Republicanism and Social Thought Research Paper

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In the modern age, republicanism influences social thought by offering a distinctly political articulation of the general belief in the historical contingency of political and social order (Pocock 1975). Modern republicanism holds that political and social order is legitimate only if it serves the constitution of political freedom as nondomination. The possibility of changing forms of rule is understood as a condition of the institution of these forms (Arendt 1963). The existence of ineradicable and productive social divisions is a fundamental presupposition of the republican idea of politics, according to which social conflicts must be given their political expression and regulation (Lefort 1992).



Originating with Machiavelli’s critical reception of the tradition of classical republicanism, pursued in the English and Dutch struggles against monarchic absolutism by the likes of Harrington, Sidney, Locke, and Spinoza, and systematized in the Enlightenment by Montesquieu and Rousseau, modern republican theory is directly put into practice in the American and French Revolutions by figures such as Madison, Jefferson, and Sieyes (Pocock 1975, Bock et al. 1990, Fontana 1994). In this sense, modern republicanism has been justly termed a ‘Revolutionary republicanism’ (Wootton 1994).

1. Political Freedom As Nondomination

Modern republicanism describes political freedom as that arrangement in which ‘the rule of law, resting on the power of the people, would put an end to the rule of man over man’ (Arendt 1972 p. 139). Politics should be that domain of human affairs where domination and rule can be questioned, checked, and even possibly abolished (Pettit 1997).

The modern republican ideal of freedom as nondomination or no-rule moves beyond both the negative and positive ideas of freedom (Berlin 1965). Negative freedom is an individual and private freedom from interference that requires a noncontesting relation to the commands of the political sovereign that protect and enable it from the outside. In contrast, the ideal of nondomination is political, not private, and consists of being ‘subject to no man’s will’ (Sidney 1798, III, 16) by having the power to contest both arbitrary and legitimate domination. Freedom as nondomination also differs from ideals of self-rule or positive freedom insofar as these view some forms of rule (e.g., of the community over its members, of reason over passion) as intrinsic to the meaning of freedom, whereas from the perspective of freedom as nondomination, political activity is primarily understood in terms of its capacity to check the dynamics of domination and processes of ruling by empowering those who would otherwise fall into relations of dependence. Political freedom ‘is there only when there is no abuse of power …. To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power’ (Montesquieu 1748, XI, 4).

Modern republicanism sees the political abolition of domination as achievable through a combination of the ‘rule of law’ and the ‘power of the people.’ Although both of these elements can be found in classical republicanism as well, their meaning and relative priority undergo important changes in modern republicanism where ‘all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the People’ (Virginia Declaration of Rights 1776, article 2) because its members are understood as the carriers of the ideal of non-domination: ‘all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity’ (Virginia Declaration of Rights 1776, article 1). As a consequence, the republican ideal requires that the rule of law find its support in the power of the people.

2. The Power Of The People

The connection between the power of the people and the ideal of nondomination can be traced back to Machiavelli in his Discourses on Li y where, for the first time, ‘the people’ is defined as that subject position occupied by whoever acts in political ways that are motivated ‘only [by the] desire not to be dominated’ (Machiavelli 1517, I, 5).

The ‘power’ that is vested in ‘the people’ refers to those political practices and institutions of will and opinion formation that integrate this political subject as bearer of the desire for nondomination into political life, alongside the established practices and institutions of legitimate domination, of which traditionally the most important elements were the deliberations of the senate and the commands of the monarch (Machiavelli 1517, I, 4). Harrington does away with the monarchical element, and takes into account only the nobles, represented by the senate, and the people, in order to give ultimate say to the latter: ‘as the wisdom of the commonwealth is in the aristocracy, so the interest of the commonwealth is in the whole body of the people …. Whatsoever upon debate of the senate is proposed unto the people, and resolved by them, is enacted by the authority of the fathers and the power of the people, which concurring make a law’ (Harrington 1656 p. 24). As Rousseau frames the issue, ‘it is only the general will which compels individuals and there can be no assurance that an individual will is in conformity with the general will until it has submitted to the free suffrage of the people’ (Rousseau 1762, II, 7). It is an axiom of modern republicanism that without this kind of political power vested in the people there can be no political freedom.

