views updated May 14 2018


Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
See Also


who controls government? Elected officials, majority of power in state leaders

how is government put into power? Popular vote of the majority

what roles do the people have? Vote; serve the state in a crisis

who controls production of goods? The owners of capital

who controls distribution of goods? The owners of capital

major figures Niccolò Machiavelli; John Jay

historical example Ancient Sparta

Republicanism is familiar because it pervades political speech. Americans, for example, have long pledged allegiance not only to their flag but also to "the republic for which it stands." But republicanism is also elusive because there is no consensus among scholars or citizens as to exactly what a republic is. No wonder. Republican government has been practiced in a wide variety of times and places, including ancient Athens, Sparta, Rome, Renaissance Florence, and modern America. Similarly, republican political theory has been expounded by a wide variety of thinkers and statesmen, including Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) in ancient Greece, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469– 1527) in sixteenth–century Italy, and Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), James Madison (1751–1836), and John Jay (1745–1829) in eighteenth–century America. Though republicanism has meant many different things, a republic can be usefully defined as a government of citizens, rather than subjects, who share in directing their own affairs. This definition, though broad, has some important implications. Being governed by a king requires little virtue; the laws, backed by the threat of force, keep subjects in check. Governing oneself, in contrast, requires considerable virtue. Where citizens themselves have a hand in the laws and in the use of force, they must remember their duties and check themselves. For this reason, republicanism requires virtue. Virtue, however, understood as the capacity and willingness to restrain or sacrifice oneself for the common good, does not come easily.


1100–800 B.C.:      The Greek polis takes shape

499–479 B.C.:      Greek republics defeat monarchical Persia in the "Persian Wars"

509 B.C.:      According to tradition, the year the Roman Republic is established

338 B.C.:      Conquest of Greece by Philip of Macedon effectively puts an end to the independence of the Greek republics.

31 B.C.:      Though the forms of republican politics remain, the rise to power of Octavian, later to be known as Augustus, effectively puts an end to the Roman Republic.

11th century A.D.:      Rise of medieval town, seedbeds of republican revival, especially in Italy.

1531–1532:      Publication of The Prince and Discourses, both authored by Niccolò Machiavelli, founder of modern republicanism.

1640–1660:      Puritan Revolution in England.

1688:      Glorious Revolution in England.

1775–1783:      American Revolution.

1787–1788:      Publication of the Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in defense of the proposed Constitution of the United States, which had been adopted by the Federal Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

Therefore, republican politics is, to borrow political theorist Michael Sandel's phrase, a "formative politics" that uses public moral education and other means to form virtuous citizens.


The history of republics and republicanism begins in ancient Greece, whose very geography, featuring fertile plains separated by mountains, seemed to lend itself to small, independent, and distinctive political communities. The polis (poleis plural), as the Greeks called the kind of community in question, began to take shape between 1100 and 800 B.C. During that period, the nobles, an exclusive group of leading families, wrested political power from the kings. Thereafter, men who acquired wealth and importance through commerce rather than noble birth demanded and gained a share of political power. In addition, military change widened the circle of citizenship. Between 700 and 600 B.C., infantry warfare began its development into the military tactic of choice in Greece. The equipment necessary for the infantry warrior, or hoplite, was much less expensive than that required for the chariot or cavalry warrior. Consequently, a broader (though still limited) section of the population came to contribute heavily to warfare and to be in a position to demand a political role. The controversy over whether citizenship and political power should belong to the multitude, as in a democracy, or the few, as in an oligarchy, often led to violence and contributed heavily to wars within and between poleis throughout classical Greek history. The controversy would continue to divide republican leaders, citizens, and theorists long after the polis had disappeared.

The polis

Many poleis had fewer than 5,000 citizens, fewer than modern-day Harvard University has undergraduates. Only three poleis had more than 20,000 citizens. Even the adult male citizen population of Athens in the late fifth century B.C., which was immense by Greek standards, did not exceed 45,000, far fewer people, for example, than the 57,545 who turn up for a sold–out New York Yankees game. The smallness of the Greek polis meant its citizens could live together with an intensity and immediacy that citizens of modern states can imagine only with difficulty. To envision life as a citizen in Athens, for example, one must envision knowing one's fellow citizens and being known by them. One must envision participating in politics not by voting for representatives but by attending the Assembly personally and deliberating with one's fellow citizens about the most important public matters, such as whether to go to war or sue for peace, or whether or not to punish a general. One must imagine participating in the administration of justice, not only by serving frequently on juries, which consisted not of twelve but between 101 and 1,000 citizens, but also by serving as one's own prosecutor or defense attorney. One must imagine seeing the plays of great tragedians and comic writers not in a darkened theater with a few friends and many anonymous strangers but in the open air, as part of a public festival. Athens was by no means atypical.

Nonetheless, the tiny and consequently fragile polis, threatened with destruction by external enemies or civil war, did not exist merely to offer its citizens the opportunity to participate politically. It was a community of fighters that required extraordinary devotion and unity. Where citizens were the army, and wars frequent, communities had to be bound as soldiers are. To accomplish this task, legislators and statesmen appealed not only to the reason and interest of citizens but above all to tradition, to myths of common ancestry, and to the gods of the polis. While all the Greeks worshipped the Olympian gods such as Zeus and Hera, each polis had its own mode of worship and its own local gods. In the Greek world, patriotism was, as historian Paul Rahe put it in Republics: Ancient and Modern, "a religion of blood and soil." The need of the polis for solidarity and a set of beliefs to support it in the face of danger helps explain why even in Athens, renowned for its liberality, Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.), arguably the founder of Western philosophy, could be prosecuted and put to death for impiety and corrupting the young.


Though the all–encompassing character of polis life was born of necessity, the Greeks also considered the polis superior to other forms of association. Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) observed in the Politics that although the polis came into being "for the sake of mere life," it existed "for the sake of a good life." Aristotle knew human associations could be larger than the polis. Familiar with empires, he knew such associations were not necessarily as closely knit and demanding as was the polis. He rejected associations in which people united merely for the sake of mutual defense and economic exchange. Real politics, he wrote, could not take place in such associations and human beings could not achieve perfection in them, for, according to Aristotle's most famous claim, "man is by nature a political animal." By this, Aristotle meant that humans uniquely can reason, speak, and deliberate together about the just and the unjust, about the good and the bad. One could be fully human and exercise the virtues proper to human beings only in the polis, in which citizens participated accordingly. Aristotle, however, also realized political drawbacks and limits and, in particular, sought to temper the harshness that made the polis often inhospitable not only to philosophers but also to prudent statesmen.

Cost to the Public

The Greek citizen's devotion to public life came at a great cost. The Greek world depended on slave labor, which contributed significantly to the leisure

citizens enjoyed to practice politics. In some poleis, including Athens, slaves were a large percentage of the total population. They were usually non–Greeks purchased, kidnapped, or acquired in war. Some slaves were very well educated. Some were allowed to start businesses and could hope to buy personal freedom, if not citizenship. Many were well treated, though those who worked in the mines at Athens, for example, suffered terribly. In any case, none enjoyed what was essential to a human life from the Greek standpoint—a share in the political community. That involuntary servitude existed in the heartland of republican freedom would always trouble admirers of the polis. As eighteenth century political philosopher Jean–Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) observed in The Social Contract, the demands of Greek political life seemed to entail that "the Citizen [could] be perfectly free only if the slave [was] utterly enslaved."

In the early fifth century B.C., the Greeks, led by Athens and Sparta, won a series of stunning victories in a long war against the Persian empire. These victories were seen as confirming the superiority of political freedom to despotism. Nonetheless, it was not long before the Athenians and Spartans led separate coalitions in the destructive Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.), which pitted Greek against Greek, and led both to the defeat of Athens and to incessant political turmoil and bloodshed in Greece. In the fourth century B.C., Greek political life was to be, as H. D. F. Kitto put it in The Greeks, "confusing, wearisome, and depressing." In 338 B.C., Philip II of Macedon (382–336 B.C.) conquered Greece. Under his successor, Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.), the Greek polis did not altogether disappear, but its period of great power and independence had ended.

Ancient Rome

The next significant republican model was the Roman Republic. Established around 509 B.C., it had barely begun to fulfill its imperial destiny when Greece fell to Philip. Only in 396 B.C. did Rome make its first important conquest, the neighboring polity of Veii. But by 44 B.C., thirteen years before the Republic, in effect, gave way to one–man rule, Rome's possessions stretched from Spain to Syria. There were many similarities between Greek and Roman political institutions, and the Greek example may well have inspired republicanism in ancient Italy. But Rome, far more than any Greek polis, was a republican empire. Had the Persian wars proved that free political communities could turn back despotic aggression, the Roman Republic proved such communities could aspire to dominate the world. It also raised the question of how long a republic bent on expansion could remain republican.

Rome's innovation was to offer full or partial citizenship to allies and defeated enemies. By doing so, it could greatly increase its resources and manpower. The meaning of republican citizenship, however, had to change. In the tiny Greek polis, citizenship could mean direct participation in political decision making. But in the Roman Republic, where a citizen might live nowhere near Rome itself, citizenship for most would be merely the possession of a certain legal status and the advantages that went with it.



Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in Stagira, a town in Northern Greece. In 367 B.C., he came to Athens, then the Greek cultural center, to further his education. There, he joined the Academy of Plato and came to be a close Plato associate until the latter's death in 347 B.C. Later, tradition has it, Aristotle was personal tutor to King Philip II of Macedon's son Alexander, who would come to be known as Alexander the Great. In 335 B.C., he returned to Athens and founded his own school, the Lyceum. Though he enjoyed the favor of the Macedonian governor of Greece for some time, he had to flee Athens in 323 B.C. when, following the death of Alexander the Great, Athens launched a war to rid itself of Macedonian dominance. Aristotle died in exile in 322 B.C.

The Lyceum was devoted to nearly every area of knowledge, and Aristotle's range was similarly vast. His works span biology, physics, logic, metaphysics, psychology, poetry, rhetoric, ethics, and politics. The Politics, a treatise on polis life, was his most important contribution to republican political theory. In fact, it contains the first full articulation of republican political theory. While Aristotle was hardly uncritical of the polis, it is nonetheless fair to regard him as the intellectual father of republicanism.

Despite Aristotle's immense authority in the Middle Ages, the Politics took a very long time to gain influence. It did, however, directly influence the revival of republican thought in Renaissance Italy, and still enjoyed a wide readership in the mid–18th century. Aristotle's political influence was gradually eroded by the emergence of modern republicanism, beginning with Machiavelli, which self–consciously broke from the Aristotelian tradition. Aristotle remains, nonetheless, important to thinkers wishing to modify or supplement modern republicanism.

One important reason for the demise of the Republic was its need for soldiers to defend its acquisitions and to conquer new ones. Toward the end of the second century B.C., Rome abandoned the practice of requiring its soldiers to own a certain minimum amount of property and to equip themselves with arms. They were thereby enabled to draw on the landless and poor, who hoped to make a living from soldiery and were consequently more willing than others to fight long campaigns far from home. At the same time, these more or less professional soldiers had little stake in the existing political order, and their hopes for land grants and bonuses rested on their general's patronage. After this change, Rome careened from internal crisis to internal crisis, threatened by its own generals, whose troops were more loyal to them than to the political authorities. By 31 B.C., though republican forms would be retained for some time, rule had effectively fallen into the hands of one man, Octavian, soon to be known as Augustus. The Roman Republic had become the Roman Empire. For a long time after, republicans would worry that a professional military posed an unacceptable danger to freedom.

The Medieval City

More than a thousand years passed before a republican revival began in earnest. Toward the middle of the 11th century A.D., the medieval city began to develop as trade increased. Some towns, in effect, could set up independent governments. They developed most fully in Italy, where, most notably in Florence and Venice, the medieval city was the site of not only new economic activity but also new republican politics. One can speak, as historian Peter Riesenberg does in Citizenship in the Western Tradition, of the development in Italy of a "new civic consciousness" in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and of a gradual revival of "secular patriotism." The medieval Italian city used festivals, songs, and schools to foster in citizens the sense that the patria, the fatherland, was the highest loyalty, higher, at least at times, than their families, or even the Church. It drew on antiquity, especially the Roman Republic, for inspirational examples of the active life of self–sacrificing public service. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, as republican practice declined in Italy, republican theorizing and writing peaked in an intellectual, literary, and political movement, centered in Florence, that has come to be called civic humanism. Civic humanist writers drew on ancient history and political theory to defend republicanism. At the same time, for at least two reasons, the medieval city could hardly be regarded as a full–fledged revival of the old republican idea.

First, medieval Italian city life was emphatically commercial. The exercise of political rights, whatever the moral value, had to be weighed against the cost, in time away from doing business, of attending public assemblies, or serving in office. The merchants and artisans who populated the cities were typically more concerned with the commercial benefits and protections of citizenship than with decidedly less tangible pleasures Aristotle promised to political participants. Eventually, citizenship itself became more associated with material benefits.


Second, and more importantly, the medieval world was Christian, which meant it could not easily accept the republican ideal in good conscience. The medieval citizen was expected to be loyal first to his city, but the medieval Christian wanted to be loyal first to God. The medieval citizen was expected to embrace the active life, but the medieval Christian was expected to embrace, at least in part, the ideal of contemplation, prayer, and withdrawal from world affairs. The medieval citizen was expected to regard his fellow citizens as friends and the citizens of rival cities as strangers or enemies, but the medieval Christian was expected to regard all men as brothers. Thus, the would–be devoted republican citizen was tempted "from below" by the ideal of the merchant and "from above" by the ideal of the monk.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) made the implicit opposition between Christianity and republicanism explicit and sided with the latter. In his view, Christianity, with its emphasis on submission, resignation, humility, and mercy, had softened men and turned their attention from worldly politics. Political leaders were fanatics and fools. By aiming for excessively high–minded virtues, Christianity had distracted human beings from seizing what they could reasonably expect to have: security, prosperity, and perhaps even lasting glory. In his Discourses, Machiavelli sings the praises of the expansionist Roman republic and, while criticizing it, suggests it did not go far enough in its single–minded and heartless devotion to acquisition and glory. In a way, Machiavelli treats ancient republicanism in the opposite of Aristotle, for while Aristotle seeks to soften that republicanism and make room for philosophy, Machiavelli seeks to harden it and subordinate peaceful virtues to the pursuit of victory. Machiavelli, the first to articulate a modern republicanism that decisively broke from Christian and classical models, was to have many followers.

That is not to say, however, that republicanism is simply anti–Christian. In Florence, not long before Machiavelli wrote, Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) had briefly attempted to turn Florence into a Christian republic. Prophets had long invested events in earthly cities with divine significance. Savonarola merely added to that tradition in understanding the restoration of Florentine republicanism, which had lapsed, as a spiritual renewal and in understanding the city of Florence as destined to purify Christianity and prepare the way for the city of God. Republicanism, which rejected human kingship, could be understood to assert that Christ alone was king. Savonarola's project failed, and he was hanged and burned as a heretic. But religious thinkers and believers, especially Protestants, would be pivotal to republicanism, above all in the establishment of republican government in England and America. Republicans in those countries would have to confront the problem that by the middle of the sixteenth century had all but destroyed republican life in Europe, the seeming helplessness of small republics in the face of large, centralized, monarchical states.


For the moment, however, republicanism had settled down for one of its long sleeps. While the Netherlands and Switzerland were exceptions, the rule in the sixteenth and much of the seventeenth century was the consolidation of monarchical power, which centralized bureaucracies supported and professional standing armies defended. Only in seventeenth–century England did republicanism decisively awaken in the Puritan Revolution (1640–1660) and the Glorious Revolution (1688), which ended with the vindication of the sovereignty of Parliament, the most representative and democratic part of the English government, and the reduction of the king's power. Almost a century later, England's American colonies, persuaded that the mother country had abandoned republican principles, fought and won the American Revolution (1775–83). In the debate over the Constitution of 1787, both the Federalists, who defended it, and the Anti–Federalists, who attacked it, looked mostly to the same standard. As the Federalist Papers, the most celebrated defense of the American Constitution, insist, the "general form and aspect of the government [must] be strictly republican," for "no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America" or "with the fundamental principles of the Revolution." Yet by republicanism, the authors of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), James Madison, and John Jay did not mean what the Romans, or even the Florentines, meant. Though they chose the pseudonym Publius, the name of a Roman Republic hero, to underscore their allegiance to the republican tradition, they also called the new Constitution an "experiment" and warned their readers against a "blind veneration for antiquity."

The new republicanism, conceived in England but brought to term in the United States, contained elements of the old, but added to them a powerful political theory, liberalism, contained in the writings of, among others, John Locke (1632–1704) and the Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755). Liberal republicanism follows Machiavelli in seeking to found politics not on high–minded virtues, but on more solid ground. For the liberal, the end of politics is not the promotion of virtue but the protection of rights. Virtue remains necessary, but human reason is capable of devising a new political science and new institutions that will narrow the gap between self–interest and the common good, so that the importance of virtue and the harshness of the virtue required for political success are both diminished.

While the statesman is by no means disparaged, liberals do not see the political life as the only full human life, nor do they view the public square as the primary theater of virtue. Industry, commerce, and the "pursuit of happiness" acquire a new respectability, made possible partly by less of a need of the modern liberal for the extreme self–sacrificing virtue demanded in the ancient polis. Also, the smallness conducive to intense patriotism and direct public participation was not required by the new liberal republicanism, which enabled the large territorial republic to enter the world stage for the first time and ultimately to compete with the great monarchical states. Nonetheless, the large republic had its controversies in the United States, and the Anti–Federalists doubted that even the limited virtues required to sustain the new republic could be maintained in a nation as large as the United States, governed by a powerful and always potentially tyrannical central government. The Anti–Federalists lost, but their doubts carried to future republican generations.

Rousseau was arguably the greatest critic of the new liberal republicanism. In his works, including the Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men and the Social Contract, he attacked the emerging modern world and the theorists who helped coax it into being for, among other things, destroying virtue, promoting inequality, and falling far short of democracy. He compared the emerging modern, civilized man unfavorably to Spartans and Romans, on the one hand, and primitives and rustics on the other. While Rousseau himself had almost no hope for radical reform, his thought helped inspire demands to modify or abandon the liberal republican model, which were heard in, among many other places, the more radical French and Russian revolutions that came after the American one. Although liberal republicanism of a sort would come to dominate the world by the end of the twentieth century, it would never altogether escape criticism, nor did it altogether avoid giving in to at least some demands.


The Essentials of Republicanism

The political theory of republicanism holds that the best government involves citizens, rather than subjects, where citizens share in directing their own affairs. It was first developed and expounded in ancient Greece, most completely by Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) in his work, the Politics. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469– 1527), who criticized and self–consciously broke with the old republican tradition, founded a new, modern republicanism. This new republicanism, modified and made more receptive to individual freedom by Machiavelli's successors, found enduring expression in the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), John Jay (1745–1829), and James Madison (1751– 1836) wrote this collection of essays in 1787–1788 to defend the proposed Constitution of the United States. Modern republicanism has pervaded the United States and Western Europe, and is influential worldwide. While ancient, or classical, and modern, or liberal, republicanism differ in most respects, they share the conviction of self–government as the only worthwhile political arrangement.

