Republicanism in the United States
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Republicanism in the United States

October 12, 2019

Republicanism is the guiding political
philosophy of the United States. It has been a major part of American civic
thought since its founding. It stresses liberty and “unalienable” rights as
central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, rejects aristocracy and
inherited political power, expects citizens to be independent in their
performance of civic duties, and vilifies corruption. American
republicanism was founded and first practiced by the Founding Fathers in the
18th century. For them, according to one team of historians, “republicanism
represented more than a particular form of government. It was a way of life, a
core ideology, an uncompromising commitment to liberty, and a total
rejection of aristocracy.” Republicanism was based on Ancient
Greco-Roman, Renaissance, and English models and ideas. It formed the basis
for the American Revolution and the consequent Declaration of Independence
and the Constitution, as well as the Gettysburg Address.
Republicanism may be distinguished from other forms of democracy as it asserts
that people have unalienable rights that cannot be voted away by a majority of
voters. Alexis de Tocqueville warned about the “tyranny of the majority” in a
democracy, and suggested the courts should try to reverse the efforts of the
majority of terminating the rights of an unpopular minority.
The term “republicanism” is derived from the term “republic”, but the two words
have different meanings. A “republic” is a form of government; “republicanism”
refers to the values of the citizens in a republic.
Two major parties were explicitly named after the idea—the Republican party of
Thomas Jefferson, and the current Republican party, founded in 1854.
The American Revolution=Republican virtues=
The colonial intellectual and political leaders in the 1760s and 1770s closely
read history to compare governments and their effectiveness of rule. The
Revolutionists were especially concerned with the history of liberty in England
and were primarily influenced by the “country party”. Country party relied
heavily on the classical republicanism of Roman heritage; it celebrated the
ideals of duty and virtuous citizenship in a republic. It drew heavily on
ancient Greek city-state and Roman republican examples. The Country party
shared some of the political philosophy of Whiggism as well as Tory critics in
England which roundly denounced the corruption surrounding the “court” party
in London centering on the royal court. This approach produced a political
ideology Americans called “republicanism”, which was widespread in
America by 1775. “Republicanism was the distinctive political consciousness of
the entire Revolutionary generation.” J.G.A. Pocock explained the intellectual
sources in America: 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; established churches; 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.
American republicanism was centered on limiting corruption and greed. Virtue
was of the utmost importance for citizens and representatives.
Revolutionaries took a lesson from ancient Rome, they knew it was necessary
to avoid the luxury that had destroyed the Empire. A virtuous citizen was one
that ignored monetary compensation and made a commitment to resist and
eradicate corruption. The Republic was sacred; therefore, it is necessary to
serve the state in a truly representative way, ignoring
self-interest and individual will. Republicanism required the service of
those who were willing to give up their own interests for a common good.
According to Bernard Bailyn “The preservation of liberty rested on the
ability of the people to maintain effective checks on wielders of power
and hence in the last analysis rested on the vigilance and moral stamina of the
people….” Virtuous citizens needed to be strong defenders of liberty and
challenge the corruption and greed in government. The duty of the virtuous
citizen became a foundation for the American Revolution.
=Cause of Revolution=The commitment of most Americans to
republican values and to their property rights helped bring about the American
Revolution. Britain was increasingly being seen as corrupt and hostile and
that of a threat to the very idea of democracy; a threat to the established
liberties that Americans enjoyed and to American property rights. The greatest
threat to liberty was thought by many to be corruption—not just in London but at
home as well. The colonists associated it with luxury and, especially,
inherited aristocracy, which they condemned.
Historian Thomas Kidd argues that during the Revolution Christians linked their
religion to republicanism. He states, “With the onset of the revolutionary
crisis, a major conceptual shift convinced Americans across the
theological spectrum that God was raising up America for some special
purpose.” Kidd further argues that ” new blend of Christian and republican
ideology led religious traditionalists to embrace wholesale the concept of
republican virtue.” As virtuous republicans, citizens had a growing
moral obligation to eradicate the corruption they saw in the monarchy.
Historian Gordon Wood has tied the founding ideas to American
Exceptionalism.”Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the
well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our
idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead
the world toward liberty and democracy.” Americans were the protectors of
liberty, they had a greater obligation and destiny to assert republican virtue.
