From Academic Kids

Republicanism is the view that a republic is the best form of government.

In a broad definition a republic is a state or country in which sovereignty is invested in the people. Most commonly such principle beyond the control of the state's citizens is a hereditary principle, and in this sense a republic is the opposite of a monarchy Thus the term republicanism is often used to describe any movement that is opposed to monarchies.

Republic can also refer to a form of government that is based on civic virtue, liberty, non-arbitrary rule, and mixed government. By this definition a monarchy can be a republic and pure majoritarian rule is not. Republicanism refers to both the advocacy for this form of government and the ideology of this movement.

Republicanism can also refer to the ideologies of any of the many political parties that are named the Republican Party. Some of these are, or have their roots in, anti-monarchism. For most parties republican is just a name and these parties, and their corresponding platforms, have little besides their names in common.


Anti-monarchial republicanism

One meaning of republicanism is the opposition to monarchies. Republic comes from the Latin word res publica and one meaning of this term is the form of government that began with the overthrow of the last tyrant known as the Roman Republic. While this government was much lauded by its contemporaries, once it was replaced with the empire, republicanism became all but nonexistent throughout Europe for several centuries. Outside of Europe, opposition to monarchy before the modern period is not generally termed republicanism. Islam, for instance, is opposed to monarchies seeing the ideal state as one where the ummah, caliph, and sharia all play a role in governance. This concept shares some of the same classical roots as European republicanism and in modern times this form of government is called "republican" in English, but in pre-modern times it is not generally called republicanism.

In Europe republicanism was revived in the late Middle Ages when a number of small states embraced republican systems of government. 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 with those states controlled by a landed elite being monarchies and those controlled by a commercial elite being republics. These included Italian city states like Florence and Venice and the members of the Hanseatic League.

At this period the school of thought known as classical republicanism or civic humanism came into being outlining how best to run a republic. These authors, most prominent among them being Niccolò Machiavelli, based republicanism on the states of the classical world, such as Athens, Sparta, and the Roman Republic as well as the ancient works of political philosophy such as Aristotle, Polybius and especially Cicero. In the Renaissance the classical states were dubbed republics, and are today still sometimes referred to as classical republics.

While many Renaissance authors spoke highly of republics they were rarely critical of monarchies. While Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy is the period's key work on republics he also wrote The Prince on how to best run a monarchy. One cause of this was that the early modern writers did not see the republican model as one that could be applied universally, most felt that it could only be successful in very small and highly urbanized city-states.

Anti-monarchism became far more strident in the Dutch Republic during and after the Eighty Years' War. This anti-monarchism was less political philosophy and more propagandizing with most of the anti-monarchist works appearing in the form of widely distributed pamphlets. Over time this evolved into a systematic critique of monarchies written by men such as Johan Uytenhage de Mist, Radboud Herman Scheel, Lieven de Beaufort and the brothers Johan and Peter de la Court. These writers saw all monarchies as illegitimate tyrannies that were inherently corrupt. Less an attack on their former overlords these works were more concerned with preventing the position of Stadholder from evolving into a monarchy. This Dutch republicanism also had an important influence on French Huguenots during the Wars of Religion.

In the other states of early modern Europe republicanism was more moderate. In England a republicanism evolved that was not wholly opposed to monarchy, but rather thinkers such as Thomas More and John Milton saw an monarchy firmly constrained by law as compatible with republicanism. The small minority that was actively opposed to all monarchy was largely discredited by the regicide of Charles I and later republicans strove to distance themselves from that act.

In Poland moderate republicanism was also an important ideology. In Poland republicans were those who supported the status quo of having a very weak monarch and opposed those who felt a stronger monarchy was needed. These Polish republicans such as Lukasz Gornicki, Andrzej Wolan, and Stanislaw Konarski were well read in classical and Renaissance texts and firmly believed that their state was a Republic on the Roman model and called their state the Rzeczpospolita. Unlike in the other areas Polish republicanism was not the ideology of the commercial, but rather of the landed aristocracy who would be the ones to lose power if the monarchy was expanded.

In the Enlightenment anti-monarchism stopped being coextensive with the civic humanism of the Renaissance. Classical republicanism, still supported by philosophers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu, became just one of a number of ideologies opposed to monarchy. The newer forms of anti-monarchism such as liberalism and later socialism quickly overtook classical republicanism as the leading republican ideologies. Republicanism also became far more widespread and mornarchies began to be challenged throughout Europe.

Anti-monarchial republicanism remains important in many states especially in the Commonwealth nations such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica and Barbados. Because of the currency of this debate a state not headed by a monarch is the primary meaning of the term republic in these nations. In these countries, republicanism is largely about the post-colonial evolution of their relationships with the United Kingdom. Even in the United Kingdom, where there has never been much popular support for republicanism, it nonetheless commands a significant minority position. There, however, it's motivated more by the decreased popularity of the Royal Family as well as the classical argument against monarchy versus the egalitarian aspects of republicanism.