Classical Republicanism

The Greek polis gave birth to republicanism, and Aristotle first fully articulated a republican political theory. Republicanism, however, was so profoundly transformed by Niccolò Machiavelli and the successors, such as John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu, who tamed his harsh teaching, that it is useful to distinguish between classical and liberal republicanism.

Classical republicanism starts from the premise that man is by nature a political animal. Human nature finds its fulfillment only in polis life, in which citizens deliberate about justice and the common good and rule themselves on the basis of such deliberation. Polis life, however, is extremely fragile. The polis must be small enough that citizens can assemble together, but must somehow defend itself against larger neighbors. Moreover, the polis may often be agitated for, as the Federalist Papers state, when matters of great national importance are discussed, a "torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose." In the polis, such matters, which affect vital interests and deep beliefs, are debated openly and often, and constantly threaten to tear it apart. Finally, the polis imposes unusual demands and responsibility on its citizens, who are expected to rule themselves by participating. For all these reasons, cultivating solidarity and a self–sacrificing virtue is among the first concerns of classical republican political theory.

Private life Because it puts politics first, and because it asks so much of its citizens, classical republicanism tends to devalue private life. Indeed, the word "idiot" derives from a term the Greeks applied to a person who preferred private to public life. For the classical republican, politics is not a necessary evil one suffers in order to protect and advance private interests. On the contrary, private interest and even individual freedom are subordinate to the public interest and to the political freedom citizens can exercise only in common. The polis, Aristotle wrote, "is prior to the individual." The classical republican likes to devalue privacy because public engagement really is, for most humans, superior to any private pursuit. The classical republican frowns upon privacy because, as political theorist and Michigan State University professor Steven Kautz said in Liberalism and Community, "republican virtue does not arise spontaneously in the souls of human beings" but "must be forced into being by a political community that restrains the private interests and appetites of individuals," which threaten to undermine devotion to the polis. For both these reasons, as Paul Rahe pointed out, the Greek may have had certain legal privileges as a citizen, but "as a human being, [he] possessed no rights against the commonwealth." Classical republicans see individuals as not endowed by nature or God with rights beyond community reach. Moreover, the devaluing of private life extended to the family, as the following famous tale suggests. A Spartan mother had five sons in the army, which was engaged in battle. A slave arrived, and she asked him for news of the fight. He told her that her five sons had been killed. She responded, "Did I ask you that?" When he told her the Spartans had won the battle, she ran to the temple to give thanks to the gods.

Classical republicanism, for several reasons, also tends to devalue commerce and trade. First, politics, for the classical republican, is simply a noble pursuit. Man is a political, not an economic animal. What Aristotle calls the art of acquisition is necessary, for the polis cannot exist without material goods, nor can the citizen have the leisure to participate public affairs without a certain amount of wealth. But to devote oneself wholeheartedly to this art is to mistake the means for the end. Partly for this reason the Greeks tended to frown upon those engaged in commercial pursuits, even in poleis where commerce was viewed as necessary.

Commerce Second, commerce produces inequalities, as some accumulate wealth and others fail. The classical republican, however, does not worry about economic inequality, because it is unfair. Rather, he worries that extreme economic inequality may have dire political consequences. Economic inequality threatens solidarity and, when extreme, results in a city divided along the lines of wealth. How will citizens see themselves as one people when one group prospers greatly while the other suffers greatly? One is almost certain to find instead, as Aristotle observed, "a state of envy on the one side and of contempt on the other," not one united city but, in all but name, two enemy cities sharing space. Economic inequality is also dangerous because the poor depend upon the rich, who can use their economic advantage to secure unchallenged political supremacy. Finally, as long as politics is a struggle between rich and poor, one has neither a genuinely political life—for one group exercises tyrannical authority over the other—nor stability, because there is always a group with everything to gain by toppling the status quo. Ancient theorists and legislators, realizing such dangers, proposed and often enacted laws regulating the market, and the purchase and inheritance of land, among other things, with a view to ameliorating the conflict between rich and poor. To take the sting out of the economic inequality that remained, most poleis had sumptuary laws to forbid conspicuous displays of wealth. Many had customs and even laws to insure that the rich applied some of their wealth to public works, or entertainment, or to serve other public needs.

Third, commerce promotes individualism and selfishness. It threatens to substitute the bottom line for the common good and personal wealth for the commonwealth. Whereas the citizen views fellow citizens as friends and even brothers, the merchant must view them as potential sources of profit. Whereas the citizen is tied to fellow citizens by shared convictions and attachments, merchants are bound to those with whom they deal by shared interest and by contracts. Whereas the citizen must exhibit a spirit of generous self– sacrifice, the merchant must take care not to give without getting in return. The merchant's values, from the classical citizenship perspective, are indifferent or even harmful. Moreover, the merchant, whose wealth is portable, is not attached to the polis as, for example, is the farmer, whose life is rooted in the soil of his homeland.

Fourth, commerce, when it extends to other poleis, opens citizens to foreign ideas and threatens unity of opinion. The Piraeus, the port of Athens, was known for its openness to innovation. Indeed, Plato (428–348 B.C.) sets his most famous dialogue, the Republic, in the Piraeus where, he tells us, a novel religious festival, devoted to a goddess new to Athens, is to take place. The ancients understood, Rahe said, the connection between economic and philosophic and political speculation, that "commerce in goods inevitably gives rise to a commerce in ideas." Once one opens oneself to foreign goods, one risks opening oneself to foreign gods. For this reason, Aristotle proposes that while a polis should engage in commerce, it should also enact "legislation which states and defines those who may, or may not, have dealings with one another."

New ideas It may surprise that classical republicanism so concerns itself with shutting out new ideas. Classical republican theory, in fact, devalues not only commerce but innovation altogether. In one section of his Politics, Aristotle attacks what would seem to most a harmless and perhaps useful proposal, that "honors should be conferred on those responsible for any invention of benefit to the city." Aristotle, however, worries less about a society that embraces a single new invention than one embracing the spirit of invention too enthusiastically. For to the classical republican, the spirit of invention is a threat to the law, obedience to which is secured not by pure reason but above all by custom, habit, and belief. From this perspective, to subject the laws to constant scrutiny and revision is reckless because it weakens them without cause. One must always weigh the benefits of innovation, even when good, against the danger of undermining laws and of unsettling the convictions upon which the force of law in general depends.

More broadly, the classical republic, because it demands so much virtue and solidarity, must be more cautious about admitting new ideas. Classical republicans believed no more than modern political theorists believe that human beings naturally sacrifice their own good for the public good, that they are naturally willing to die for each other, or that they spontaneously develop the ties of affection that citizens of a polis share. The works of classical political philosophy are filled with examples of the patriotic myths, among other things, that legislators must devise to bind a people. Because classical political theorists and legislators understood the difficulties of transforming humans into citizens, and how fragile the final product would be, they were cautious about exposing citizens to novel theories that might undermine their hard–won devotion.

The difficulty and importance of transforming human beings into citizens ready to meet their extensive obligations to the polis explains another facet of classical republican political theory, its overwhelming emphasis on education. Shaping the character of citizens was the first concern of ancient law. Education was directed toward developing citizen virtues as much as skills. It involved parents and tutors, and primarily by means of art and music. Among the most shocking features of Plato's Republic for the modern reader are both the minute attention this work on politics pays to the content and even the rhythm of poetry and the policy of censorship it proposes for the best city. Ancient theorists and legislators were mindful of beautiful art and music being more likely than rational speech to move people, especially the young. Therefore they paid attention to what dramas citizens heard, the festivals they attended, and even the buildings and statues they saw.

Religion Religion, too, is an educational component for the classical republican. In fact, the poetry to which Plato pays so much attention in the Republic is about the gods, and the content he proposes to revise and regulate concerns their character and actions. It would hardly do to take such care about so many of the things that bring human beings together or pull them apart and then neglect their beliefs about the divine and the relevant rewards and punishments. Though the ordinary Greek was pious, Plato was not the only ancient classical thinker to suggest that founders and statesmen should modify and even invent stories about the gods to shape their native countrymen or persuade them to accept a law or policy. While perhaps few Greeks or Romans went that far, the less radical view of polis concerns with the religious beliefs of citizens was more common.

When he compared life in the classical republic to that in a monastery, Montesquieu spoke for liberal republicanism. He did not mean it as a compliment. Classical republicanism and traditional Christianity had, for liberal republicans, a common defect. Both tended to foster inhumanity and fanaticism in asking their adherents to devote themselves single–mindedly to a set of beliefs. The result in the classical case was the constant warfare that characterized polis life and, in the Christian case, the violent wars of religion that plagued Christendom.

While classical republicanism aimed too high, it expected too little. Classical republicans had not grasped that the judicious use of natural and political science could accrue peace and prosperity, and greatly relieve human suffering. According to liberal republicanism, it was possible to devise economic and political institutions that could make use of self–interest, which classical republicanism had so harshly suppressed, to serve the common good.

Liberal Republicanism

Liberal republicanism denies that humans are simply or primarily political. Instead, it insists on the dignity of human beings as laboring animals, who tame and transform the natural world. Whereas the classical republican finds human dignity above all in the capacity to reason about justice and the common good, the liberal republican finds at least as much to praise in turning barren wilderness into a comfortable home, conquering disease, and alleviating poverty. Liberal republicans see commercial activity as a means for self–interested individuals to better their own wealth, and that of others. According to this outlook, the classical citizen was, in many ways, an idle troublemaker, forever engaged in controversy in the public square. Liberal republicanism, therefore, views politics as an arena for passionate and dangerous quarrels about justice. Instead, politics is primarily a means of protecting and even enhancing the private and, on the whole, modest and pacific pursuits of industrious citizens. As political theorist Thomas Pangle explained in The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, "the

American Framers," who embody the spirit Pangle described, "tend to honor political participation somewhat less as an end and considerably more as a means to the protection of… personal rights." In fact, the diminished prestige of political participation means participation through representatives is preferable to direct participation.

Differences Plainly, liberal republicanism exacts far less of its citizens than does classical republicanism. It consequently depends less on virtue and, far from devaluing commerce and innovation, is able to embrace both with enthusiasm. For these reasons, it almost seems misleading to apply the same term, republicanism, to both classical and modern politics. However, liberal republicanism, though a truly radical break from classical republicanism, has more in common with its predecessor than it first seems.

Most importantly, liberal republicans agree with classical republicans that tyranny is an insult to human nature. While the authors of the Federalist Papers criticized the ancients for emphasizing direct political participation too much, they nonetheless agreed with the classical republicans that any defensible politics had to rest on "the capacity of mankind for self–government." They thought it important to vindicate human nature by demonstrating that it was possible for a society to establish "good government from reflection and choice." In holding this opinion, which characterizes liberal republicanism, they arguably exceeded the republican hopes of the ancients, who, after all, made so much of the need in politics, and especially in political foundings, to deceive the people. They were, as Pangle observed, "far from neglecting the dignity of man as citizen," even as they guarded the dignity of private man.


Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, then an independent city, on May 3, 1469. His father, Bernardo, was a lawyer and, like many Florentines, admired classical learning. He made sure Niccolò received an extensive classical education. At the time such an education could open the door to political office, and in 1498, at age 29, Machiavelli was appointed head of the second chancery of the Florentine Republic and, shortly thereafter, Secretary to the Ten of War. As the latter, he took part in diplomatic missions and observed the affairs of the powerful up close. His public career ended abruptly in 1512, when the Republic collapsed and the Medici family was restored to power in Florence. Machiavelli, suspected of conspiracy against that family, was arrested in 1513 and tortured before being released and compelled to retreat to his country home, south of Florence. There, he turned his attention to the works that secured his fame. He died in 1527.

Machiavelli's best–known book is The Prince, whose main subject is not the republic but rule of one man. It is infamous for recommending fraud and murder and, more generally, for its open acknowledgment that to rule successfully one must cast aside conventional morality and "learn to be able not to be good." Machiavelli, however, also wrote the Discourses, a book that appears to favor republics and secured his reputation as a republican political theorist. In adopting the same ruthlessly realistic stance as The Prince does, however, the Discourses are a deliberate departure from the republicanism of Machiavelli's predecessors. They aimed to and succeeded in establishing a new republicanism.

Machiavelli founded modern republicanism. It followed him in consciously lowering its sights and seeking not to perfect human beings through political activity, but to place the low but dependable passions of imperfect human beings, like the love of wealth, in the service of achievable goals, such as prosperity. While successors such as Montesquieu and Locke would seek to tame Machiavelli's teaching and found a liberal republicanism that was less militaristic and more hospitable toward human freedom, and while there was considerable disagreement among Machiavelli's successors about the shape of republican life, modern republicanism would never altogether abandon the perspective of its hard–headed founder.

Further, while liberal republicanism needs virtue much less than its classical counterpart, it does not altogether neglect it, either. Returning to the Federalist Papers, we learn that for republican government to exist, there must be "sufficient virtue" in the people and its leaders. Undoubtedly, liberal republicanism drastically reduces the amount of self–restraint and self–sacrifice that self–government requires, but "republican government," still, presupposes more "than any other form" of government those "qualities of human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence," or trust. We learn that the most important restraint on the House of Representatives is "the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America." Unquestionably, vigilance in defense of one's own liberty, supported so strongly by self–interest, counters human nature far less than the virtue practiced by the classical citizen. But it does not arise spontaneously, either, and requires considerable effort. Even the modern republic demands that citizens be responsible, however indirectly, for governing themselves, and therefore demands more virtue than other forms of government.

Not surprisingly then, liberal republican theorists and statesmen concerned themselves with education. However, the character of the virtues to be taught has important implications for the character of the education required. "Liberal virtues," Steven Kautz maintained, "are reasonable virtues." However much courage and capacity for self–restraint vigilance in defense of one's own freedom may require, it is fairly easy to make a case for it. It is hard to be vigilant but easier to be convinced that it is in one's own long–term interest to be so. In contrast, it is extremely hard both to practice the virtue the classical polis requires and to be convinced that it is reasonable and in one's own interest. Because liberal republicanism depends on reasonable virtues, liberal republican education need not aim at transformation; it does not have to convert a self–interested human being into a self–negating citizen. It can aim, instead, at enlightenment, at persuading someone with a narrow or short–sighted understanding of his or her interests, or a poor understanding of how to protect them, to take a more expansive view. That is not to say that liberal republicans can afford to dispense with the kinds of poetic and religious appeals upon which classical republicans rely so much. Liberal republican citizens, too, must commit great sacrifices, and no dry argument will move most, if any, human beings to die on the battlefield. Even in peacetime, liberal virtues being reasonable does not mean citizens must be reasonable all the time. Nonetheless, it is accurate to say that liberal republican theorists, because they are so much less ambitious in what they expect education to accomplish, are much more confident than classical republican theorists that citizens can be enlightened.


The United States is the most prominent and influential example of the modern liberal republic. It is difficult, however, to understand the United States without understanding that its founders thought they had learned much from the previous experience of humanity in republican government. Republican theory and had been found so wanting that, as the Federalist Papers sharply assert, had modern republicanism not improved on ancient republicanism, "the enlightened friends of liberty would have been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of government as indefensible." To understand republicanism in practice, then, we begin with the ancient example of Sparta, that Greek city which, by implementing the classical republican idea in the most extreme manner, provided students of republicanism with a vivid portrait of that idea in action.


Sparta was an extreme but revealing example of the classical republic. The Spartans had many foreign enemies and were, in addition, vastly outnumbered by the helots, conquered peoples whom they compelled to work their land. Internal and external threats pushed Sparta to emphasize, even more so than the other classical republics, solidarity over privacy; Sparta, therefore, was as much a military as a political unit.

Boys were removed from their homes and from the guidance of their parents at age seven. They joined a group of boys their own age and began the physical and mental training necessary to fight and persuade them to devote themselves completely to the common good. They would welcome death in battle as the highest honor. Those who successfully completed the rigorous education then joined a "common mess," a group of men who lived, ate, and fought together as a unit. While a Spartan was expected to marry before the age of 45, he did not live in his own home until he reached that age. Such regulations indicate the extent to which Spartans insisted that individuals submit to the demands of the polis. Perhaps the most striking instance is this: in Sparta, babies judged too weak or deformed to be useful citizen–soldiers were killed.

Sparta, perhaps more than any other classical republic, worried about the dangers commerce posed to solidarity. The Spartan citizen was simply forbidden to engage in commerce and could not own silver or gold. Spartan currency was, by design, difficult to transport and use. The Spartans devised several ways to ease economic inequality and its social tensions. The polis granted its citizens equal shares of public land and helots to work it. As some land was still privately owned, the gap between rich and poor remained, but it was relatively narrow. Rich and poor received the same tough education and dined on the same fare in the common messes. As in other classical republics, the rich were restricted in using their wealth and could not flaunt it. The wealthy, in fact, were expected to make at least some of their property available for the use of other citizens.

Isolation The Spartans shared, too, the classical republic's resistance to foreign ideas. In this, as in other matters, the Spartans took the classical idea to an extreme conclusion. Spartan citizens could not travel abroad without the permission of the authorities, and such travel was generally forbidden. Similarly foreigners were not allowed into Sparta without permission and were only admitted with compelling reason. Plutarch (c. 45–c.120 A.D.), writing of the legendary, and perhaps imaginary, Spartan lawgiver, Lycurgus, explains the reason for this prohibition: "With strange people, strange words must be admitted; these novelties produce novelties in thought." For similar reasons, Sparta exercised censorship over poetry and music in the polis. One Spartan magistrate is said to have cut off two of the nine strings of a musical instrument, worrying that an extravagance in music could have led to parallel behavior.

In a classical world known for citizen education, Sparta stands out, and stood out even at the time, for how it transformed humans into hardened, loyal citizens. From the time the seven year old left his home, he was trained, with the help of music, poetry, religion, and even dance, to think of himself, as Paul Rahe said, "not as an individual, not as a member of a particular household, but as a part of the community." His body was hardened through physical training that became increasingly grueling as he aged. Because a soldier was expected to be crafty as well as courageous and strong, the Spartan young had to steal to supplement their skimpy meals. If caught, they were whipped, not to discourage their stealing but to encourage them to improve at it. The Spartan's ingenuity was further tested in the "period of concealment," an important rite of passage in which the young man, about 20 years old, spent a year outside the community, living off his own strength and cunning. At each stage of their rigorous training, the youths were examined; to "graduate" was to have completed the transformation from soft, selfish human being to hardened, self–sacrificing, warrior–citizen.

