Theory of government by citizens.

In a republic – which is not necessarily presidential – government is in the hands of citizens, or of those accountable to them rather than in the control of a monarch or despot.

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

Historical development of republicanism

Classical antecedents

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, several philosophers and historians analysed and described elements we now recognize as classical republicanism. Traditionally, the Greek concept of “politeia” was rendered into Latin as res publica. Consequently, political theory until relatively recently often used republic in the general sense of “regime”. There is no single written expression or definition from this era that exactly corresponds with a modern understanding of the term “republic” but most of the essential features of the modern definition are present in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius. These include theories of mixed government and of civic virtue. For example, in The Republic, Plato places great emphasis on the importance of civic virtue (aiming for the good) together with personal virtue (‘just man’) on the part of the ideal rulers. Indeed, in Book V, Plato asserts that until rulers have the nature of philosophers (Socrates) or philosophers become the rulers, there can be no civic peace or happiness.[3]

A number of Ancient Greek city-states such as Athens and Sparta have been classified as “classical republics”, because they featured extensive participation by the citizens in legislation and political decision-making. Aristotle considered Carthage to have been a republic as it had a political system similar to that of some of the Greek cities, notably Sparta, but avoided some of the defects that affected them.

Ancient Rome

Both Livy, a Roman historian, and Plutarch, who is noted for his biographies and moral essays, described how Rome had developed its legislation, notably the transition from a kingdom to a republic, by following the example of the Greeks. Some of this history, composed more than 500 years after the events, with scant written sources to rely on, may be fictitious reconstruction.

The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the mid-2nd century BCE, emphasized (in Book 6) the role played by the Roman Republic as an institutional form in the dramatic rise of Rome’s hegemony over the Mediterranean. In his writing on the constitution of the Roman Republic,[4] Polybius described the system as being a “mixed” form of government. Specifically, Polybius described the Roman system as a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy with the Roman Republic constituted in such a manner that it applied the strengths of each system to offset the weaknesses of the others. In his view, the mixed system of the Roman Republic provided the Romans with a much greater level of domestic tranquility than would have been experienced under another form of government. Furthermore, Polybius argued, the comparative level of domestic tranquility the Romans enjoyed allowed them to conquer the Mediterranean. Polybius exerted a great influence on Cicero as he wrote his politico-philosophical works in the 1st century BCE. In one of these works, De re publica, Cicero linked the Roman concept of res publica to the Greek politeia.

The modern term “republic”, despite its derivation, is not synonymous with the Roman res publica. Among the several meanings of the term res publica, it is most often translated “republic” where the Latin expression refers to the Roman state, and its form of government, between the era of the Kings and the era of the Emperors. This Roman Republic would, by a modern understanding of the word, still be defined as a true republic, even if not coinciding entirely. Thus, Enlightenment philosophers saw the Roman Republic as an ideal system because it included features like a systematic separation of powers.

Romans still called their state “Res Publica” in the era of the early emperors because, on the surface, the organization of the state had been preserved by the first emperors without significant alteration. Several offices from the Republican era, held by individuals, were combined under the control of a single person. These changes became permanent, and gradually conferred sovereignty on the Emperor.

Cicero’s description of the ideal state, in De re Publica, does not equate to a modern-day “republic”; it is more like enlightened absolutism. His philosophical works were influential when Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire developed their political concepts.

In its classical meaning, a republic was any stable well-governed political community. Both Plato and Aristotle identified three forms of government: democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. First Plato and Aristotle, and then Polybius and Cicero, held that the ideal republic is a mixture of these three forms of government. The writers of the Renaissance embraced this notion.

Cicero expressed reservations concerning the republican form of government. While in his theoretical works he defended monarchy, or at least a mixed monarchy/oligarchy, in his own political life, he generally opposed men, like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian, who were trying to realise such ideals. Eventually, that opposition led to his death and Cicero can be seen as a victim of his own Republican ideals.

Tacitus, a contemporary of Plutarch, was not concerned with whether a form of government could be analyzed as a “republic” or a “monarchy”.[5] He analyzed how the powers accumulated by the early Julio-Claudian dynasty were all given by a State that was still notionally a republic. Nor was the Roman Republic “forced” to give away these powers: it did so freely and reasonably, certainly in Augustus’ case, because of his many services to the state, freeing it from civil wars and disorder.

Tacitus was one of the first to ask whether such powers were given to the head of state because the citizens wanted to give them, or whether they were given for other reasons (for example, because one had a deified ancestor). The latter case led more easily to abuses of power. In Tacitus’ opinion, the trend away from a true republic was irreversible only when Tiberius established power, shortly after Augustus’ death in 14 CE (much later than most historians place the start of the Imperial form of government in Rome). By this time, too many principles defining some powers as “untouchable” had been implemented.[6]

Renaissance republicanism

In Europe, republicanism was revived in the late Middle Ages when a number of states, which arose from medieval communes, embraced a republican system of government.[7] These were generally small but wealthy trading states in which the merchant class had risen to prominence. Haakonssen notes that by the Renaissance, Europe was divided, such that those states controlled by a landed elite were monarchies, and those controlled by a commercial elite were republics. The latter included the Italian city-states of Florence, Genoa, and Venice and members of the Hanseatic League. One notable exception was Dithmarschen, a group of largely autonomous villages, which confederated in a peasants’ republic. Building upon concepts of medieval feudalism, Renaissance scholars used the ideas of the ancient world to advance their view of an ideal government. Thus the republicanism developed during the Renaissance is known as ‘classical republicanism’ because it relied on classical models. This terminology was developed by Zera Fink in the 1960s,[8] but some modern scholars, such as Brugger, consider it confuses the “classical republic” with the system of government used in the ancient world.[9] ‘Early modern republicanism’ has been proposed as an alternative term. It is also sometimes called civic humanism. Beyond simply a non-monarchy, early modern thinkers conceived of an ideal republic, in which mixed government was an important element, and the notion that virtue and the common good were central to good government. Republicanism also developed its own distinct view of liberty. Renaissance authors who spoke highly of republics were rarely critical of monarchies. While Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is the period’s key work on republics, he also wrote the treatise The Prince, which is better remembered and more widely read, on how best to run a monarchy. The early modern writers did not see the republican model as universally applicable; most thought that it could be successful only in very small and highly urbanized city-states. Jean Bodin in Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576) identified monarchy with republic.[10]

Classical writers like Tacitus, and Renaissance writers like Machiavelli tried to avoid an outspoken preference for one government system or another. Enlightenment philosophers, on the other hand, expressed a clear opinion. Thomas More, writing before the Age of Enlightenment, was too outspoken for the reigning king’s taste, even though he coded his political preferences in a utopian allegory.

In England a type of republicanism evolved that was not wholly opposed to monarchy; thinkers such as Thomas More and Sir Thomas Smith saw a monarchy, firmly constrained by law, as compatible with republicanism.

Dutch Republic

Anti-monarchism became more strident in the Dutch Republic during and after the Eighty Years’ War, which began in 1568. This anti-monarchism was more propaganda than a political philosophy; most of the anti-monarchist works appeared in the form of widely distributed pamphlets. This evolved into a systematic critique of monarchy, written by men such as the brothers Johan and Peter de la Court. They saw all monarchies as illegitimate tyrannies that were inherently corrupt. These authors were more concerned with preventing the position of Stadholder from evolving into a monarchy, than with attacking their former rulers. Dutch republicanism also influenced French Huguenots during the Wars of Religion. In the other states of early modern Europe republicanism was more moderate.[11]

Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth

In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, republicanism was the influential ideology. After the establishment of the Commonwealth of Two Nations, republicans supported the status quo, of having a very weak monarch, and opposed those who thought a stronger monarchy was needed. These mostly Polish republicans, such as Łukasz Górnicki, Andrzej Wolan, and Stanisław Konarski, were well read in classical and Renaissance texts and firmly believed that their state was a republic on the Roman model, and started to call their state the Rzeczpospolita. Atypically, Polish–Lithuanian republicanism was not the ideology of the commercial class, but rather of the landed nobility, which would lose power if the monarchy were expanded. This resulted in an oligarchy of the great landed magnates.[12]

Enlightenment republicanism


The first of the Enlightenment republics established in Europe during the eighteenth century occurred in the small Mediterranean island of Corsica. Although perhaps an unlikely place to act as a laboratory for such political experiments, Corsica combined a number of factors that made it unique: a tradition of village democracy; varied cultural influences from the Italian city-states, Spanish empire and Kingdom of France which left it open to the ideas of the Italian Renaissance, Spanish humanism and French Enlightenment; and a geo-political position between these three competing powers which led to frequent power vacuums in which new regimes could be set up, testing out the fashionable new ideas of the age.

From the 1720s the island had been experiencing a series of short-lived but ongoing rebellions against its current sovereign, the Italian city-state of Genoa. During the initial period (1729–36) these merely sought to restore the control of the Spanish Empire; when this proved impossible, an independent Kingdom of Corsica (1736–40) was proclaimed, following the Enlightenment ideal of a written constitutional monarchy. But the perception grew that the monarchy had colluded with the invading power, a more radical group of reformers led by the Pasquale Paoli pushed for political overhaul, in the form of a constitutional and parliamentary republic inspired by the popular ideas of the Enlightenment.

Its governing philosophy was both inspired by the prominent thinkers of the day, notably the French philosophers Montesquieu and Voltaire and the Swiss theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Not only did it include a permanent national parliament with fixed-term legislatures and regular elections, but, more radically for the time, it introduced universal male suffrage, and it is thought to be the first constitution in the world to grant women the right to vote female suffrage may also have existed.[13][14] It also extended Enlightened principles to other spheres, including administrative reform, the foundation of a national university at Corte, and the establishment of a popular standing army.

The Corsican Republic lasted for fifteen years, from 1755 to 1769, eventually falling to a combination of Genoese and French forces and was incorporated as a province of the Kingdom of France. But the episode resonated across Europe as an early example of Enlightened constitutional republicanism, with many of the most prominent political commentators of the day recognising it to be an experiment in a new type of popular and democratic government. Its influence was particularly notable among the French Enlightenment philosophers: Rousseau’s famous work On the Social Contract (1762: chapter 10, book II) declared, in its discussion on the conditions necessary for a functional popular sovereignty, that “There is still one European country capable of making its own laws: the island of Corsica. valour and persistency with which that brave people has regained and defended its liberty well deserves that some wise man should teach it how to preserve what it has won. I have a feeling that some day that little island will astonish Europe.”; indeed Rousseau volunteered to do precisely that, offering a draft constitution for Paoli’se use.[15] Similarly, Voltaire affirmed in his Précis du siècle de Louis XV (1769: chapter LX) that “Bravery may be found in many places, but such bravery only among free peoples“. But the influence of the Corsican Republic as an example of a sovereign people fighting for liberty and enshrining this constitutionally in the form of an Enlightened republic was even greater among the Radicals of Great Britain and North America,[16] where it was popularised via An Account of Corsica, by the Scottish essayist James Boswell. The Corsican Republic went on to influence the American revolutionaries ten years later: the Sons of Liberty, initiators of the American Revolution, would declare Pascal Paoli to be a direct inspiration for their own struggle against despotism; the son of Ebenezer Mackintosh was named Pascal Paoli Mackintosh in his honour, and no fewer than five American counties are named Paoli for the same reason.


Oliver Cromwell set up a republic called the Commonwealth of England (1649–1660) which he ruled after the overthrow of King Charles I. James Harrington was then a leading philosopher of republicanism. John Milton was another important Republican thinker at this time, expressing his views in political tracts as well as through poetry and prose. In his epic poem Paradise Lost, for instance, Milton uses Satan’s fall to suggest that unfit monarchs should be brought to justice, and that such issues extend beyond the constraints of one nation.[17] As Christopher N. Warren argues, Milton offers “a language to critique imperialism, to question the legitimacy of dictators, to defend free international discourse, to fight unjust property relations, and to forge new political bonds across national lines.”[18] This form of international Miltonic republicanism has been influential on later thinkers including 19th-century radicals Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, according to Warren and other historians.[19][20]

The collapse of the Commonwealth of England in 1660 and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II discredited republicanism among England’s ruling circles. Nevertheless, they welcomed the liberalism, and emphasis on rights, of John Locke, which played a major role in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Even so, republicanism flourished in the “country” party of the early 18th century (commonwealthmen), which denounced the corruption of the “court” party, producing a political theory that heavily influenced the American colonists. In general, the English ruling classes of the 18th century vehemently opposed republicanism, typified by the attacks on John Wilkes, and especially on the American Revolution and the French Revolution.[21]

French and Swiss thought

French and Swiss Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Baron Charles de Montesquieu and later Jean-Jacques Rousseau, expanded upon and altered the ideas of what an ideal republic should be: some of their new ideas were scarcely traceable to antiquity or the Renaissance thinkers. Concepts they contributed, or heavily elaborated, were social contract, positive law, and mixed government. They also borrowed from, and distinguished republicanism from, the ideas of liberalism that were developing at the same time.

