The nature and merits of republican government has long been a contested issue. This is true both in countries governed as republics, such as the US, and in those that are not, including the UK. In the former, discussion tends to centre on whether current practices are in line with original intentions or whether current problems could be resolved by reference back to earlier practices. In the UK, the merits of republican government are usually raised in response to scandals concerning the monarchy, with some suggesting that the UK would be better off as a republic.
These debates are complicated by the fact that what is understood by the term ‘republic’ varies according to context. Declaring oneself to be a ‘republican’ in the US or Ireland, for example, has different connotations from doing so in France. Further complications arise because at least two, significantly different, definitions of republican government existed in the past, both of which colour understandings today. The older sense, reflected in the surviving fragments of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s De republica, is that republican government is essentially government serving the public good. A republic is said to ‘truly exist’ ‘when its affairs are conducted well and justly, whether by a single king, or by a few aristocrats, or by the people as a whole’ (Cicero, On the Commonwealth and On the Laws, ed. and trans. James E. G. Zetzel, Cambridge, 1999, p. 59). Even the UK might appear to be a republic in these terms, since policies are always presented as being in the public interest; any attempt openly to promote a policy serving private interests, whether those of the Queen or anyone else, would be challenged and dismissed.
During the Renaissance an alternative understanding began to emerge, one that is closer to the currently predominant sense. According to this view, genuine republican government must be grounded in the will of the people, thereby entailing the rejection of all forms of non-elective monarchy and all hereditary political privileges. This approach was picked up by supporters of the regicide in England, which marked the end of the reign of Charles I and the beginning of the period of the English republic. Both John Milton and Marchamont Nedham argued that freedom could only be preserved by proscribing monarchy.
This understanding forms the basis of the modern distinction between republics and monarchies, but it is striking how long it took to be firmly established. Writing more than a century after the creation of the English republic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s definition was more in line with Cicero’s understanding: ‘I therefore give the name “Republic” to every State that is governed by laws, no matter what the form of administration may be: for only in such a case does the public interest govern’. He went on in a footnote to confirm that ‘In such a case even a monarchy is a republic’ (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Late Political Writings, ed. and trans. Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge, 1997, p. 67). It was the American and French Revolutions that largely cemented the shift towards the newer understanding of republican government, but even after that point traces of the older understanding can be glimpsed. For example, the British constitution continued to be presented as a republic in those terms. In 1790 Charles James Fox declared ‘our Constitution was a republic, in the just sense of the word; it was a Monarchy founded on the good of the people’. One hundred years later H. G. Wells described the British system as a ‘Crowned Republic’ (Frank Prochaska, The Republic of Britain, 1760-2000, London, 2000, p. xvi). Moreover, neither the notion that republican government ought to operate in the interests of the public good, nor the claim that rulers can be judged according to whether or not they do so, have disappeared.
So, republicanism is a complex political concept with a long history. And yet its adaptability is precisely what has kept it relevant over the centuries. My forthcoming Polity book examines the history of this concept in detail. Understanding that history provides us not only with a better appreciation of our current political situation, but also with a rich reservoir of ideas that could serve as resources in solving the pressing political problems of the twenty-first century.
Rachel Hammersley is Senior Lecturer in Intellectual History at Newcastle University. Her book, Republicanism, is available from September 25th in Europe and November 20th in North America.