A political ideology in opposition to monarchy and tyranny. Republicans hold that a political system must be founded upon the rule of law, the rights of individuals, and the sovereignty of the people. It is also closely connected to the idea of civic virtue, the responsibility citizens owe to their republic, and to opposition to corruption, or the use of public power to benefit the politician.
Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian? In The Prince he showed how an absolute monarch can use tyranny and deceit to get his way. But in other books he took an opposite view, emphasizing that when a state does not have a prince (a powerful king), the people rule in a “republic” and they must have civic virtue for the republic to survive. Through his book on Roman history Discourses on Livy Machiavelli has been a major positive influence of modern conservative thought. He took the lead in defining what civic virtue means for a citizen of a republic—a state where the people are sovereign and not some king. For example, a citizen has the duty to oppose corruption and when called upon fight for his country. His ideas on republicanism strongly influenced British, French and American thought on the duties of the good citizen, and can be traced through American history from the days of Benjamin Franklin and James Madison down to the 21st century.
The British overthrew and executed King Charles I in 1649, and established a republican government under Oliver Cromwell. After Cromwell died in 1658 the republic collapsed, the monarchy was restored, and republican ideas were driven out of the mainstream of British political thought. They did not disappear, but were promulgated by the Whigs Country Party, whose pamphlets were eagerly read by the American colonists. Thus English political journalists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon published anonymously Cato’s Letters (1720–23). These were 138 letters or short essays that expounded on liberty and republicanism and which greatly influenced the American Founding Fathers and libertarian thought into the 21st century.
Republicanism is the political value system that has dominated American political thought since the American Revolution. It stresses liberty and rights as central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, rejects aristocracy and inherited political power, expects citizens to be independent and calls on them to perform civic duties, and is strongly opposed to corruption. The American version of republicanism was formed by the Founding Fathers in the 18th century and was based on English models as well as Roman and European ideas. It formed the basis for the fighting the British in 1775, the declaring independence (1776) and creating a powerful written Constitution (1787); it appears in highly influential statements from Abraham Lincoln and others.
Republicanism is not the same as democracy, for republicanism asserts that people have inalienable rights that cannot be voted away by a majority of voters. In a true democracy, the voters have no limits. Republicanism and democracy are two political philosophies (along with classical liberalism) that have dominated all American politics. Indeed, the terms are enshrined in the names of the two major parties, but both parties in practice combine both republicanism and democracy. The United States is not a democracy and was never intended to be one.
The republican ideal of civic duty was succinctly expressed in 1961 by the Democrat John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
The American Revolution
Republican opposition to corruption
The intellectual and political leaders in the 1760s–1770s closely read history to compare governments and their effectiveness of rule. They were especially concerned with the history of liberty in England, and were primarily influenced by the “country” party in British politics, which roundly denounced the corruption surrounding the “court” party in London. This approach produced a political ideology called “republicanism”, which was widespread in America by 1775. “Republicanism was the distinctive political consciousness of the entire Revolutionary generation.”