Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.


Republicanism is familiar because it pervades political speech. Americans, for example, have long pledged allegiance not only to their flag but also to “the republic for which it stands.” But republicanism is also elusive because there is no consensus among scholars or citizens as to exactly what a republic is. No wonder. Republican government has been practiced in a wide variety of times and places, including ancient Athens, Sparta, Rome, Renaissance Florence, and modern America. Similarly, republican political theory has been expounded by a wide variety of thinkers and statesmen, including Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) in ancient Greece, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) in sixteenth-century Italy, and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), James Madison (1751-1836), and John Jay (1745-1829) in eighteenth-century America. Though republicanism has meant many different things, a republic can be usefully defined as a government of citizens, rather than subjects, who share in directing their own affairs. This definition, though broad, has some important implications. Being governed by a king requires little virtue; the laws, backed by the threat of force, keep subjects in check. Governing oneself, in contrast, requires considerable virtue. Where citizens themselves have a hand in the laws and in the use of force, they must remember their duties and check themselves. For this reason, republicanism requires virtue. Virtue, however, understood as the capacity and willingness to restrain or sacrifice oneself for the common good, does not come easily.

Therefore, republican politics is, to borrow political theorist Michael Sandel’s phrase, a “formative politics” that uses public moral education and other means to form virtuous citizens.


The history of republics and republicanism begins in ancient Greece, whose very geography, featuring fertile plains separated by mountains, seemed to lend itself to small, independent, and distinctive political communities. The polis (poleis plural), as the Greeks called the kind of community in question, began to take shape between 1100 and 800 B.C. During that period, the nobles, an exclusive group of leading families, wrested political power from the kings. Thereafter, men who acquired wealth and importance through commerce rather than noble birth demanded and gained a share of political power. In addition, military change widened the circle of citizenship. Between 700 and 600 B.C., infantry warfare began its development into the military tactic of choice in Greece. The equipment necessary for the infantry warrior, or hoplite, was much less expensive than that required for the chariot or cavalry warrior. Consequently, a broader (though still limited) section of the population came to contribute heavily to warfare and to be in a position to demand a political role. The controversy over whether citizenship and political power should belong to the multitude, as in a democracy, or the few, as in an oligarchy, often led to violence and contributed heavily to wars within and between poleis throughout classical Greek history. The controversy would continue to divide republican leaders, citizens, and theorists long after the polis had disappeared.

The polis

Many poleis had fewer than 5,000 citizens, fewer than modern-day Harvard University has undergraduates. Only three poleis had more than 20,000 citizens. Even the adult male citizen population of Athens in the late fifth century B.C., which was immense by Greek standards, did not exceed 45,000, far fewer people, for example, than the 57,545 who turn up for a sold-out New York Yankees game. The smallness of the Greek polis meant its citizens could live together with an intensity and immediacy that citizens of modern states can imagine only with difficulty. To envision life as a citizen in Athens, for example, one must envision knowing one’s fellow citizens and being known by them. One must envision participating in politics not by voting for representatives but by attending the Assembly personally and deliberating with one’s fellow citizens about the most important public matters, such as whether to go to war or sue for peace, or whether or not to punish a general. One must imagine participating in the administration of justice, not only by serving frequently on juries, which consisted not of twelve but between 101 and 1,000 citizens, but also by serving as one’s own prosecutor or defense attorney. One must imagine seeing the plays of great tragedians and comic writers not in a darkened theater with a few friends and many anonymous strangers but in the open air, as part of a public festival. Athens was by no means atypical.

Nonetheless, the tiny and consequently fragile polis, threatened with destruction by external enemies or civil war, did not exist merely to offer its citizens the opportunity to participate politically. It was a community of fighters that required extraordinary devotion and unity. Where citizens were the army, and wars frequent, communities had to be bound as soldiers are. To accomplish this task, legislators and statesmen appealed not only to the reason and interest of citizens but above all to tradition, to myths of common ancestry, and to the gods of the polis. While all the Greeks worshipped the Olympian gods such as Zeus and Hera, each polis had its own mode of worship and its own local gods. In the Greek world, patriotism was, as historian Paul Rahe put it in Republics: Ancient and Modern, “a religion of blood and soil.” The need of the polis for solidarity and a set of beliefs to support it in the face of danger helps explain why even in Athens, renowned for its liberality, Socrates (c. 470-399 B.C.), arguably the founder of Western philosophy, could be prosecuted and put to death for impiety and corrupting the young.


Though the all-encompassing character of polis life was born of necessity, the Greeks also considered the polis superior to other forms of association. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) observed in the Politics that although the polis came into being “for the sake of mere life,” it existed “for the sake of a good life.” Aristotle knew human associations could be larger than the polis. Familiar with empires, he knew such associations were not necessarily as closely knit and demanding as was the polis. He rejected associations in which people united merely for the sake of mutual defense and economic exchange. Real politics, he wrote, could not take place in such associations and human beings could not achieve perfection in them, for, according to Aristotle’s most famous claim, “man is by nature a political animal.” By this, Aristotle meant that humans uniquely can reason, speak, and deliberate together about the just and the unjust, about the good and the bad. One could be fully human and exercise the virtues proper to human beings only in the polis, in which citizens participated accordingly. Aristotle, however, also realized political drawbacks and limits and, in particular, sought to temper the harshness that made the polis often inhospitable not only to philosophers but also to prudent statesmen.

Cost to the Public

The Greek citizen’s devotion to public life came at a great cost. The Greek world depended on slave labor, which contributed significantly to the leisure citizens enjoyed to practice politics. In some poleis, including Athens, slaves were a large percentage of the total population. They were usually non-Greeks purchased, kidnapped, or acquired in war. Some slaves were very well educated. Some were allowed to start businesses and could hope to buy personal freedom, if not citizenship. Many were well treated, though those who worked in the mines at Athens, for example, suffered terribly. In any case, none enjoyed what was essential to a human life from the Greek standpoint—a share in the political community. That involuntary servitude existed in the heartland of republican freedom would always trouble admirers of the polis. As eighteenth century political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) observed in The Social Contract, the demands of Greek political life seemed to entail that “the Citizen [could] be perfectly free only if the slave [was] utterly enslaved.”

In the early fifth century B.C., the Greeks, led by Athens and Sparta, won a series of stunning victories in a long war against the Persian empire. These victories were seen as confirming the superiority of political freedom to despotism. Nonetheless, it was not long before the Athenians and Spartans led separate coalitions in the destructive Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), which pitted Greek against Greek, and led both to the defeat of Athens and to incessant political turmoil and bloodshed in Greece. In the fourth century B.C., Greek political life was to be, as H. D. F. Kitto put it in The Greeks, “confusing, wearisome, and depressing.” In 338 B.C., Philip II of Macedon (382-336 B.C.) conquered Greece. Under his successor, Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), the Greek polis did not altogether disappear, but its period of great power and independence had ended.

Ancient Rome

The next significant republican model was the Roman Republic. Established around 509 B.C., it had barely begun to fulfill its imperial destiny when Greece fell to Philip. Only in 396 B.C. did Rome make its first important conquest, the neighboring polity of Veii. But by 44 B.C., thirteen years before the Republic, in effect, gave way to one-man rule, Rome’s possessions stretched from Spain to Syria. There were many similarities between Greek and Roman political institutions, and the Greek example may well have inspired republicanism in ancient Italy. But Rome, far more than any Greek polis, was a republican empire. Had the Persian wars proved that free political communities could turn back despotic aggression, the Roman Republic proved such communities could aspire to dominate the world. It also raised the question of how long a republic bent on expansion could remain republican.