For all that, the Spartans understood that perfect solidarity was impossible, even by their own intense, far–reaching education. In any polity, especially one in which citizens are trained early to be spirited, there is bound to be a struggle. The rich will want to establish an oligarchy. The poor will want to establish a democracy. The well–born or noble will want to establish an aristocracy. The most prominent of these may wish to establish a monarchy. Even in such a community as Sparta, managing these different factions was necessary to avoid civil war. The Spartan strategy was to accommodate in part the most important elements, so that all would have a stake in preserving the polity. The Spartans over time devised what was known as a mixed regime. The elements were so well–mixed that the Greeks hardly knew whether to call Sparta a monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, or democracy.

In parts Sparta was in part a monarchy because it had two kings. Kingship was hereditary and each king held office for life. Leading Spartan forces into battle, their power in the field was nearly absolute. They appointed officers, executed cowards, conducted religious sacrifices, and raised money and new troops. In a society often at war, these powers were important; by no means, however, were they the only power the kings had. Their power over adoptions and their leading role in arranging marriages for heiresses whose fathers had not found them husbands meant that they could help or hinder a family in its efforts to transfer and amass wealth through inheritance. Because they had privileged access to certain funds, such as the spoils taken from the enemy in battle, the kings could benefit their friends and harm their enemies economically. In a society which strangled commerce and in which the roads to fortune were few, such powers enabled the kings to wield formidable political influence. The kings were so powerful that the Spartans thought it necessary to have two of them, each watching over the other.

Sparta was in part a democracy because it had a popular assembly, consisting of all Spartan citizens that, within limits set by other bodies and officials, voted on the most important matters. In light of the aforementioned limits, however, Sparta arguably had a more important claim to democracy: it filled essentially by lot its most powerful office aside from the kingship, that of ephor. The Greeks viewed elections as an aristocratic device, since its aim was to insure that the best, an "elect," serve. The lot, on the other hand, was a democratic device because it meant any citizen could be selected, as in a lottery, to hold office. The five ephors served only one year and were subject to review and perhaps punishment at the end of that year, but while in power they were in many ways, as a group, the kings' equals. The ephors were so powerful that to some observers, a board of tyrannical dictators appeared to rule Sparta. At home, they enforced the sumptuary laws and kept watch over the all–important educational system. They alone could fine the kings for misconduct and even put them on trial for capital crimes. This was only the most impressive of their broad judicial powers. Legislatively, the ephors were empowered to summon the Assembly and Council of Elders. With the Council of Elders, they set the agenda for the Assembly. Finally, they exercised great authority in foreign affairs by, among other things, determining when Spartans could travel abroad and when strangers could visit Sparta, receiving embassies, negotiating with other poleis, and calling up the army when necessary.

Finally, Sparta was in part an aristocracy because of its Council of Elders. This council consisted of thirty members, including the two kings. The other twenty–eight, all above age sixty, were elected, Rahe explained, "from the priestly caste that seems to have constituted the city's ancient aristocracy" and were "always men of experience and proven worth." With the ephors, they set the Assembly's agenda and could nullify Assembly decisions that overstepped that agenda. With the ephors, they formed a jury for capital cases. This council of older men not only addressed the claim of the wisest and best to rule but also insured the wealthy that their interests would be represented to at least some extent in the polity. For the council—old, conservative, exclusive, and wealthy—was little inclined to support innovative laws to further narrowed the gap between rich and poor.

Sparta eventually collapsed. Always vulnerable because of its large and often rebellious helot population, it never recovered from its defeat to the city of Thebes in 379 B.C. Perhaps Sparta was destined to fail because it demanded so much of its populace. One such indication is that Spartans, renowned for their discipline at home, were also reputed for slackness and corruption when abroad. Even within Sparta, the laws against possessing gold and silver were widely ignored. Sparta, however, did not perish without leaving examples of virtue and military heroism that dazzled her contemporaries and fascinated even those who broke from the classical model.

The United States

Old forms of republicanism, classical and Christian both, contributed to the American founding, and the precise contributions of classical, Protestant, and modern elements in early American political thought is debated. Nonetheless, critics of classical republicanism unquestionably played a pivotal role in founding the United States. The authors of the Federalist Papers, thinking Sparta "little better than a well–regulated camp," sought to found a distinctly modern republic, free of the defects of the old republicanism. They saw republicanism as needlessly harsh and unmindful of private dignity. Its solution to political conflict was worse than the problem itself, for it destroyed liberty. Moreover, the classical republican insistence on direct political participation, impassioned citizens settling the most controversial matters in the public square, made political conflict insoluble in any case. "It is impossible," Alexander Hamilton says in the Federalist, "to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated." The task of the American Constitution framers was to solve, with the help of advances in the "science of politics," the problems of classical republicanism, so that a new republic, respectful of private liberty and well–shielded from dangerous political conflict, could vindicate the capacity of human beings to live free. The United States set out to put into practice the theory of liberal republicanism.

In the liberal republic, government exists not to make citizens virtuous but to protect their private pursuits. When the United States declared its independence in 1776, it declared itself, in effect, a liberal republic, since the Declaration of Independence says both that men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" and that "Governments are instituted among men" to "secure these rights." In the new republic, even the creator, or "Nature's God" offers freedoms rather than commandments to human beings. This view of the divine diverges not only from classical republicanism, whose gods were called to transform human beings into virtuous citizens, but also from Christian republicanism, which even when respectful to political freedom did not understand rights to rank so much higher than duties in God's eyes. The United States took up the new principles championed by Edmund Locke and others and enshrined them in the first of its founding documents.

The Federalist debates The Federalist Papers authors argued that the new idea of liberty upheld by the Declaration could not be maintained without a new political science. "The science of politics [had] received great improvement" in modern times. "The efficacy of various principles" that the ancients did not know in full, if at all, was "now well understood." The 1781 Articles of Confederation, the first national constitution, had failed to take full advantage of those principles. But the 1787 Constitution that the Federalist Papers defended and which, with some amendment, has remained the law of the land in the United States, did take advantage of them in attempting to build a legal and institutional framework within which the new republicanism could prove superior.

Representation is among the most important principles of the new political science. Its purpose, according to the Federalist, is "to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens." So in the United States, citizens have a say in federal lawmaking not directly and in the public square, but indirectly, through the


The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers are a collection of eighty– five essays in defense of the United States Constitution of 1787. Such a defense was a pressing necessity when the essays were written in 1787 and 1788, for the states had yet to approve the Constitution, and approval was by no means certain. Alexander Hamilton, a member of the convention that drafted the Constitution, and who would later be America's first Secretary of the Treasury, suggested a complete defense of the Constitution that would not only lay out the case for it but also respond to all important objections. He recruited John Jay, who would later be the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and James Madison, who would become the fourth President of the United States, to write essays for the project. The three wrote under the pseudonym Publius, invoking the name of an ancient republican hero. The papers were published in newspapers in New York, Hamilton's and Jay's home state, and some were published in newspapers in a few of the other states. The Federalist Papers were also printed as a collection in two volumes.

The papers sought to prove that the individual states needed unification, that the Articles of Confederation, the first national constitution, could not bind the union, and that only such an energetic government as the Constitution would establish was up to that job. They sought to prove that the Constitution was genuinely republican and the only hope for republicanism. They described and argued in favor of the Constitution's provisions for the presidency, the House and Senate, and the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Perhaps most importantly, the authors of the Federalist Papers self–consciously stood for a new republicanism founded on a new science of politics. They were well aware that the Constitution was novel and sought to inspire the American people to pursue an extraordinary and almost unprecedented political experiment.

The first question that offers itself is whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican. It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America: with the fundamental principles of the Revolution: or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self–government. If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible" (Federalist#39).

While the direct influence of the Federalist Papers is difficult to measure, unquestionably it served as a kind of debater's handbook for the Constitution's supporters. But the collection's influence is still more far–reaching, for Thomas Jefferson was not alone in regarding it as "the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written." Scholars and lawyers still read the Federalist, thinking it contains valuable insights into what the constitutional framers meant and how the Constitution should be interpreted. It is still read, too, alongside such works as Plato's Republic and John Locke's Two Treatises of Government.

legislators they elect to serve in the Senate and House of Representatives. Classical republican theorists had resorted to harsh measures and delicate devices to calm the dangers that arose when citizens participated actively and directly in affairs of state. The American founders held that republican government is in no way compromised when the will of the citizenry is filtered through representatives, and indeed demands it. In the United States, a member of the House of Representatives, among other things, must be at least twenty–five years of age, must win an election and, once elected, serves for two years. The first two requirements are designed to produce a body wiser than the general population and more capable of perceiving the common good. The privilege of serving for two years is designed to produce a body that can at least distance itself from the passions of the moment and view a "big picture" where others tend to address short–term needs. The Senate, with its six–year terms and its requirement that members be at least age thirty, is still more elite and removed from temporary shifts in popular opinion than the House.

The constitutional framers, however, did not count on the goodness of representatives to solve the problem of public disorder and division for, as the Federalist acknowledges, representatives may be, despite the best of precautions, "men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs." Consequently, the new republic depended on another principle of the new political science, which the Federalist calls "enlargement of the orbit" of republican government, or the application of republicanism to a large, populous territory. It is difficult to overestimate the novelty of this strategy, at which opponents of the Constitution scoffed. Classical republican theory had held that republican government was appropriate only for small territories with small populations, for the solidarity republicanism required could not be achieved in large, diverse nations. The constitutional framers turned what seemed to be a tremendous disadvantage, the projected size of the Union, into an advantage. The new republic would deal with the threat of political division not by imposing uniformity of opinion and interest but by multiplying differences of opinion and interest, thereby weakening the influence of any single, narrow, partisan view. In a small polity, rich and poor may divide the population, and the poor may unite to eliminate property rights. In a large polity, there may be farming, industrial, immigrant, and native poor, and manufacturing, agricultural, technological, Southern, and Northern rich. In such a diverse polity with so many fault lines, it is difficult to gather a majority to oppress a minority, and majorities are at least unlikely to reflect narrow partisan interests. Enlargement of the orbit breaks the strength of partisanship not by suppressing the interests and passions of individuals and groups, but by channeling such interests and passions so that, even without intending it, they tend toward the common good. In this way, the United States puts into practice a liberal republican theory, that self–interest can be made to serve the common good more certainly and effectively than virtue itself.

Separation of powers If representation and enlargement of the orbit of republican government tame political division, there remains the problem of tyranny. A government powerful enough to exert real influence over a large nation may more easily than most be used by an ambitious individual or group to rob the people of their freedoms. To frustrate would–be tyrants, the United States relies on another principle of the new science of politics, namely, separation of powers. The concept is this: to divide the power of governing among different departments or branches in such a way that one branch cannot exercise absolute power. If one wanted to prevent a cannon from being fired in haste, someone might give one person the power to load the cannon, another the power to aim the cannon, and a third the power to fire it. Powers would then have defined and distributed powers so that one is ineffectual without the other and therefore difficult to abuse. Similarly the United States Constitution divides the power of governing among a legislative, executive, and judicial branch, in order to prevent tyranny. The power to make laws is ineffectual if one cannot enforce them, and the power to enforce the laws is ineffectual if one can neither decide which laws to enforce nor be sure that judges will accept one's interpretation of the law. The powers of the legislators in Congress, the executive in the White House, and the justices of the Supreme Court are legally defined in such a way that they are difficult to use tyrannically.

But, as the Federalists explain, "power is of an encroaching nature" and legal barriers may be insufficient to prevent ambitious public officials from seizing power. An ambitious president, for example, may effectively law by issuing executive orders or regulations; ambitious Supreme Court Justices may infringe on the authority of the other branches by reinterpreting the Constitution so broadly as to force revolutionary change in the nation's laws. However elegant a legal doctrine separation of powers may be, it fails, in the view of the Constitution's framers, to take into account human psychology, above all the lust for power. For that reason, the Constitution depends on yet another remedy offered by the new science, namely, checks and balances. As the Federalist famously states, one must give "to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. …Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." For example, the president's power to veto the laws the House and Senate passes is technically speaking a violation of separation of powers, since it gives a legislative power to the head of the executive branch. But such a power is necessary if the president, the one most personally interested in maintaining the executive power against legislative attempts to seize parts of it, can resist the legislature. It is true that the veto and other checks and balances are as much legal mechanisms subject to failure as the separation of powers. But the authors of the Federalist thought that formal laws that the most interested parties could immediately use would prevent tyranny better than formal laws that could only be enforced by appealing to judges who, because their interests and ambition are less directly involved, might be lukewarm to legislative and executive privileges.

Checks and balances The new principle of checks and balances is another way for the Constitution to put liberal republican theory into practice by, in the words of the Federalist, "supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives," so that "the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights." Nonetheless, the American founders did not think it possible to do without a certain kind of virtue or a certain kind of civil education. James Madison was perhaps most active but hardly alone in working for what might be called the "constitutionalization" of the American people, that is, the education of American citizens who would know and revere the Constitution and the Bill of Rights added in 1791. Only such citizens could be expected to be vigilant in defending their own liberties.

Of course, the adoption of the Bill of Rights does not end the story of republicanism in the United States, though the Constitution has rarely been amended since. Here is a very small sample of the changes: the development of political parties; the direct popular election of Senators, who were at first chosen by their state legislatures; the expansion in size and power of the federal government relative to the state governments; the expansion of the role of the Supreme Court in public policy. As long as the Constitution still counts for something in American politics, Americans will continue to debate the merits and dangers of each variance from the plan of the nation's founders and whether that plan was essentially good or fundamentally flawed. Similarly, although the United States is among the mightiest and wealthiest republics ever, its backers and detractors will continue to debate whether what was once called an "experiment" has succeeded at maintaining freedom.


Liberal republicanism entirely succeeded in supplanting classical republicanism and, for that reason, this section will focus on it. It has been some time since anyone has called for a return to the smallness, simplicity, and harshness of polis life. Nonetheless, liberal republicanism, measured by the big picture, remains an experiment. Few doubt that its willingness to channel rather than suppress individual self–interest and its openness to commerce and innovation has generated in many parts of the world a prosperity of which people had once only dreamed. Few doubt that its decision to depend less on virtue than on a new political science and the institutions and mechanisms it could devise has been at least a qualified success at achieving political stability and at fending off would–be tyrants. Nonetheless, liberal republicanism has been under constant attack by critics for its individualism and its faith in commerce, reason, and innovation.

Here is one criticism: liberal republicanism, if left to its own devices, leads to moral decline. After all, it unleashes innovation against custom and tradition, and self–interest against duty. The Declaration of Independence, which reveals much about liberal republicanism, looks up to "Nature and Nature's God," a God who speaks to human beings of what they have a right to do rather than of what they are commanded to do. The moral laxity of liberal republicanism may have been hidden early on when religion, custom, and tradition still captivated people. But that new philosophy's inability to inspire citizens manifests in high crime rates, drug use, family breakdown, and other social ills found in advanced liberal societies. All societies, even liberal ones, depend to some degree on citizen restraint. The question some critics of liberal republicanism raise is: does its deliberate strengthening of individualism and the spirit of reason and innovation come at the expense of the only means societies have of fostering self–restraint? To put it another way: does liberal republicanism undermine even the very limited moral virtue it, itself, requires?

Liberal republicanism may also cause political virtue to decline. Liberal citizens must, at the very least, remain vigilant. But it isn't at all obvious that citizens, liberated to enjoy and seek pleasure and profit, will scrutinize their government. Jean–Jacques Rousseau said in The Social Contract that "as soon as someone says about affairs of State What do I care? the State has to be considered lost." Critics of liberal republicanism argue that it tends to produce many such citizens. The liberal citizen may well not bother to know who their government officials are, let alone monitor them.

Rousseau feared that government officials soon discover they have more in common with each other than with the people they are supposed to serve. According to this argument, the government has an interest—whether in increasing its own power, or in profiting from office, or in getting reelected—that differs from the common interest, and prudent people should expect it to act on that interest when it can. It will enact pay increases at midnight; it will bury self–serving deeds in a thousand pages of legislation; it will make controversial announcements on Friday afternoons, when extensive media coverage or attention from constituents is unlikely. It can expect that, if some enterprising journalist uncovers a swindle and gets his or her story printed in the middle pages of a serious newspaper, very few hardworking and busy citizens will read it, let alone concern themselves with it. To make matters more difficult, the argument continues, governments tend to act this way out of collective self–interest, not individual immorality. To replace one corrupt elected official with another who seems less corrupt is unlikely to solve the problem. Instead, citizens must actively concern themselves with politics and with what their public servants are doing. This, however, the argument concludes, is precisely where liberal republican citizens fall short.

Size of the state Even were citizens to concern themselves more with what their public officials do, they might soon find that the size and complexity of modern states makes vigilance difficult. The United States government, for example, has at least some responsibility for not only law enforcement and security but, among many other things, health, education, transportation, communications, the arts and humanities, small business development, social security, scientific research, and the mail. To serve these functions, the United States government includes not only the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court but a vast and complex set of administrative agencies, employing, as of 1997, 2,787,137 workers. The government not only sometimes seems too large to control but also too demanding of expert knowledge. Citizens find themselves in a world in which the economic well–being of millions may hinge on whether or not the Federal Reserve Board, which oversees the U.S. banking system, chooses to push interest rates down a fraction of a point. Yet most citizens are far from understanding how such decisions are and should be made. It is difficult to understand what citizen vigilance means in such a world. No wonder that, as Michael Sandel reports in Democracy's Discontent, "Americans do not believe they have much say in how they are governed." Liberal republicanism can hardly be blamed for modern complexities, nor can it be simply blamed for the growth of the federal government's power. Nonetheless, liberal republicanism promised that energetic and free government was possible over an extended territory and complex society. It remains to be seen whether the development of liberal republicanism will prove this promise true.

Liberal republicanism may undermine not only political engagement in particular but also engagement in civil life more broadly. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in the nineteenth century, was greatly impressed by its civil associations. Americans, he observes in Democracy in America, "use associations …to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books." In de Tocqueville's view, modern democracy tends to isolate individuals and concentrate the whole of their attention on their private affairs, narrowly understood. Civil associations were one means by which he saw Americans pursuing common goals in common. Yet associations were not easily maintained in an individualistic age, and Tocqueville feared individuals would finally reject associations. Then, impotent alone to achieve the goals once pursued through associations, they would call on government to manage the affairs they once managed together. Government would become an "immense tutelary power" that, without formally depriving citizens of their freedoms, offers to take care of every detail of life for them and gradually reduces them to a "herd of timid and industrious animals." Tocqueville called this possibility "administrative despotism." In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam argues that meaningful participation in civil associations has declined in the United States. While he himself does not conclude that administrative despotism has arrived, his data has offered some ammunition to those who believe that it is here or on its way.

Unhappy citizens? There is still one more charge to add to the critical indictment of liberal republicanism and the individualism it promotes: they make people unhappy. "Communitarian" critics of liberal republicanism argue that it has detached individuals from communities. But communities provide a feeling of belonging. As Robert Bellah and his fellow authors concluded on the basis of their study of middle–class American life, "it would seem that [the] quest for purely private fulfillment is illusory: it often ends in emptiness instead."

