Republican Government



The republicanism of the Founders' Constitution might seem to be a matter of course. According to Article 4, section 4, the United States shall guarantee to every state in the Union a republican form of government, but nothing is said to add specificity and clarification to the critical term. If that clause evoked little alarm or comment when the Constitution was being drafted, debated, and ratified, that was owing more to general agreement about the clause's intent than to any general agreement about the meaning of republicanism. In fact the usage of the word "republican" was as amorphous as it was common.

At the core of the notion of republican government appears to be the principle that the many should rule, and that the body politic "should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority" (Locke, no. 1). Which way that greater force moved was for the people to determine, consulting their interests and their better second thoughts. In that sense a variety of forms of institutional arrangements might all deserve the name "republican," with the greater fitness of one or the other form turning on the particular, even peculiar, circumstances of people, time, and place. What was critical, John Adams insisted (Novanglus, no. 7, 6 Mar. 1775), was that the government be "bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend."

Throughout his long lifetime Adams was to refine and enlarge and qualify this early effort at defining republicanism, but even at this stage he was sharply at odds with others for whom republic meant minimally and irreducibly, no king. Thus, for his friend and fellow revolutionary Benjamin Rush, there were hard-and-fast lines between "absolute republicanism and absolute monarchy." Titles of nobility were suspect (Art. 1, sec. 9, cl. 8; Art. 1, sec. 10, cl. 1), and the study of the classical languages as well. Rush detected in them devices whereby some contrived to separate themselves from their fellow creatures, the better to abuse and enslave them (no. 30). And thus, too, for Adams's bête noire and fellow revolutionary Tom Paine, it was a travesty to honor England with the name "republic" (no. 4). Its freedom depended on "the virtue of the House of Commons (the republican part in the Constitution)," and with that part corrupted and "eaten out," nothing was left but the remains of monarchical and aristocratical tyranny. Moreover, the hereditary principle, with which the English were so infatuated, provided a basis of power independent of the people and hence "in a constitutional sense" contributed nothing toward the freedom of the state. In rejecting both monarchy and hereditary rule, Americans would be rejecting an otherwise endless legacy of "blood and ashes."

Thomas Jefferson's republicanism was less flamboyant than Paine's, but not less radically opposed to monarchical and hereditary rule. It was evident to him in 1776 (he recollected in 1821) that independence demanded a consistent republicanism, and hence a sloughing off of monarchic, aristocratic, and other incompatible vestiges of prerepublican rule. To some extent his collaborators in the revision of Virginia's laws shared his belief, though none would match his devotion and assiduity in that project. With no royal negatives "to restrain us from doing right, it should be corrected, in all it's parts, with a single eye to reason, & the good of those for whose government it was framed" (no. 7). Jefferson considered four of 126 proposed bills "as forming a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican." His singling out of bills repealing entail and abolishing primogeniture helps cast some light on the otherwise incongruous inclusion of a law of inheritance in the Northwest Ordinance (see ch. 1, no. 8). The third bill would relieve the people from "taxation for the support of a religion not theirs." The fourth would provide for a general education of the people so as to qualify them for self-government by teaching them how to understand and maintain their rights. Among Jefferson's many fine epitomes of his republicanism, this autobiographical passage may stand first.

The Problem of Balance

Reading from Jefferson's Autobiography it is easy to forget that the case for republicanism had still to be made. Yet according to John Adams's account, a large body of contemporary opinion expressed itself in "the sneers of modern Englishmen" who contemned the principles, reasoning, and very memories and names of those whom they dismissed as regicides, commonwealthmen, and radical Whigs. "No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them." In so confessing, Adams meant also to prepare "any candid mind" for a pro-republican argument in the form of a definition: "there is no good government but what is Republican ... because the very definition of a Republic, is 'an Empire of Laws, and not of men.'" (no. 5). On these Harringtonian foundations Adams proceeded to develop his thoughts, culminating in 1787 with the "true and only true definition of a republic": "a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws" (no. 10). The implications were liberty for all, not only for a majority; the protection of persons as well as of the acquisition, use, and transfer of property at the individual's discretion; and the contrivance of devices to engage the political interests of "the real middling people" and to secure their predominance in the state.

Principled republican that he was, Adams resisted the simplistic dichotomies adopted by both friends and foes of republican government. That seeker of royal and republican loans was "no king-killer, king-hater, or king-despiser" (Letter to Marquis de Lafayette, 21 May 1782). In an advanced stage of popular corruption and civil conflict, a desperate people might well be driven to institute hereditary offices, the very lineaments of Paine's detested British polity. So prudence might dictate muffling the antimo-narchical and antiaristocratical drums for the present, even while laboring to contrive popular elective embodiments of monarchical and aristocratical principles. The truly challenging problem for Adams was to embed in republican institutions and procedures the self-sustaining elements of his cherished notion of a balanced government. From that point of view he thought he could already discern a major weakness in the new American Constitution: the monarchical element in it required enlargement and bolstering against the all-engrossing aristocratical power (no. 29).