Likewise, since the people is conceived as a political subject whose foremost interest is nondomination or no-rule, it follows that it should not, as a people, engage directly in the process of governing or ruling on pain of self-contradiction. For this reason Madison is perfectly consequent when he claims, in the same article of The Federalist, that ‘the people can never willfully betray their own interests,’ and that the distinguishing feature of ‘American government lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any share in the latter’ (Hamilton et al. 1787, p. 63). Modern republicanism requires the principle of representation because it understands political representation not as a condition for the pursuit of more effective ways of governing a large population, but as the primary way to limit the powers of the state as an agency of legitimate domination.

3. Politics And The Primacy Of Social Division

The analysis of society in terms of the conflict between heterogeneous social subjects and its causality in the emergence of political forms is a fundamental contribution of modern republicanism to social thought. Machiavelli shows that the opposition between those who ‘desire not to be commanded or oppressed’ and those who ‘desire to command and oppress’ constitutes a basic social division that, depending on how it is politically interpreted, gives rise to ‘one of three effects in cities: principality or freedom or license’ (Machiavelli 1513, IX). Similarly, Harrington observes that every state finds its basis in the social division of property. For that reason, he argues that an ‘agrarian law’ must be set at the ‘foundation’ of the republic. In so doing, Harrington both acknowledges the fundamental role of social conflict and seeks to regulate it by giving it a political form (Harrington 1656 p. 33). Modern republicanism holds that social divisions provide the basis of politics, and that politics has the task of giving or taking away form (laws and orders) in response to such conflicts, thereby expressing and regulating rather than extirpating or denying them (Pocock 1975, Lefort 1992).

After the American and French Revolutions, and well into the twentieth century, this relative autonomy of politics with respect to ‘the social’ comes under criticism thanks to the emergence of the idea of society as a form of organization that, in and through its divisions, is self-constituting and self-regulating. This idea of society opens the prospect of the abolition of politics and of the state, under the appropriate social conditions. Much of the impetus for the late twentieth century retrieval of the republican tradition comes from the need to recover a positive conception of politics and, along with it, a sense of the productive tension between state and society.

4. Republicanism And Institutionalization

For modern republicanism, politics consists of the practice of giving an institutional expression, or interpretation, to the divisions that constitute social relations. In particular, republican politics sets out to refashion the state so as to be able to offer institutional responses to the demands for nondomination issuing from society. The state, viewed as a form of legitimate domination, can only respond to these demands by internalizing its own negation and becoming internally self-checking. This principle underlies the recurrent attacks that modern republicans wage on the very idea of a ‘standing power,’ against which they introduce the need for ‘motion’ or ‘the successive Revolution of authority’ (Nedham 1659 Mercurius Politicus 4 December 1651–1 April 1652). It also accounts for the constant thematization of political change and social conflict in the very constitution of political form. The debate between Jefferson and Madison on the uses of constitutional conventions to check the power of the state is exemplary in this sense: the latter believes in designing a political form of government capable of checking itself, while the former holds that a check on government ultimately can only come from what lies outside it (Hamilton et al. 1787, pp. 49–51).

The innovation of modern republicanism with respect to thinking about institutions consists of providing both theories and examples of what may be called institutions of critique, or counterinstitutions, which take the form of inscribing a resistance to domination into the state apparatus that administers the rule of law. The most significant example of such an institution of critique is the separation of state powers when the latter is understood as a system of checks and balances (Hamilton et al. 1787, p. 51) whereby ‘one branch of the government may be authorized to exercise some active influence on another in order to resist and counteract its power’ (Manin 1994, p. 31) in view of keeping the entire state in check with respect to the people.

Modern republicanism offers other examples of such institutions, whose sole purpose is to serve as a forum for the contestation and resistance of the normal administration of state rule. Among them stands out the Tribunate of the people, interpreted by Machiavelli as a ‘guard of freedom’ (1517, I, 3–4), which, in the words of Rousseau, ‘although it can do nothing, it can prevent anything from being done. As the defender of the laws, it is more sacred and more venerated than the prince who executes laws or the sovereign which legislates’ (Rousseau 1762, IV, 5).