In Discourse of 1759 Jonathan Mayhew states “An absolute submission to our
prince, or whether disobedience and resistance may not be justified able in
some cases…to all those who bear the title of rulers in common but only to
those who actually perform the duty of rulers by exercising a reasonable and
just authority for the good of human society.” The notion that British rulers
were not virtuous, nor exercising their authority for the “good of human
society” prompted the colonial desire to protect and reestablish republican
values in government. This need to protect virtue was a philosophical
underpinning of the American Revolution=Founding Fathers=
The “Founding Fathers” were strong advocates of republican values,
especially Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Paine,
Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander
Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson defined a republic as:
…a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally,
according to rules established by the majority; and that every other
government is more or less republican, in proportion as it has in its
composition more or less of this ingredient of the direct action of the
citizens. Such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of
space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent
of a New England township. The first shade from this pure element, which,
like that of pure vital air, cannot sustain life of itself, would be where
the powers of the government, being divided, should be exercised each by
representatives chosen…for such short terms as should render secure the duty
of expressing the will of their constituents. This I should consider as
the nearest approach to a pure republic, which is practicable on a large scale of
country or population … we may say with truth and meaning, that governments
are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular
election and control in their composition; and believing, as I do,
that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights,
and especially, that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people, are
less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a friend to
that composition of government which has in it the most of this ingredient.
The Founding Fathers discoursed endlessly on the meaning of
“republicanism.” John Adams in 1787 defined it as “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.”
=Virtue vs. Commerce=The open question, as Pocock suggested,
of the conflict between personal economic interest and classical
republicanism, troubled Americans. Jefferson and Madison roundly denounced
the Federalists for creating a national bank as tending to corruption and
monarchism; Alexander Hamilton staunchly defended his program, arguing that
national economic strength was necessary for the protection of liberty. Jefferson
never relented but by 1815 Madison switched and announced in favor of a
national bank, which he set up in 1816. John Adams often pondered the issue of
civic virtue. Writing Mercy Otis Warren in 1776, he agreed with the Greeks and
the Romans, that, “Public Virtue cannot exist without private, and public Virtue
is the only Foundation of Republics.” Adams insisted, “There must be a
positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honor, Power, and
Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican
Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superior to
all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy
to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions, and Interests, nay their
private Friendships and dearest connections, when they Stand in
Competition with the Rights of society.” Adams worried that a businessman might
have financial interests that conflicted with republican duty; indeed, he was
especially suspicious of banks. He decided that history taught that “the
Spirit of Commerce … is incompatible with that purity of Heart, and Greatness
of soul which is necessary for a happy Republic.” But so much of that spirit of
commerce had infected America. In New England, Adams noted, “even the Farmers
and Tradesmen are addicted to Commerce.” As a result, there was “a great Danger
that a Republican Government would be very factious and turbulent there.”
Other influences A second stream of thought growing in
significance was the classical liberalism of John Locke, including his
theory of the “social contract”. This had a great influence on the revolution
as it implied the inborn right of the people to overthrow their leaders should
those leaders betray the agreements implicit in the sovereign-follower
relationship. Historians find little trace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s
influence in America. In terms of writing state and national
constitutions, the Americans used Montesquieu’s analysis of the ideally
“balanced” British Constitution. But first and last came a commitment to
republicanism, as shown by many historians such as Bernard Bailyn and
Gordon S. Wood.=Historiography=
For a century, historians have debated how important republicanism was to the
Founding Fathers. The interpretation before 1960, following Progressive
School historians such as Charles A. Beard, Vernon L. Parrington and Arthur
M. Schlesinger, Sr., downplayed rhetoric as superficial and looked for economic
motivations. Louis Hartz refined the position in the 1950s, arguing John
Locke was the most important source because his property-oriented liberalism
supported the materialistic goals of Americans.
In the 1960s and 1970s, two new schools emerged that emphasized the primacy of
ideas as motivating forces in history. Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood from Harvard
formed the “Cambridge School”; at Washington University the “St. Louis
School” was led by J.G.A. Pocock. They emphasized slightly different approaches
to republicanism. However, some scholars, especially Isaac Kramnick,
continue to emphasize Locke, arguing that Americans are fundamentally
individualistic and not devoted to civic virtue. The relative importance of
republicanism and liberalism remains a topic of strong debate among historians,
as well as the politically active of present day.