See also: Abolished monarchy, Australian republicanism, Australian Republican Movement, British republicanism, British republican movement, Irish republicanism, Canadian republicanism, Citizens for a Canadian Republic,Republicanism in New Zealand, Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand

Republicanism in political science

A different interpretation of republicansim is used among political scientists. To them a republic is the rule by many and by laws while a princedom is the arbitrary rule by one. By this definition despotic states are not republics while, according to some such as Kant, constitutional monarchies can be. Kant also argues that a pure democracy is not a republic as the unrestricted rule of the majority is also a form of despotism.

Classical antecedents

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece several philosophers and historians set themselves to analysing and describing forms of government. There is no single expression or definition from this era, written down in Greek, that exactly corresponds with a modern understanding of the term republic survives, but the most essential building blocks to come to such modern definition are present in the works of (amongst others) Plato, Aristotle and Polybius. These elements include the idea of mixed government and of civic virtue. It should be noted that the modern title of Plato's dialogue on the ideal state (The Republic) is a misnomer when seen through the eyes of modern political science is explained in The Republic. Some scholars have translated the Greek concept of "politeia" as "republic", but most modern scholars reject this idea.

Retroactively a number of Ancient Greek states such as Athens and Sparta have been described classical republics during parts of their history as the match later ideas of what is a republic.

Ancient Rome

Both Livy (in Latin, living in Augustus' time) and Plutarch (in Greek, a century later) described how Rome had developed its legislation, notably the transition from kingdom to republic, based on Greek examples. Probably some of this history, composed more than half a millennium after the events, with scant written sources to rely on, is fictitious reconstruction - nonetheless the influence of the Greek way of dealing with government is clear in the state organisation of the Roman Republic.

The Greek historian Polybius, writing more than a century before Livy, was one of the first historians describing the emergence of the Roman Empire, and he had a great influence on Cicero, when this orator was writing his politico-philosophical works in the 1st century BC. One of these works was De re publica, where Cicero links the Latin res publica concept to the Greek politeia concept. As explained in the res publica article, also this concept only exceptionally links to the modern term "republic", although the word "republic" is derived from res publica.

Among these many meanings of the expression res publica, it is only most often translated to "republic" in the case where the Latin expression refers to the Roman state with the form of government it had between the era of the Kings and the era of the Emperors, which was the Roman Republic. This Roman Republic would in a modern understanding of the word still be qualified as a true republic, even if not excelling in all the features Enlightenment philosophers saw for an ideal government system, for example there was no systematic separation of powers in the Roman Republic.

Occasionally Romans could still refer to their state as "res publica" in the era of the early emperors. The reason for this is that on the surface the state organisation of the Roman Republic had been preserved without the slightest alteration by the first emperors. They only had several offices, that in the era of the Republic were reserved to separate persons, accumulated in a single person, and had been successful in making some of these offices permanent, and thus had gradually built sovereignity in their person. Traditionally such references to the early empire as "res publica" are not translated as "republic".

As for Cicero, his description of the ideal state in De re publica is more difficult to qualify as a "republic" in modern terminology, it is rather something like enlightened absolutism - not to say benevolent dictatorship - and indeed Cicero's philosophical works, as far as available at that time, were very influential when Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire developed these concepts. Cicero related however with some ambiguity towards the republican form of government: in his theoretical works he defended monarchy (or a monarchy/oligarchy mixed government at best); in his political life he generally opposed to those trying to realise such ideals, like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian. Eventually, that opposition led to his death. So, depending on how one reads history, Cicero could be seen as a victim of his own deep-rooted republican ideals too.

Tacitus, a contemporary of Plutarch, was not concerned with whether on an abstract level a form of government could be analysed as a "republic" or a "monarchy" (see for example Ann. IV, 32-33). He analyses how the powers accumulated by the early Julio-Claudian dynasty were all given to the representants of this dynasty by a State that was and remained in an ever more "abstract" way a republic; nor was the Roman Republic "forced" to give away these powers to single persons in a consecutive dynasty: it did so out of free will, and reasonably in Augustus' case, because of his many merits towards the state, freeing it of civil wars and the like.

But at least Tacitus is one of the first to follow this line of thought: analysing in which measure such powers were given to the head of state because the citizens wanted to give them, and in which measure they were given because of other principles (for example, because one had a deified ancestor) — such other principles leading more easily to abuse by the one in power. In this sense, that is in Tacitus' analysis, the impossibility to return to the Republic is only irreversible when Tiberius establishes power shortly after Augustus' death (AD 14, much later than most historians place the start of the Imperial form of government in Rome): by this time too many "untouchable" principles had been mingled in to keep Tiberius away from power, and the age of "sockpuppetry in the external form of a republic", as Tacitus more or less describes this Emperor's reign, began (Ann. I-VI).

Civic humanism

Main article: Classical republicanism

The idea of the Republic is drawn from Ancient Greece and Rome but it was truly created during the Renaissance when scholars built upon their conception of the ancient world to advance their view of the ideal government. The usage of the term res publica in classical texts should not be confused with current notions of republicanism. Despite its name Plato's The Republic also has little connection. The republicanism developed in the Renaissance is known as classical republicanism because of its reliance on classical models. This terminology was developed by Zera Fink in the 1960s but some modern scholars such as Brugger consider the term confusing as it might lead some to believe that "classical republic" refers to the system of government used in the ancient world. "Early modern republicanism" has been advanced as an alternative term.

