[NOTE: For a number of years, we had at my school a year-long elective course for seniors that combined elements of American history, American literature, and social outreach. In its last incarnation, this interdisciplinary offering was called “The School for the Common Good.” For several years, I dropped by this class for a week or so and lectured on the idea of the “common good,” which I located in the ideology of “republicanism,” tracing the concept, and republican ideology, through early American history while at the same time offering an overview of the formative years of new nation’s political development. What follows is the first of four posts revised from my notes for those lectures.]
“republic”—from Latin, res publica: public thing or matter.
Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he had made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. . . . Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. . . . Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. . . . [G]enerally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption. (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia )
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“Republicanism” was “in every way a radical ideology—as radical for the eighteenth century as Marxism was to be for the nineteenth century.” (Bailyn, et al., The Great Republic, I, 273—hereafter, GR) The roots of republicanism went back to ancient Greece and Rome, popped up again in the city-states of Renaissance Italy, then apparently reached a dead end in mid-seventeenth century England, during the time of the so-called “Puritan Commonwealth” under Oliver Cromwell (1649-1653). The Puritan Commonwealth died, even before Cromwell did, for he actually ruled as a sort of military dictator. Then, following Cromwell’s demise, the English monarchy was restored.
Yet, the ideas underlying England’s brief experiment with republicanism lived on, and again enjoyed a flurry of popularity in Great Britain during the 1720s and 1730s, when the first British “prime minister,” Sir Robert Walpole, presided over a regime that brought the nation stability and prosperity, but, according to his “republican” critics, at the cost of corruption. The ideas incorporated in these “republican” books and pamphlets crossed the Atlantic to Britain’s North American colonies, where they survived rather quietly for another generation. Then, after 1763, Britain’s efforts to tighten her imperial structure and impose a series of unpopular taxes on the Americans revived the republican “opposition ideas” from Walpole’s day.
Through the lenses of those earlier republican writers, colonial Americans in the 1760s and 1770s saw clearly a plot against their liberties being hatched by a “tyrannical” monarch and his “corrupt” ministers. In short, “republicanism” became the official ideology of the American Revolution. Thus, when the colonies decided to reorganize their governments as part of their break for independence, they naturally chose to transform themselves from “colonies” into “republics.”
What, exactly, did late-eighteenth-century Americans mean by “republicanism”? Unhappy colonists (or “Whigs”) tended to agree on the political, and to some extent on the social, meaning of the term: there would be no monarch, nor an American “aristocracy”; instead, government would derive its authority from “the people” themselves. However, as widely understood among educated American colonists, true republicanism “added a moral, idealistic, and indeed utopian dimension to the political separation from Britain . . . that promised . . . a change in the very character of American society.” (GR, 273) And, on this issue, disagreement arose.
In general, intellectuals familiar with the ideals of republicanism (and, to a great extent, republicanism as an ideology was most fully comprehended by intellectuals thoroughly schooled in ancient Greek and Latin texts) envisioned it as something like an American version of the Roman Republic, a “world of simple farmer-citizens enjoying liberty and rural virtue,” (GR, 274) much as Thomas Jefferson did in the passage quoted at the head of this post. In other words, American “republics” would exist in a world that possessed none of the aspects of “modernity” that had so exercised “republican” thinkers since at least Robert Walpole’s time.
More specifically, republicanism would include three essential elements. American republicans traced the evils of the decadent Old World to powerful governments that used corruption to reward their supporters and keep “the people” in thrall. The only way to prevent the rise of governmental corruption in republican America, these writers believed, was to create a society based upon the equality of independent citizens, “linked to one another in affection and harmony.” While it was true that the independence of these citizens grew out of their ownership of land, this society would not be narrowly selfish; rather, its members would be devoted to the “common good.” In fact, several of the American colonies (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, for example) adopted the name of “commonwealth,” rather than “state,” to emphasize their commitment to the “public good.” (GR, 274)
Republican theorists were thoroughly familiar with ancient history, so they knew that republics were frail constructs,easily disrupted, or even destroyed, by factions and internal strife. To surmount this difficulty, students of republicanism argued, following the French theorist Montesquieu, republics needed to be small in size and homogeneous in character and population. (By the late eighteenth-century, the only remaining republics were the Netherlands and some Italian and Swiss city-states.) Obviously, this notion presented a real challenge to the new United States, which, even at the end of the Revolution, was geographically large and ethnically diverse, not the stuff of which classical republics were made.
The “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, tackled this problem head-on in the most famous of the Federalist Papers, written in support of the proposed Constitution in 1787 during the ratification contest. In Federalist #10, Madison turned Montesquieu on his head, arguing that a republic in America would survive only because the new nation was so large and diverse: its very size, he said, would make it difficult, if not impossible, for a sufficient number of factions to unite to threaten the existence of the state. (Noted that Montesquieu’s theory, and Madison’s modification of it, reflected a rather gloomy view of human nature.) Still, whether a republic was large or small, it did not require a strong government.
What would hold it together was a second element of republicanism, the virtue of the people. Essentially, the radical nature of republicanism grew out of its reliance on the devotion of “the people” to achieve the public good. Republican citizens must be patriots who both loved their country and were free of the control of others.
In the late eighteenth century, this description seemed best to fit Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmers, “the chosen people of god.” Ownership of land by individuals supposedly furnished them with both independence and loyalty to the community. Moreover, because only free, white, adult males could own property in the late eighteenth century (and an extraordinarily large percentage of them did), all other Americans—slaves, Native Americans, and women, for example—could be denied the right to vote because they did not own property.
The final element of classical republicanism, as reinterpreted for citizens of the post-Revolutionary United States, was the emphasis on equality, “the most powerful and influential concept in American history.” (GR, I, 277) Ability, not birth, was the key, but, according to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, among others, republics would still have an aristocratic element, although a natural, not an artificial, one, essentially a nation of George Washingtons. Yet, in this republican nirvana, only free, white, adult males were eligible for membership in this “natural aristocracy.”
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So, this was the “republican” blueprint developed in the new United States after the American Revolution. It is against this template that we can measure the new nation’s success-or failure-in putting the theory of republicanism into practice. This will be the subject of later posts.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: