Republic Research Paper

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‘Republic’ comes from the Latin res publica, the shared or common thing. It first described the political regime instituted by the Romans after they deposed their kings in 509 BC. The founding of the Republic symbolized the rejection of rulers who treated the political community as their private property. The word publica probably derives from the Latin populus, ‘people.’ Cicero in the first century BC calls the res publica a res populi, a thing that belongs to the people. That the political community belongs to the people rather than those who rule reverberates throughout the long history of the term as it takes on and sheds concepts drawn from the Roman experience.

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1. The Roman Legacy

Polybius, in the second century BC, described (not entirely accurately) the Roman Republic as a ‘mixed regime’ where monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy balanced one another, providing stability and protection from the constant cycling of regimes from one form to another. Sallust, writing during the political chaos of first century BC Rome, turned away from institutional analyses to character and emphasized the foundation of the Republic on political virtue and traditional moral values, qualities whose loss would bring about the demise of the Republic. The civil wars ended with the Principate of Augustus which returned Rome to one-man rule. Tacitus, writing in the early years of the Principate, recalled the liberty of the Republic in contrast to the tyranny of the increasingly despotic Roman emperors. All these elements, the mixed regime, political and moral virtue, and liberty as the absence of the oppressive rule of a king have followed the word ‘republic,’ though neither consistently nor necessarily in unison. ‘Republic’ recalls Rome, but the Greek city-states, different in structure and size, also came to be called republics, and Athens and Sparta, along with Rome, became models of republican regimes for later ages.

During the Middle Ages, respublica simply meant the political community in contrast to the church; it was the body of which the prince was the head, the wife to whom the prince was joined in matrimony. It incorporated none of the elements of liberty, institutional balance, or political virtue that connected the idea of republic back to the experiences of Rome. At the close of the medieval period, however, republic recaptured the connotations of liberty understood as hostility to tyrannical rule. The early Italian renaissance witnessed a shift from medieval praise of the Principate as a reflection of God’s rule to admiration for the political liberty of the Roman Republic. A number of the Italian city-states of the Renaissance gained political independence and instituted republican regimes of self-rule. Meanwhile, humanist writers of the early Renaissance, recalling republican Rome, appealed to the liberty and political virtues of antiquity against the faith in a God-willed monarchy that dominated the medieval period. Nevertheless, tensions arose between republican virtues which fostered renown for service to the secular community and religious virtues which glorified God. With Machiavelli in the early 1500s, concern about devotion to and participation in a secularized polity disappeared.

2. Machiavellian Republicanism

Machiavelli’s begins The Prince by rejecting the conventional Aristotelian typology of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; he boldly stated that all dominions ‘now and in the past’ have been ‘either republics or principalities.’ Machiavelli’s dichotomies never persevere throughout his writings, but The Prince largely treats principalities and his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Li y (1513) discusses republics with special attention to Rome. Other republics like Sparta and Venice surface as well offering variations and qualifications on the Roman model. More nuanced than works by Renaissance writers who simply identified republics with liberty, or sought to find a republican heritage for their cities in the history of the Rome, Machiavelli identifies the tensions inherent in republican regimes, their occasional need for dictatorships, their dependence on conflict between parties as a condition for freedom, and their glory in imperialist expansion. Machiavelli, along with republican authors of the period, praised the mixed regime, but he saw it as necessary for a regime to order the conflicts that plague any free polity. Further, while praising republican virtues of devotion to and participation in the political regime, and while worrying about the effects of a corrupt self-interested citizenry, he also recognized that republican virtues entailed the conquest of others.

Despite Machiavelli’s somewhat ambiguous presentation of a republican Rome that needed occasional dictators and men like Brutus who were willing to sacrifice their sons for the preservation of the regime, his Discourses, with its reliance on Polybius’ mixed regime, became a primary source for antiroyalist, republican literature of seventeenth century England. James Harrington, for instance, begins his utopian republican tract Oceana praising Machiavelli as the sole retriever of ancient prudence concerning governments devoted to the public interest. In addition to praising economic equality as the foundation of a peaceful regime, Harrington continued the republican theme of the mixed government by proposing a bicameral parliament where an elected and rotating aristocratic senate would be checked by a popular assembly. As with the other republican authors of his time, Harrington relied on ancient Sparta and contemporary Venice along with Rome as models. All demonstrated the viability of the republican model with their mixed regimes, and all were frequently paraded as exemplars of popular engagement and liberty in contrast to monarchical oppression.

The participatory expectations meant that seventeenth and eighteenth century English authors often associated republicanism with the aristocratic leisure essential for an engagement in political life. The contemporaneous emergence of liberal thought based on the rational pursuit of self-interest set up a conflict between an elitist republic relying on men of public virtue with resources and leisure for public life and the egalitarian principles of a liberal society focused on rights, consent (a much weaker political act than actual engagement), and the absence of oppression. The liberal perspective did not require self-sacrifice; the liberal individual, unlike the republican, pursuing private interests could be oblivious to the public good. Liberal virtues of frugality and moderation supporting economic success were not the republican virtues that supported the moral and political life of a nation.

3. Enlightenment Republican Thought

The English republicans, drawing on the Polybian mixed regime, articulated a theory that allowed for the presence of a monarch, albeit one limited by assorted checks. Debates arose as to whether the checks were sufficient or too strong, but a monarchical regime that might allow for liberty contrasted starkly with the absolutism of eighteenth century France. Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws appeared in this latter context. Montesquieu replaced the still dominant Aristotelian typology with despotism, monarchy, and republic; the last he divides into the aristocratic republic, marked by the love of honor, and the democratic republic, characterized by ‘political virtue’ or the ‘love of equality.’ Drawing on themes of civic virtue from Sparta, the Roman Republic, and the Discourses of the ‘great man’ Machiavelli, Montesquieu writes that political virtue in a democratic republic means the denial of self for the sake of the whole. According to Montesquieu, the democratic republic would be possible only in a small, homogenous community where there was no attention to individual economic success nor worries about economic inequalities. The simplicity of the democratic republic would allow for none of the conflicts that arise with the emergence of the wealthy few. Montesquieu’s democratic republic depended on political virtue, but it did not offer much happiness. In contrast to the democratic republic, Montesquieu wrote about a free and happy people who inhabited a large commercial nation, namely England, that with its ‘mixed regime’ could incorporate variety, economic activity, and inequality in a way that a democratic republic could not and that could offer liberty through the just execution and impartiality of its laws.

Montesquieu’s praise of the English constitution suggested freedom would be possible in large, heterogeneous regimes, if laws were well executed and a proper balance between executive and legislative powers and within the legislative branch existed. Rousseau’s The Social Contract, in contrast, affirmed that freedom was possible only in small homogenous republics where all citizens, as members of the sovereign body, participated in the life of the city through law making. A large city where citizens devote themselves to commerce, crafts, and comforts rather than to political life undermines attachment to the community. Free regimes, according to Rousseau, depend on the political engagement of all in self-rule; we are slaves if do not legislate for ourselves. Rousseau returned to Rome for his model of participatory republican life where, in addition to popular assemblies, there was a censorial tribunal ensuring the purity of opinions and morals. Rousseau’s republic depended on a similar control of citizens’ opinions and required a civil religion to instill ‘sentiments of sociability.’ A decline in morals would bring about political decay and the loss of the self-rule at the heart of free republics. Preservation of morals and attachment to the city for Rousseau rested on maintaining a small state, unperturbed by the bustle of economic activity or the cosmopolitanism of Parisian culture.

4. The Issue Of Size

The question of whether republican liberty was possible in large nations or only in small ones was central to the debates about ratification of the US Constitution. The Federalist Papers, arguing for adoption of the constitution, drew upon the equation between a republic and liberty. Using Publius as their common pen name, the authors of The Federalist Papers identified with a founder of the Roman Republic who (in a history their audience would have known) helped overthrow the Roman kings. The Federalist Papers famously argue for a republic, not a democracy. The republican principle affirmed: ‘The people are the only legitimate fountain of power,’ but when a multitude of people exercise legislative functions in person, the ambitious intrigues of the executive magistrates lead to tyranny. Freedom in a republic does not require that the people themselves exercise legislative authority directly. The power that rests in the people must be filtered. Liberty may require that all power derive from the people and that those entrusted with power remain dependent on the people, but stability requires the opposite. Admitting that the petty ‘republics of Greece and Italy’ evoke ‘sensations of horror and disgust’ at the rapid succession of revolutions, the defenders of the constitution claim that it incorporates newly discovered maxims derived from political science that apply ‘republican remedies’ to the ‘diseases most incident to republican government’: namely, representation, legislative checks and balances, and the enlargement of the sphere of government. The new republic does not rely only on the virtue of its citizens, but on institutions that protect against oppression, afford liberty for its citizens, and ensure the excellence of those elected to office.

The Anti-Federalists arguing against the new constitution feared that the large centralized government necessary for a populous and heterogeneous nation would oppress its citizens, undermine any attachment they felt for one another, and stifle self-rule. Consent, critical for a free republic, they argued, cannot be represented; it must come from the individual citizen. A ‘representative republic’ is a contradiction in terms. Lost would be the community of like individuals; citizens would be left to nurture vices of self-interest rather than cultivate republican public virtue. A centralized government would fall into the hands of the wealthy few transforming the new republic into an aristocracy or even a monarchy. The Anti-Federalists emphasizing a small, homogenous polity of virtuous citizens were the last great defenders of the classical republic.

5. Republic Today

Though The Federalist Papers distinguish democracies with their demagogues and upheavals from orderly republics, democracy and republic have over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries converged conceptually. Both identify the body of citizens as the fount of political authority and the overlap between the two regimes has obscured distinctive political structures that might limit recollections of Roman institutions only to republics. With the absence, indeed impossibility, of direct democracy, both democracies and republics have taken on representative forms of government and most democracies have adopted variations of the Polybian mixed regime. Nevertheless, a return to republican ideals of political virtue and engagement has surfaced in an effort to address what is portrayed as the excessive individualism of citizens in liberal democracies. Among contemporary communitarians, ancient republics are symbols of a lost political world where citizens found fulfillment in political life, not in the pursuit of economic success. This evocation of ancient republics has revived discussion about the role of republican ideals during the founding of the USA with communitarians eager to find in the early years republican rather than liberal roots. The concept of the republic to which they appeal goes well beyond the people as the fount of political authority and the mixed regime to the intangibles of political virtue and a shared life of the ancient republic.


  1. Fink Z S 1945 The Classical Republicans. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL
  2. Kramnick I 1990 Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  3. Machiavelli N 1998 The Prince. [trans. Mansfield H] Chicago University Press, Chicago
  4. Pangle T L 1988 The Spirit of Modern Republicanism. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL
  5. Pocock J G A 1975 The Machiavellian Moment. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  6. Rahe P A 1992 Republics Ancient and Modern. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
  7. Wood G S 1969 The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC


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