Another example is the Agrarian Law as discussed in Machiavelli (1517), Harrington (1656), and Hutcheson’s System of Moral Philosophy (1755), where it serves to check the unregulated distribution of private property. Among such institutions also figures Jefferson’s ‘republic of wards,’ designed to serve as ‘a system of fundamental balances and checks for the government’ (Kurland and Lerner 1987, p. 142). The same principle animating the ward system is embodied by the ‘council systems’ (Arendt 1963) that emerged during the republican Revolutions of France in 1871, Russia in 1905 and 1917, Germany in 1918, Hungary in 1956, and Poland in 1979.

5. Republicanism And Revolution

Modern republicanism also recognizes the possibility of an external critique of the state-form or Revolution. In political Revolutions, it is the people that attempt to institute nondomination directly, and it can do so only by suspending or dissolving the state form as such. Although prefigured by Machiavelli with his theory that a free political life can be maintained only if there are periodic ‘return to beginnings’ in which the social and political orders are renewed (Machiavelli 1517, III, 1), one of the firmest formulations of the state dissolving power of the people is found in Locke, for whom ‘the community may be said in this respect to be always the supreme power, but not as considered under any form of government, because this power of the people can never take place till the government be dissolved’ (Locke 1690, XIII, 149). Likewise, Rousseau insists that ‘the moment the people is lawfully assembled as a sovereign body all jurisdiction of the government ceases’ (Rousseau 1762, III, 14). Hamilton reaffirms in The Federalist ‘that fundamental principle of republican government which admits the right of the people to alter or abolish the established Constitution whenever they find it in- consistent with their happiness’ (Hamilton et al. 1787, p. 78).

It is important to note that for modern republicanism, unlike other late modern Revolutionary traditions, political Revolutions are recurring events out of which all forms of legitimate domination emerge and into which they can all be revoked. By definition these Revolutionary events cannot be subsumed into or become in turn a political form without denying themselves. Republican moments are in themselves evanescent, having as their fundamental purpose that ‘men who live together in any order whatever [be able to] often recognize themselves … and look over the account for the men who are in that body’ (Machiavelli 1517, III, 1). The purpose is the mutual recognition of the liberty and equality of all.

6. Political Equality And The Rule Of Law

The ‘rule of law’ is a feature of both classical and modern republicanism. But whereas classical rule of law is substantive and intends to prescribe the common good, modern rule of law is formal and has as its essential purpose ‘the restriction of each individual’s freedom so that it harmonizes with the freedom of every one else’ (Kant 1793, p. 73). As evidenced in the American and French Declarations of rights, the rule of law is always limited by, because it is founded upon, two elements that are absent in classical republicanism: individual natural rights and sovereign power of the people.

Following the trajectory that leads from Machiavelli through Rousseau up to the American and French Declarations, some contemporary republican theorists hold the view that unless the rule of law is grounded on the power of the people, it cannot guarantee a political life free of domination (Arendt 1963, Habermas 1992). Other republican theorists, supporting themselves on Montesquieu’s definition of liberty as ‘the right of doing whatever the laws permit’ (Montesquieu 1748, XI, 3), believe that the relation between the rule of law and the power of the people should be reversed because it is ‘the laws of a suitable state … [that] create the freedom enjoyed by citizens’ (Pettit 1997 p. 36).

At stake in this discussion is the interpretation of a basic republican principle of equality before the law. On one understanding, freedom as nondomination basically requires ‘an empire of laws’ (Harrington 1656, p. 20) assuring that no one is above the law and thereby excluding arbitrary rule. On the other understanding, freedom as nondomination also requires equality in the making of the laws before which everyone is formally equal. So, for instance, ‘No Man can be imprisoned, unless he has transgressed a Law of his own making’ (Trenchard 1697, p. 2). Rousseau simply says that ‘a people, since it is subject to laws, ought to be the author of them’ (Rousseau 1762, pp. II, 6). Without the equality to make law, the rule of law harbors the possibility of paternalism and legal domination (Ferry and Renaut 1985, Habermas 1992).

