Opinion: Daily Journal

The Liberal and Classical Republican Traditions

As I am sure you know, Carolina Journal is the monthly newspaper of the John Locke Foundation. Formed in 1990, the organization is named after the great English political philosopher who penned the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1669 and the English Bill of Rights 20 years later.

Locke’s work did not have immediate impact, but his Second Treatise of Governmenthad a profound effect on this country’s Founders in the late 18th century. It is largely because of Locke that the United States is frequently characterized as the quintessentially liberal country — that is, one based on ideas of liberty and limited government, not modern left-wing politics.

But another philosophical tradition greatly shaped the ideas of those who forged this country. It is generally called classical republicanism, and its roots can be traced back to antiquity.

Cumulatively, the thinking of ancients like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates project the idea of a polis in which a broad swath of the populace participates in decision making. These citizens should demonstrate virtue — the precise definition of which was unclear, although Plato saw wisdom, moderation, courage, and fairness as comprising its “cardinal” forms — and work to promote the common good.

These ideas were revived in the Italian city-states of the Renaissance. Despite his recommendation that leaders act selfishly and with calculation, Machiavelli is often viewed as contributing greatly to the tradition.

The American Founders, however, were particularly drawn to an Anglo form of classical republicanism that emerged with England’s only republic during the civil wars of the 1640s and 1650s.

James Harrington, author of The Commonwealth of Oceana, wrote of a utopian republic governed by the principles of what, in the context of the times, was popular sovereignty and rotation of office. Algernon Sidney, who was executed for his writings and role in a republican plot to kill Charles II, wrote of government as a contract with the people and liberty as the wellspring of virtue.

The names of both are littered throughout revolutionary pamphlets and the letters of our Founders. Thomas Jefferson believed that, alongside Locke, Sidney had the most influence over his fellow nation builders.

Later figures also are worth mentioning. In the 1720s, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon published the popular
Cato’s Lettersthat described a lack of morality caused by the concentration of power in England.

Unlike Harrington and Sidney, the Viscount Bolingbroke was a Tory who, despite being uncomfortable with religion, supported the Catholic Stuart claim to the English throne after the 1701 Act of Settlement ensured only Protestants could be monarch.

His principal contribution to American thought was rather practical. Bolingbroke called for a “Country Party” or permanent opposition to the one-party Tory rule. He believed that without this countervailing force, governments became corrupt, power was centralized, and individual liberties eroded.

Classical republican thought could be seen everywhere in early America. Liberals clearly embraced limited government, but a preoccupation with how it was run and a deep antipathy toward favoritism and patronage were hallmarks of Bolingbroke and his allies.

Sidney and Trenchard warned of the dangers of standing armies just as loudly as Locke. The British Quartering Act of 1765 forced Redcoats into colonists’ homes, and resulted in the Second and Third Amendments to the Constitution.

Locke and the liberal Enlightenment French aristocrat Montesquieu developed the separate branches of government, but the desire to prevent power from concentrating and corrupting officials is undeniably republican and advocated repeatedly in the Federalist Papers.

Those essays also characterize human nature as, to use Alexander Hamilton’s words in the sixth paper, “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” This is an attitude solidly in the liberal tradition. Institutions should be designed to turn self-interest into public good.

Others, however, believed Americans were uniquely virtuous and capable of the kinds of civic and personal behavior essential for a republic to grow healthily. Benjamin Franklin listed a host of important qualities his countrymen displayed, including industry and frugality. Jefferson’s model citizen was a simple yeoman farmer, not Hamilton’s banker or trader who sewed corruption and sought personal riches.

All Americans should read Locke. His work can keep us focused on our liberal heritage. But we should not forget the influence classical republicanism has had on the American experience.

Equality in its political and legal senses is essential, but it is liberty that trumps and pulls these two traditions together. Government should not only be restrained, but also well-run, devoid of corruption, and designed to prevent the concentration of power.

We should recognize individual liberties but understand that genuine political competition is necessary for their protection. As citizens, we should cherish our rights, but not forget our responsibilities.

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.