The liberal republican is not defenseless against these criticisms. For one thing, liberal republicanism, while it may have emphasized education less than classical republicanism, never relied on untaught self–interest. The liberal republican may agree with individualism having gone too far without conceding that liberal republican theory must be changed or even abandoned, for that theory already warns that to be effective, self–interest must be not only properly channeled but liberal citizens must properly understand it. Moreover, the liberal republican may agree that the size and complexity of government makes citizen vigilance very difficult without conceding that liberal republicanism is responsible for an increase in the authority or centralization of governments. The liberal republican teaching that government was instituted among men to secure rights is a teaching of limited government. Finally, the liberal republican may agree that his or her creed often produces lonely individuals, but that standing alone affirms human dignity. In making this defense, the liberal may circumvent the charges but in any case it raises the question: do the dangers of individualism mean liberal republicanism must be abandoned or modified, or do they mean, instead, that the first principles of liberal republicanism need to be recovered?


Critics of liberal republicanism point not only to its emphasis on the individual but also to its willingness to indulge and even celebrate trade and industry. First, citizens whose main activity is pursuing profit and comfort tend to be soft. Commercial societies, as Paul Rahe pointed out, often have "little sympathy for the soldier's calling," and its members, "able to live the better part of…life in peace and in comfort," are "in no way inured to the loss of life and to the shedding of blood." Boosters of liberal republicanism may point to the military successes of liberal societies, especially the dramatic victory of the Allied forces in World War II. Such successes seem to dispute the argument that liberal societies are soft. Boosters may point, too, to the superiority in military technology of liberal republican societies, in which hindrances to innovation are few. As Rahe noted, however, liberal societies had great difficulty defeating Hitler, they could easily have lost the war, and their soldiers, despite the worthiness of the cause, were often unwilling or unable to fight. Moreover, even if liberal societies turn out courageous soldiers, they may be held back by a citizenry that is skittish about casualties, fears being drafted, and does not want its business interrupted under any but the most immediately threatening circumstances. The question of the military fitness of liberal commercial societies may still be open.

Second, to dignify commerce is also to justify the economic inequalities that result from commerce, as economic competition produces winners and losers. Yet these inequalities may be unjust. For one thing, success or failure in the marketplace may bear little or no relation to worth, at least as worth is commonly understood. An entertainer whose contribution to society is cracking jokes may make twenty times as much money as a police officer, whose contribution to society is risking his or her life to save others. Not only the basis but also the mere size of inequalities in commercial societies give critics ammunition. Rousseau states the case powerfully: "it is manifestly against the Law of Nature, however defined, that…a handful of people abound in superfluities while the starving multitude lacks in necessities." While liberal commercial societies can point to middle–class multitudes that are not starving as proof that Rousseau and others have it wrong, they have never been altogether able to silence their critics. Such critics insist Rousseau may have overstated the extent of the problem but not its fundamental character, that liberal republican societies leave some astoundingly rich and others virtually without hope. In reply, defenders of liberal society argue that whatever the degree of injustice and suffering found, it is more than matched by the degree of injustice and suffering found in illiberal societies, for government officials are worse at distributing wealth than markets are and curtail people's liberty in the bargain.

Economic inequality may be not only unjust but also politically dangerous. Michael Sandel has warned of the "civic consequences of economic inequality." In particular, as the gap between the rich and the rest widens, unity decreases. The well–off flee the public schools for private ones, city parks for private clubs, city services for private security and private garbage collection. They grow disinclined to pay taxes for services they do not use. The poor and lower middle class, trapped in inferior schools and poorly served neighborhoods, grow increasingly resentful. Both groups feel little stake in a society or government that they have abandoned or that has abandoned them. Amid this class tension, liberal societies cannot muster the energy and resources for great accomplishments, or even the wherewithal for such ordinary accomplishments as keeping the streets clean and the schools safe. Sandel and many other critics pointed to a gap between rich and poor that only deepened in the 1980s and 1990s and that has, in their view, already begun to erode even the limited sense of national community liberal societies need to prosper.

Large corporations In addition, the critics argue, just as the concentration of political power in a big government causes citizens to feel and actually be powerless, so, too, does the concentration of wealth in large corporations. People largely unknown and unaccountable to the public determine in corporate boardrooms whether thousands of employees will live in comfort or suffer. The concentration of economic power threatens to leave citizens powerless in another way. By making large contributions to political campaigns, corporations may be able to influence public servants and to pass legislation and regulations that favor them, at the expense of citizens who can afford neither to make large contributions nor to hire lobbyists and lawyers. The rise of multinational corporations has further complicated matters. Even if citizens can persuade their governments to try to protect wages and livelihoods, corporations could simply move their plants and jobs overseas to countries that better serve their interests. The relative inability of even their big governments to help them contributes to the anxiety of liberal republican citizens who fear that they are "losing control of the forces that [govern] their lives." Such citizens, even if capable of exercising self– government effectively, would likely be too demoralized to even try.

The liberal republican is not defenseless against these attacks, either. The overall tendency of a free commercial society, the liberal republican argues, is not to concentrate economic power but to distribute power to a variety of centers that include but are not limited to large businesses. Moreover, while the political and economic power of such businesses may be potent, business is not a single interest that always acts in unison, but a multiplicity of interests often at odds politically and economically. This competition, along with regulations designed to promote competition and discourage conspiracies among businesses to fix wages and prices, at least diminishes the threat that the influence of large corporations will destroy meaningful self–government. Moreover, while world economic growth means money and jobs move easily from nation to nation and that the ability of governments directly to protect the jobs of its citizens is limited, defenders of liberal republicanism argue that citizens in societies open to innovation can best benefit from economic globalization. They argue that nations need more rather than less liberal republicanism, more rather than less restrictions to commerce and innovation.


Nonetheless, the question remains whether liberal republicanism has unleashed forces beyond its control. Critics on the left lament the dangers commerce and innovation pose to the environment when scientists and entrepreneurs fail to take a long view of the effects of their activities. Critics on the right lament the dangers commerce and innovation pose to humanity itself when scientists and entrepreneurs, for example, do not stop short at human cloning or manipulating genes for profit. Critics of both political persuasions fear liberal republicans have put excessive faith in the ability of reason to check itself and to control its technologies. But few critics wish to relinquish the benefits of progress, and many acknowledge that liberal republicanism has been an enormous success at producing such benefits. For that reason critics of liberal republicanism must grasp the following question: how does one secure the goods liberal republicanism offers without supposing that reason, suitably educated and guided by experience, can be expected to supply solutions to the problems that accompany those goods?

At least some of the criticisms of liberal republicanism draw on classical republican theory. Michael Sandel, for example, understood his project as reviving a republicanism that the triumph of its liberal elements have all but ruined. Sandel's concerns about the political effects of economic inequality, the importance of political community, and the freedom that consists not in the mere absence of external restraint but in self–government, hearken to a republican tradition that, in his view, sporadically drew from Aristotle's Greece to at least nineteenth–century America. Yet, as Sandel readily acknowledges, the old republican tradition was coercive, because it used government power to compel individuals to meet the demands of the polity, and exclusive because it distinguished so sharply between insiders and outsiders, where slaves and women were in important ways part of the latter group. Sandel hopes to restore elements of the classical republican ideal while avoiding its tendency toward coercion and exclusion. Yet, as Steven Kautz points out, critics such as Sandel seem to be caught between their real commitment to liberal republicanism and their disappointment in it, which is manifested in their worries about the decay of robust communities, the decline of intense and widespread political participation, and the effects of economic inequality. Kautz's observation raises this question about modern republicanism: are individualism and inequality accidental components of the republican freedom even critics of liberal republicanism seem to cherish, or are they, for good or for ill, the unavoidable accompaniments of freedom?


  • The Federalists, who defended the Constitution, typically called themselves republicans. But they were not the only ones. The Anti–Federalists, who opposed the Constitution, also typically called themselves republicans. What were their arguments? In what ways did their understanding of republicanism differ from the Federalist understanding, and why did they think the Constitution threatened republicanism?
  • Both classical and modern republicanism depend to some extent on education to produce citizens capable of meeting the responsibilities of republican life. How and to what extent have the public schools been instruments of citizen education, and how so today?
  • Both classical and modern republicanism depend to some extent on citizens knowing about and engaging in politics. What does the evidence suggest about the political knowledge and activity of American citizens nowadays, and is it a good or bad sign for American republicanism? What policy measures, if any, can and should be taken to increase the political knowledge and activity of American citizens?
  • In the ancient Greek world, Sparta's great rival was Athens and each polis was known then and has been known since for representing contrasting ways of life. How was Athens similar to Sparta, and how was it different? What does the comparison teach us about classical republicanism?



Aristotle. Politics. Translated by Ernest Barker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Bellah, Robert N. et. al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Updated Edition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers. Edited by Isaac Kramnick. London: Penguin Books, 1987.

Kautz, Steven. Liberalism and Community. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Kitto, H.D.F. The Greeks. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1957.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws. Edited and Translated by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Pangle, Thomas L. The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Plato. The Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. Second Edition. New York: Basic Books, 199.

Plutarch. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. 2 vols. Translated by John Dryden. Revised by Arthur Hugh Clough. New York: Random House, 2001.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Rahe, Paul. Republics Ancient and Modern. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Riesenberg, Peter. Citizenship in the Western Tradition: Plato to Rousseau. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Rousseau, Jean–Jacques. The Discourses and other early political writings. Edited and Translated by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997.

Rousseau, Jean–Jacques. The Social Contract and other later political writings. Edited and Translated by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997.

Sandel, Michael J. Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Tocqeuville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated and Edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Further Readings

Bloom, Allan, ed.. Confronting the Constitution. Washington D.C.: The AEI Press, 1990. This collection contains valuable essays on the intellectual and historical foundations of American liberal republicanism and on various attacks on those foundations.

Everdell, William R. The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans. Second Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. Everdell gives a useful overview of the history of republicanismn.

Kagan, Donald. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. While its interpretation of the classical republic differs in some ways from the one offered in this article, this history, which focuses on Athens and one of its greatest statesmen, Pericles, is a very useful window into Greek republican politics.

Skinner, Quentin. Machiavelli. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. This concise introduction to the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, though its understanding of Machiavelli differs in important ways from the one presented here, should be consulted for its views on Machiavelli's place in the republican tradition.


Capitalism, Conservatism, Federalism


views updated May 18 2018


REPUBLICANISM. Broadly defined, republicanism means a preference for nonmonarchical government and a strong dislike of hereditary monarchy. Narrowly defined, and in its early modern context, it means self-government by a community of citizens in a city-state.

Republicanism is a prominent concept in the history of political thought. Republican ideology claimed that citizens of republics enjoyed a liberty unknown to the subjects of monarchies because they were bound by laws that they themselves had made, not the personal whim of an individual monarch. In the early modern period, republicanism had special relevance in Italy (where Florence and Venice became the most famous republics in early modern history), Switzerland (a federation of autonomous rural and urban cantons that had never been effectively governed by a monarch), Germany (where many free imperial cities maintained a high degree of autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire), the Netherlands (where a new state, the Dutch Republic, was born in the sixteenth century out of a revolt against the Spanish monarchy), England (where, in the mid-seventeenth century, a revolt against the monarchy led to a short period of kingless government that paved the way for parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy), and the United States of America (which revolted against the British monarchy and became a federal congressional republic in the 1770s). Early modern theorists whose writings are relevant to republicanism include Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527), Francesco Guicciardini (14831540), Thomas More (14781535), Thomas Hobbes (15881679), John Milton (16081674), John Locke (16321704), Algernon Sidney (16221683), Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu (16891755), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778). What follows is an introduction to republics and republicanism, not a survey of thinkers or their ideas. Three institutional levels within republican government will be distinguished: the voting assembly, the intermediate council, and the executive magistracies. The differences between three models will also be emphasized: direct democracy, republicanism, and parliamentary representation.


Greek city-states, when not ruled by tyrants, governed themselves by some form of direct democracy: an assembly of all the adult male citizens, meeting and voting frequently to pass legislation, make decisions, act as a high court, and elect (from their own ranks) the short-term members of the intermediate councils and holders of magistracies and military commands. The Greek model of direct democracy was replicated in European history only at the village level, notably in Switzerland, and in the imaginations of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the proto-Romantics.

In contrast, the Roman republican model became prominent in later European history. Compared to direct democracy, it was marked by greater social stratification and the dominance of (largely hereditary) elites. Livy's history of the early Roman republic depicted the foundation of the republic in 753 b.c.e. as a revolt in the name of liberty by members of leading families against a primeval monarchy. The earliest group of ruling families, and the clans they spawned, called themselves "patricians" and formed a hereditary status group that attempted to monopolize political power against the rest of the populationthe plebeians. Livy records and dramatizes bitter social and political conflict between the patricians and the plebeians, but the latter succeeded over several centuries in breaking the patrician monopoly on the political institutions, so that the political elite included members of both groups.

Instead of a simple voting assembly, Rome had a complicated system of assemblies in which individual preferences were combined into bloc votes, with preponderant weight given to the blocs in which men of higher status and higher socioeconomic class were enrolled. There was a semi-formal nobility consisting of families whose members, past and present, patrician or plebeian, had competed successfully in the annual elections of magistrates in the assembly, and entry by "new men" (ones without an office-holding ancestor) into the nobility was possible, though never easy. The nobility governed the republic through an intermediate council that had no real precedent in Greek history and became one of the most famous political institutions of all time: the Roman Senate. All former magistrates were senators, and though they often stood for election and left the Senate for a year to hold a magistracy or a military command, they always returned to it at the end of their term: membership was for life. The Senate was the locus of debate and decision making in Rome. Many of Cicero's most famous works are political speeches delivered during deliberations in the Senate or prior to a vote in one of the assemblies.

Social conflict never disappeared from the Roman republic, but that did not prevent its armies of citizen-soldiers from making it the greatest conquest state in European history. The Roman republic ended in chaos and was transformed into an empire ruled by a monarchical emperor, but the Senate survived for as long as the empire did; its members, though, became a hereditary status group, no longer the winners of electoral contests held in a voting assembly. The historian Tacitus (c. 55c. 117 c.e.) vividly described the despotic behavior of the early Roman emperors, the corrupt courts that surrounded them, the servile and fearful behavior of the Senators, and the decline of free debate in the Senate.

The European cities of the medieval and early modern periods were born as communes: sworn associations of male heads of households who collectively claimed freedom from feudal overlordship. The primordial institution of the commune was the assembly of all the citizens, as in the ancient Mediterranean cities. Each commune was a small republic, and the story of republicanism in Europe is largely the story of Europe's cities. Europe was the only area of world civilization in which so many and such autonomous city republics emerged. In every communal city of Europe, as in the ancient Mediterranean, citizenship was a privileged hereditary status to which newcomers were not granted easy or automatic access. In each city, families belonging to the earlier strata tried to monopolize political power, like the Roman patricians, and were challenged from below by ambitious families and rising status and socioeconomic groups. In each there was a complex structure of councils and executive committees, but the primitive communal institution, the voting assembly of all the citizens, ceased to be summoned regularly in most cities.

The European cities were the motor of a dynamic European economy based on free rather than slave labor; this was a fundamental difference between the city-states of the ancient world and the European cities. In Italy a number of cities (Milan was an example) went from republican (or "communal") government to monarchical rule by a princely family at the close of the Middle Ages, but in others, like Florence and Venice, republican structures persisted. Florence and Venice were not the only republican city-states in Italy, but they were the only ones to conquer not just the adjacent countryside but many other smaller cities as well, thereby building up large territorial states.

Elsewhere in Europe, and even in some parts of the Italian peninsula, the feudal system was giving birth to a type of political institution unknown to the ancient world or the republican tradition: the feudal parliament or meeting of the Estates, an assembly of representatives delegated by the various social strata and localities in the lands of a monarch to represent them. But the conquered subjects of Florence and Venice were not represented in any parliament, and thus had no institutional recourse against harsh exploitation. Parliamentary government in nation-states was the way of the future; republican government in city-states had, by the close of the early modern period, come to the end of its historical course.


Florence was one of the centers of Renaissance humanism, a movement that began in the late thirteenth century and flourished in the fifteenth, aiming to revive the use of classical Latin and knowledge of all aspects of Greek and Roman antiquity. The Roman writers with the greatest prestige and influence had lived in the late republic (Cicero, Sallust) or under the early empire (Livy, Tacitus), and this gave a superficial republican ethos to Renaissance humanism, which is seen in the realms of political thought and artistic imagery. The city of Florence took particular pride in regarding itself as the daughter and heir of the Roman republic and Roman liberty.

There are objective parallels between the history of the Roman republic and empire in the ancient world and Florence in the early modern period. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Florence, despite its wealth and control of much of Tuscany, was made turbulent by the struggle for political power between older and more recent factions of powerful families and their clienteles. Only adult male guild members were entitled to hold office, and the complex guild-based constitutional machinery of Florence produced the same result as the machinery of the Roman republic: a steep stratification of political power based on status and socioeconomic class. There was rapid rotation through the small executive committees in which the power of government was concentrated, and individuals were chosen to hold office randomly, through a lottery (the drawing of names from a bag of eligible candidates). Legislation was ratified in a couple of intermediate councils that also had rotating membership.

From the 1430s to 1494, the Medici family controlled Florence, although formally their status was no different from that of any other great family. They manipulated the constitution in at least three ways: by controlling the lottery process so that names were no longer drawn at random; by the abuse of emergency powers; and by creating new, smaller, more permanent councils whose members were carefully screened for loyalty to the Medici. The Florentines called this "narrow government." From a favorable standpoint (that of the Medici, their clientele, and the top families allied to them), narrow government was more efficient and consistent than the "wide government" of the past, in which many more citizens had rotated through the offices, ruling and being ruled in turn. But "wide government" was traditionally seen as the essence of Florentine liberty, so from an unfavorable standpoint (that of the rival families excluded from power, as well as the many families of middling status whose ambition to participate in government was being frustrated), the Medici regime was an assault on Florence's traditional republican liberty.

In the revolution of 1494 the Medici were driven from Florence. There followed a political struggle over the constitution, with the leading families striving to keep it as narrow as possible (aristocratic, but not princely), and a popular movement led by Girolamo Savonarola (14521498) that demanded a return to wide government. The latter prevailed, and thus there began a unique eighteen-year period in the history of Florence (and republicanism): the republic of 14941512. This republic was ended by the return of the Medici, who set about establishing princely rule. The Florentines revolted against them and revived the republic between 1527 and 1530, but after that the Medici proceeded to make themselves hereditary grand-dukes of Florence and Tuscany, in a historical parallel to the establishment of the Roman Empire on the ruins of the Roman republic. Niccolò Machiavelli, the first great political thinker of modern times, had all of his direct experience of political and military affairs as a senior administrator and diplomat for the republic of 14941512, and many other Florentines also participated in political life and composed political treatises (long and short, practical and theoretical) between 1494 and the 1530s. At no other place or time in Europe did political thought about republics (and the alternative form, monarchy, or as Machiavelli called it, "principality") flourish with the same intensity.