Rome’s innovation was to offer full or partial citizenship to allies and defeated enemies. By doing so, it could greatly increase its resources and manpower. The meaning of republican citizenship, however, had to change. In the tiny Greekpolis, citizenship could mean direct participation in political decision making. But in the Roman Republic, where a citizen might live nowhere near Rome itself, citizenship for most would be merely the possession of a certain legal status and the advantages that went with it.

One important reason for the demise of the Republic was its need for soldiers to defend its acquisitions and to conquer new ones. Toward the end of the second century B.C., Rome abandoned the practice of requiring its soldiers to own a certain minimum amount of property and to equip themselves with arms. They were thereby enabled to draw on the landless and poor, who hoped to make a living from soldiery and were consequently more willing than others to fight long campaigns far from home. At the same time, these more or less professional soldiers had little stake in the existing political order, and their hopes for land grants and bonuses rested on their general’s patronage. After this change, Rome careened from internal crisis to internal crisis, threatened by its own generals, whose troops were more loyal to them than to the political authorities. By 31 B.C., though republican forms would be retained for some time, rule had effectively fallen into the hands of one man, Octavian, soon to be known as Augustus. The Roman Republic had become the Roman Empire. For a long time after, republicans would worry that a professional military posed an unacceptable danger to freedom.

The Medieval City

More than a thousand years passed before a republican revival began in earnest. Toward the middle of the 11th century A.D., the medieval city began to develop as trade increased. Some towns, in effect, could set up independent governments. They developed most fully in Italy, where, most notably in Florence and Venice, the medieval city was the site of not only new economic activity but also new republican politics. One can speak, as historian Peter Riesenberg does in Citizenship in the Western Tradition, of the development in Italy of a “new civic consciousness” in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and of a gradual revival of “secular patriotism.” The medieval Italian city used festivals, songs, and schools to foster in citizens the sense that the patria, the fatherland, was the highest loyalty, higher, at least at times, than their families, or even the Church. It drew on antiquity, especially the Roman Republic, for inspirational examples of the active life of self-sacrificing public service. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, as republican practice declined in Italy, republican theorizing and writing peaked in an intellectual, literary, and political movement, centered in Florence, that has come to be called civic humanism. Civic humanist writers drew on ancient history and political theory to defend republicanism. At the same time, for at least two reasons, the medieval city could hardly be regarded as a full-fledged revival of the old republican idea.

First, medieval Italian city life was emphatically commercial. The exercise of political rights, whatever the moral value, had to be weighed against the cost, in time away from doing business, of attending public assemblies, or serving in office. The merchants and artisans who populated the cities were typically more concerned with the commercial benefits and protections of citizenship than with decidedly less tangible pleasures Aristotle promised to political participants. Eventually, citizenship itself became more associated with material benefits.


Second, and more importantly, the medieval world was Christian, which meant it could not easily accept the republican ideal in good conscience. The medieval citizen was expected to be loyal first to his city, but the medieval Christian wanted to be loyal first to God. The medieval citizen was expected to embrace the active life, but the medieval Christian was expected to embrace, at least in part, the ideal of contemplation, prayer, and withdrawal from world affairs. The medieval citizen was expected to regard his fellow citizens as friends and the citizens of rival cities as strangers or enemies, but the medieval Christian was expected to regard all men as brothers. Thus, the would-be devoted republican citizen was tempted “from below” by the ideal of the merchant and “from above” by the ideal of the monk.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) made the implicit opposition between Christianity and republicanism explicit and sided with the latter. In his view, Christianity, with its emphasis on submission, resignation, humility, and mercy, had softened men and turned their attention from worldly politics. Political leaders were fanatics and fools. By aiming for excessively high-minded virtues, Christianity had distracted human beings from seizing what they could reasonably expect to have: security, prosperity, and perhaps even lasting glory. In his Discourses, Machiavelli sings the praises of the expansionist Roman republic and, while criticizing it, suggests it did not go far enough in its single-minded and heartless devotion to acquisition and glory. In a way, Machiavelli treats ancient republicanism in the opposite of Aristotle, for while Aristotle seeks to soften that republicanism and make room for philosophy, Machiavelli seeks to harden it and subordinate peaceful virtues to the pursuit of victory. Machiavelli, the first to articulate a modern republicanism that decisively broke from Christian and classical models, was to have many followers.

That is not to say, however, that republicanism is simply anti-Christian. In Florence, not long before Machiavelli wrote, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) had briefly attempted to turn Florence into a Christian republic. Prophets had long invested events in earthly cities with divine significance. Savonarola merely added to that tradition in understanding the restoration of Florentine republicanism, which had lapsed, as a spiritual renewal and in understanding the city of Florence as destined to purify Christianity and prepare the way for the city of God. Republicanism, which rejected human kingship, could be understood to assert that Christ alone was king. Savonarola’s project failed, and he was hanged and burned as a heretic. But religious thinkers and believers, especially Protestants, would be pivotal to republicanism, above all in the establishment of republican government in England and America. Republicans in those countries would have to confront the problem that by the middle of the sixteenth century had all but destroyed republican life in Europe, the seeming helplessness of small republics in the face of large, centralized, monarchical states.


For the moment, however, republicanism had settled down for one of its long sleeps. While the Netherlands and Switzerland were exceptions, the rule in the sixteenth and much of the seventeenth century was the consolidation of monarchical power, which centralized bureaucracies supported and professional standing armies defended. Only in seventeenth-century England did republicanism decisively awaken in the Puritan Revolution (1640-1660) and the Glorious Revolution (1688), which ended with the vindication of the sovereignty of Parliament, the most representative and democratic part of the English government, and the reduction of the king’s power. Almost a century later, England’s American colonies, persuaded that the mother country had abandoned republican principles, fought and won the American Revolution (1775-83). In the debate over the Constitution of 1787, both the Federalists, who defended it, and the Anti-Federalists, who attacked it, looked mostly to the same standard. As the Federalist Papers, the most celebrated defense of the American Constitution, insist, the “general form and aspect of the government [must] be strictly republican,” for “no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America” or “with the fundamental principles of the Revolution.” Yet by republicanism, the authors of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), James Madison, and John Jay did not mean what the Romans, or even the Florentines, meant. Though they chose the pseudonym Publius, the name of a Roman Republic hero, to underscore their allegiance to the republican tradition, they also called the new Constitution an “experiment” and warned their readers against a “blind veneration for antiquity.”

The new republicanism, conceived in England but brought to term in the United States, contained elements of the old, but added to them a powerful political theory, liberalism, contained in the writings of, among others, John Locke (1632-1704) and the Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755). Liberal republicanism follows Machiavelli in seeking to found politics not on high-minded virtues, but on more solid ground. For the liberal, the end of politics is not the promotion of virtue but the protection of rights. Virtue remains necessary, but human reason is capable of devising a new political science and new institutions that will narrow the gap between self-interest and the common good, so that the importance of virtue and the harshness of the virtue required for political success are both diminished.