It was, however, reserved for the two principal authors of the Federalist to recast the terms of the public discussion of republicanism by insisting on treating a republic as a species of popular government and distinguishing it from the other species, democracy, by the use of representation. Rule by popular majorities was not enough. The good name of popular self-government would be redeemed by a republic properly constructed (no. 12; see also ch. 17, no. 22). Among other things this entailed rejecting in the name of majority rule the right of equal suffrage in the national legislature enjoyed by the small states under the Articles of Confederation (see ch. 5, no. 23), and reconsidering how much dependence and popular derivation were necessary to proclaim a constitution in conformity with the true principles of republican government (nos. 24, 26).

The Problem of Size

The Federalist's great vindication of republicanism called forth Hamilton's intense efforts and Madison's truly original contribution to political thought. No small part of their task was to convert a widely held objection to the proposed Constitution into a matter of rightful relief and pride. Montesquieu had taught moderns an ancient lesson (but for modern purposes), that republics would thrive only in fairly compact territories. The contiguity of private and public good would be more visible, more intelligible, more attainable, more actual, in a small state of relatively homogeneous free men. The Anti-Federalist dread of consolidated government turned largely on this Montesquieuan premise (nos. 14, 16). Hamilton's riposte was to claim that the dread was ill placed. Not largeness but smallness lay at the root of the domestic turmoil and sedition that made "the petty Republics of Greece and Italy" horrible and disgusting to contemplate, and the recent doings in western Massachusetts and Rhode Island even more vivid. A literal reading of Montesquieu would bode ill for America, for when Montesquieu said "small" he meant small, not a Virginia of 125,525 square miles (according to Jefferson's calculation in Notes on the State of Virginia). By this token Americans would be reduced to the alternative "either of taking refuge at once in the arms of monarchy, or of spliting ourselves into an infinity of little jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord and the miserable objects of universal pity or contempt." Happily, modern improvements now made it possible for "the enlightened friends to liberty" to stand forth as republicans (no. 18). Of those progressive developments in political science, none was more critical than the discovery that "the enlargement of the sphere is found to lessen the insecurity of private rights" (see Madison, ch. 5, no. 16). In part this lessening would come about in a large republic almost as a matter of course thanks to the barriers to easy collusion posed by distance, time, and heterogeneity. In part it might come about through a properly devised "process of elections as will most certainly extract from the mass of the Society the purest and noblest characters which it contains." In and of itself, however, the extended republic might well favor protracted misrepresentation rather than the refinement and enlargement of popular views (nos. 19, 27). Nature had still to be perfected by political art. With cool self-assurance the proponents of the Constitution would point to that document as an unparalleled exemplar of the art that was needed.

The Problem of Commerce

Even with the extended republic temporarily secure and orthodox republican leaders in office, there still was cause for concern. Would the Americans' zeal for a commercial republic prove the undoing of both republic and republicans? It is tempting, but unhistorical, to treat this concern as a quaint or irrelevant atavism in a people as zealously commercial as the Americans. It was one thing to recognize the inevitable prominence of commerce in American life, as did Jefferson (Letter to George Washington, 15 Mar. 1784), Adams (Letter to John Jay, 6 Dec. 1785), and Hamilton (see ch. 7, nos. 13, 14). It was another matter to assess accurately the benefits and costs of that development. Following Montesquieu (no. 2) and Hume (no. 3), some Americans could recognize and welcome the ways in which commerce would soften men's harshness and hatred, creating bonds within and among states (no. 32; see also Agrippa, no. 1, 23 Nov. 1787, and ch. 18, no. 30). Hamilton was loath to credit such pacific expectations (see ch. 7, no. 10), though of course this in no way diminished his ardor for the promotion of commerce and manufacturing (no. 31).

Much more vexing were the probable effects of those developments upon the habits, tastes, and concerns of a self-governing people. Republicanism presupposes a people who care about the res publica, the public thing. Commerce changes the focus of individuals' vision; manufacturing permits, while encouraging, the indulgence of private gratifications; and a life cut off from the soil is, to that extent, a life of increased dependency on the wills of other men. Could one still speak of republican citizens when contemplating merchants, for which the "mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains"? (Jefferson to Horatio Gates Spafford, 17 Mar. 1817, cited in Papers 14:221). Would the avarice that set men in motion leave them the taste or energy for pursuing the public's concerns? Recognizing those problems was a first step toward trying to cope with them, and there were, among the American founders of republican government, those who were intent on facing that challenge (see ch. 18).

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 4, Introduction
The University of Chicago Press

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