In the Florentine republic of 14941512 and 15271530, the direct voting assembly of all the citizens was revived. Over 3,000 male scions of families whose members had held office in the past became permanent members of the assembly; although this was still only a fraction of the entire population, it represented an extraordinarily high degree of political participation in the context of Europe at that time. (The members of the Florentine voting assembly were not modern liberal democrats though, and like virtually every other status group that won political entitlement in the history of ancient and modern republics, they wanted admission to the assembly in the future to be limited to their own male descendants.) There was also an intermediate council, which in Florence had little importance, and the typical array of small executive committees. Throughout the period 14941512 the families of high status never ceased to press for more narrow government, in which their putative expertise and insight would prevail over the inexperienced and inept majority; their ideal was to govern aristocratically, like Roman senators. Many of these families defected from the republic and supported the return of the Medici in 1512, and again in 1530.

The internal politics of republican Florence were not Machiavelli's main concern when, in forced retirement after 1512, he became a writer on politics. Machiavelli did not believe that the Florence he had served, or any other modern republic, was a model for imitation, because all had been corrupted by Christianity. His model for analysis and imitation in his major work, the Discourses, was the Roman republic, where there had been a fruitful tension between the competitive drive of a small number of individual nobles to dominate their rivals and win glory, and the opposing desire of the mass of the citizens to enjoy the spoils of conquest and check the imperiousness of the nobles. It was this tension, directed outward against neighboring peoples, that had made Rome the greatest of all conquest states. Since Machiavelli believed that the same two conflicting impulses were present and active in all societies, whether they were governed as principalities or republics, his basic vision of political life was republican, even in his famous short treatise The Prince.

Many other Florentines did ponder the problems and fate of their own republic more closely than Machiavelli. One was Francesco Guicciardini (14831540), and another was Donato Giannotti (14921573), a strong proponent of wide government who wrote the treatise Republica Fiorentina in the 1530s to describe what had gone wrong with the Florentine republic and how it could have been preserved. Giannotti was also the author of an influential description of the Venetian system of republican government.


Venice was the clearest example of the explicit hierarchical correlation between social status and political participation that differentiated republicanism from ancient (and modern) democracy, and was considered a miraculous example of social and political stability. In 1297 a group of Venetian families achieved what the patricians of ancient Rome and the politically active families of Florence had always dreamed of: a constitutional limitation of political participation to themselves and their male descendants. These families also came to be called "patrician," and although new families were admitted in every generation, the Venetian patriciate was essentially composed of the same families for centuries. Not all of them were rich and powerful, but all enjoyed the same exclusive right to have their sons admitted to the voting assembly, which was roughly the same size as the one in Florence.

The offspring of the political elite, a small number of rich and powerful families, sought to ascend through elections held in the assembly to membership in the intermediate council, the Senatea locus of prestige and power comparable to the Roman Senate itselfand from there to the array of small committees that made up the executive. The head of state and government, the doge, was elected for life but did not have what we would call presidential powers, for the Venetian leadership was essentially collective. The most feared and powerful committee of the Venetian executive was actually the Council of Ten, which attended to state security. They worked in secret, received anonymous denunciations, had, or were believed to have, informants everywhere, and could make "enemies of the state" disappear. Hence there arose a "black legend," a negative image of life in Venice that contrasted with the positive image of Venetian republican liberty.


Florence and Venice were exceptional because they were fully sovereign and were capitals of territorial states. But there were many other cities in Europe, especially in Italy and Germany, which never conquered large territorial states of their own, but which continued to govern themselves as republics while retaining a high degree of autonomy within larger (and by later standards, looser) state frameworks. Over the span of time from the Middle Ages to the early modern period, social and political mobility gradually dwindled in all these cities, and they evolved into patrician republics governed by narrow oligarchies. The families whose male members had a claim to a seat on the city council became a hereditary, and largely closed, status group, visibly distinguished by their style of dress, their titles, and their membership in exclusive dining and drinking clubs. Frankfurt, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Hamburg were renowned patrician city-states in the Holy Roman Empire. There is a vast literature on these and many other European cities, tracing the social and political history of each in detail, and seldom making any reference to republicanism as a concept, although it is in these cities that republicanism lived out the last phase of its history. Internally there was little or no republican liberty left (no more freedom to participate in politics, that is, except for the patrician elite) but externally the patricians were adept at defending another kind of republican liberty (the local autonomy of their cities) against centralized control by the larger state structures into which their cities were integrated.

The city of Bologna, which was part of the large Papal State of central and northern Italy, is a good example: its liberty was based on the pact it made with Pope Nicholas V (reigned 14471455) when it submitted to the papacy in 1447. This was a contract that bound both parties and was renegotiated with every new papacy. The Bolognese patriciate used it to protect their autonomy for the next three hundred years, in what can be seen from one standpoint as stubborn particularism, preserving entrenched local privilege against the bureaucratic rationalization of the modern state, and from another as the proud defense of local tradition, local jurisdiction, and control of the local treasury against arbitrary centralism.

It was in defense of similar contractually protected local rights that the northern provinces of the Netherlands rebelled against Spain in the late sixteenth century and formed a new state, the Dutch Republic, that became a beacon for opponents of monarchy (republicans in the broad sense) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Netherlanders repeatedly fended off attempts by the house of Orange to establish a new regal dynasty, and adopted a confederal system of government with strong local autonomy and weaker authority at the higher levels. Towns governed by local patriciates dominated the provinces, there was a parliament (an "Estates") for each province attended by local delegates, and there was an Estates-General for the whole federation, attended by provincial delegates. Thus the Dutch Republic was a fusion of the republican and the parliamentary-representative models.


Because the English civil war between parliamentary and royalist forces in the mid-seventeenth century led to regicide and ten years of kingless government, and because the United States of America was an antimonarchical offshoot of the civilization of the British Isles, there is a large scholarly literature attempting to trace the influence of republicanism in Britain and its rebellious colonies. Controversy and debate abound in this field, for in Britain there had never been an actual republican city-state, so scholars are left to deal with language, concepts, and ideas. Britain actually led European civilization down the road to a different destination: government by parties holding parliamentary majorities, with loyal opposition from opposing partiesa structure of government foreign to the republican tradition. It also led Europe in the development of liberalism as a set of political and economic ideas, especially through the influence of John Locke. In eighteenth-century Britain and its American offshoot, republican ideas formed a counterpart to liberal ones in political thought, and republicanism and liberalism are seen as conflicting intellectual influences on the founders of the American republic. The values of liberalism include economic individualism and constitutional limitation on the power of government to invade the sphere of private life, while republicanism (in this context) stands for the disinterested devotion of individual citizens to the common good, and their willingness to set aside private concerns and participate in public debate and decision making.

See also American Independence, War of (17751783) ; Divine Right Kingship ; Dutch Republic ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; Florence ; Free and Imperial Cities ; Guicciardini, Francesco ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Locke, John ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; Milton, John ; Monarchy ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Parliament ; Political Philosophy ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Switzerland ; Venice .


Primary Sources

Chambers, David, and Brian Pullan, eds. Venice. A Documentary History, 14501630. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Giannotti, Donato. Republica fiorentina. Edited by Giovanni Silvano. Geneva, 1990.

Guicciardini, Francesco. Dialogue on the Government of Florence. Edited by Alison Brown. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1994.

Harrington, James. The Commonwealth of Oceana and a System of Politics. Edited by J. G. A. Pocock. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Kohl, Benjamin G., and Ronald G. Witt, eds. The Earthly Republic. Philadelphia, 1978.

Kraye, Jill, ed. Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts. Volume 2: Political Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Edited by Quentin Skinner and Russell Price. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988.

Machiavelli, Niccolò, and Francesco Guicciardini. The Sweetness of Power: Machiavelli's Discourses and Guicciardini's Considerations. Translated with introduction by James B. Atkinson and David Sices. DeKalb, Ill., 2002.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Edited by George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Sharp, Andrew, ed. The English Levellers. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Sidney, Algernon. Court Maxims. Edited by Hans W. Blom, Eco Haitsma-Mulier, and Ronald Janse. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

van Gelderen, Martin, ed. The Dutch Revolt. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1993.

Wootton, David, ed. Divine Right and Democracy. An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1986.

Secondary Sources

Berengo, Marino. L'Europa delle città. Il volto della società urbana europea tra Medioevo ed Età moderna. Turin, 1999. See especially ch. 4, "I cittadini e la vita pubblica," and ch. 5, "Patriziato e nobiltà."

Blickle, Peter. Obedient Germans? A Rebuttal. A New View of German History. Translated by Thomas A. Brady. Charlottesville, Va., 1997.

Bock, Gisela, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli, eds. Machiavelli and Republicanism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990.

Bouwsma, W. J. Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty. Berkeley, 1968.

Burns, J. H., ed. The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 14501700. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1991.

Cooper, Roslyn Pesman. "The Florentine Ruling Group under the Governo Popolare." Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 7 (1985): 71181.

De Benedictis, Angela. Repubblica per contratto. Bologna: una città europea nello Stato della Chiesa. Bologna, 1995.

Fasano Guarini, Elena. "La crisi del modello repubblicano: Patriziati e oligarchie." In La Storia, vol. 3, L'Età moderna, i quadri generali. Edited by Nicola Tranfaglia and Massimo Firpo, pp. 553584. Turin, 1987.

Finlay, Robert. Politics in Renaissance Venice. London and New Brunswick, N.J., 1980.

Gelderen, Martin van. The Political Thought of the Dutch Revolt 15551590. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Gelderen, Martin van, and Quentin Skinner, eds. Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Grendler, Paul F. "The Leaders of the Venetian State, 15401609: A Prosopographical Analysis." Studi Veneziani 19 (1990), pp. 3585.

Guidi, Guidubaldo. Lotte, pensiero, e istituzioni politiche nella repubblica fiorentina dal 1494 al 1512. 3 vols. Florence, 1992.

Hankins, James. "Humanism and the Origins of Modern Political Thought." In The Cambridge Companion to Renaisance Humanism, edited by Jill Kraye, pp. 118141. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Koenigsberger, Helmut, ed. Republiken und Republikanismus im Europa der frühen Neuzeit. Munich, 1988.

Lane, Frederick C. Venice. A Maritime Republic. Baltimore, 1973.

Mansfield, Harvey C. Machiavelli's Virtue. Chicago, 1996.

McCuaig, William. Carlo Sigonio: The Changing World of the Late Renaissance. Princeton, 1989. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the Roman republic as it was understood in Europe from the sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries.

Pangle, Thomas L. The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke. Chicago, 1989.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, 1975.

Rahe, Paul A. Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992.

Rössler, Helmuth, ed. Deutsches Patriziat 14301740. Limburg, 1968.

Rubinstein, Nicolai. "Politics and Constitution in Florence at the End of the Fifteenth Century." In Italian Renaissance Studies, edited by E. F. Jacob, pp. 148183. London, 1960.

Silvano, Giovanni. La "Republica de' Viniziani." Ricerche sul repubblicanesimo veneziano in età moderna. Florence, 1993.

Stephens, J. N. The Fall of the Florentine Republic, 15121530. Oxford, 1983.

Stolleis, Michael, ed. Recht, Verfassung, und Verwaltung in der frühneuzeitlichen Stadt. Vienna, 1991.

von Albertini, Rudolf. Das florentinische Staatsbewusstsein im Übergang von der Republik zum Prinzipat. Bern, 1955. Italian translation, Turin, 1970.

Wootton, David, ed. Republicanism, Liberty, and Commercial Society, 16491776. Stanford, 1994.

William McCuaig


views updated May 29 2018


ancients and moderns
the rights of man
revolutionary aftermaths

The French Revolution created the modern European republican tradition. The broadest and most general definition of a nineteenth-century republican was someone who aspired to liberty, equality, and fraternity, the triad of revolutionary virtues. Republicanism was complex and creative because its adherents had to resolve the inherent tensions between these revolutionary ideals while simultaneously defending the problematic legacy of the Revolution. The specificity of European republicanism lay in its unequivocal embrace of democracy. The Anglo-American, or Atlantic, republican tradition contrasted the republic, a mixed form of government, with democracy, a simple form. This opposition made no sense in modern European republicanism. In consequence of this development European republicanism distanced itself from an entire canon of early modern republican theory, a body of work that stretched from Niccolò Machiavelli's (1469–1527) commentaries on Livy to The Federalist Papers, based on precisely this distinction between republic and democracy. European republicanism was a curious ideology, one that developed as a continuous tradition of interpretation of an event, rather than a set of texts. Unlike competing nineteenth-century political ideals such as socialism, liberalism or even conservatism, republicanism had no founding mothers or fathers. Republicanism was the continuing project of instituting revolutionary democracy, of achieving the French Revolution, while debating the nature of that very democracy and the legacy of the Revolution.

ancients and moderns

A republic, for most early modern people, was any lawful state. Classical republicanism, or the neo-Roman theory of a free state, in Quentin Skinner's phrase, was a theory of the best kind of lawful state, which thinkers from Machiavelli to James Harrington (1611–1677) and beyond asserted was one in which the citizens governed themselves. Antimonarchical republicanism was a particular argument, generated after the execution of Charles I (r. 1625–1649) of England in 1649, that citizens could not govern themselves under a monarchy. The thrust of classical republicanism was to identify the qualities necessary for a citizenry to be selfgoverning, a set of qualities loosely organized under the term virtue. Virtue was the capacity to prefer the public good to one's own interests, or at least to recognize that the two were identical. The consensus among theorists as different as the Abbé Mably (1709–1785) and Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was that the main condition of virtue was material independence. Slaves, wage earners, children, women—indeed, anyone who relied on another—could not exercise virtue. In effect this restricted citizenship to property-owning male heads of households. The developing economies of the Atlantic world generated an interesting debate internal to republicanism, the luxury debate, which turned on the political consequences of the increase in non-landed property in a commercial society. Antique republicans argued that only landed property fostered virtuous independence while modern, or commercial, republicans criticized the martial tenor of the antique virtues and argued for a new set of polite or civil virtues generated from commercial society. In all cases the central problems of republican theory were to identify the persons who could exercise virtue and to design a constitution that would allow them to exercise power.

French revolutionary republicanism turned the republican debate on its head. During the Revolution the republican problem became to identify the institutions that would allow everyone to achieve virtue and so participate in political life as a citizen, rather than to find the virtuous citizens who already existed in the population. The universality of this aspiration could be inspiring. The French Republic restored Jews and colonial slaves to equality and liberty. The Jacobin constitution of 1793, which was ratified but never put into force, comprised a breathtaking aspiration to participation in the political process. Any law might be overturned by a reviewing process that could be initiated by local citizens. The Jacobins also generated new sets of rights claims, particularly the right to education and to welfare. Radical Jacobins went even further and argued for a right to work. The ideal had effects in realms outside the classically political: Philippe Pinel (1745–1826) transformed the treatment of the mentally ill as chief "alienist" in the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris by releasing them from incarceration and developing courses of treatment based on conversation, in the hope of restoring fellow citizens to their places in the republic.

All these claims were based on the republican idea that citizens had to be able to participate in public life on an equal footing if a modern society was to flourish. This complex position was not first arrived at as a theoretical reflection but was worked out in the complex conditions of revolutionary politics. In the context of the Revolution this notion of citizenship was a limited, moderate position on an ideological spectrum that wentfrom the Marquis de Sade's (1740–1814) libertarianism to the revolutionary conservatism of Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821). Republicanism argued that the equality enjoyed in political citizenship could stabilize and compensate for the inequalities generated by difference in the economy, society, and the arts. The politics of the Republic would reconcile self-asserting and self-interested modern people to one another and generate a social ethic appropriate to a modern commercial society. The consequence was that other spheres, such as the family, property relations, and education did not need to be revolutionized directly. The strict principles of democracy were to be limited to citizenship; other forms of authority were appropriate in other spheres. Democracy in the state and individualism in society were to be reconciled by moeurs, common values or culture. Republican institutions, such as schools, hospitals, theaters, festivals, and the military were to be schools of moeurs. The Republic comprised an institutional form, democracy, and an ethical aspiration to a limited kind of moral equality. The big problem within republicanism was identifying the boundary between politics and ethics, between the institutions that citizens used to represent themselves, such as suffrage, and the institutions that allowed them to know themselves as citizens, such as literacy.

the rights of man

The French Revolution did not begin as a republican revolt. A republic was an unthinkable regime in 1789, largely because France was understood to be too unequal to tolerate universal citizenship. Political thinkers interpreted contemporary France through the lens of ancient Rome and argued a republic would provoke a civil war between patricians and plebeians. The republic became a necessity because the monarch, Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792), could not accommodate his throne to the new realities. The failure of the monarchy demanded an alternative to be found if the country was not to descend into anarchy. The most important element of the three-year legacy of revolution was the language of rights. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, debated by the National Assembly between 20 and 26 August 1789, was not a republican text. It was created to set the terms of legitimacy for the new regime, to set a baseline for the exercise of power. Its specific provisions, such as rights to religious expression and the presumption of innocence in legal procedures, were not consistent derivations from a coherent theory of rights but compromises that reflected the complexity of French historical experience. The first five articles however, asserting the equality of rights and the goal of government as the protection of rights and identifying the primordial rights as liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression, were to define the Revolution and consequently republicanism. The Republic, declared in September 1792 after mismanagement of war had fatally discredited the monarchy, inherited these aspirations and had to accommodate itself to them. All citizens would have to enjoy all rights, the principle of universality was incontestable, and if citizenship demanded virtue then virtue would have to be universal also.

Republicanism has never fully mastered the conditions of its birth. A battery of thinkers such as Etienne Clavière (1735–1793), Jacques-Pierre Brissot (1754–1793), the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794), and Camille Desmoulins (1760–1794) offered inspiration on what universal virtue demanded and how it might be achieved. The politics of 1792 and 1793 overshadowed these efforts and generated its own images and archetypes of mobilized virtuous citizenship such as the sansculotte, the canonical popular revolutionary identified by his trousers rather than elite knee-breeches, or the far-left radically egalitarian enragé. These figures represented political virtue as the willingness to act directly to represent the people against its representatives or the state. This version of virtue identified republicanism with revolutionary energy and made commitment to continuing the Revolution an end in itself. It identified republicanism, and particularly the right to resist oppression, with the right to bear arms and to insurrection. One meaning of fraternity came to be the bond between volunteers fighting together against the enemy, be they internal or external. This strand of republicanism also promoted a citizen army and eventually demanded universal male conscription, initiated in the levée en masse of 1793. The Parisian radical storming the Tuileries and the soldier of the republic fighting across the Rhine were both versions of the people in arms. The nation, the state, and the people were all possible forms for the sovereign and each promoted its version of the citizen in arms: national guardsman, soldier, and sans-culotte.