While the statesman is by no means disparaged, liberals do not see the political life as the only full human life, nor do they view the public square as the primary theater of virtue. Industry, commerce, and the “pursuit of happiness” acquire a new respectability, made possible partly by less of a need of the modern liberal for the extreme self-sacrificing virtue demanded in the ancient polis. Also, the smallness conducive to intense patriotism and direct public participation was not required by the new liberal republicanism, which enabled the large territorial republic to enter the world stage for the first time and ultimately to compete with the great monarchical states. Nonetheless, the large republic had its controversies in the United States, and the Anti-Federalists doubted that even the limited virtues required to sustain the new republic could be maintained in a nation as large as the United States, governed by a powerful and always potentially tyrannical central government. The Anti-Federalists lost, but their doubts carried to future republican generations.

Rousseau was arguably the greatest critic of the new liberal republicanism. In his works, including the Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men and the Social Contract, he attacked the emerging modern world and the theorists who helped coax it into being for, among other things, destroying virtue, promoting inequality, and falling far short of democracy. He compared the emerging modern, civilized man unfavorably to Spartans and Romans, on the one hand, and primitives and rustics on the other. While Rousseau himself had almost no hope for radical reform, his thought helped inspire demands to modify or abandon the liberal republican model, which were heard in, among many other places, the more radical French and Russian revolutions that came after the American one. Although liberal republicanism of a sort would come to dominate the world by the end of the twentieth century, it would never altogether escape criticism, nor did it altogether avoid giving in to at least some demands.

Theory in Depth

The Essentials of Republicanism

The political theory of republicanism holds that the best government involves citizens, rather than subjects, where citizens share in directing their own affairs. It was first developed and expounded in ancient Greece, most completely by Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) in his work, the Politics. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469- 1527), who criticized and self-consciously broke with the old republican tradition, founded a new, modern republicanism. This new republicanism, modified and made more receptive to individual freedom by Machiavelli’s successors, found enduring expression in the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), John Jay (1745-1829), and James Madison (1751- 1836) wrote this collection of essays in 1787-1788 to defend the proposed Constitution of the United States. Modern republicanism has pervaded the United States and Western Europe, and is influential worldwide. While ancient, or classical, and modern, or liberal, republicanism differ in most respects, they share the conviction of self-government as the only worthwhile political arrangement.

Classical Republicanism

The Greek polis gave birth to republicanism, and Aristotle first fully articulated a republican political theory. Republicanism, however, was so profoundly transformed by Niccolò Machiavelli and the successors, such as John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu, who tamed his harsh teaching, that it is useful to distinguish between classical and liberal republicanism.

Classical republicanism starts from the premise that man is by nature a political animal. Human nature finds its fulfillment only in polis life, in which citizens deliberate about justice and the common good and rule themselves on the basis of such deliberation. Polis life, however, is extremely fragile. The polis must be small enough that citizens can assemble together, but must somehow defend itself against larger neighbors. Moreover, the polis may often be agitated for, as the Federalist Papers state, when matters of great national importance are discussed, a “torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose.” In the polis, such matters, which affect vital interests and deep beliefs, are debated openly and often, and constantly threaten to tear it apart. Finally, the polis imposes unusual demands and responsibility on its citizens, who are expected to rule themselves by participating. For all these reasons, cultivating solidarity and a self-sacrificing virtue is among the first concerns of classical republican political theory.

Private life

Because it puts politics first, and because it asks so much of its citizens, classical republicanism tends to devalue private life. Indeed, the word “idiot” derives from a term the Greeks applied to a person who preferred private to public life. For the classical republican, politics is not a necessary evil one suffers in order to protect and advance private interests. On the contrary, private interest and even individual freedom are subordinate to the public interest and to the political freedom citizens can exercise only in common. The polis, Aristotle wrote, “is prior to the individual.” The classical republican likes to devalue privacy because public engagement really is, for most humans, superior to any private pursuit. The classical republican frowns upon privacy because, as political theorist and Michigan State University professor Steven Kautz said in Liberalism and Community, “republican virtue does not arise spontaneously in the souls of human beings” but “must be forced into being by a political community that restrains the private interests and appetites of individuals,” which threaten to undermine devotion to the polis. For both these reasons, as Paul Rahe pointed out, the Greek may have had certain legal privileges as a citizen, but “as a human being, [he] possessed no rights against the commonwealth.” Classical republicans see individuals as not endowed by nature or God with rights beyond community reach. Moreover, the devaluing of private life extended to the family, as the following famous tale suggests. A Spartan mother had five sons in the army, which was engaged in battle. A slave arrived, and she asked him for news of the fight. He told her that her five sons had been killed. She responded, “Did I ask you that?” When he told her the Spartans had won the battle, she ran to the temple to give thanks to the gods.

Classical republicanism, for several reasons, also tends to devalue commerce and trade. First, politics, for the classical republican, is simply a noble pursuit. Man is a political, not an economic animal. What Aristotle calls the art of acquisition is necessary, for the polis cannot exist without material goods, nor can the citizen have the leisure to participate public affairs without a certain amount of wealth. But to devote oneself wholeheartedly to this art is to mistake the means for the end. Partly for this reason the Greeks tended to frown upon those engaged in commercial pursuits, even in poleis where commerce was viewed as necessary.


Second, commerce produces inequalities, as some accumulate wealth and others fail. The classical republican, however, does not worry about economic inequality, because it is unfair. Rather, he worries that extreme economic inequality may have dire political consequences. Economic inequality threatens solidarity and, when extreme, results in a city divided along the lines of wealth. How will citizens see themselves as one people when one group prospers greatly while the other suffers greatly? One is almost certain to find instead, as Aristotle observed, “a state of envy on the one side and of contempt on the other,” not one united city but, in all but name, two enemy cities sharing space. Economic inequality is also dangerous because the poor depend upon the rich, who can use their economic advantage to secure unchallenged political supremacy. Finally, as long as politics is a struggle between rich and poor, one has neither a genuinely political life—for one group exercises tyrannical authority over the other—nor stability, because there is always a group with everything to gain by toppling the status quo. Ancient theorists and legislators, realizing such dangers, proposed and often enacted laws regulating the market, and the purchase and inheritance of land, among other things, with a view to ameliorating the conflict between rich and poor. To take the sting out of the economic inequality that remained, most poleis had sumptuary laws to forbid conspicuous displays of wealth. Many had customs and even laws to insure that the rich applied some of their wealth to public works, or entertainment, or to serve other public needs.

Third, commerce promotes individualism and selfishness. It threatens to substitute the bottom line for the common good and personal wealth for the commonwealth. Whereas the citizen views fellow citizens as friends and even brothers, the merchant must view them as potential sources of profit. Whereas the citizen is tied to fellow citizens by shared convictions and attachments, merchants are bound to those with whom they deal by shared interest and by contracts. Whereas the citizen must exhibit a spirit of generous self- sacrifice, the merchant must take care not to give without getting in return. The merchant’s values, from the classical citizenship perspective, are indifferent or even harmful. Moreover, the merchant, whose wealth is portable, is not attached to the polis as, for example, is the farmer, whose life is rooted in the soil of his homeland.

Fourth, commerce, when it extends to other poleis, opens citizens to foreign ideas and threatens unity of opinion. The Piraeus, the port of Athens, was known for its openness to innovation. Indeed, Plato (428-348 B.C.) sets his most famous dialogue, the Republic, in the Piraeus where, he tells us, a novel religious festival, devoted to a goddess new to Athens, is to take place. The ancients understood, Rahe said, the connection between economic and philosophic and political speculation, that “commerce in goods inevitably gives rise to a commerce in ideas.” Once one opens oneself to foreign goods, one risks opening oneself to foreign gods. For this reason, Aristotle proposes that while a polis should engage in commerce, it should also enact “legislation which states and defines those who may, or may not, have dealings with one another.”