New Nation: The Constitution The Founding Fathers wanted
republicanism because its principles guaranteed liberty, with opposing,
limited powers offsetting one another. They thought change should occur slowly,
as many were afraid that a “democracy”- by which they meant a direct democracy-
would allow a majority of voters at any time to trample rights and liberties.
They believed the most formidable of these potential majorities was that of
the poor against the rich. They thought democracy could take the form of mob
rule that could be shaped on the spot by a demagogue. Therefore, they devised a
written Constitution that could be amended only by a super majority,
preserved competing sovereignties in the constituent states, gave the control of
the upper house to the states, and created an Electoral College, comprising
a small number of elites, to select the president. They set up a House of
Representatives to represent the people. In practice the electoral college soon
gave way to control by political parties. In 1776, most states required
property ownership to vote, but most citizens owned farms in the 90% rural
nation, so it was not a severe restriction. As the country urbanized
and people took on different work, the property ownership requirement was
gradually dropped by many states. Property requirements were gradually
dismantled in state after state, so that all had been eliminated by 1850, so that
few if any economic barriers remained to prevent white adult males from voting.
=”Republican” as party name=In 1792–93 Jefferson and Madison created
a new “Democratic-Republican party” in order to promote their version of the
doctrine. They wanted to suggest that Hamilton’s version was illegitimate.
According to Federalist Noah Webster, a political activist bitter at the defeat
of the Federalist party in the White House and Congress, the choice of the
name “Democratic-Republican” was “a powerful instrument in the process of
making proselytes to the party…. The influence of names on the mass of
mankind, was never more distinctly exhibited, than in the increase of the
democratic party in the United States. The popularity of the denomination of
the Republican Party, was more than a match for the popularity of Washington’s
character and services, and contributed to overthrow his administration.” The
party, which historians later called the Democratic-Republican Party, split into
separate factions in the 1820s, one of which became the Democratic Party. After
1832, the Democrats were opposed by another faction that named themselves
“Whigs” after the Patriots of the 1770s who started the American Revolution.
Both of these parties proclaimed their devotion to republicanism in the era of
the Second Party System.=Republican motherhood=
Under the new government after the Revolution, “republican motherhood”
became an ideal, as exemplified by Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren. The
first duty of the republican woman was to instill republican values in her
children, and to avoid luxury and ostentation.
Two generations later, the daughters and granddaughters of these “Republican
mothers” appropriated republican values into their lives as they sought
independence and equality in the workforce. During the 1830s, thousands
of women mill workers went on strike to battle for their right to fair wages and
independence, as there had been major pay cuts. Many of these women were
daughters of independent land owners and descendants of men who had fought in the
Revolutionary War; they identified as “daughters of freemen”. In their fight
for independence at the mills, women would incorporate rhetoric from the
Revolution to convey the importance and strength of their purpose to their
corporate employers, as well as to other women. If the Revolutionary War was
fought to secure independence from Great Britain, then these “daughters of
freemen” could fight for the same republican values that would give them
fair pay and independence, just as the men had.
=National debt=Jefferson and Albert Gallatin focused on
the danger that the public debt, unless it was paid off, would be a threat to
republican values. They were appalled that Hamilton was increasing the
national debt and using it to solidify his Federalist base. Gallatin was the
Republican Party’s chief expert on fiscal issues and as Treasury Secretary
under Jefferson and Madison worked hard to lower taxes and lower the debt, while
at the same time paying cash for the Louisiana Purchase and funding the War
of 1812. Burrows says of Gallatin: His own fears of personal dependency and
his small-shopkeeper’s sense of integrity, both reinforced by a strain
of radical republican thought that originated in England a century earlier,
convinced him that public debts were a nursery of multiple public
evils–corruption, legislative impotence, executive tyranny, social
inequality, financial speculation, and personal indolence. Not only was it
necessary to extinguish the existing debt as rapidly as possible, he argued,
but Congress would have to ensure against the accumulation of future debts
by more diligently supervising government expenditures.
