PS 201 Joseph Boland

Introduction to US Politics Fall, 1998

Notes on Republicanism

The revolutionary generation fought for independence in order to establish an American republic. What, then, did they understand a republic to be? We should not suppose that there is a single answer to this question, since American society was rife with internal conflicts during (and after) the revolutionary era, and these conflicts--between merchants and small farmers, soldiers and officers, blacks (most of them slaves) and whites, federalists and anti-federalists, etc.--were often reflected in conflicting views of republican government. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify core ideas and values of the republican vision:

Popular sovereignty: In the course of the American revolutionary struggle, republican government came to mean government "of, by, and for the people." Traditionally, republicanism was a theory which claimed that the best government was one in which the three "estates" of society--the king, the nobility, and the people (or the one, the few, and the many)--were balanced. In contrast to this ideal, rule by the one or the few inevitably led to tyranny, while rule exclusively by the many--democracy--could lead to anarchy and licentiousness. In practice, especially in England and America, republicanism became the language of dissent and protest against the threat of tyranny emanating from the Crown and the House of Lords. As a result of conflicts between the Crown and the House of Commons in England, and even more so between the American colonies and the British government, republicanism evolved into democratic-republicanism, a specific form of democratic theory. The keystone of democratic republicanism was the principle that all legitimate government derived from the consent of the people and consisted of rule by the people. Politics came to be seen as a perpetual battle between rulers and the ruled, or between power and liberty.

Popular sovereignty was a radical doctrine, a profound break with existing theories of sovereignty. With the emergence of the nation-state system in Europe, sovereignty developed as a fundamental principle of order: the rule that somewhere in any government there had to be lodged a supreme authority over the whole. In England, Parliament, as the unity of king, lords and commons, came to be seen as sovereign by virtue of the argument that it represented the three estates of society. However, in the pre-revolutionary debate with the colonists the representativeness of Parliament, and the principle of virtual representation upon which it was based, were discredited. Americans groped for a new theory of sovereignty, eventually coming to believe that sovereignty lay with the people as a whole and that all elected officials were their agents, to whom they delegated specific powers and gave instruction on particular matters.

The American Revolution was made against the presumption of the English Crown and Parliament that it could govern the colonies without the colonists participation and consent. It was also a rebellion against monarchy and aristocracy. The advocates of independence believed that the Crown had used patronage and influence over the electoral process to gain power over the House of Commons, effectively destroying the balance of power intended by the English constitution.

Criticisms of the tyrannical potential and corrupting influence of the Crown over British government began to radicalize American colonists in the wake of the French and Indian War (1754-1763) when the British Crown sought to extract more revenue from the American colonies to pay its war debts and to impose firmer control over colonial society. Landmarks in this attempt included:

The new aggressiveness of the Crown, particularly its willingness to collect revenues without the consent of the colonial assemblies, raised the specter that, if the colonies failed to resist, they would soon be cowering beneath the tyrannical power of the monarchy. One of the leading voices of this view, Patrick Henry of the Virginia assembly, introduced a set of resolutions declaring that Americans possessed the same rights as the English, especially the right to be taxed only by their own representatives; that Virginians should pay no taxes except those voted by the Virginia assembly; and that anyone advocating the right of Parliament to tax Virginians should be deemed an enemy of the colony (Brinkley, 102). Although the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, it was followed by other efforts to collect revenues, including the import duties (Townshend Duties (1767); Tea Act (1773) (exempting the East India Company from the tea import duty) that inspired the famous Boston Tea Party. Colonial resistance to these provoked Parliament to drastically reduce the powers of and sometimes dissolve colonial governments. Thus in the years of crisis leading up to the revolutionary war the assertion and defense of popular sovereignty, meaning the sovereignty of colonial assemblies in opposition to the demands of the British government, led the towards independence.

Civic virtue: Civic virtue has been described as the "animating principle" of republicanism. In the text, it is defined as "the willingness of individuals to subordinate their private interests to the common good" (18-19). It is, arguably, more than this, for it supposes that the good of the whole, properly understood, is also the ultimate good of each. Civic virtue can be thought of as the opposite of tyranny--the domination and exploitation of a society by a ruler, the subordination of the whole to one part. Civic virtue, which found lasting form in the ideals of public service and the rule of law, was enlightened self-government. Society, understood as an organic whole upon whose well-being everyone depended, required for its preservation that those who governed it put its long-term and general interests first. One of the foremost English republicans, Harrington, implored his countrymen to "raise ourselves out of the mire of private interest unto the contemplation of virtue" (in Burns 1991, 454).

The powerful influence of revivalist Christianity in the early American republic meant that private interests considered to be in conflict with the public good often were regarded as evidence of sinfulness--of greed, licentiousness or the hunger for power. The secular good was thus married to the spiritual good of personal salvation. But even without this religious component, civic virtue emphasized not personal liberty but the responsible enactment of each person's social role within the community. Civil liberty was an aspect of this--it then meant the freedom, but also the responsibility, to participate in government.

For the white, male, property-owning citizens of the period, civic virtue meant participation in government with an overriding commitment to the common good. In addition, for all members of the community, civic virtue meant virtuous behavior, behavior in accord with the community's moral code. Likewise, the policies of republican government were to result from applying this moral code to those issues within the government's authority. The government was both interpreter and protector of civic virtue. Education was important as a means to instill civic values.