The repertoire of insurrectionary republicanism was elaborated from 1792 to 1795. The only new element that would be added to insurrection by nineteenth-century republican rebels would be the barricade, and it is arguable that the barricade represented a retreat from the claim to represent the people to representing, and defending, a people, be it of a quartier or the working class. A particular feature of the culture of insurrectionary republicanism was exemplary defeat and moral victory through death. This could take the form of the Girondins, who opposed the centralizing Jacobins around Maximilien Robespierre, singing republican songs in the tumbrel on their way to the guillotine, or the heroic suicide of the Prairial martyrs stabbing themselves with a dagger and then passing it to a comrade while in the dock for rebellion. The most advanced form was the cult of the martyrs, such as Lepeletier de Saint Fargeau (1760–1793), Jean-Paul Marat (1743–1793), and Joseph Bara, a drummer boy in the army of the West put to death by Vendean counterrevolutionaries. Each of these was memorialized in paintings by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), although only the Death of Marat (1793) survives in finished form and is the best illustration of the moral authority claimed by the republican rebel.

The brother in arms, dead or alive, was not the only, or even the major, version of universal citizenship. From 1792 to 1799 administrators, political leaders, and political thinkers struggled with the interrelated problems of pragmatically making a democratic republic function and conceptually working out on what basis it should function. It has been argued that the division between Montagnard (the radical delegates who sat in the highest seats, or Montagne [Mountain], of the Convention) and Girondin, crucial to the politics of the Convention, was based on two different ideas of the republic, classical and commercial. This position is very difficult to sustain. Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles (1759–1794) was the principal author of the radical 1793 constitution and so strongly aligned with the Montagne, and also a dandified lawyer whose intellectual background was indistinguishable from that of the Brissot circle. The focus on institutions was shared by such radicals as Louis-Antoine-Léon de Saint-Just (1767–1794) and moderates such as the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794). Debates between factions in the Convention took place within a shared conceptual language. That language was elaborated by groups of reflective public actors, such as theCercle sociale, a prototypical think tank and publisher organized around the constitutional bishop Claude Fauchet (1744–1793). After 1794 the most important such unit developing republican thought and practice was the group contributing to the weekly journal La décade philosophique. The problem of generating insight into a new kind of regime, the modern, democratic, commercial republic, was so rich that it spun out a series of innovations. The second section of the Institut, a research body for the human sciences founded in 1795, can reasonably be seen as the birthplace of the modern social sciences: psychology, sociology, and anthropology, all disciplines that sought to understand the citizen of this new entity. One of the most successful areas of reflection was political economy. Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832), a member of the Décade coterie, developed Adam Smith's (1723–1790) ideas on labor value to generate a republican political economy, one that imagined the market as one of the institutions that taught the republican virtues of self-command and love of the public good to the citizenry.

Between the end of the Terror in 1794 and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (r. 1804–1814/15) in 1799 republicans had the opportunity to experiment with these ideas. During Thermidor and the Directory an alternative model of universal virtue emerged, one that saw citizenship as a feature of everyday life in a commercial republic rather than as an extraordinary capacity for direct action maintained by the people. Modern republicans argued that the most characteristic features of a modern commercial society, the industriousness of the population and communication in print culture, created republican moeurs. They argued that the role of a republican state was to ensure that there were outlets for industriousness and that every citizen could participate in print culture. Their first institutional innovation was a republican political economy that turned on the critique of monopoly, an endorsement of free trade, and an embrace of national development strategies. Industriousness was the basis of citizenship; therefore anything that hampered work was a political evil. The critique of monopoly in turn produced a preference for small units of production, particularly for owner-occupier farming. The second characteristic commitment was the embrace of right to education.

Every citizen should be capable of participating in public debate and the duty of the community was to equip them to do so. These economic and educational policies were to be reprised by the Third Republic as were some of the characteristic features of the public culture of the commercial republic, especially anticlericism and a penchant for celebrating national anniversaries with industrial exhibitions. The first industrial exhibition was set up as the Festival of the Republic at the Champs de Mars in 1798. By 1799 elections were beginning to become another important entry in the inventory of institutions that fostered republican virtue. However, it would take a century for republicanism to embrace the suffrage as a superior kind of political activity to insurrection and republicans have never abandoned the principle that in the last analysis the population retain the right to assert themselves directly. The relationship between the two wings of republicanism, insurrectionary and modern, remained unpredictable throughout the nineteenth century.


Republicans argued that rights were political, and so limited in scope, but that the social sphere should be organized in a manner that allowed citizens to assert their political rights. This distinction, but not disjunction, between politics and society allowed republicanism enormous flexibility. It allowed republicanism to recognize differences without having to inscribe those differences at the level of political identity. It was this flexibility that allowed for the easy integration of German- and Occitan-speaking areas of the country in an ideal "one and indivisible" republic, but it also denied that any purchase to any particularity in political identity. The Republic would be unfriendly to Occitan even as the peasantry of Southern France became one of its social bases. Managing the relationships between political and social identities was difficult and often as unsuccessful in theory as it was in practice. This was nowhere more evident than in the relationship of republicanism to women.

Clear thinkers condemned the exclusion of women from political rights from the very outset of the Revolution. Condorcet, who was later to embrace republicanism, published his plea for inclusion of women in the political nation in the Journal de la société de 1789 in July 1790 arguing that "either no individual of the human species has genuine rights, or all have the same rights; and he who votes against the rights of another, whatever that person's religion, color or sex, thereby foregoes his own rights." Yet the arguments of Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793), and Etta Palm (1743–1799), all feminist theorists active in the Revolution, were all ignored and sexual difference was the only social distinction inscribed as essential to political life. The reasons for this particular exclusion are still debated. A body of scholarship argues that the very notion of universality appealed to by republicans has masculine assumptions built into it and that the Republic was inherently committed to excluding women from public life. Another line of interpretation argues that the exclusion was a failure to overcome the cultural context and points to the adaptation of republican ideals by women as different as Sophie de Grouchy (1764–1822), the theorist of feminism and moral sentiment, and Louise Michel (1830–1905), the Communard fighter and working-class organizer at the end of the century, to support the idea that republicanism held genuine universal promise.

What is undoubted is the complexity and contradiction of this particular zone of engagement. A particular, odd idea of female autonomy was embraced by republicans. Directly after the declaration of the Republic in 1792 the Convention passed a law allowing for no-fault divorce. This was on the grounds that women had the same right to self-realization and autonomy as men. However, women were confined to the private or domestic sphere, and in consequence they could only pursue their happiness in this limited sphere. Divorce compensated for the limitations of femininity by releasing women from particular situations and allowing them to pursue their self-realization. This central paradox of acknowledging women as autonomous beings by limiting the scope of that autonomy also characterized other republican measures such as the provisions mandating female inheritance in the Civil Code. Republicanism would continue to be contradictory in its attitude to female citizens right through the period.

revolutionary aftermaths

The problematic legacy of the Revolution to republicanism comprised three distinct elements. The Republic had concentrated power in the hands of the Committee of Public Safety, which relied on the cooperation of Jacobins and sans-culottes to exercise a dictatorship. The committee had ruled through Terror and had justified that Terror as the lawful will of the people. Finally, the Republic's doctrine of popular sovereignty was as intolerant of all national difference as it was of political difference and had unleashed a destabilizing general war. Republicans reflecting on the revolutionary experience had to explain how citizenship and popular sovereignty did not threaten civilized life with dictatorship, terror, and destruction of the international system.

This particular debate remains current and is constitutive of the continuing legacy of the French Revolution. Conservative thinkers, drawing on the work of Edmund Burke (1729–1797) or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), have contrasted the irrationality of popular will with either the reason of the legal tradition incarnated in the state or the trust created between individuals in the local and specific interactions of social life. Liberals from Constant to François Furet (1927–1997) have argued that citizenship has to be interpreted within constitutional constraints if it is not to offend against liberty. Socialists beginning with Charles Fourier (1772–1837) have denounced the republican embrace of political citizenship as a sham, an illusion distracting from the real forces of the economy and technology operating in modern life. Political theory has interacted with historical interpretation. The Third Republic evaded the instability that had plagued the earlier incarnations, but the regime cannot be taken for an unproblematic example of a successful republic. A vibrant tradition of historical interpretation has argued that the eventual triumph of the Third Republic in France after 1871 masked the transformation of republicanism into French liberalism in the hard school of the Second Empire.

In the aftermath of the Revolution French republicans identified the political community as "le peuple" rather than "la nation." The French historian Jules Michelet's (1798–1874) 1846 book using the title was the most visible example of the celebration of a moral community with a definite character that preexisted political constitution. What the people demanded and the nature of the people could be differently interpreted within the republican tradition and these contrasting ideas reflected the continuing division between insurrectionary and commercial republicanism. One strand argued that the conditions for the advent of the people had to be brought about by a conspiratorial elite. Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881) gave his name, Blanquism, to this tendency in France. Blanqui developed the strategy of revolutionary will, the public uprising of an armed vanguard as a catalyst to a general rebellion, and carried it through in the failed Paris uprising of May 1839, the model for the barricade scenes in Victor Hugo's (1802–1885) Les Misérables (1862). The majority tradition, led in the 1840s by parliamentary orators and journalists such as François Arago (1786–1853) and Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin (1807–1874), saw the task of republicans to be to gain their rights for the people, notably the suffrage. The end of privilege, understood as the monopolization of rights by an elite, would reveal the true moral nature of the population to express itself. Republicans developed an impressive array of public manifestations, such as subscription banquets and political funerals, designed to illustrate their popular support while evading legal restrictions on political assembly. A strong republican press, best represented by Le National and La Réforme, allowed republicans to develop their ideas and to communicate them to their constituency. The two traditions coalesced in the 1848 February revolution in Paris. Republicans such as Alphonse-Marie-Louis de Prat Lamartine (1790–1869) and Ledru-Rollin worked to dispel the fear of the Republic by such measures as the repeal of the death penalty and the renunciation of all territorial ambitions. The compromise between the wings of republicanism unraveled in the uprisings by the poorer districts in June. The June revolts were interpreted, particularly by Karl Marx (1818–1883), as an illustration of the bankruptcy of republicanism in the face of the demands of mass, class-divided societies.

Republicanism outside France enjoyed its apogee in 1848. The argument that legitimacy lay with "the people" was equally attractive to reformers in England and nationalists in Hungary and Italy. The notion that industriousness was a characteristic of citizenship was central to the claims of the Chartists. One of the leaders of the Chartists, Feargus O'Connor (1796–1855), was the grandnephew by marriage of Condorcet and Sophie de Grouchy, and both his father and uncle had been republican rebels in Ireland in 1798. His ideas were in direct continuity with the Jacobin revolutionaries, and his "land plan" in particular was inspired by the republican preference for independent labor over wages. Italian republicanism was bifurcated in exactly the same way as French republicanism; the insurrectionary and social strands were represented by Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882) and Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) respectively. The commercial republicans' emphasis on industriousness was a core ideal for Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894) in Hungary as he sought to disassociate national sentiment from the caste privilege of the Magyars. A modern Hungarian nation would be a commercial society rather than an ethnic group dominating a subject population by appeal to the ancient constitution. Republicanism infused the revolutionary outbreaks of that year but their failure in turn generated its greatest crisis.

The manner in which republicanism would survive as a real political option after the debacle of 1848 was indicated by the republic that was least influenced by French experience: Switzerland. Béla Kaposy has argued convincingly that an independent Swiss commercial republicanism had developed from the 1750s and that by the 1860s it had arrived at a clear notion of a modern commercial republic, one in which the republic guaranteed the welfare of the citizens. The Swiss extended commercial republicanism to welfare, to insuring the citizens against the risks generated in modern capitalist society. Swiss republicanism also embraced the language and practice of civil society and argued that a dense associative life was a positive political good. Welfare and civil society were to be the animating ideas of French republicanism as it recovered from the disaster of 1848. The diversity of republican thought that exploited this opening is striking. On the left Léon-Michel Gambetta's (1838–1882) Belleville programme of 1868 laid out an array of social rights that the Republic would defend. Maximilien-Paul-É mile Littré (1801–1881) was an unabashed elitist, but he argued that the political health of the Republic depended on trade unions, a free press, and widespread participation in political clubs. All of these measures would be passed into law by the Third Republic. They complemented the creation of universal primary education, through the Ferry Laws, and industrial planning, such as the Freycinet Plan, which were already inherent in commercial republicanism. Under the Third Republic republicanism rearmed itself with a political movement, radicalism, a social base, particularly among the small-holders of the south, the Midi rouge, a new doctrine that illuminated the movement, solidarism, and finally embraced suffrage as the basis of the citizen's public commitment.

The division between revolutionary and commercial or social republicanism was not entirely healed by the Third Republic. The Communards were pardoned in 1880, but the memory of the Parisian revolutionary tradition could not be effaced. Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), for example, flirted with the appeal of direct action in his support for General Georges-Ernest-Jean-Marie Boulanger (1837–1891) in 1889. But the alliance that sought justice for Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935) aligned the two in the 1890s, and the appeal to the nation in arms would again be deployed in 1914 in support of the institutions of the existing republic and not its revolutionary twin. Elsewhere revolutionary republicanism retained its capacity to encourage direct action. Kossuth's commercial republicanism was the paradoxical inspiration for the founding of the Irish Republican Party, Sinn Féin, and in 1916 this vanguard of the people would express itself in Dublin. Republicanism continued to suggest criteria of legitimacy that could not be fully represented by a state.

Nineteenth-century European republicanism was dominated by the French experience. The ideals were forged in the Revolution, undermined in 1848, renewed and institutionalized in the Third Republic. Elsewhere republican influence was more sporadic and derivative. Republican ideals could be found in unexpected places, however. In the aftermath of the failure of Chartism in England, working-class radicals in London experimented with republican ideals. William James Linton (1812–1897) founded the Bethnal Green Republican Propagandist Society and published The English Republic, which sustained the continuity of English republicanism into the later part of the century. These kinds of movements were always vulnerable to events in France and the English republican movement collapsed in the aftermath of the Paris Commune. In France the political culture eventually learned how to comprise the repertoire of republican political action, to accommodate direct action without threatening the system of governance. Elsewhere, in such countries as Italy, Spain, and Ireland republicanism in 1914 remained a revolutionary faith.

See alsoBlanqui, Auguste; Chartism; Citizenship; Clemenceau, Georges; Conservatism; French Revolution; Garibaldi, Giuseppe; Girondins; Gouges, Olympe de; Jacobins; Kossuth, Lajos; Lamartine, Alphonse; Ledru-Rollin, Alexandre-Auguste; Levée en Masse; Liberalism; Mazzini, Giuseppe; Nationalism; O'Connor, Feargus; Paine, Thomas; Socialism; Wollstonecraft, Mary.


Higonnet, Patrice L. R. Goodness beyond Virtue: Jacobins during the French Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.,1998.

Livesey, James. Making Democracy in the French Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., 2001.

Nicolet, Claude. L'idée républicaine en France (1789–1924). Paris, 1982.

Nord, Philip. The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Rosanvallon, Pierre. Le sacre du citoyen. Paris, 1992.

Skinner, Quentin. Liberty before Liberalism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Stone, Judith F. Sons of the Revolution: Radical Democrats in France, 1862–1914. Baton Rouge, La., 1996.

James Livesey


views updated Jun 27 2018


Republicanism is one of the great traditions of Western political thought. To say that republicanism is a "tradition" of political thought is to say that distinctively republican ideas about politics have been championed by a number of authors in the history of political theorizing, and that many of the later authors who championed those ideas consciously drew on and developed the work of earlier ones. This continuity of reference and influence makes it possible to trace a republican strand in Western political writing. But what ideas about politics are distinctively republican? What ideas define the republican tradition?

The republican tradition is often associated with the claims that citizens can only be free in a free society, that the opposite of freedom is a state of dependence akin to slavery, that societies are most likely to enjoy freedom and to realize their common good when they are governed by politically engaged citizens who act from the civic virtues, and that the pursuit of the common good is undermined when citizens' virtues are corrupted by selfishness, luxury, and ambition. These claims turn up consistently in the writings which make up the republican tradition from Rome at least through the eighteenth century.

The classic texts of the republican tradition were produced in political circumstances very different than those of the early twenty-first century. These texts commend ways of life, such as a life of politically active citizenship, that are open to relatively few citizens of large, modern societies such as England and the United States. The political threats in the face of which these texts were produced were quite different than the threats to liberty and equality posed by the modern states of late capitalism. Republicans' emphasis on civic virtues raises the possibility that republican politics would be difficult to sustain under conditions of moral pluralism. It is therefore not immediately clear that republicanism can provide guidance to modern politics. Even if republican ideas can provide some guidance, it is far from clear that republicanism alone can provide sufficient guidance. Perhaps republican ideas about politics are most useful as supplements to political theories that belong to other traditions of political thought and that are explicitly framed for current conditions.

Republicanism has enjoyed a revival in legal and political philosophy since the 1980s. Those who have revived republicanism in these disciplines have tried to apply the insights and arguments of the tradition to contemporary politics. But some participants in the revival themselves seem to raise questions about the sufficiency and distinctiveness of republicanism. They move easily between republicanism and democratic liberalism and seem content to describe themselves as both republicans and liberals. The fact that they do so raises questions about whether any version of republicanism that is of more than historical interest is faithful to ideas that have distinguished the republican tradition. It also raises questions about whether versions of republicanism that bear on contemporary politics are part of a strand that ought to remain distinct from other movements of political thought. Perhaps the insights of republicanism are best absorbed into liberalism, a tradition which has its origins in the early modern period.

Late twentieth-century work on republican views of liberty has, however, changed the way historians and political theorists think about republicanism. It has already shed new light on some of the classic texts in the republican tradition. It promises to show how some of the claims characteristic of republican writing can be systematically united and given a theoretical basis. And it promises to illuminate deep and interesting differences between republicanism and liberalism. If these promises can be made good, then republicanism's claim to be a distinctive family of political thoughtand one of continuing relevancecan be vindicated.

Roman Republicanism

The origins of the republican tradition lie in the writings of Roman political thinkers, such as Cicero and Sallust, who lamented and analyzed Rome's transformation into an empire just before the beginning of the common era. They came to be called "republicans" in part because the form of government they favored was that of pre-imperial Romea regime for which Cicero popularized the name "the republic." They are also called "republicans" because of the features of that government that they seized upon when arguing that rule by the republic's government was superior to imperial rule. The words "republic" and "republicanism" derive from the Latin phrase res publica, which means "public matter."

According to these thinkers, the republic was better suited to advance the common good of the Roman people than the empire was because, unlike the empire, its government was participatory. It was governed by public-spirited citizensin particular, public-spirited citizens serving in the Roman senatewho devoted themselves to the pursuit of public matters rather than to the pursuit of their own wealth and ambition. In the "Dream of Scipio," Cicero famously claimed that those who dedicate themselves to the preservation of the republic would enjoy an eternal reward. Such devotion to the republic, he thought, required civic virtue. Republican writers claimed that the Roman republic was subverted by corruption. It was subverted, they said, by those who sought and used political power to further their own ends rather than the common good of the Roman people.

