The Rise of Decline

Encompassed with domestic conspiracy, military sedition, and civil war, they trembled on the edge of precipices in which, after a longer or shorter term of anxiety, they were inevitably lost. EDWARD GIBBON, THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE In a widely noted coincidence, the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations were both documents of 1776. In a less well-known accident of fate, the Declaration of Independence dovetailed with the publication of the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, yet another monument of Enlightenment thought, though not one that created a new nation or established a new method of understanding political economy. Gibbon’s inquiry into the history of an ancient empire passed quickly over its rise. He focused instead on the centuries of decline preceding the fall. These were contrasting endeavors: Jefferson’s excitement about the rights and the liberties of a newborn republic and the learned British historian’s inquiry into the logic of decline in the most paradigmatic of empires. Gibbon’s autumnal epic was peripheral to the creation of a nation. The proper companion for the birth of the American republic, which was destined to be prosperous, was a philosophy designed to unlock the wealth of nations. For a long time, that was the obvious conclusion to draw. Like it or not, Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and philosopher, was a patron saint of the American republic. Three and a half centuries later, the coincidences of 1776 strike us differently. Even if Gibbon is not being revisited in American intellectual life, his preoccupation with decline is now ubiquitous, a settled thesis in search of fresh evidence. Donald Trump may be the face of American decline, not just the president for four years but the monster waiting to finish

Already have an account? Log in

Want to keep reading? Join our community:


Support great writing by becoming a full subscriber to Liberties Journal.

Subscribe Today

Free Preview

Sign up with your email address, and access two free articles per month.

We hope you've enjoyed your free articles!

Become a full subscriber for only $50/year, (33% off cover price).

Thank you for supporting great writing.

Subscribe Today
Log In Subscribe

Sign Up For Free

Read 2 free articles a month after you register below.

Register now