New ideas

It may surprise that classical republicanism so concerns itself with shutting out new ideas. Classical republican theory, in fact, devalues not only commerce but innovation altogether. In one section of his Politics, Aristotle attacks what would seem to most a harmless and perhaps useful proposal, that “honors should be conferred on those responsible for any invention of benefit to the city.” Aristotle, however, worries less about a society that embraces a single new invention than one embracing the spirit of invention too enthusiastically. For to the classical republican, the spirit of invention is a threat to the law, obedience to which is secured not by pure reason but above all by custom, habit, and belief. From this perspective, to subject the laws to constant scrutiny and revision is reckless because it weakens them without cause. One must always weigh the benefits of innovation, even when good, against the danger of undermining laws and of unsettling the convictions upon which the force of law in general depends.

More broadly, the classical republic, because it demands so much virtue and solidarity, must be more cautious about admitting new ideas. Classical republicans believed no more than modern political theorists believe that human beings naturally sacrifice their own good for the public good, that they are naturally willing to die for each other, or that they spontaneously develop the ties of affection that citizens of a polis share. The works of classical political philosophy are filled with examples of the patriotic myths, among other things, that legislators must devise to bind a people. Because classical political theorists and legislators understood the difficulties of transforming humans into citizens, and how fragile the final product would be, they were cautious about exposing citizens to novel theories that might undermine their hard-won devotion.

The difficulty and importance of transforming human beings into citizens ready to meet their extensive obligations to the polis explains another facet of classical republican political theory, its overwhelming emphasis on education. Shaping the character of citizens was the first concern of ancient law. Education was directed toward developing citizen virtues as much as skills. It involved parents and tutors, and primarily by means of art and music. Among the most shocking features of Plato’s Republic for the modern reader are both the minute attention this work on politics pays to the content and even the rhythm of poetry and the policy of censorship it proposes for the best city. Ancient theorists and legislators were mindful of beautiful art and music being more likely than rational speech to move people, especially the young. Therefore they paid attention to what dramas citizens heard, the festivals they attended, and even the buildings and statues they saw.


Religion, too, is an educational component for the classical republican. In fact, the poetry to which Plato pays so much attention in the Republic is about the gods, and the content he proposes to revise and regulate concerns their character and actions. It would hardly do to take such care about so many of the things that bring human beings together or pull them apart and then neglect their beliefs about the divine and the relevant rewards and punishments. Though the ordinary Greek was pious, Plato was not the only ancient classical thinker to suggest that founders and statesmen should modify and even invent stories about the gods to shape their native countrymen or persuade them to accept a law or policy. While perhaps few Greeks or Romans went that far, the less radical view of polis concerns with the religious beliefs of citizens was more common.

When he compared life in the classical republic to that in a monastery, Montesquieu spoke for liberal republicanism. He did not mean it as a compliment. Classical republicanism and traditional Christianity had, for liberal republicans, a common defect. Both tended to foster inhumanity and fanaticism in asking their adherents to devote themselves single-mindedly to a set of beliefs. The result in the classical case was the constant warfare that characterized polis life and, in the Christian case, the violent wars of religion that plagued Christendom.

While classical republicanism aimed too high, it expected too little. Classical republicans had not grasped that the judicious use of natural and political science could accrue peace and prosperity, and greatly relieve human suffering. According to liberal republicanism, it was possible to devise economic and political institutions that could make use of self-interest, which classical republicanism had so harshly suppressed, to serve the common good.

Liberal Republicanism

Liberal republicanism denies that humans are simply or primarily political. Instead, it insists on the dignity of human beings as laboring animals, who tame and transform the natural world. Whereas the classical republican finds human dignity above all in the capacity to reason about justice and the common good, the liberal republican finds at least as much to praise in turning barren wilderness into a comfortable home, conquering disease, and alleviating poverty. Liberal republicans see commercial activity as a means for self-interested individuals to better their own wealth, and that of others. According to this outlook, the classical citizen was, in many ways, an idle troublemaker, forever engaged in controversy in the public square. Liberal republicanism, therefore, views politics as an arena for passionate and dangerous quarrels about justice. Instead, politics is primarily a means of protecting and even enhancing the private and, on the whole, modest and pacific pursuits of industrious citizens. As political theorist Thomas Pangle explained in The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, “the American Framers,” who embody the spirit Pangle described, “tend to honor political participation somewhat less as an end and considerably more as a means to the protection of… personal rights.” In fact, the diminished prestige of political participation means participation through representatives is preferable to direct participation.


Plainly, liberal republicanism exacts far less of its citizens than does classical republicanism. It consequently depends less on virtue and, far from devaluing commerce and innovation, is able to embrace both with enthusiasm. For these reasons, it almost seems misleading to apply the same term, republicanism, to both classical and modern politics. However, liberal republicanism, though a truly radical break from classical republicanism, has more in common with its predecessor than it first seems.

Most importantly, liberal republicans agree with classical republicans that tyranny is an insult to human nature. While the authors of the Federalist Papers criticized the ancients for emphasizing direct political participation too much, they nonetheless agreed with the classical republicans that any defensible politics had to rest on “the capacity of mankind for self-government.” They thought it important to vindicate human nature by demonstrating that it was possible for a society to establish “good government from reflection and choice.” In holding this opinion, which characterizes liberal republicanism, they arguably exceeded the republican hopes of the ancients, who, after all, made so much of the need in politics, and especially in political foundings, to deceive the people. They were, as Pangle observed, “far from neglecting the dignity of man as citizen,” even as they guarded the dignity of private man.

Further, while liberal republicanism needs virtue much less than its classical counterpart, it does not altogether neglect it, either. Returning to the Federalist Papers, we learn that for republican government to exist, there must be “sufficient virtue” in the people and its leaders. Undoubtedly, liberal republicanism drastically reduces the amount of self-restraint and self-sacrifice that self-government requires, but “republican government,” still, presupposes more “than any other form” of government those “qualities of human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence,” or trust. We learn that the most important restraint on the House of Representatives is “the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America.” Unquestionably, vigilance in defense of one’s own liberty, supported so strongly by self-interest, counters human nature far less than the virtue practiced by the classical citizen. But it does not arise spontaneously, either, and requires considerable effort. Even the modern republic demands that citizens be responsible, however indirectly, for governing themselves, and therefore demands more virtue than other forms of government.

Not surprisingly then, liberal republican theorists and statesmen concerned themselves with education. However, the character of the virtues to be taught has important implications for the character of the education required. “Liberal virtues,” Steven Kautz maintained, “are reasonable virtues.” However much courage and capacity for self-restraint vigilance in defense of one’s own freedom may require, it is fairly easy to make a case for it. It is hard to be vigilant but easier to be convinced that it is in one’s own long-term interest to be so. In contrast, it is extremely hard both to practice the virtue the classical polis requires and to be convinced that it is reasonable and in one’s own interest. Because liberal republicanism depends on reasonable virtues, liberal republican education need not aim at transformation; it does not have to convert a self-interested human being into a self-negating citizen. It can aim, instead, at enlightenment, at persuading someone with a narrow or short-sighted understanding of his or her interests, or a poor understanding of how to protect them, to take a more expansive view. That is not to say that liberal republicans can afford to dispense with the kinds of poetic and religious appeals upon which classical republicans rely so much. Liberal republican citizens, too, must commit great sacrifices, and no dry argument will move most, if any, human beings to die on the battlefield. Even in peacetime, liberal virtues being reasonable does not mean citizens must be reasonable all the time. Nonetheless, it is accurate to say that liberal republican theorists, because they are so much less ambitious in what they expect education to accomplish, are much more confident than classical republican theorists that citizens can be enlightened.