Renaissance and Early Modern Republicanism

Republicanism had little impact on the political thought of the Middle Ages, though some of the writings of Cicero were certainly known to such great medieval philosophers as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. But the writings of the Roman republicans were important sources for political thinkers in Renaissance Italy who wanted to maintain the freedom of city-states against internal and external threats. They were also important sources for thinkers in seventeenth-century England who opposed the absolutist tendencies of the Crown. These writers located themselves in the tradition of Roman republicanism. They drew on republican claims about the importance of political participation, the need for a virtuous citizenry and the threats posed by corruption and self-interest, even as they adapted those claims to their own situations.

Among Italian thinkers, the greatest was undoubtedly Machiavelli, especially the Machiavelli who wrote The Discourses. Machiavelli believed that the citizens could only enjoy freedom if their city was free. One of the most significant threats to a city's freedom, he argued, was an internal threat: the threat posed to a city's good government by factions that would pursue their own interests once in power. Inspired by the political ideas of the humanist tradition and the writings of Roman republicans, Machiavelli argued that the dangers of factionalism could best be averted by a government of citizens committed to the common goods of civic wealth, glory, and independence.

English republicans such as John Milton and James Harrington were less concerned with the threat of faction than they were with what they regarded as the absolutist tendencies of the monarchy. They maintained that absolute power corrupted, but it did not corrupt only the monarch. A powerful court, they thought, was one that corrupted courtiers and politicians by encouraging their dependence upon royal favor. English republicans stressed the importance of the civic virtues, among which they numbered independence and frugality. They held up as models of good government the republics of Renaissance Italy, and the Roman republic. Historians sometimes call them "commonwealth men" because of their support for the Puritan commonwealth.

The Republican Revival

The last third of the twentieth century saw a resurgence of scholarly interest in republicanism, primarily but not exclusively in the English-speaking world. The resurgence of interest among American Constitutional lawyers in the 1980s and 1990s came to be known as the "republican revival." That term can be stretched to encompass the contemporaneous revival of interest in republicanism among political philosophers. The republican revival among lawyers and philosophers was preceded by and drew upon work by historians of Renaissance political thought and by historians of the American founding. Indeed it was because of the resurgence of interest among historians that so much has been learned about early modern republicanism. It is useful to begin a survey of the republican revival with a look at some of the historical work that preceded and influenced legal philosophers responsible for the revival.

In the 1950s Louis Hartz articulated what was for a time the received orthodoxy about the intellectual foundations of the American Revolution and founding. According to Hartz, the revolutionaries and founders owed their greatest intellectual debts to the classical liberalism Hartz ascribed to John Locke. In the 1960s historians of the American founding and its intellectual antecedents, notably Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, raised serious challenges to this orthodoxy. Bailyn and Wood argued powerfully that the intellectual underpinnings of the revolution and the founding period were in large part republican, drawn from the English commonwealth tradition of the previous century. John Pocock, who traced the origins of the commonwealth thought to Renaissance Italy, provided an even longer genealogy for American republicanism.

Bailyn and Wood mined the pamphlets and popular literature of early America for evidence of republican political thinking. The expressions of republicanism they found there included pervasive emphasis on the need for citizens to dedicate themselves to the common good and on the deleterious effect of faction and the elevation of private over public interest, concern with the corrupting effects of various forms of dependence upon Britain (including dependence on its monied and manufacturing interests), and the description of American dependence as a condition of slavery. Pocock, Bailyn, and Wood all maintained that the republicanism of the American founding was only gradually eclipsed by other forms of political thought in the years or decades that followed.

The question of whether and to what extent the American founders were republicans is a question of some importance for legal philosophy. The founding period of the United States was the period in which the body of the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written. The conclusion that the founders owed deep intellectual debts to republicanism arguably has profound implications for how the Constitution and the Bill of Rights should be read and applied. The argument that it has such implications seemed especially pressing to legal scholars at a time when some were defending originalist canons of Constitutional interpretation. In the 1980s Constitutional scholars began to draw on the historical work of Pocock, Bailyn, Wood, and others, and initiated the republican revival in legal scholarship.

The leading figures of this revival, such as Cass Sunstein and Frank Michelman, emphasized the participatory strain of republicanism. Republican government, according to these thinkers, is government by citizens who participate in politics. The politics in which they are to participate is to be deliberative: citizens of a republican regime are to participate in collective deliberations about public matters. Such public deliberation, they argued, promises to combat the factionalism and self-interest that republicans had traditionally seen as undermining good government. It does so because the process of deliberating with others is not one of bargaining in which parties try to satisfy the preferences they have formed before public deliberation begins. Rather, it is to be a process of reasoning with others about how to advance the common good. When citizens reason together about the common good, they are forced to rethink whatever self- and group-interested preferences they may bring into public deliberation.

Republican accounts of politics had previously been addressed to societies much smaller than the democracies of the late twentieth century. Framing a version of republicanism adequate for such large societies required imagining institutional forms through which republican government could be exercised within them. The leaders of the republican revival in the law offered republican readings of the American constitution and drew out the implications of those readings for a host of questions in public law, from environmental law to campaign finance reform.

The republicanism offered by republican revivalists in the legal academylike the republicanism uncovered by historians of the American foundingemphasized the value of political participation, the importance of their commitment to the common good and the threat posed by citizens' unregulated pursuit of self- and group-interested preferences. Because of these emphases, republicanism seemed to offer a healthy corrective to the individualism, self-interest, acquisitiveness, and withdrawal from public life that some thinkers, such as Michael Sandel, have alleged that liberalism encourages. Yet the republicans in the legal academy saw significant continuities between their own views and some forms of liberalism, particularly between their own views and the version of liberalism developed and refined by John Rawls from the 1960s until his death in 2003. By a decade after the republican revival began in American law schools, some of its leading figures had ceased to insist that there was anything distinctively republican about their views. Even some who continued to describe themselves as republicans, such as Sunstein, also described themselves as liberals and "deliberative democrats" as well. The development of a republicanism that was explicitly contrasted with liberalism had to await the republican revival in constructive political philosophy.

According to some leading republican political philosophers, the differences between republicanism and liberalism lie, not in the former's emphasis on political participation and civic virtue or in the latter's emphasis on individual rights, but in the very different conceptions of political freedom associated with each. Liberalism, as its name suggests, is a political philosophy that values liberty. The liberty that liberals are sometimes said to value is what has come to be called "negative liberty." Someone enjoys negative liberty to the extent that she can act as she likes, without external impediments. Political liberty is the freedom citizens enjoy in political society. Those who identify political liberty with negative liberty must think that even the best law is an external impediment to action, and so interferes with citizens' political liberty. If they also think, as liberals do, that it is the job of government to promote and secure political liberty, then they must also think government should rely as little on these impediments as possible. It should secure as much negative liberty for citizens as is compatible with the enforcement of laws needed to maintain public order.

Some of the most prominent republicans who have contrasted their views with liberalism have contrasted them with versions of liberalism which equate political liberty with negative liberty. They have introduced another kind of freedom, which they call "freedom as nondomination." They have argued either that political liberty includes both negative liberty and liberty as nondomination, or that it consists in liberty as nondomination alone. To appreciate the differences these republicans see between liberalism and their own views, it is necessary to see what it is for one agent to dominate another.

One agent dominates another just in case the former is in a position to interfere arbitrarily with the choices of the latter. An agent is in a position to interfere arbitrarily with another's choices just in case that agent is able to interfere with the other's choices without having to take the latter's interests into account. This way of characterizing domination implies that there are two important differences between liberal views which identify political liberty with negative liberty and republican views which either equate political liberty with liberty as nondomination, or which claim that political liberty includes liberty as nondomination.

One difference is that, according to the latter, not all laws restrict citizens' freedom. When political authorities take account of the interests of citizens in the enactment and enforcement of law, they do not dominate citizens. They do not dominate them because, though the laws may interfere with citizens' freedom of action, they do not do so arbitrarily. Therefore, though these authorities compromise citizens' freedom on liberal accounts which equate liberty with negative liberty, they do not do so on republican accounts.

The other difference is that republicans think one person can restrict another's liberty just by being in a position to interfere with him arbitrarily, even if she never actually interferes with him at all. Thus a political authority who can exercise power without accountability, but who chooses to enact laws which further the common good, still dominates citizens. These citizens therefore lack political freedom on republican accounts but not on liberal ones.

The account of liberty as nondomination has been stated and defended most notably by Philip Pettit, beginning in the mid-1990s. Pettit labels that account of freedom a "republican" account because he claims that it is found in the seminal texts of the republican tradition. He argues quite convincingly that, by taking freedom understood as nondomination as the supreme political value, he can account for why republicans have valued political participation and why they have maintained that citizens are free only in free societies. Quentin Skinner, the historian of Renaissance republicanism, also has claimed to have found a distinctive conception of liberty in the republican tradition. In response to Pettit's work, Skinner has argued that republican political liberty includes both negative liberty and liberty as nondomination. Whether Pettit's or Skinner's view of political liberty is more faithful to the texts remains a matter of scholarly debate. What is beyond debate is that Pettit's conceptual work on republican liberty has greatly influenced historical work on republicanism, and that Pettit and Skinner have taken the republican revival to a new level of philosophical sophistication. Questions remain, however, about exactly where their versions of republicanism differ from prominent forms of liberalism which do not equate political liberty with negative liberty.

The liberalism developed by Rawls in the last third of the twentieth century has been enormously influential. Rawls argued for principles of justice which, he maintained, would be agreed to in what he called "the original position." The original position is, like the state of nature in Locke's work, a condition appropriate for writing a social contract. Thus the principles of justice Rawls defends are principles citizens would choose for themselves under the conditions appropriate for such a choice. Rawls calls a society which is regulated by those principles a "well-ordered society." When citizens live in a well-ordered society and when their own plans are in accord with the principles of justice, they live under and act from principles they would give to themselves. To be autonomous is, literally, to give oneself a law. Citizens who live in a well-ordered society and act from principles they would give themselves therefore enjoy an important form of autonomy, which Rawls calls "political autonomy."

One question republicans need to answer is how their view of political liberty differs from a view of political liberty like Rawls's, according to which political liberty includes political autonomy as an important ingredient. Another is whether they think Rawls's well-ordered society would include injustices or obstacles to freedomfor example, instances of dominationthat a republican regime would not. This question will require a complicated answer because, while Rawls thinks that political freedom includes political autonomy, he does not equate the two. He insists that, in a well-ordered society, the liberties exercised in political participation will have what he calls "fair value." Citizens' possession of political liberties which have fair value may be required by their political autonomy, but it seems to be distinct form of political freedom. Moreover, it is at least arguable that when citizens enjoy this form of political freedomwhen these liberties have fair valuemuch of the political domination that concerns republicans will be eliminated. Finally, republicans need to ask whether a republican society would allow injustices that a well-ordered society would eliminate.

Republicanism has undoubtedly been a philosophically interesting tradition of thought which exercised great influence at important points in Western political history. Since the late twentieth century it has been revived with brilliance and ingenuity. But until contemporary republicans answer these questions, it will be difficult for them to maintain that republicanism is superior to all forms of liberalism. Until they answer them, it will also be unclear whether republicanism can stand on its own as a theory of contemporary interest, or whether the insights that have been systematized by its most sophisticated exponents are better incorporated into some version of liberal theory.

See also Cosmopolitanism; Libertarianism; Multiculturalism.


Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De re Publica. Translated by Clinton Walker Keyes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Harrington, James. "The Commonwealth of Oceana" and "A System of Politics." Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, 1991.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Discourses. New York: Penguin, 1984.

Michelman, Frank. "Law's Republic." Yale Law Journal 97 (1988): 14931538.

Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Rogers, Daniel T. "Republicanism: The Career of a Concept." The Journal of American History 11 (1992): 1138.

Sandel, Michael J. Democracy's Discontent: America's Search for a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Skinner, Quentin. "The Idea of Negative Liberty: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives." In Philosophy in History: Essays on the Historiography of Philosophy, edited by Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner, 193221. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Skinner, Quentin. Liberty Before Liberalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Skinner, Quentin, ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Sunstein, Cass. "Beyond the Republican Revival." Yale Law Journal 97 (1988): 15391590.

Wood, Gordon. The Creation of the American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Paul Weithman (2005)


views updated May 14 2018


Republicanism was the ideology of the american revolution, and as such, it still influences much of what Americans believe; in recent years it has had a renewed importance in American constitutional thought. It is difficult for us today to appreciate the revolutionary character of this republican ideology. We live in a world in which almost all nations purport to be republican; even those few countries that remain monarchies, such as Britain and Sweden, are more republican in fact than some others that claim to be republican in theory. But to the monarchy-dominated world of the eighteenth century, republicanism was a radical ideology; indeed, it was to the eighteenth century what Marxism was to be for the nineteenth century. Republicanism was a countercultural ideology of protest, an intellectual means by which dissatisfied people could criticize the luxury, selfishness, and corruption of eighteenth-century monarchical culture.

Yet it would be a mistake to think of republicanism, in the English-speaking world at least, as a distinct and coherent body of thought set in opposition to monarchy or to the English common law tradition of rights and liberties. In the greater British world, republican thinking blended with monarchy to create the mixed and limited government of the English constitution that was celebrated everywhere by enlightened theorists like montesquieu. Britons regarded the republican part of their constitution, the House of Commons, as the principal bulwark protecting their individual rights and liberties from encroachment by monarchical power. Thus, the sharp distinction drawn by some historians and political theorists today between the civic tradition of republicanism, often identified with James Harrington, and the common law tradition of personal and property rights, often identified with john locke, would not have been clear to eighteenth-century Englishmen.

Republicanism, however, was more than a form of government; it was also a form of life—a set of beliefs that infused the cultures of the Atlantic world in the age of Enlightenment. Its deepest origins were in ancient Rome and the great era of the Roman republic. The enlightened world of the eighteenth century found most of what it wanted to know about the Roman republic from the writings of the golden age of Latin literature, between the breakdown of the republic in the middle of the first century b. c. to the establishment of the empire in the middle of the second century a. d. the celebrated latin writers of this time—cicero, sallust, tacitus, and plutarch, among others—lived when the greatest days of the republic had passed, and thus, they contrasted the growing stratification, corruption, and disorder they saw around them with an imagined earlier world of rustic simplicity and pastoral virtue. roman farmers had once been hardy soldiers devoted to their country. but they had become selfish, corrupted by luxury, torn by struggles between rich and poor, and devoid of their capacity to serve the public good. in their pessimistic explanations of the republic's decline, these latin writers left a legacy of beliefs and ideals—about the good life, about citizenship, about political health, about social morality—that have had an enduring effect on western culture.

This great body of classical literature was revived and updated during the Renaissance and blended into a tradition of what has been called "civic humanism." This classical republican tradition stressed the moral character of the independent citizen as the prerequisite of good politics and disinterested service to the country. To be good citizens, men had to be free of control by other men and free of the influence of selfish interests.

The classical republican tradition passed into the culture of northern Europe. In England it inspired the writings of the great seventeenth-century republicans john milton, James Harrington, and Algernon Sidney. And it was carried into the eighteenth century by scores of popularizers and translators. By the late eighteenth century, being enlightened was nearly equivalent to believing in republican principles; many Englishmen even described the English monarchy as being a republic in fact. This republican tradition had a decisive effect on the thinking of the American revolutionary leaders.

Republicanism meant for the American revolutionaries in 1776 more than eliminating a king and instituting an elective system of government; it meant setting forth moral and social goals as well. Republics required a particular sort of independent, egalitarian, and virtuous people, a simple people who scorned luxury and superfluous private expenditure, who possessed sufficient property to be free from patronage and dependency on others, and who were willing to sacrifice many of their selfish interests for the res publica, the good of the whole community. Republican equality meant a society whose distinctions were based only on merit. No longer would one's position rest on whom one knew or married or on who one's father was.

Such dependence on a relatively equal, uncorrupted, and virtuous populace that had a single perceived public good made republics very fragile and often short-lived. Monarchies were long-lasting; they could maintain order from the top down over large, diverse, and even corrupt populations through their use of patronage, hereditary privilege, executive authority, standing armies, and an establishment of religion. But republics, such as the American states, had to be held together from below, from virtue, from the consent and sacrifice of the people themselves. Consequently, as Montesquieu and other theorists had warned, republics necessarily had to be small in territory and homogeneous and moral in character. The only republics existing in the eighteenth century—the Netherlands and the city-states of Italy and Switzerland—were small and compact. Large heterogeneous states that had tried to establish republics—as England had in the seventeenth century—were bound to end up in chaos, resulting in some sort of military dictatorship, like that of Oliver Cromwell. If it was too large and composed of too many diverse interests, a republic would fly apart.

It was little wonder, then, that the Americans in 1776 embarked on their experiment in republicanism in a spirit of great risk and high adventure. Nothing resembling their confederation of thirteen independent republican states had existed since the fall of Rome.

By 1787, however, American leaders had lost some of their earlier confidence in the American people's capacity for republicanism. Experience with popular government in the 1770s and 1780s, especially in the democratic state legislatures, had increasingly cast doubt on the people's virtue and disinterestedness. Selfish and local interests had captured majority control of the popularly elected legislatures and had used their lawmaking authority to promote their partial interests at the expense of the general good and minority rights. Such abuses of power by democratic state legislatures, wrote a concerned james madison in 1787, had brought "into question the fundamental principle of republican government, that the majority who rule in such governments are the safest guardians both of public good and of private rights." Suddenly the people's civic liberty, their participation in government, which lay at the heart of republicanism, seemed incompatible with their personal rights and liberties.

Such a conflict between majoritarian republicanism and minority rights had not been anticipated by the revolutionaries. The Americans of 1776 had thought that the people's republican participation in government was the best guarantee of the people's personal rights. They had assumed, said Madison in a series of 1780s letters, speeches, and working papers, culminating in his essays in the federalist, that the people composing a republic "enjoy not only an equality of political rights, but that they have all precisely the same interests and the same feelings in every respect," which was why republics were supposed to be small in size. They had thought that in such small republics "the interest of the majority would be that of the minority also; the decisions could only turn on mere opinion concerning the good of the whole of which the major voice would be the safest criterion; and within a small sphere, this voice could be most easily collected and the public affairs most accurately managed."

Now, however, to Madison and other national leaders, with a decade's experience behind them, these assumptions about republicanism seemed "altogether fictitious." No society, no matter how small, "ever did or can consist of so homogeneous a mass of citizens." All "civilized societies" were made up of "various and unavoidable" economic distinctions and marketplace interests: rich and poor, creditors and debtors, farmers and manufacturers, merchants and bankers, and so on.

In a small republic, such as each of the thirteen states, it was sometimes possible for one of these competing factions or partial interests to exploit the popular electoral process and gain majority control of the legislature and pass laws oppressive of other groups and interests and contrary to the common interest of the community. This problem of tyrannical and factious legislative majorities, the contradiction between public and private liberty, was precisely what had troubled most of the states since 1776, and it was the principal cause of the crisis that had led to the formation of the new national Constitution. "To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government," wrote Madison, was "the great object to which our inquiries are directed."