Andrew Jackson believed the national debt was a “national curse” and he took
special pride in paying off the entire national debt in 1835. Politicians ever
since have used the issue of a high national debt to denounce the other
party for profligacy and a threat to fiscal soundness and the nation’s
Ellis and Nelson argue that much constitutional thought, from Madison to
Lincoln and beyond, has focused on “the problem of majority tyranny.” They
conclude, “The principles of republican government embedded in the Constitution
represent an effort by the framers to ensure that the inalienable rights of
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would not be trampled by
majorities.” Madison, in particular, worried that a small localized majority
might threaten inalienable rights, and in “Federalist #10” he argued that the
larger the population of the republic, the more diverse it would be and the
less liable to this threat. Jefferson warned that “an elective despotism is
not the government we fought for.” As late as 1800, the word “democrat” was
mostly used to attack an opponent of the Federalist party. Thus, George
Washington in 1798 complained, “that you could as soon scrub the blackamoor
white, as to change the principles of a profest Democrat; and that he will leave
nothing unattempted to overturn the Government of this Country.” The
Federalist Papers are pervaded by the idea that pure democracy is actually
quite dangerous, because it allows a majority to infringe upon the rights of
a minority. Thus, in encouraging the states to participate in a strong
centralized government under a new constitution and replace the relatively
weak Articles of Confederation, Madison argued in Federalist No. 10 that a
special interest may take control of a small area, e.g. a state, but it could
not easily take over a large nation. Therefore, the larger the nation, the
safer is republicanism. By 1805, the “Old Republicans” or
“Quids”, a minority faction among Southern Republicans, led by Johan
Randolph, John Taylor of Caroline and Nathaniel Macon, opposed Jefferson and
Madison on the grounds that they had abandoned the true republican commitment
to a weak central government.=Property rights=
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, made the protection of property rights by the
courts a major component of American republicanism. A precocious legal
scholar, Story was appointed to the Court by James Madison in 1811. He and
Chief Justice John Marshall made the Court a bastion of nationalism and a
protector of the rights of property against runaway democracy. Story opposed
Jacksonian democracy because it was inclined to repudiate lawful debts and
was too often guilty of what he called “oppression” of property rights by
republican governments. Story held that, “the right of the citizens to the free
enjoyment of their property legally acquired” was “a great and fundamental
principle of a republican government.” Newmyer presents Story as a “Statesman
of the Old Republic” who tried to rise above democratic politics and to shape
the law in accordance with the republicanism of Story’s heroes,
Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, as well as the New England Whigs of the
1820s and 1830s, such as Daniel Webster. Historians agree that Justice Story—as
much or more than Marshall or anyone else—did indeed reshape American law in
a conservative direction that protected property rights.
=Military service=Civic virtue required men to put civic
goals ahead of their personal desires, and to volunteer to fight for their
country. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, “When citizen and soldier shall be
synonymous terms, then you will be safe.” Scott notes that in both the
American and French revolutions, distrust of foreign mercenaries led to
the concept of a national, citizen army, and the definition of military service
was changed from a choice of careers to a civic duty. Herrera explains that an
appreciation of self-governance is essential to any understanding of the
American military character before the Civil War. Military service was
considered an important demonstration of patriotism and an essential component of
citizenship. To soldiers, military service was a voluntary, negotiated, and
temporary abeyance of self-governance by which they signaled their responsibility
as citizens. In practice self-governance in military affairs came to include
personal independence, enlistment negotiations, petitions to superior
officials, militia constitutions, and negotiations regarding discipline.
Together these affected all aspects of military order, discipline, and life.
Civil War and Reconstruction Historian Frank Lawrence Owsley depicted
antebellum Southern society as a broad class of yeoman farmers who stood and
worked between the slaves and poor whites at one end and the large planters
at the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Owsley asserted that the real
South was liberal, American, and Jeffersonian, not radical or
reactionary. It reflected the best of republican principles Agrarianism in the
20th century was a response to the industrialism and modernism that had
infiltrated the South. According to Owsley, the position of the South
vis-à-vis the North was created not by slavery, cotton, or states’ rights, but
by the two regions’ misunderstanding of each other. J. Mills Thornton argues
that in the antebellum South the drive to preserve republican values was the
most powerful force, and led Southerners to interpret Northern policies as a
threat to their republican values. In reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act
of 1854, antislavery forces in the North formed a new party. The party officially
designated itself “Republican” because the name resonated with the struggle of
1776. “In view of the necessity of battling for the first principles of
republican government,” resolved the Michigan state convention, “and against
the schemes of aristocracy the most revolting and oppressive with which the
earth was ever cursed, or man debased, we will co-operate and be known as
Republicans.” After the war, the Republicans believed
that an important aspect of securing citizenship for freedmen was to give
them the franchise; that the true political education was to be gained in
exercising the right to vote and organizing for political purposes. At
the time, only men were allowed to vote. Constitutional amendments were passed
granting citizenship to freedmen and the franchise to men.