To be politically free is to have the power to ‘make’ law in the sense of having the power to constitute, and therefore check the exercise of, any constituted legislative power (Sieyes 1789). Such constituent power cannot itself fall under the rule of law but rather grants it its ultimate legitimacy ground, as is made clear not only in Sieyes, but also in Rousseau and Locke. For both, the power to make law belongs to the people originally, which is constituted by a contract that everyone makes (with everyone else or with themselves) (Locke 1690, XI, 134, Rousseau 1762, I, 6). Locke then permits the transfer of the legislative power of the people to the government (X, XI); but, as an element of the state, the rule of law is always checked by the deciding power of the people (XIII, 149; XIV, 168; XIX, 240).

The question of constituent power as it is developed in modern republicanism has an impact on social thought because it highlights the existence of political but prelegal struggles for recognition (Taylor 1994), through which individuals and groups seek the constituent power of citizenship that gives access both to political and individual rights.

7. Representation And Participation

For modern republicanism, political representation is a response to Montesquieu’s call for a separation of legislation and execution ‘lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner’ (Montesquieu 1748, XI, 6). Such a separation of powers is echoed as much by Rousseau (1762 III, 1, III, 16) as by Kant, who defines republicanism as that ‘political principle whereby the executive power (the government) is separated from the legislative power’ (Kant 1795, p. 101) vested in the people as ‘co-legislators’ (Kant 1798, p. 184).

The modern republican discourse on political participation follows, rather than contradicts, Montesquieu’s doctrine of the separation of powers. Since a republic entails the division between those who have the power to make laws and those who have the power to apply it, it follows that the activity of governing or the administration of the constituted powers of the state must be given over to representatives, and in that sense all government must be representative in order to be legitimate. But the generation of constituent power has to be kept in the hands of the people, and to that extent calls forth their participation, without which no such power would come into existence in the first place. The debate between Locke and Rousseau on whether the fundamental power of the people to make law can or cannot be represented (Locke 1690, X, 132, XIII, 149, Rousseau 1762, III, 15) is resolved in the form of the distinction between a constituent legislative power, which is what Rousseau and Kant have in mind when they advocate its inalienability from the people, and a constituted legislative power, which is what Locke, Sieyes, and Madison have in mind when they argue for its representative character. In both cases, the goal is to assure Montesquieu’s requirement of contrasting government by setting power (of the people) against power (of the state).

8. Political Virtue And Corruption

The discourse of ‘virtue’ in modern republicanism (Pocock 1975) for the most part refers to a political conception of virtue, rather than to the classical moral conception of virtue as the pursuit of the common good (Machiavelli 1513, Montesquieu 1748). The debate about political virtue is a place-holder for the necessity of a certain kind of ‘government by men’ in order to maintain the ideal of nondomination in the face of the potential for ‘corruption’ (Skinner 1998) harbored in the modern rule of law and other systems of negative liberty, of which the most significant for modern republicans is the system of commerce and money. Since the modern rule of law and modern commerce are not viewed as being morally substantive, but rather as protecting and fostering the negative liberty needed for all nonpolitical forms of self-enactment (Wootton 1994), simple adherence to them cannot replace the political activity needed to sustain both the participatory and the representative requirements of republicanism. Left to their own devices these systems of negative liberty could degenerate into forms of bureaucracy (no-man’s rule), as well as deepen social and economic inequalities, thereby threatening freedom as nondomination.

Modern republicans speak of two kinds of political virtues, depending on whether they take virtue to be synonymous with the set of characteristics that make political subjects have ‘power’ or ‘authority,’ and depending on whether they are more interested in the ‘freedom’ or in the ‘stability’ of the republican form. Harrington and Madison concentrate on the need for an ‘aristocratic’ virtue, to be present in the representatives, for the sake of the ‘wisest’ and most ‘authoritative’ outcome in their deliberations, which is in turn the main guarantee of the stability of the republican form. By contrast, Machiavelli, Jefferson, and other proponents of ‘public happiness’ offer a distinctly more ‘democratic’ conception of political virtue, designed to foster in the people that ‘power’ which comes from being, in Jefferson’s felicitous phrase, ‘a participator in the government of affairs’ (Kurland and Lerner 1987, p. 142). As a result, the rule of law requires virtuous individuals, and there is no virtue without the power to do ‘strong’ and perhaps ‘uncivil’ actions (Machiavelli 1517, I, 18, III, 1) of the kind required by engagement in practices of active nondomination, of empowerment and resistance against practices of domination and dependency.


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