In Britain today, republicans and monarchists are on opposite sites of the debate when it comes to the future of the monarchy, but according to
the late 17th to early 18th century view of republicanism, Britain today would be considered a republic. A republic is any government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the people. This section describes the rise of republicanism, which was a response to absolutists like Hobbes, and to a lesser extent liberals like Locke. It focuses on Harrington and Montesquieu. Civic liberty was the principle aim of republicanism, and republicans were heavily influenced by Aristotle’s views on citizen virtue, and his insistence that a just constitution secured the government of laws not men.

James Harrington

James Harrington’s ‘Oceana’ was a proposal for republican government, which he defined as a government founded on the common interests and rights of citizens, and is a government of laws not men. Hobbe’s absolutism by contrast is government founded on the interest of one or a few men, who rule in their own private interest. Republicans were conventional in believing in the importance of political stability, but less conventional in insisting that stability was achieved through balance. Harrington’s distinctive contribution was to link political balance with landed property balance. A person who owns property has a stake in the country and the resources to arm himself, and serving as a soldier makes a man a virtuous citizen. Land is immovable so inherently stable. Money is movable, hence the contemporary resistance to admit merchants into the political establishment. Harrington argued that the movement of land towards freeholders at the expense of the Nobility since the Medieval period had shifted the balance of power to the commons, making popular republicanism the only viable form of government. In his view, the principle economic task of government is to pay for defence. The principle cause of the English Civil War was Charles I’s need to levy heavy taxes to pay for a standing army. Standing armies were near universally accepted to be a threat to liberty, so it was essential to maintain a class of freeholders who could bear their own arms in a militia. This fear of a standing army is the reason for the 2nd amendment in the U.S Constitution. A militia is an economically self sufficient form of defence, so is politically stable. However, 18th century Britain would show that it was possible to finance permanent standing armies without loss of stability.


Montesquieu’s ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ is considered by Ryan to be the foundational work of modern political sociology. It would influence important figures such as Adam Smith, James Madison and Tocqueville. The work made three key contributions to political science. Firstly an explanation of the difference between the forms of government, secondly an explanation of the obsolescence of the classical city state, and thirdly his account of how to achieve modern political freedom. On the first point, Montesquieu refers to three forms of government; republican, monarchical and despotic. He distinguishes between the nature and spirit of each. The nature of a republic is that sovereignty is located in the whole people, in a monarchy one man is the source of law but he governs through intermediate institutions by fixed and established laws, while a despot rules without law and according to his own whims. The spirit of a republic is virtue (‘public spirit’), honour in a monarchy, and fear in a despotism. However, a republic may be led by a monarch, as long as the law is determined by ‘the people’ and the people are governed by their consent and for their own benefit. Montesquieu partially anticipated American federalism. Popular republics when small are at risk to external threats, but when larger become subject to factional infighting. Montesquieu said that forming an association between republics could solve both problems, and pointed to the Lykian League as a successful example.

Political virtue was considered to be the key strength of the ancient city states such as Sparta, where a citizen was expected to give their life for the state if needed. Montesquieu discusses why this virtue is no longer an option for modern citizens. Firstly, the increased sources of private pleasure mean contemporary citizens simply had more to lose than their ancient equivalents. Secondly, political virtue was enforced by the ideological uniformity of the ancient city states. This would have been stifling by the standards of modern liberalism in Montesquieu’s time.

Montesquieu distinguished between the English monarchy which ruled through intermediate powers including an influential aristocracy, and French absolute monarchy, which had stripped its aristocracy of power in order to rule without interference. This loss of power had to be compensated with financial privileges, but this made the aristocracy both wealthy and useless, and therefore hated by the common people. However the English monarchy was the oddity in combining the unity of monarchy with an animating spirit of liberty. This was achieved by the separation of powers, which was first described in its modern sense by Montesquieu. The powers in a state are the executive which enforces the laws, the judiciary who decide cases and the legislative who debate and propose new laws. These powers are independent but also entangled. They are each accessible to different groups, and their ability to check each other achieves stability, while their entanglement ensures they can influence each other. England had avoided the risk of ideological uniformity permeating each of the powers and causing them to lose their independence from each other. This was done through a culture of political pluralism and a population with multiple institutional, class and local loyalties, and a willingness to change their ideas to avoid stasis.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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