Progressive Era A central theme of the Progressive era
was fear of corruption, one of the core ideas of republicanism since the 1770s.
The Progressives restructured the political system to combat entrenched
interests, to ban influences such as alcohol that were viewed as corrupting,
and to extend the vote to women, who were seen as being morally pure and less
corruptible. Questions of performing civic duty were
brought up in presidential campaigns and World War I. In the presidential
election of 1888, Republicans emphasized that the Democratic candidate Grover
Cleveland had purchased a substitute to fight for him in the Civil War, while
his opponent General Benjamin Harrison had fought in numerous battles. In 1917,
a great debate took place over Woodrow Wilson’s proposal to draft men into the
U.S. Army after war broke out in Europe. Many said it violated the republican
notion of freely given civic duty to force people to serve. In the end,
Wilson was successful and the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed.
Legal terminology The term republic does not appear in the
Declaration of Independence, but does appear in Article IV of the Constitution
which “guarantee[s] to every State in this Union a Republican form of
Government.” What exactly the writers of the constitution felt this should mean
is uncertain. The Supreme Court, in Luther v. Borden, declared that the
definition of republic was a “political question” in which it would not
intervene. During Reconstruction the Constitutional clause was the legal
foundation for the extensive Congressional control over the eleven
former Confederate states; there was no such oversight over the border slave
states that had remained in the Union. In two later cases, it did establish a
basic definition. In United States v. Cruikshank, the court ruled that the
“equal rights of citizens” were inherent to the idea of republic. The opinion of
the court from In re Duncan held that the “right of the people to choose their
government” is also part of the definition. It is also generally assumed
that the clause prevents any state from being a monarchy — or a dictatorship.
Due to the 1875 and 1891 court decisions establishing basic definition, in the
first version of the Pledge of Allegiance, which included the word
republic, and like Article IV which refers to a Republican form of
government, the basic definition of republic is implied and continues to do
so in all subsequent versions, including the present edition, by virtue of its
consistent inclusion.=Democracy=
In March 1861 in his famous First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln
denounced secession as anarchy and explained that majority rule had to be
balanced by constitutional restraints in the American system:
“A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations,
and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions
and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.”
Over time, the pejorative connotations of “democracy” faded. By the 1830s,
democracy was seen as an unmitigated positive and the term “Democratic” was
assumed by the Democratic Party and the term “Democrat” was adopted by its
members. A common term for the party in the 19th century was “The Democracy.” In
debates on Reconstruction, Radical Republicans, such as Senator Charles
Sumner, argued that the republican “guarantee clause” in Article IV
supported the introduction by force of law of democratic suffrage in the
defeated South. After 1800 the limitations on democracy
were systematically removed; property qualifications for state voters were
largely eliminated in the 1820s. The initiative, referendum, recall, and
other devices of direct democracy became widely accepted at the state and local
level in the 1910s; and senators were made directly electable by the people in
1913. The last restrictions on black voting were made illegal in 1965.
See also Corruption in the United States
Democracy First Party System
Second Party System Third Party System
Republican motherhood Founding fathers of the United States
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American Historiography,” William and Mary Quarterly, 29, 49–80 in JSTOR; also
online Shalhope, Robert E. “Republicanism and
Early American Historiography,” William and Mary Quarterly, 39, 334–356 in JSTOR
Volk, Kyle G.. Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York:
Oxford University Press. Watson, Harry L. Liberty and Power: The
Politics of Jacksonian America White, Ed. “The Ends of Republicanism,”
Journal of the Early Republic, Summer 2010, Vol. 30 Issue 2, pp 179–199, focus
on literature Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American
Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln.. Wiltse, Charles Maurice. The
Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution: How a Revolution
Transformed a Monarchical Society into a Democratic One Unlike Any That Had Ever
Existed.. ISBN 0-679-40493-7 Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the
American Republic 1776–1787, one of the most influential studies
Wood, Walter Kirk. “Before Republicanism: Frank Lawrence Owsley and
the Search for Southern Identity, 1865–1965.” Southern Studies 6(4):
65–77. ISSN 0735-8342 Zagari, Rosemarie. “Morals, Manners, and
the Republican Mother,” American Quarterly Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 192–215 in
JSTOR External links
“Inventing a New Republican Culture for America” Lesson plan for grades 9-12
from National Endowment for the Humanities

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