It is important to appreciate the relationship of civic virtue to republican government. On the one hand, republican government rested upon the active participation of the citizenry, either directly--as in town meetings--or indirectly through representation. Popular government was the most likely form of government to be virtuous--to achieve the common good--but even popular government depended upon a virtuous citizenry. On the other hand, republican government was responsible for protecting and defending civic virtue against the inevitable weakness and evil of fallen "man". This might often occur in a gentle and positive manner: collective deliberation would remind individuals of their responsibilities to the whole community, and a republican constitution "'introduces knowledge among the people, and inspires them with a conscious dignity becoming freemen'" (John Adams quoted in Wood 1969, 119). But government also entailed sanctions against those who broke the law or violated society's moral code.

Liberty versus power: In classical republican theory, power, the tendency to seek dominion over others, was a constant threat to the stability of government and to its capacity to act for the good of the whole. The classical solution to this problem was to seek a form of government that balanced the three "estates" of society: monarchy, aristocracy, and commoners. The danger was that one estate would gain power over the others. For republicans, the dangers of tyranny (the despotic rule of a king) and of oligarchy (aristocratic despotism) were far more real than that of anarchy (resulting from rule by the people, that is democracy). Hence they emphasized the importance of representative legislatures in protecting both civil liberty--the right of the people to participate in government--and personal liberty--the right of each person (largely limited at the time to property owning men) to life, the protection of personal property, and "the pursuit of happiness" or control of one's destiny.

Republican radicals in America altered this theory by rejecting monarchy and aristocracy. Commoners alone--the people--would rule themselves. But this meant that government should be kept as close to the people as possible, for in this revised theory power threatened liberty if government became detached from the people, developing interests antithetical to those of the governed. This concern shaped republican thinking about the form of government, leading to an emphasis on legislative power, written constitutions, and smallness of scale, as well as opposition to a standing army.

Legislative government: The dangers of "arbitrary rule and self-aggrandizement" (18) were greatest in the executive. The defense of liberty was entrusted to the legislature, which was closer to the people. The experience of the struggle with British colonial authority, in which colonial legislatures came to embody Americans' aspirations to self-rule in the face of British executive power--royal governors, the King's ministers, and the King himself--reinforced this belief. Early in the revolutionary war nearly all the former colonies adopted new constitutions, and most of them strongly emphasized the power of the legislature while sharply curtailing that of the executive. Pennsylvania eliminated the executive altogether (Brinkley 137; text 22). These early state constitutions also emphasized a strict separation of powers.

The small republic: Republicans believed that smallness of scale was essential to the durability and success of republican government. They had several reasons for thinking so. First, civic virtue, in their estimation, required that "the manners, sentiments, and interests" of the citizens of the republic be similar (Storing 19), and this homogeneity could only be expected in a small society. Second, their wish to keep government close to the people depended upon limiting both the geographic extent and the population of the republic. A limited geographical expanse would permit citizens easy access to legislative assemblies and assure that legislators could frequently communicate with those they represented. Limited population would mean that legislators would represent relatively small numbers of citizens, thereby strengthening the bonds between citizens and their representatives. Cultural cohesion--if not homogeneity--and strong bonds between representatives and citizens would foster solidarity and civic virtue.

The written constitution: The English constitution was unwritten; it was "simply a vague understanding about the nature of government" (Brinkley 137). American enthusiasm for written constitutions reflected Enlightenment confidence in the capacity of citizens to rationally order society as well as the conviction that failure to adopt a written constitution encouraged corruption. By legally defining the structure of government and the relationship among its parts, constitutions were intended to make it difficult for any branch or official to overstep their authority. Written constitutions safeguarded liberty by basing government on the rule of law rather than of men.

Constitutions were also seen as machines, products of a science of politics, and compared to clocks. Just as clocks regulated and ordered human time, so constitutions were regulative devices capable of preserving social stability against disruptive change (see Burns 1991, 465).

Model of citizenship: The republican citizen was economically independent, male, and (almost always) white. Not being dependent on others, the citizen could be counted on to speak freely in public affairs and to have an interest in the economic well-being and social stability of the republic. By the same token, economic inequality could doubly threaten the integrity of a republic. The growth of inequality was likely to lead to a divergence of interests between a wealthy few and those of more modest means, and it might subject formerly independent citizens to dependency.

Arguments against politically enfranchising women centered on their domestic role--seen as removing them from politics--and on their supposedly weaker intellects and gentler natures, which made them ill-suited to politics.

Organic community: Republican theory portrayed society as an organic whole whose well-being depended on the right ordering and coordination of its parts. Because republicans also believed that personal and civil liberty were essential to human well-being, governance could not be left to an enlightened few, but required instead the enlightenment of the many--the inculcation of civic values and of a capacity to responsibly participate in governance. Organicism also meant that republican government could extensively regulate the economy and social life in the public interest. As Wood notes,

The extensive mercantilist regulation of the economy, the numerous attempts in the early years of the war to suppress prices, control wages, and prevent monopolies, reaching from the Continental Congress down through the states to counties and towns, was in no way inconsistent with the spirit of '76, but in fact was ideally expressive of what republicanism meant (Wood 1969, 64).

Most republicans at the time of the revolution did not conceive of personal liberty as we do now--as fundamental individual rights including that of publicly disagreeing with existing laws, policies, and social mores. On the contrary, speech regarded as a threat to the revolutionary struggle or to the authority of revolutionary assemblies could be suppressed in order to protect liberty (Wood 1969, 63).

Social organicism was linked to similarity of condition and to the existence of consensual ideals. In the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian republic, most citizens were independent farmers among whom variations in wealth were overshadowed by the commonalities of rural life. And republicanism itself, along with Christianity, patriarchy, and other dominant beliefs, was to be the ideological common-sense of the people. But stood on its head, social organicism's dependence on a rough equality of condition and on consensual values licensed government to enforce material equality and police expression.