Liberalism and republicanism were frequently conflated during this period, because they both opposed absolute monarchy. Modern scholars see them as two distinct streams that both contributed to the democratic ideals of the modern world. An important distinction is that, while republicanism stressed the importance of civic virtue and the common good, liberalism was based on economics and individualism. It is clearest in the matter of private property, which, according to some, can be maintained only under the protection of established positive law.

Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France from 1880 to 1885, followed both these schools of thought. He eventually enacted the Ferry Laws, which he intended to overturn the Falloux Laws by embracing the anti-clerical thinking of the Philosophes. These laws ended the Catholic Church’s involvement in many government institutions in late 19th-century France, including schools.

Republicanism in the Thirteen British Colonies in North America

In recent years a debate has developed over the role of republicanism in the American Revolution and in the British radicalism of the 18th century. For many decades the consensus was that liberalism, especially that of John Locke, was paramount and that republicanism had a distinctly secondary role.[22]

The new interpretations were pioneered by J.G.A. Pocock, who argued in The Machiavellian Moment (1975) that, at least in the early 18th century, republican ideas were just as important as liberal ones. Pocock’s view is now widely accepted.[23] Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood pioneered the argument that the American founding fathers were more influenced by republicanism than they were by liberalism. Cornell University professor Isaac Kramnick, on the other hand, argues that Americans have always been highly individualistic and therefore Lockean.[24] Joyce Appleby has argued similarly for the Lockean influence on America.

In the decades before the American Revolution (1776), the intellectual and political leaders of the colonies studied history intently, looking for models of good government. They especially followed the development of republican ideas in England.[25] Pocock explained the intellectual sources in America:[26]

The Whig canon and the neo-Harringtonians, John Milton, James Harrington and Sidney, Trenchard, Gordon and Bolingbroke, together with the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance masters of the tradition as far as Montesquieu, formed the authoritative literature of this culture; and its values and concepts were those with which we have grown familiar: a civic and patriot ideal in which the personality was founded in property, perfected in citizenship but perpetually threatened by corruption; government figuring paradoxically as the principal source of corruption and operating through such means as patronage, faction, standing armies (opposed to the ideal of the militia), established churches (opposed to the Puritan and deist modes of American religion) and the promotion of a monied interest – though the formulation of this last concept was somewhat hindered by the keen desire for readily available paper credit common in colonies of settlement. A neoclassical politics provided both the ethos of the elites and the rhetoric of the upwardly mobile, and accounts for the singular cultural and intellectual homogeneity of the Founding Fathers and their generation.

The commitment of most Americans to these republican values made the American Revolution inevitable. Britain was increasingly seen as corrupt and hostile to republicanism, and as a threat to the established liberties the Americans enjoyed.[27]

Leopold von Ranke in 1848 claimed that American republicanism played a crucial role in the development of European liberalism:[28]

By abandoning English constitutionalism and creating a new republic based on the rights of the individual, the North Americans introduced a new force in the world. Ideas spread most rapidly when they have found adequate concrete expression. Thus republicanism entered our Romanic/Germanic world…. Up to this point, the conviction had prevailed in Europe that monarchy best served the interests of the nation. Now the idea spread that the nation should govern itself. But only after a state had actually been formed on the basis of the theory of representation did the full significance of this idea become clear. All later revolutionary movements have this same goal… This was the complete reversal of a principle. Until then, a king who ruled by the grace of God had been the center around which everything turned. Now the idea emerged that power should come from below…. These two principles are like two opposite poles, and it is the conflict between them that determines the course of the modern world. In Europe the conflict between them had not yet taken on concrete form; with the French Revolution it did.

2 thoughts on “Republicanism

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