In furor at a rebellion, for example, Athenians once voted to kill all of the adult male subjects of the island of Lesbos—only to repent the next day and vote again to execute just some, hoping that their second messenger ship rowed fast enough across the Aegean to catch the first bearing the original death sentence. In a fit of pique, the popular court voted to execute the philosopher Socrates, fine the statesman Pericles, and ostracize the general Aristides. Being successful, popular, rich, or controversial always proved to be a career liability in a democracy like the one that ruled Athens.
The Romans knew enough about mercurial ancient Athens to appreciate that they did not want a radical democracy. Instead, they sought to take away absolute power from the people and redistribute it within a “mixed” government. In Rome, power was divided constitutionally between executives (two consuls), legislators (the Senate and assemblies), and judges (Roman magistrates).
The half-millennia success of the stable Roman republican system inspired later French and British Enlightenment thinkers. Their abstract tripartite system of constitutional government stirred the Founding Fathers to concrete action. Americans originally were terrified of what 51 percent of the people in an unchecked democracy might do on any given day—and knew that ancient democracies had always become more not less radical and thus more unstable. For all the squabbles between Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, they agreed that a republic, not a direct democracy, was a far safer and stable choice of governance.