Theory in Action

The United States is the most prominent and influential example of the modern liberal republic. It is difficult, however, to understand the United States without understanding that its founders thought they had learned much from the previous experience of humanity in republican government. Republican theory and had been found so wanting that, as the Federalist Papers sharply assert, had modern republicanism not improved on ancient republicanism, “the enlightened friends of liberty would have been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of government as indefensible.” To understand republicanism in practice, then, we begin with the ancient example of Sparta, that Greek city which, by implementing the classical republican idea in the most extreme manner, provided students of republicanism with a vivid portrait of that idea in action.


Sparta was an extreme but revealing example of the classical republic. The Spartans had many foreign enemies and were, in addition, vastly outnumbered by the helots, conquered peoples whom they compelled to work their land. Internal and external threats pushed Sparta to emphasize, even more so than the other classical republics, solidarity over privacy; Sparta, therefore, was as much a military as a political unit.

Boys were removed from their homes and from the guidance of their parents at age seven. They joined a group of boys their own age and began the physical and mental training necessary to fight and persuade them to devote themselves completely to the common good. They would welcome death in battle as the highest honor. Those who successfully completed the rigorous education then joined a “common mess,” a group of men who lived, ate, and fought together as a unit. While a Spartan was expected to marry before the age of 45, he did not live in his own home until he reached that age. Such regulations indicate the extent to which Spartans insisted that individuals submit to the demands of the polis. Perhaps the most striking instance is this: in Sparta, babies judged too weak or deformed to be useful citizen-soldiers were killed.

Sparta, perhaps more than any other classical republic, worried about the dangers commerce posed to solidarity. The Spartan citizen was simply forbidden to engage in commerce and could not own silver or gold. Spartan currency was, by design, difficult to transport and use. The Spartans devised several ways to ease economic inequality and its social tensions. The polis granted its citizens equal shares of public land and helots to work it. As some land was still privately owned, the gap between rich and poor remained, but it was relatively narrow. Rich and poor received the same tough education and dined on the same fare in the common messes. As in other classical republics, the rich were restricted in using their wealth and could not flaunt it. The wealthy, in fact, were expected to make at least some of their property available for the use of other citizens.


The Spartans shared, too, the classical republic’s resistance to foreign ideas. In this, as in other matters, the Spartans took the classical idea to an extreme conclusion. Spartan citizens could not travel abroad without the permission of the authorities, and such travel was generally forbidden. Similarly foreigners were not allowed into Sparta without permission and were only admitted with compelling reason. Plutarch (c. 45-c.120 A.D.), writing of the legendary, and perhaps imaginary, Spartan lawgiver, Lycurgus, explains the reason for this prohibition: “With strange people, strange words must be admitted; these novelties produce novelties in thought.” For similar reasons, Sparta exercised censorship over poetry and music in the polis. One Spartan magistrate is said to have cut off two of the nine strings of a musical instrument, worrying that an extravagance in music could have led to parallel behavior.

In a classical world known for citizen education, Sparta stands out, and stood out even at the time, for how it transformed humans into hardened, loyal citizens. From the time the seven year old left his home, he was trained, with the help of music, poetry, religion, and even dance, to think of himself, as Paul Rahe said, “not as an individual, not as a member of a particular household, but as a part of the community.” His body was hardened through physical training that became increasingly grueling as he aged. Because a soldier was expected to be crafty as well as courageous and strong, the Spartan young had to steal to supplement their skimpy meals. If caught, they were whipped, not to discourage their stealing but to encourage them to improve at it. The Spartan’s ingenuity was further tested in the “period of concealment,” an important rite of passage in which the young man, about 20 years old, spent a year outside the community, living off his own strength and cunning. At each stage of their rigorous training, the youths were examined; to “graduate” was to have completed the transformation from soft, selfish human being to hardened, self-sacrificing, warrior-citizen.

For all that, the Spartans understood that perfect solidarity was impossible, even by their own intense, far-reaching education. In any polity, especially one in which citizens are trained early to be spirited, there is bound to be a struggle. The rich will want to establish an oligarchy. The poor will want to establish a democracy. The well-born or noble will want to establish an aristocracy. The most prominent of these may wish to establish a monarchy. Even in such a community as Sparta, managing these different factions was necessary to avoid civil war. The Spartan strategy was to accommodate in part the most important elements, so that all would have a stake in preserving the polity. The Spartans over time devised what was known as a mixed regime. The elements were so well-mixed that the Greeks hardly knew whether to call Sparta a monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, or democracy.

In parts

Sparta was in part a monarchy because it had two kings. Kingship was hereditary and each king held office for life. Leading Spartan forces into battle, their power in the field was nearly absolute. They appointed officers, executed cowards, conducted religious sacrifices, and raised money and new troops. In a society often at war, these powers were important; by no means, however, were they the only power the kings had. Their power over adoptions and their leading role in arranging marriages for heiresses whose fathers had not found them husbands meant that they could help or hinder a family in its efforts to transfer and amass wealth through inheritance. Because they had privileged access to certain funds, such as the spoils taken from the enemy in battle, the kings could benefit their friends and harm their enemies economically. In a society which strangled commerce and in which the roads to fortune were few, such powers enabled the kings to wield formidable political influence. The kings were so powerful that the Spartans thought it necessary to have two of them, each watching over the other.

Sparta was in part a democracy because it had a popular assembly, consisting of all Spartan citizens that, within limits set by other bodies and officials, voted on the most important matters. In light of the aforementioned limits, however, Sparta arguably had a more important claim to democracy: it filled essentially by lot its most powerful office aside from the kingship, that of ephor. The Greeks viewed elections as an aristocratic device, since its aim was to insure that the best, an “elect,” serve. The lot, on the other hand, was a democratic device because it meant any citizen could be selected, as in a lottery, to hold office. The five ephors served only one year and were subject to review and perhaps punishment at the end of that year, but while in power they were in many ways, as a group, the kings’ equals. The ephors were so powerful that to some observers, a board of tyrannical dictators appeared to rule Sparta. At home, they enforced the sumptuary laws and kept watch over the all-important educational system. They alone could fine the kings for misconduct and even put them on trial for capital crimes. This was only the most impressive of their broad judicial powers. Legislatively, the ephors were empowered to summon the Assembly and Council of Elders. With the Council of Elders, they set the agenda for the Assembly. Finally, they exercised great authority in foreign affairs by, among other things, determining when Spartans could travel abroad and when strangers could visit Sparta, receiving embassies, negotiating with other poleis, and calling up the army when necessary.

Finally, Sparta was in part an aristocracy because of its Council of Elders. This council consisted of thirty members, including the two kings. The other twenty-eight, all above age sixty, were elected, Rahe explained, “from the priestly caste that seems to have constituted the city’s ancient aristocracy” and were “always men of experience and proven worth.” With the ephors, they set the Assembly’s agenda and could nullify Assembly decisions that overstepped that agenda. With the ephors, they formed a jury for capital cases. This council of older men not only addressed the claim of the wisest and best to rule but also insured the wealthy that their interests would be represented to at least some extent in the polity. For the council—old, conservative, exclusive, and wealthy—was little inclined to support innovative laws to further narrowed the gap between rich and poor.

