Written By William K. Bolt

Republicanism is a term for beliefs that have defined the American political experiment. In particular, republicanism stems from a form a government where the people are sovereign.  In such a government, virtuous and autonomous citizens must exercise self-control for the common good. Republican citizens should not seek office or use public office for economic gain. Public officials must subordinate their personal ambitions for the good of the community. A republican citizen also must be prepared to thwart corrupting influences that would lead the nation toward tyranny or despotism.  Republicanism is based on the assumption that liberty and power continually battle. Therefore, citizens must protect a fragile liberty from destructive power. Perhaps most importantly, all citizens (the definition of which has changed over the years) in a republic are equal.

Republicanism is a complicated idea. The concept placed Aristotle’s concept of man as a political animal and the Renaissance idea of civic virtue in the context of Christianity. As a result of this complicated fusion, Americans then and now interpret republicanism and the founders’ intentions differently.  Historians seem to agree on this one thing: republicanism symbolized a commitment to civic virtue.

The language of republicanism proliferated in America in the years preceding the American Revolution. American colonists drew from a variety of sources in composing a republican language. Some drew inspiration from the Puritans in New England.  Others found answers in the English common law tradition. Many found evidence of a republican tradition in the republics of ancient Greece and Rome. Some pointed to a tradition of civic humanism in Florence, Italy during the time of Niccolo Machiavelli. But what really inspired the American colonists were the writings by British philosophers, such as Henry Bolingbroke, Thomas Gordon, John Locke, and John Trenchard, that appeared during the English Civil War, the Commonwealth period, and the early eighteenth century.  

Colonists combined these disparate philosophies to compare their ideal republic with the actual monarchy of Great Britain. Freedom had defined the republics of antiquity whereas Great Britain, a former flourishing republic, had decayed into a corrupt monarchy. The pursuit of gain had created a class based society and a government based on excessive patronage. In turn, British society became corrupt. Because citizens placed personal gain ahead of self-sacrifice, the king assumed additional powers that ultimately deprived citizens of their liberties. If America were to survive, it could not replicate the example of Great Britain.

The republic of the founding Fathers of America was much different than the monarchies of the old world. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, among others, endeavored to reorder politics. This would be accomplished in several ways. One, an elective democracy of citizens would be judged by merit and not ancestral lineage. Two, a weak executive would be less likely to influence and corrupt legislators. Third, frequent elections would ensure that officials remained committed to the public good. Fourth, the series of checks and balances in the constitution would prevent any political faction or sector of society from threatening the majority. Such an experiment, the founders believed, would create an ideal society that the rest of the world would emulate.

During the political battles of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, republican language became the weapon of choice.  Federalists and Republicans presented themselves as the true defenders of the American Revolution and republican government. The parties constantly reminded citizens that their opponents undermined republicanism. Federalists charged that if their political adversaries assumed power then they would install the worst aspects of the French Revolution into American society.  Republicans maintained that the Federalist policies would lead the country towards corruption and a monarchy. During the Age of Jackson, Democrats and Whigs continued to cast themselves as defenders of republicanism. Like their political predecessors, both warned that if the people supported their adversaries, then the republic would devolve into anarchy or military despotism. Democrats feared that the “money power” of banks and protective tariffs threatened personal freedoms whereas Whigs charged that the democratic ethos of their opponents would lead to the reign of “King Mob.” As the nation approached the precipice of disunion, Democrats and Republicans feared the impending demise of republicanism. Northerners and Southerners claimed to fight the Civil War to defend their vision of an ordered republic.

Historians use republicanism as an analytical tool to describe the political insurgency throughout American history. For historians who believe in a republican synthesis, republicanism is an alternative tool to liberalism which stresses individual rights, progress, and capitalism. In addition to using republicanism to define the ideology of the American Revolution, scholars have used republicanism to describe the political battles of the antebellum period, early women’s rights movements, labor protests, and agrarian unrest.