Madison and other Framers solved the problem in 1787 by standing the body of conventional assumptions about the size of the republics on its head. Instead of trying to keep the republic small and homogeneous, Madison seized on, and ingeniously developed, David Hume's radical suggestion that a republican government operated better in a large territory than in a small one. The republic, said Madison, had to be so enlarged, "without departing from the elective basis of it," that "the propensity in small republics to rash measures and the facility of forming and executing them" would be stifled. In a large republican society "the people are broken into so many interests and parties, that a common sentiment is less likely to be felt, and the requisite concert less likely to be formed, by a majority of the whole." Madison and the other Framers, in other words, accepted the reality of diverse competing partial interests in American society and were quite willing to allow them free play in the society.

But not, it was hoped, in the new national government. Madison was not a modern-day pluralist. He did not expect the new federal government to be neutralized into inactivity by the competition of these numerous diverse interests. Nor did he see public policy or the common good emerging naturally from the give-and-take of these clashing interests. He did not expect the new national government to be an integrator and harmonizer of the different interests in the society; instead, he expected it to be a "disinterested and dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions and interests in the State." And it would be able to play that role because the men holding office in the new central government would by their fewness of number and the largeness of the electoral districts most likely be "men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters." Thus, the Founding Fathers hoped that the new extended national republic would be led by enlightened men who were free of local constituent pressures and selfish marketplace concerns and who would deliberate in a disinterested manner and promote the general good. To this extent, the Framers clung to the tenets of classical republicanism.

But they clung even more firmly to the tenets of their belief in personal rights and liberties, whether defined as common law protections like habeas corpus and trial by jury or as natural rights like a free conscience in matters of religion. Indeed, protecting these personal rights, including the individual's right to pursue happiness and property, was increasingly regarded as the principal end of government, to which republicanism was only a means, and not a very adequate one at that. Hence, separation of power, checks and balances, bills of rights, the independent judiciary, and judicial review all worked to limit the power of government and to undermine the classical republican reliance on the general will of a united people.

The democratic revolution of the decades following the creation of the Constitution further transformed the tradition of classical republicanism. In the North at least, it virtually destroyed the classical republican dream of an enlightened aristocracy acting as disinterested umpires over the economic and political struggles of the society. political parties emerged to reestablish patronage and to promote the partisan local interests of people, and countless individuals took off in pursuit of their private happiness. By the middle of the nineteenth century, America gave as free a rein to commercial activity and the self-interestedness of people as any society in history.

But much of the republican tradition has remained alive, even to this day. Republicanism tempers the scramble for private wealth and happiness, and accounts for many of the Americans' ideals and aspirations: for their belief in equality and their dislike of pretension and privilege; for their relentless yearning for individual autonomy and freedom from all ties of dependency; for their periodic hopes that some political leaders might rise above parties and become truly disinterested umpires and deliberative representatives, hopes expressed, for example, in the election of military heroes and in the mugwump and Progressive movements; for their long-held conviction that farming is morally healthier and freer of selfish marketplace concerns than other activities; for their preoccupation with the fragility of the Republic and its liability to corruption; and, finally, for their remarkable obsession with their own national virtue—an obsession that still bewilders the rest of the world.

Gordon S. Wood

(see also: Constitutional History Before 1776; Constitutional History, 1776–1789; Natural Rights and the Constitution; Political Philosophy of the Constitution; Republican Form of Government; Social Compact Theory.)


Pocock, J.G.A. 1975 The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Wood, Gordon S. 1969 The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


views updated May 18 2018


REPUBLICANISM is a term historians use to encompass the bundle of beliefs held by early Americans as they made the ideological transformation from loyal colonists to rebels and Patriots. Commonly applied to members of the elite, this protean word is easily adjusted to describe the ideological changes within the minds of common white men, Native Americans, African Americans, and women. Whether republicanism affects the structure of society from the top down or the bottom up is a matter of fierce debate. There is a consensus that republicanism infused the revolutionary generation and steered the debate over the writing of the Constitution—and the meaning of citizenship in the early republic.

The Basis of Republicanism

Classical republicanism insisted that civic virtue—the capacity to place the good of the commonwealth above one's own interest—became the key element of constitutional stability and liberty-seeking order. Only men who had a stake in society, preferably freeholder status of some magnitude, who were literate and familiar with major classical and Enlightenment thinkers, could lead society. Other people, including women, younger men, and the enslaved, had to depend on the elite's virtue to protect them against tyranny, conquest, and natural disasters. Americans understood that their newly arising state was part of history and thereby needed careful surveillance against the corruptions of time and excessive liberty. Ultimately, the American republican vision rested on four interlocking concepts. First, the ultimate goal of any political society should be the preservation of the public good or commonwealth; second, the citizens of a republic had to be capable of virtue, or the subordination of one's private interests in service of public needs; third, to be virtuous, citizens had to be independent of the political will of other men; fourth, citizens had to be active in the exercise of their citizenship.

Looking to the past for instructive examples, American thinkers searched the humanist legacies of Aristotle, Cicero, Tacitus, Plutarch, and others to bolster their beliefs that a simple, agricultural world nurtured civic humanism. Self-interest and patronage corrupted the simplicity of virtue and destroyed such past civilizations and would, if unchecked, ruin American society as well. While the American elite landed gentry and small farmers understood the advancing concept of capitalism and its concomitant qualities of self-interest, greed, and luxury, they believed that a hierarchical society led by the best men could curb excesses and preserve liberty for all.

A Struggle over Definition

As Joyce Appleby has noted, American scholars took to theories of republicanism as a chemist would to the discovery of a new element. For scholars, republicanism offered a solution for the divisive debate over the character of the revolutionary generation. One view, articulated during the Progressive Era by Charles and Mary Beard, was that interest groups were the "pistons in the engine of change," and that the Revolution was as much a conflict, as Carl Becker put it, over who shall rule at home as over who shall rule. Opposing this version of American exceptionalism were scholars who noted the preponderance of English folkways. Moreover, Perry Miller and then Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood favored taking American writings seriously and accentuating their wrangling over their place in the British Empire. By the era of the American Revolution (1775–1783), this dissension had reached, as J. G. A. Pocock reported, a "Machiavellian moment," in which a new republican comprehension of history among the Patriots produced a powerful anxiety over English corruption. The biggest problems were the new moneymakers in London, their "corrupt and venal ministry," and a desire to enslave Americans.

Once Bailyn and other scholars started looking at the pamphlet wars in late colonial America, they found much to bolster their beliefs. In words and in symbols, early Americans articulated their themes and ideology. Bailyn showed how colonial Americans felt their virtue stemmed from the country faction of English politics and identified with its anxieties over court corruption, luxury, degeneration, and fear of enslavement. They felt a kinship with the country faction's critique of merchants and lawyers who set up international networks that ensnared the needy and unaware small producers, enslaved them, and weakened their civic humanism. As the revolutionary crisis of the 1760s and 1770s picked up steam, colonists argued about these anxieties in newspaper articles and pamphlets that were distributed widely along the Atlantic Coast. As subjects of the Crown, they had to be careful about identifying themselves and made plain their convictions through a series of pseudonyms. About half of the writers adopted monikers borrowed from republican Roman thought such as Publius, Brutus, and Cato. Two other significant groups took names from English Commonwealth heroes such as Harrington and Sidney or from such Greeks as Lycurgus, Solon, and Timeon. These ideas were expanded upon during the constitutional debates of the 1780s. Republican themes may also be found in the paper money, coins, state seals, and membership certificates of the era.

Further complicating these debates were the advents of modernization, population growth, and capitalism. Americans, like their European counterparts, were changing rapidly. Yeoman and gentry farmers, the prize proponents of republican ideology, were becoming capitalists and individualists by the 1750s. Because of this, republicanism might be construed as the last, nostalgic beliefs of a dying class of agrarian traditionalists. The American Revolution ensured that there would be wider distribution of land for common white males, who could offer greater support for their gentry leaders. Tradition-bound republicans adhered to a hierarchy of power. Noble birth, refinement, and money enhanced the dignity and purity of politics.

A Change in Power

Scholars of republicanism disagree sharply about when its power dissipated. Gordon Wood has contended that the defeat of the AntiFederalists in the constitutional vote of 1787 was the last gasp of classical republicanism. Disagreeing with Wood are such scholars as Lance Banning and Joyce Appleby, who have uncovered the resurgence of classic ideals among the Jeffersonian republicans of the 1790s. While the Jeffersonians, Appleby contends, were capitalist and liberal, they used classical republicanism as a reaction to the more aristocratic forms of republicanism practiced by Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists.

Whenever republican power faded, its shadow fell across many people that Charles Beard might consider interest groups. One of the big tasks of social historians who have reacted to Bernard Bailyn's sweeping thesis has been to prove that ordinary Americans held ideologies as well and considered themselves fit to share power or displace the older elites. The Revolution did unleash greater expectations among the middling ranks of Americans. Because republicanism demanded more than mere mechanical exploration of the changes in power, scholars needed to identify the ideological power seeking of the middling and lower orders. Jesse Lemisch began this by showing how seamen in New York City felt grievances against the Crown as surely as did Virginia landowners. Richard Hofstedter argued that the Revolution actually produced a "status shift" in power, a concept used expertly by Edward Countryman in his A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760–1790 (1981) , about the change in political power in post revolutionary New York. Sean Wilentz subsequently showed how artisans added equality to the four precepts of republicanism listed earlier. The American Revolution instilled in common Americans the liberal idea that all citizens, at least all white male citizens, should be entitled to their natural civil and political rights under a representative, democratic system of laws. Artisan republicanism, as Wilentz described it, set off a generation of conflicts between elite politicians and ambitious mechanics over office holding, suffrage, and patronage. As capitalism transformed the craft traditions, these battles reared up between masters and journeymen as well.

Even groups who might be considered targets of enslavement or guided by the heavy hand of patronage, and thereby lacking in virtue, were capable of their own brand of republicanism. Consider the sturdy cartmen of New York City, who gained a monopoly on their semiskilled position by a bond of attachment via a freemanship with city officials. Throughout the colonial period, the carters, who gained the vote under the freemanship, exerted sizable political power alongside such brethren as butchers, bakers, and tavern keepers. After the Revolution, when the Federalist Party tried to channel the carters' votes, they rebelled because they believed that their stake in urban society came from their long-standing residence and their status as licensed workers.

Similar brands of republicanism could be found among African Americans. Republican-minded Americans often mentioned their fears of enslavement. The real slaves of early America responded with frustration over the lack of interest in their status displayed by republicans. African Americans found throughout the American Revolution and the constitutional period that conservative or radical republicans rarely gave much thought to the plight of enslaved Africans. Accordingly, they transferred their loyalties to the Crown. This does not mean that blacks were clients of the British. Rather, during the American Revolution, just as their white brothers did, African Americans sought participation in politics and demanded citizenship. When their hopes were rebuffed, several thousand of them sailed away with the departing British army in 1783, headed first to Nova Scotia, then to Sierra Leone to form a new nation in which they were the republican elite. Those left behind tried valiantly to persuade republicans in power to end the moral corruption of slavery and admit African Americans into the republican society. That they failed to convince speaks more about the sins of the founding fathers than of black inadequacies.

White American women were bound to a lesser status in the United States by their sex. During the American Revolution and its constitutional aftermath, little attention was paid to the political hopes of women. For many years, the colonial concept of the feme covert limited female political aspirations. As scholars have recently shown, however, women, in the same ways as African Americans, learned to exert their republicanism in churches, benevolent societies, schools, and above all, as the mothers of republicans. Their ideology stemmed perhaps from a protopsychology or from morals, but by the early nineteenth century, American women, white or black, were prepared to demand greater leadership.

Outside of European American society and well before the American Revolution, Native Americans created a unique brand of republicanism. In the Middle Ground, situated in the present-day upper Midwest, Indian republics coalesced from the migrations of survivors of war and plague. Outside of the French alliance and well beyond the shards of English power, Native American republicans in the 1740s and 1750s established an egalitarian political power that helped them defend against European incursions.

What these examples demonstrate is that republicanism is a protean concept with almost limitless possibilities. Early in the discussion about republicanism, scholars were delighted at its consensual potentials to explain Revolutionary and constitutional politics. The separateness of the examples described does not deny that consensual quality. Rather, each group, as American politics always does, requires the respect and understanding of its position.


Appleby, Joyce. Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Hodges, Graham Russell, ed. The Black Loyalist Directory: African Americans in Exile after the Revolutionary War. New York: Garland, 1996.

———. New York City Cartmen, 1667–1850. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

Pangle, Thomas L. The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Pettit, Phillip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Sellers, M. N. S. American Republicanism: Roman Ideology in the United States Constitution. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Graham RussellHodges

See alsoAgrarianism ; Equality, Concept of ; Liberty, Concept of ; Locke's Political Philosophy .


views updated May 11 2018



In rudimentary form, the origins of republicanism can be traced to Aristotle (384-322 BCE). However, this political form finds its first institutional embodiment in the republic of Rome (510-23 BCE), and its most comprehensive expression is in the writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) and Titus Livius (59 BCE 17 CE). Both Cicero and Livius argued that Romes failure resulted from internal corruption and conflict, which disrupted the checks and balances between the senate, the magistrates, and the people. The tradition was amended and revived during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by Italian city-states and thinkers such as Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540). It underwent further developments in England and the United States in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when individuals such as James Harrington (1611-1677), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), and James Madison (1751-1836) attempted to restrain or remove monarchical power.

Republicanism is a political doctrine principally concerned with freedom and its realization through self-governance. For republicans, the people are the source of sovereignty. Freedom thus consists in not being subject to anothers will, and by having the power to raise claims for or against the laws under which one is governed. The primary danger to freedom, republicans argue, comes in the form of internal corruption and conflict that, if left unchecked, threaten to run roughshod over the common good. In its classical form, it emphasizes the importance of a mixed constitution that provides an institutional balance between the diverging interests of the many (the plebeian or democratic element), the few (the patrician or aristocratic dimension), and the one (the monarchical aspect) in society. The classical model is reflected in the Roman system, which included tribunes of the people, the aristocratic Senate, and consuls, usually two elected annually.

Classical republicanism, however, has undergone an important transformation in modern times, centering on the weight different thinkers attach to self-governance. Robert Dahl refers to this as a shift in emphasis from the older aristocratic republicanism to a radical view that places a greater emphasis on the democratic character of the constitution. The older aristocratic position is articulated by thinkers such as Aristotle and Guicciardini, while the second radical character is embodied in the works of Machiavelli, Paine, and Jefferson.

While both forms worry about the consolidation of power and the extent to which it will become a form of domination, they disagree over how this danger will be realized, and from what sectors of society. In the older view, the people have an institutional place in the constitutional structure, but because they lack the reflective capacity to curb their desires, the constitution needs to limit their power to selecting leaders that will govern on their behalf. Aristocratic republicans argue that these individuals are guided by an interest in the public good and have an ability to engage in impartial and careful reflection, making them uniquely situated to govern on the peoples behalf and for their long-term interests.

In contrast, egalitarian republicans believe that modern societies no longer reflect these distinct social classes. The presence of a hereditary aristocracy, for example, becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish, especially in the earlier American context. Egalitarian republicans further argue that those trying to balance the aristocratic and democratic elements of society fail to see that the only legitimate good is the public good. The hallmark of modern radical republicanism, then, consists in dividing powers among separate institutions more carefully than reflected in the mixed constitution, with each serving as a check on the other. Modern examples include the British parliamentary system, and the United States Constitution, with its executive branch, bicameral legislative branch (the House and Senate), and judicial branch. The significant improvement to note is that these different branches of government do not reflect diverging but natural political cleavages in society vying for supremacy. Rather, they are constructed institutional appendages in which each element is but a part, with each designed to realize and protect the public good. As such, the public good is no longer a by-product of an institutional arrangement, as was often the case in the older view, but rather the end to which those institutions aim.

Another important transformation relates to political representation. Classical republics were unable to effectively incorporate growing populations into their institutional structure to ensure that the people remained sufficiently involved. In the case of Rome, for example, a population expansion did not result in a further development of sites for political participation. The problem of participation in large republics seemingly pointed to a limitation of the political doctrinenamely, that it was inappropriate in the modern expansive nation-states of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In modern times the answer comes in the form of representative democracy. As John Locke (1632-1704), Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), and Madison argue, a modern republic can connect the otherwise antidemocratic practice of representation with the sovereignty of the people. Indeed, as Madison explains in Federalist No.39, the people never give up their power because they always hold in reserve the right to change their representatives. Representation is based upon a revocable trust precisely because it is merely a proxy for direct participation and not a replacement of popular sovereignty. The result allows power to extend over vast territories in response to various problems of collective organization.

SEE ALSO Aristotle; Dahl, Robert Alan; Democracy; Freedom; Locke, John; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Pluralism; Republic; Separation of Powers


Dahl, Robert A. 1989. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Guicciardini, Francesco. 1520. Dialogue on the Government of Florence. Trans. Alison Brown. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 1788. The Federalist. Ed. Jacob E. Cooke. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1517. Discourses on Livy. Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Pocock, J. G. A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wood, Gordon S. 1969. The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Melvin L. Rogers


views updated Jun 27 2018

republicanism. After the only British experience of a republic, the Commonwealth of 1649–60, republicanism did not have its own party nor was it a major constituent of the programme of other parties or movements. Unlike most of Europe and America, where republicanism was regarded as a prerequisite of democracy, the extension of popular government in Britain was attained without revolution or overthrow of the monarchy. Nevertheless, republican sentiment was common among British radicals in the late 18th and 19th cents. Supporters of the American and French revolutions and admirers of Thomas Paine were usually republicans, as also were the plebeian radicals of the 1820s and 1830s, notably the followers of Richard Carlile, who published the Republican from 1819 to 1826. Some chartists were openly republican, as witness two late chartist journals, C. G. Harding's Republican (1848) and W. J. Linton's English Republic (1851–5). Periods of monarchical unpopularity stimulated republicanism. This was so during the Regency and again in the late 1860s and early 1870s, when a group of Liberal MPs, including Sir Charles Dilke and Joseph Chamberlain, revived the republican cause, fuelled by Queen Victoria's withdrawal from public life, the cost of the royal family, and the scandals associated with the prince of Wales. At the same time popular republicanism was spread by Charles Bradlaugh and the secularist movement; and a short-lived journal, the Republican, appeared in 1870. Republican clubs were formed in London and throughout the country during 1870–2. The labour and socialist movements of the 1880s and 1890s were republican in principle. But, as with earlier radical and reform movements, republicanism was only one of the constituents and not a major part of the programme. British republicanism has been a matter of principle or sentiment rather than an issue of practical politics.

John F. C. Harrison


views updated Jun 27 2018


This entry includes two subentries:

Latin America