Sparta eventually collapsed. Always vulnerable because of its large and often rebellious helot population, it never recovered from its defeat to the city of Thebes in 379 B.C. Perhaps Sparta was destined to fail because it demanded so much of its populace. One such indication is that Spartans, renowned for their discipline at home, were also reputed for slackness and corruption when abroad. Even within Sparta, the laws against possessing gold and silver were widely ignored. Sparta, however, did not perish without leaving examples of virtue and military heroism that dazzled her contemporaries and fascinated even those who broke from the classical model.

The United States

Old forms of republicanism, classical and Christian both, contributed to the American founding, and the precise contributions of classical, Protestant, and modern elements in early American political thought is debated. Nonetheless, critics of classical republicanism unquestionably played a pivotal role in founding the United States. The authors of the Federalist Papers, thinking Sparta “little better than a well-regulated camp,” sought to found a distinctly modern republic, free of the defects of the old republicanism. They saw republicanism as needlessly harsh and unmindful of private dignity. Its solution to political conflict was worse than the problem itself, for it destroyed liberty. Moreover, the classical republican insistence on direct political participation, impassioned citizens settling the most controversial matters in the public square, made political conflict insoluble in any case. “It is impossible,” Alexander Hamilton says in the Federalist, “to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated.” The task of the American Constitution framers was to solve, with the help of advances in the “science of politics,” the problems of classical republicanism, so that a new republic, respectful of private liberty and well-shielded from dangerous political conflict, could vindicate the capacity of human beings to live free. The United States set out to put into practice the theory of liberal republicanism.

In the liberal republic, government exists not to make citizens virtuous but to protect their private pursuits. When the United States declared its independence in 1776, it declared itself, in effect, a liberal republic, since the Declaration of Independence says both that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and that “Governments are instituted among men” to “secure these rights.” In the new republic, even the creator, or “Nature’s God” offers freedoms rather than commandments to human beings. This view of the divine diverges not only from classical republicanism, whose gods were called to transform human beings into virtuous citizens, but also from Christian republicanism, which even when respectful to political freedom did not understand rights to rank so much higher than duties in God’s eyes. The United States took up the new principles championed by Edmund Locke and others and enshrined them in the first of its founding documents.

The Federalist debates

The Federalist Papers authors argued that the new idea of liberty upheld by the Declaration could not be maintained without a new political science. “The science of politics [had] received great improvement” in modern times. “The efficacy of various principles” that the ancients did not know in full, if at all, was “now well understood.” The 1781 Articles of Confederation, the first national constitution, had failed to take full advantage of those principles. But the 1787 Constitution that the Federalist Papers defended and which, with some amendment, has remained the law of the land in the United States, did take advantage of them in attempting to build a legal and institutional framework within which the new republicanism could prove superior.

Representation is among the most important principles of the new political science. Its purpose, according to the Federalist, is “to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens.” So in the United States, citizens have a say in federal lawmaking not directly and in the public square, but indirectly, through the legislators they elect to serve in the Senate and House of Representatives. Classical republican theorists had resorted to harsh measures and delicate devices to calm the dangers that arose when citizens participated actively and directly in affairs of state. The American founders held that republican government is in no way compromised when the will of the citizenry is filtered through representatives, and indeed demands it. In the United States, a member of the House of Representatives, among other things, must be at least twenty-five years of age, must win an election and, once elected, serves for two years. The first two requirements are designed to produce a body wiser than the general population and more capable of perceiving the common good. The privilege of serving for two years is designed to produce a body that can at least distance itself from the passions of the moment and view a “big picture” where others tend to address short-term needs. The Senate, with its six-year terms and its requirement that members be at least age thirty, is still more elite and removed from temporary shifts in popular opinion than the House.

The constitutional framers, however, did not count on the goodness of representatives to solve the problem of public disorder and division for, as the Federalist acknowledges, representatives may be, despite the best of precautions, “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs.” Consequently, the new republic depended on another principle of the new political science, which the Federalist calls “enlargement of the orbit” of republican government, or the application of republicanism to a large, populous territory. It is difficult to overestimate the novelty of this strategy, at which opponents of the Constitution scoffed. Classical republican theory had held that republican government was appropriate only for small territories with small populations, for the solidarity republicanism required could not be achieved in large, diverse nations. The constitutional framers turned what seemed to be a tremendous disadvantage, the projected size of the Union, into an advantage. The new republic would deal with the threat of political division not by imposing uniformity of opinion and interest but by multiplying differences of opinion and interest, thereby weakening the influence of any single, narrow, partisan view. In a small polity, rich and poor may divide the population, and the poor may unite to eliminate property rights. In a large polity, there may be farming, industrial, immigrant, and native poor, and manufacturing, agricultural, technological, Southern, and Northern rich. In such a diverse polity with so many fault lines, it is difficult to gather a majority to oppress a minority, and majorities are at least unlikely to reflect narrow partisan interests. Enlargement of the orbit breaks the strength of partisanship not by suppressing the interests and passions of individuals and groups, but by channeling such interests and passions so that, even without intending it, they tend toward the common good. In this way, the United States puts into practice a liberal republican theory, that self-interest can be made to serve the common good more certainly and effectively than virtue itself.

Separation of powers

If representation and enlargement of the orbit of republican government tame political division, there remains the problem of tyranny. A government powerful enough to exert real influence over a large nation may more easily than most be used by an ambitious individual or group to rob the people of their freedoms. To frustrate would-be tyrants, the United States relies on another principle of the new science of politics, namely, separation of powers. The concept is this: to divide the power of governing among different departments or branches in such a way that one branch cannot exercise absolute power. If one wanted to prevent a cannon from being fired in haste, someone might give one person the power to load the cannon, another the power to aim the cannon, and a third the power to fire it. Powers would then have defined and distributed powers so that one is ineffectual without the other and therefore difficult to abuse. Similarly the United States Constitution divides the power of governing among a legislative, executive, and judicial branch, in order to prevent tyranny. The power to make laws is ineffectual if one cannot enforce them, and the power to enforce the laws is ineffectual if one can neither decide which laws to enforce nor be sure that judges will accept one’s interpretation of the law. The powers of the legislators in Congress, the executive in the White House, and the justices of the Supreme Court are legally defined in such a way that they are difficult to use tyrannically.

But, as the Federalists explain, “power is of an encroaching nature” and legal barriers may be insufficient to prevent ambitious public officials from seizing power. An ambitious president, for example, may effectively law by issuing executive orders or regulations; ambitious Supreme Court Justices may infringe on the authority of the other branches by reinterpreting the Constitution so broadly as to force revolutionary change in the nation’s laws. However elegant a legal doctrine separation of powers may be, it fails, in the view of the Constitution’s framers, to take into account human psychology, above all the lust for power. For that reason, the Constitution depends on yet another remedy offered by the new science, namely, checks and balances. As the Federalist famously states, one must give “to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. …Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” For example, the president’s power to veto the laws the House and Senate passes is technically speaking a violation of separation of powers, since it gives a legislative power to the head of the executive branch. But such a power is necessary if the president, the one most personally interested in maintaining the executive power against legislative attempts to seize parts of it, can resist the legislature. It is true that the veto and other checks and balances are as much legal mechanisms subject to failure as the separation of powers. But the authors of the Federalist thought that formal laws that the most interested parties could immediately use would prevent tyranny better than formal laws that could only be enforced by appealing to judges who, because their interests and ambition are less directly involved, might be lukewarm to legislative and executive privileges.

