Monday, November 17, 2014

Res publica

There are numerous references in For Want of a Nail... to republicanism. In 1888, newly-elected Governor-General Ezra Gallivan lauded his predecessor, John McDowell: "He has performed many tasks for our nation, and all of them with dignity and honesty. Now he has shown the measure of his devotion to republicanism by his actions in the Liberal caucus." In 1937, the North American economist Lawrence French attacked the idea that a war would provide a stimulus to the world's economies, writing that "the world's economies would be totally destroyed, as would republicanism wherever it may be found."

This devotion to republicanism may seem odd in a world where the American Revolution failed, and the thirteen colonies returned to the rule of the British monarchy. You would expect the leaders of the United States of Mexico to speak highly of republicanism, since that nation was founded by exiled American Patriots. But Gallivan and French were North Americans, the political heirs of Joseph Galloway and John Dickinson. Why are they so keen on republicanism?

The answer is that in the eighteenth century, republicanism meant more than just the absence of monarchy. To the people of the eighteenth century, republicanism was a fully formed ideology that included the ideas of civic virtue and the rule of law. That is, republicanism wasn't so much concerned with labels as with how people acted. Civic virtue, as Wikipedia tells us, is the cultivation of habits of personal living that are necessary for the success of the community. A republican form of government could exist in a monarchy, as long as the monarch's powers were constrained by the rule of law, and as long as the monarch displayed the proper civic virtue of adhering to those constraints.

Another defining characteristic of republicanism is the idea of popular sovereignty, the idea that the head of state is a representative of the people, rather than the people being subjects of the head of state. Thomas Jefferson made the idea of popular sovereignty explicit in the Declaration of Independence when he said that "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The ideology of the American Revolution/North American Rebellion was a republican ideology in this sense. To the Patriots, the British government had become republican in 1688, when Parliament overthrew King James II and raised up William and Mary in his place. Since then, however, the British government had been growing less republican and more tyrannical, which it most clearly demonstrated with its attempts to impose arbitrary taxes on the American colonies.

In For Want of a Nail..., the peace settlement that returned the colonies to British rule was a compromise settlement. The Americans gave up their claim to independence, and the British gave up their claim to absolute authority over the colonies. Under the Britannic Design, North American representative bodies had the power to veto Acts of Parliament. Thus, power in the Confederation of North America ultimately rested with the North Americans, and not with the British. Although the C.N.A. was part of a monarchy, the form of its government was republican. And so,even though the Rebellion itself failed, the republican ideology that had animated it had triumphed, and became a part of the political philosophy of the C.N.A.


Anonymous said...

Very good!

I don't have the book handy, but I think early on Sobel quotes John Quincy Adams mentioning 'republicanism' as well. My memory's vague, but I think that seemed to be an attempt to properly contextualize the word for IOW readers. Have to dig the book out of storage to check.

Johnny Pez said...

It's the opening paragraph of Chapter 29, the chapter dealing with the abolition of slavery in Mexico: "Under most circumstances, republicanism is the most stable form of government. Should a nation have an incompetent as monarch or tyrant, it may easily be destroyed. But the government of a republic springs from the people themselves, and so long as it follows the will of its constituents, it will survive. Should a tyrant clash with his people, the people will be obliged to adjust; in a republic, the people will turn out their leaders, and replace them with men more in harmony with their desires."

Two pages later, Sobel quotes Alexander Hamilton's reply to Adams: "And what should be done if the people, as is often the case, are unjust? At such a moment wise men will yearn for a benevolent tyrant to bring about much needed stability."