English politician and historian Edward Gibbon wrote one of the most comprehensive accounts of Rome’s collapse ever published. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, released in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, explained that “human freedom is the first wish of our heart; freedom is the first blessing of our nature.” Yet when people shirk individual responsibility and expect more from government, explained Gibbon, they fall prey to tyranny.
And so it was with Rome. “They no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command,” Gibbon explained. “They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army.”
It’s interesting to note that our Founders were familiar with Gibbon’s 1776 work. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of Decline and Fall and kept it in his library in Monticello. He clearly read it, likely several times, since notes from Jefferson have been found in the margins. Gibbon went on to say that the push for intellectual mediocrity further hastened Rome’s collapse. “The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished.”