Checks and balances

The new principle of checks and balances is another way for the Constitution to put liberal republican theory into practice by, in the words of the Federalist, “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives,” so that “the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.” Nonetheless, the American founders did not think it possible to do without a certain kind of virtue or a certain kind of civil education. James Madison was perhaps most active but hardly alone in working for what might be called the “constitutionalization” of the American people, that is, the education of American citizens who would know and revere the Constitution and the Bill of Rights added in 1791. Only such citizens could be expected to be vigilant in defending their own liberties.

Of course, the adoption of the Bill of Rights does not end the story of republicanism in the United States, though the Constitution has rarely been amended since. Here is a very small sample of the changes: the development of political parties; the direct popular election of Senators, who were at first chosen by their state legislatures; the expansion in size and power of the federal government relative to the state governments; the expansion of the role of the Supreme Court in public policy. As long as the Constitution still counts for something in American politics, Americans will continue to debate the merits and dangers of each variance from the plan of the nation’s founders and whether that plan was essentially good or fundamentally flawed. Similarly, although the United States is among the mightiest and wealthiest republics ever, its backers and detractors will continue to debate whether what was once called an “experiment” has succeeded at maintaining freedom.

Analysis and Critical Response

Liberal republicanism entirely succeeded in supplanting classical republicanism and, for that reason, this section will focus on it. It has been some time since anyone has called for a return to the smallness, simplicity, and harshness of polis life. Nonetheless, liberal republicanism, measured by the big picture, remains an experiment. Few doubt that its willingness to channel rather than suppress individual self-interest and its openness to commerce and innovation has generated in many parts of the world a prosperity of which people had once only dreamed. Few doubt that its decision to depend less on virtue than on a new political science and the institutions and mechanisms it could devise has been at least a qualified success at achieving political stability and at fending off would-be tyrants. Nonetheless, liberal republicanism has been under constant attack by critics for its individualism and its faith in commerce, reason, and innovation.

Here is one criticism: liberal republicanism, if left to its own devices, leads to moral decline. After all, it unleashes innovation against custom and tradition, and self-interest against duty. The Declaration of Independence, which reveals much about liberal republicanism, looks up to “Nature and Nature’s God,” a God who speaks to human beings of what they have a right to do rather than of what they are commanded to do. The moral laxity of liberal republicanism may have been hidden early on when religion, custom, and tradition still captivated people. But that new philosophy’s inability to inspire citizens manifests in high crime rates, drug use, family breakdown, and other social ills found in advanced liberal societies. All societies, even liberal ones, depend to some degree on citizen restraint. The question some critics of liberal republicanism raise is: does its deliberate strengthening of individualism and the spirit of reason and innovation come at the expense of the only means societies have of fostering self-restraint? To put it another way: does liberal republicanism undermine even the very limited moral virtue it, itself, requires?

Liberal republicanism may also cause political virtue to decline. Liberal citizens must, at the very least, remain vigilant. But it isn’t at all obvious that citizens, liberated to enjoy and seek pleasure and profit, will scrutinize their government. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said in The Social Contract that “as soon as someone says about affairs of State What do I care?the State has to be considered lost.” Critics of liberal republicanism argue that it tends to produce many such citizens. The liberal citizen may well not bother to know who their government officials are, let alone monitor them.

Rousseau feared that government officials soon discover they have more in common with each other than with the people they are supposed to serve. According to this argument, the government has an interest—whether in increasing its own power, or in profiting from office, or in getting reelected—that differs from the common interest, and prudent people should expect it to act on that interest when it can. It will enact pay increases at midnight; it will bury self-serving deeds in a thousand pages of legislation; it will make controversial announcements on Friday afternoons, when extensive media coverage or attention from constituents is unlikely. It can expect that, if some enterprising journalist uncovers a swindle and gets his or her story printed in the middle pages of a serious newspaper, very few hardworking and busy citizens will read it, let alone concern themselves with it. To make matters more difficult, the argument continues, governments tend to act this way out of collective self-interest, not individual immorality. To replace one corrupt elected official with another who seems less corrupt is unlikely to solve the problem. Instead, citizens must actively concern themselves with politics and with what their public servants are doing. This, however, the argument concludes, is precisely where liberal republican citizens fall short.

Size of the state

Even were citizens to concern themselves more with what their public officials do, they might soon find that the size and complexity of modern states makes vigilance difficult. The United States government, for example, has at least some responsibility for not only law enforcement and security but, among many other things, health, education, transportation, communications, the arts and humanities, small business development, social security, scientific research, and the mail. To serve these functions, the United States government includes not only the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court but a vast and complex set of administrative agencies, employing, as of 1997, 2,787,137 workers. The government not only sometimes seems too large to control but also too demanding of expert knowledge. Citizens find themselves in a world in which the economic well-being of millions may hinge on whether or not the Federal Reserve Board, which oversees the U.S. banking system, chooses to push interest rates down a fraction of a point. Yet most citizens are far from understanding how such decisions are and should be made. It is difficult to understand what citizen vigilance means in such a world. No wonder that, as Michael Sandel reports in Democracy’s Discontent, “Americans do not believe they have much say in how they are governed.” Liberal republicanism can hardly be blamed for modern complexities, nor can it be simply blamed for the growth of the federal government’s power. Nonetheless, liberal republicanism promised that energetic and free government was possible over an extended territory and complex society. It remains to be seen whether the development of liberal republicanism will prove this promise true.

Liberal republicanism may undermine not only political engagement in particular but also engagement in civil life more broadly. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in the nineteenth century, was greatly impressed by its civil associations. Americans, he observes in Democracy in America, “use associations …to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books.” In de Tocqueville’s view, modern democracy tends to isolate individuals and concentrate the whole of their attention on their private affairs, narrowly understood. Civil associations were one means by which he saw Americans pursuing common goals in common. Yet associations were not easily maintained in an individualistic age, and Tocqueville feared individuals would finally reject associations. Then, impotent alone to achieve the goals once pursued through associations, they would call on government to manage the affairs they once managed together. Government would become an “immense tutelary power” that, without formally depriving citizens of their freedoms, offers to take care of every detail of life for them and gradually reduces them to a “herd of timid and industrious animals.” Tocqueville called this possibility “administrative despotism.” In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam argues that meaningful participation in civil associations has declined in the United States. While he himself does not conclude that administrative despotism has arrived, his data has offered some ammunition to those who believe that it is here or on its way.

Unhappy citizens?

There is still one more charge to add to the critical indictment of liberal republicanism and the individualism it promotes: they make people unhappy. “Communitarian” critics of liberal republicanism argue that it has detached individuals from communities. But communities provide a feeling of belonging. As Robert Bellah and his fellow authors concluded on the basis of their study of middle-class American life, “it would seem that [the] quest for purely private fulfillment is illusory: it often ends in emptiness instead.”