Also sometimes called civic humanism, this ideology grew out of the Renaissance writers who developed the idea of the republic. More than being simply a non-monarchy the early modern thinkers developed a vision of the ideal republic. It is these notions that form the basis of the ideology of republicanism. One important notion was that of a mixed government. Both Plato and Aristotle saw three basic types of government, democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. First Aristotle, and especially Polybius and Cicero developed the notion that the ideal republic is a mixture of these three forms of government and the writers of the Renaissance embraced this notion. Also central the notion of virtue and the pursuit of the common good being central to good government. Republicanism also developed its own distinct view of liberty, though what exactly that view is is much disputed.

Enlightenment republicanism

From the Enlightenment on it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the descriptions and definitions of the "republic" concept on the one side, and the ideologies based on such descriptions on the other.

Up till then the situation had been different: even those Renaissance authors that spoke highly of republics were rarely critical of monarchies. While Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy is the period's key work on republics he also wrote The Prince on how to best run a monarchy. One cause of this was that the early modern writers did not see the republican model as one that could be applied universally, most felt that it could only be successful in very small and highly urbanized city-states.

In antiquity writers like Tacitus, and in the renaissance writers like Machiavelli tried to avoid to formulate an outspoken preference for one government system or another. Enlightenment philosophers, on the other hand, always had an outspoken opinion.

However, Thomas More, still before the Age of Enlightenment, must have been a bit too outspoken to the reigning king's taste, even when coding his political preferences in a Utopian tale.

French Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu expanded upon and altered the ideas of what an ideal republic would be: some of their new ideas were scarcely retraceable to antiquity or the Renaissance thinkers. Among other things they contributed and/or heavily elaborated notions like social contract and separation of powers. They also borrowed from and distinguished it from the ideas of liberalism that were developing at the same time. Since both liberalism and republicanism were united in their opposition to the absolute monarchies they were frequently conflated during this period. 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 continued to stress the importance of civic virtue and the common good, liberalism was based on economics and individualism. While liberalism developed a view of liberty as pre-social and sees all institutions as limiting liberty, republicanism sees some institutions as necessary to create liberty.

It has long been agreed that republicanism, especially that of Rousseau played a central role in the French Revolution. In recent years a debate has developed over its role in the American Revolution and in the British radicalism of the eighteenth century. For many decades the consensus was that liberalism, especially that of John Locke, was paramount and that republicanism had a distinctly secondary role. A revisionist school was pioneered by J.G.A. Pocock who argued in The Machiavellian Moment that at least in the early eighteenth century republican ideas were just as important as liberal ones. Pocock's view is now widely accepted, but there is still fierce debate over the ideas of those who have tried to extend his thesis. Bernard Bailyn, for instance, pioneered the argument that the American founding father's were more influenced by republicanism than they were by liberalism. This thesis has been fiercely attacked. Kramnick, for instance, argues that it is a baseless right wing plot to undermine the importance of liberalism in American history.

Eventually, the French Revolution, which was to throw over the French monarchy at the end of the 18th century, installed, at first, a republic. Only a few decades later also kingdoms, like the Belgian state emerging in 1830, would start to adopt some of the innovations of the progressive political philosophers of the Enlightenment too.

Modern republicanism

This new school of historical revisionism has accompanied a general revival of republican thinking. In recent years a great number of thinkers have argued that republican ideas should be adopted. This new thinking is sometimes referred to as neo-republicanism. Engeman referred to republicanism as "an intellectual buzzword" that has been applied to a wide range of theories and postulates that have little in common inorder to give them a certain cachet.

The most important theorists in this movement are Philip Pettit and Cass Sunstein who have each written a number of works defining republicanism and how it differs from liberalism. While a late convert to republicanism from communitarianism, Michael Sandel is perhaps the most prominent advocate in the United States for replacing or supplementing liberalism with republicanism as outlined in his Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. As of yet these theorists have had little impact on government. John W. Maynor, argues that Bill Clinton was interested in these notions and that he integrated some of them into his 1995 "new social compact" State of the Union Address.

This revival also has its critics. David Wootton, for instance, argues that throughout history the meanings of the term republicanism have been so diverse, and at times contradictory, that the term is all but meaningless and any attempt to build a cogent ideology based around it will fail.

See also


  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.
  • Brugger, Bill. Republican Theory in Political Thought: Virtuous or Virtual? Basingstoke: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
  • Fink, Zera. The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England. Evanston: Northwestern university Press, 1962.
  • Gelderen, Martin van and Quentin Skinner. eds. Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Haakonssen, Knud. "Republicanism." A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit. eds. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995.
  • Kramnick, Isaac. Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-Century England and America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Maynor, John W. Republicanism in the Modern World. Cambridge: Polity, 2003.
  • Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.*Sandel, Michael J. Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

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