans have no neighbors, and consequently they have no great wars, or financial crises, or inroads, or conquest to dread; they require neither great taxes, nor great armies, nor great generals; and they have nothing to fear from a scourge which is more formidable to republics than all these evils combined, namely, military glory. It is impossible to deny the inconceivable influence which military glory exercises upon the spirit of a nation. General Jackson, whom the Americans have twice elected to the head of their Government, is a man of a violent temper and mediocre talents; no one circumstance in the whole course of his career ever proved that he is qualified to govern a free people, and indeed the majority of the enlightened classes of the Union has always been opposed to him. But he was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained in that lofty station, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained twenty years ago under the walls of New Orleans, a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement, and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people which is thus carried away by the illusions of glory is unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary (if I may use the expression), and the most prosaic of all the peoples of the earth.At the same time, Tocqueville was well aware that there was no danger whatever of Jackson becoming a military dictator:
It has been imagined that General Jackson is bent on establishing a dictatorship in America, on introducing a military spirit, and on giving a degree of influence to the central authority which cannot but be dangerous to provincial liberties. But in America the time for similar undertakings, and the age for men of this kind, is not yet come: if General Jackson had he entertained a hope of exercising his authority in this manner, he would infallibly have forfeited his political station, and compromised his life; accordingly he has not been so imprudent as to make any such attempt.He goes on to say that the real danger that Jackson poses is the degree to which he undermined federal authority.
Following Jackson the U.S. had many other victorious general Presidents. William Henry Harrison (defeated Tecumseh), Zachary Taylor (Mexican American War), and Franklin Pierce (Mexican American War) all ran as victorious generals, as was Pierce's electoral opponent, Winfield Scott. And, of course, there were Ulysses S. Grant* (McClellan ran against Lincoln; Sherman could have been elected, but refused), Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Our democracy is none the worse for these. Eisenhower appears to have been our last victorious general President, and our democracy is none the better for it.**
So clearly there is nothing inherently dangerous about victorious generals; the danger lies in larger body politic. Furthermore, many modern democracies have fallen victim to military coups or dictatorships without any victorious general to lead them. Same point.
And I really ought to put in a word about Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg as (at least purportedly) a victorious general and became a popular hero on that account. He made no secret of the fact that he was a monarchist and did not favor the Republic. But he also respected the rule of law and pledged to take no action against the Republic unless he could persuade it by lawful means to restore the monarchy. He kept his word. That he ended up becoming a sort of semi-dictator had more to do with the economic crisis than any ambition on his part. That he ended up offering the chancellorship to Hitler was more the result of bad policies, bad advisers, and bad judgment than actual evil intent. Ludendorf, of course, was a different matter altogether.
So why were victorious generals so dangerous in classical times and even as late as the French Revolution, but just not much of a factor in the 20th Century? Of have they been more dangerous than I realize in modern times? Another thing I hope to learn more about.
Cross-posted at Enlightened Layperson
*Grant deserves special attention because he was not only a victorious general in a civil war, but also the President who most aggressively enforced the Reconstruction, expanding federal power at the expense of the states and even going so far as to declare martial law in parts of South Carolina. Yet even when the Reconstruction was regarded as the epitome of oppression, Grant escaped most of the blame for it and was not regarded as a real or potential military dictator. On the contrary, he was seen as a "military imbecile" in over his head and being manipulated by the real villains like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner.
**On the other hand, we have had other generals like MacArthur, Patton, or LeMay who I would not trust anywhere near the Presidency.