The liberal republican is not defenseless against these criticisms. For one thing, liberal republicanism, while it may have emphasized education less than classical republicanism, never relied on untaught self-interest. The liberal republican may agree with individualism having gone too far without conceding that liberal republican theory must be changed or even abandoned, for that theory already warns that to be effective, self-interest must be not only properly channeled but liberal citizens must properly understand it. Moreover, the liberal republican may agree that the size and complexity of government makes citizen vigilance very difficult without conceding that liberal republicanism is responsible for an increase in the authority or centralization of governments. The liberal republican teaching that government was instituted among men to secure rights is a teaching of limited government. Finally, the liberal republican may agree that his or her creed often produces lonely individuals, but that standing alone affirms human dignity. In making this defense, the liberal may circumvent the charges but in any case it raises the question: do the dangers of individualism mean liberal republicanism must be abandoned or modified, or do they mean, instead, that the first principles of liberal republicanism need to be recovered?


Critics of liberal republicanism point not only to its emphasis on the individual but also to its willingness to indulge and even celebrate trade and industry. First, citizens whose main activity is pursuing profit and comfort tend to be soft. Commercial societies, as Paul Rahe pointed out, often have “little sympathy for the soldier’s calling,” and its members, “able to live the better part of…life in peace and in comfort,” are “in no way inured to the loss of life and to the shedding of blood.” Boosters of liberal republicanism may point to the military successes of liberal societies, especially the dramatic victory of the Allied forces in World War II. Such successes seem to dispute the argument that liberal societies are soft. Boosters may point, too, to the superiority in military technology of liberal republican societies, in which hindrances to innovation are few. As Rahe noted, however, liberal societies had great difficulty defeating Hitler, they could easily have lost the war, and their soldiers, despite the worthiness of the cause, were often unwilling or unable to fight. Moreover, even if liberal societies turn out courageous soldiers, they may be held back by a citizenry that is skittish about casualties, fears being drafted, and does not want its business interrupted under any but the most immediately threatening circumstances. The question of the military fitness of liberal commercial societies may still be open.

Second, to dignify commerce is also to justify the economic inequalities that result from commerce, as economic competition produces winners and losers. Yet these inequalities may be unjust. For one thing, success or failure in the marketplace may bear little or no relation to worth, at least as worth is commonly understood. An entertainer whose contribution to society is cracking jokes may make twenty times as much money as a police officer, whose contribution to society is risking his or her life to save others. Not only the basis but also the mere size of inequalities in commercial societies give critics ammunition. Rousseau states the case powerfully: “it is manifestly against the Law of Nature, however defined, that…a handful of people abound in superfluities while the starving multitude lacks in necessities.” While liberal commercial societies can point to middle-class multitudes that are not starving as proof that Rousseau and others have it wrong, they have never been altogether able to silence their critics. Such critics insist Rousseau may have overstated the extent of the problem but not its fundamental character, that liberal republican societies leave some astoundingly rich and others virtually without hope. In reply, defenders of liberal society argue that whatever the degree of injustice and suffering found, it is more than matched by the degree of injustice and suffering found in illiberal societies, for government officials are worse at distributing wealth than markets are and curtail people’s liberty in the bargain.

Economic inequality may be not only unjust but also politically dangerous. Michael Sandel has warned of the “civic consequences of economic inequality.” In particular, as the gap between the rich and the rest widens, unity decreases. The well-off flee the public schools for private ones, city parks for private clubs, city services for private security and private garbage collection. They grow disinclined to pay taxes for services they do not use. The poor and lower middle class, trapped in inferior schools and poorly served neighborhoods, grow increasingly resentful. Both groups feel little stake in a society or government that they have abandoned or that has abandoned them. Amid this class tension, liberal societies cannot muster the energy and resources for great accomplishments, or even the wherewithal for such ordinary accomplishments as keeping the streets clean and the schools safe. Sandel and many other critics pointed to a gap between rich and poor that only deepened in the 1980s and 1990s and that has, in their view, already begun to erode even the limited sense of national community liberal societies need to prosper.

Large corporations

In addition, the critics argue, just as the concentration of political power in a big government causes citizens to feel and actually be powerless, so, too, does the concentration of wealth in large corporations. People largely unknown and unaccountable to the public determine in corporate boardrooms whether thousands of employees will live in comfort or suffer. The concentration of economic power threatens to leave citizens powerless in another way. By making large contributions to political campaigns, corporations may be able to influence public servants and to pass legislation and regulations that favor them, at the expense of citizens who can afford neither to make large contributions nor to hire lobbyists and lawyers. The rise of multinational corporations has further complicated matters. Even if citizens can persuade their governments to try to protect wages and livelihoods, corporations could simply move their plants and jobs overseas to countries that better serve their interests. The relative inability of even their big governments to help them contributes to the anxiety of liberal republican citizens who fear that they are “losing control of the forces that [govern] their lives.” Such citizens, even if capable of exercising self- government effectively, would likely be too demoralized to even try.

The liberal republican is not defenseless against these attacks, either. The overall tendency of a free commercial society, the liberal republican argues, is not to concentrate economic power but to distribute power to a variety of centers that include but are not limited to large businesses. Moreover, while the political and economic power of such businesses may be potent, business is not a single interest that always acts in unison, but a multiplicity of interests often at odds politically and economically. This competition, along with regulations designed to promote competition and discourage conspiracies among businesses to fix wages and prices, at least diminishes the threat that the influence of large corporations will destroy meaningful self-government. Moreover, while world economic growth means money and jobs move easily from nation to nation and that the ability of governments directly to protect the jobs of its citizens is limited, defenders of liberal republicanism argue that citizens in societies open to innovation can best benefit from economic globalization. They argue that nations need more rather than less liberal republicanism, more rather than less restrictions to commerce and innovation.


Nonetheless, the question remains whether liberal republicanism has unleashed forces beyond its control. Critics on the left lament the dangers commerce and innovation pose to the environment when scientists and entrepreneurs fail to take a long view of the effects of their activities. Critics on the right lament the dangers commerce and innovation pose to humanity itself when scientists and entrepreneurs, for example, do not stop short at human cloning or manipulating genes for profit. Critics of both political persuasions fear liberal republicans have put excessive faith in the ability of reason to check itself and to control its technologies. But few critics wish to relinquish the benefits of progress, and many acknowledge that liberal republicanism has been an enormous success at producing such benefits. For that reason critics of liberal republicanism must grasp the following question: how does one secure the goods liberal republicanism offers without supposing that reason, suitably educated and guided by experience, can be expected to supply solutions to the problems that accompany those goods?

At least some of the criticisms of liberal republicanism draw on classical republican theory. Michael Sandel, for example, understood his project as reviving a republicanism that the triumph of its liberal elements have all but ruined. Sandel’s concerns about the political effects of economic inequality, the importance of political community, and the freedom that consists not in the mere absence of external restraint but in self-government, hearken to a republican tradition that, in his view, sporadically drew from Aristotle’s Greece to at least nineteenth-century America. Yet, as Sandel readily acknowledges, the old republican tradition was coercive, because it used government power to compel individuals to meet the demands of the polity, and exclusive because it distinguished so sharply between insiders and outsiders, where slaves and women were in important ways part of the latter group. Sandel hopes to restore elements of the classical republican ideal while avoiding its tendency toward coercion and exclusion. Yet, as Steven Kautz points out, critics such as Sandel seem to be caught between their real commitment to liberal republicanism and their disappointment in it, which is manifested in their worries about the decay of robust communities, the decline of intense and widespread political participation, and the effects of economic inequality. Kautz’s observation raises this question about modern republicanism: are individualism and inequality accidental components of the republican freedom even critics of liberal republicanism seem to cherish, or are they, for good or for ill, the unavoidable accompaniments of freedom?