Republicanism in Britain: A Brief History Parts 1 and 2

1.  Introduction

It is ironic that the islands which have produced a disproportionately large number of republican theorists have retained a monarchical system for the majority of its inhabitants.  Since the middle years of the last millennium where our story starts, the fortunes of republicans and republicanism can be seen to ebb and flow on centuries long waves. 

The two great peaks of republicanism which occurred during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries were separated by periods where the ideas were held in obeisance. But, as I will show,  this is far from saying there was no republican activity during these times. Using history as a predictor of the future is fraught with danger but as the twentieth century fitted into the pattern is is tempting to hope that our present century will witness a new peak.

The Many Facets of Republicanism

Superficially, the history of Republicanism appears to be no more than a straightforward chronicle of anti monarchism in Britain. But such a view overlooks the rich variety of republican thought, some of it only tangentially affecting monarchy.  

Indeed, at times writers who considered themselves republicans were quite happy with a monarchy; though one which was tightly constrained, knew its responsibilities and could be held to account. Some of these ideas approach the concepts embodied in the modern office of President of the United States! Likewise it would be impossible to consider the development of British republicanism without reference to wider social, economic and even global events. 

Of enormous influence to early British republicans were the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers Aristotle, Demosthenes and Cicero along with historians Livy, Tacitus and Polybius. Similarly, many Reformation English and Scottish republicans looked to more recent ideas flowing from fifteenth and sixteenth century Florence, with Machiavelli proving to be a particularly influential figure.

From the earliest times it is clear that Republicanism is not a single tightly defined concept but rather a loose overlapping collection of ideas and concepts on the nature of citizenship and the exercise of political power. It can also be regarded as a way of thinking or even a vocabulary articulating an approach to political and constitutional issues. At its core is a concern for freedom both for the individual and the state as a whole. 

Of importance is the fact that republicanism is most effective and successful when combined with a separate though related cause. In the middle of the seventeenth century this was a lack of religious freedom. Later in the first half of the nineteenth century the driver was economic oppression caused by the rapid growth of unregulated capitalism.

During much of this period the British Isles consisted of three interlinked kingdoms. In fact a United Kingdom of all the islands existed for a very short time in historical terms.  The nature of republicanism varied across time and across these countries but in only one, on the island of Ireland has the idea been thus far successful. 

Finally, many of the ideas and concepts behind republicanism have remained largely dormant for almost two centuries, being displaced by liberalism and libertarianism as the  dominant concepts of freedom. Recovering these buried concepts from past republican theorists demonstrates the great value we have lost in such a concept.t

2.  16th Century Reformation Republicans

Building on the past

It is very rare that ideas and concepts spontaneously arise with no antecedents. So it was with sixteenth century political theory. In England the fifteenth century lawyer Sir John Fortesque argued that monarchical absolutism was a problem for continental Europe rather than England.

Around 1470 he published De Laudibus Legum Anglie which was translated in 1567 by Robert Mulcaster as A Learned Commendation of the Politique Lawes of England. Fortesque followed the Greek philosopher Aristotle in viewing tyranny to br a monarch’s abuse of the property of their subjects with the desire to amass wealth solely for their own benefit at the expense of the people. Similarly, he articulated Thomas Aquinas in declaring:

…the King is gyen for the kingdome, and not the kingdome for the King.

Another Greek thinker, the historian Polybius, was a vitally important source of ideas. He was widely read in late sixteenth century England, influencing the debate by drawing attention to the written constitution of ancient Sparta which guaranteed limits on the power of monarchy. The key institution of the state was the senate which operated effectively because its members ‘were chosen on grounds of merit, and could be relied upon at all times to unanimously take the side of justice. 

European humanist works such as Laurentius Grimaldus’s The Counsellor, anonymously translated into English in 1599, endorsed Polybius’s praise of the Roman Republic. Grimaldus argued that the mixed state of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy directly resembled the parts of a man’s mind, making it a natural form of political structure.

Ascending Versus Descending views of Power

Polybius’s works supported an ‘ascending’ view of the balance of power between Crown and Parliament which placed emphasis on the monarch being tied by the laws made in parliament. The rival ‘descending’ view subjugated the authority of representative chambers to the prerogative  of the monarch, reducing them to mere advisory bodies. 

These two interpretations lay at the heart of political debate of sixteenth century England and recur constantly. But even the ascending view was open to many interpretations with the result that the nature of republican arguments during this time were complex and frequently contradictory. 

This dichotomy is clearly visible in Richard Bacon’s 1594 Solon his Foliie, or. Politique Discourse touching the reformation of common-weales conquerred, declined or corrupted. Though dedicated to Elizabeth I it makes extensive reference to both Livy and Machiavelli. 

Heavily influenced by the latter, Bacon develops his commonwealth idea by citing examples from ancient Sparta and Athens, the 1579-83 Ulster Desmond Rebellion together with Machiavelli’s own Renaissance Florence. As the court of Elizabeth I sought to protect its prerogative and prevent discussion of the succession during the 1590s, such political treatises were naturally viewed as dangerous.

The Ancient Roman Republic provided a wide ranging and compelling model for sixteenth century political theorists. In his 1568 translation of the first forty books of Polybius’s Universal History, Christopher Warton includes a personal section clearly influenced by Somnium Scipionius., This was an account of the efforts of Scipio Africanus. Scipio, the most talented general of the Third Punic War (149-136BCE), in defending Rome against Hannibal. This raises him to the status of a republican hero.

The Idea of a Commonwealth

A major contribution to English political development was made by Sir Thomas Smith in his De Republican Anglorum; A Discourse on the Commonwealth of England published in 1583. Smith declared:

A Common Wealth is called a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord and covenauntes among themselves, for the conservation of themselves as well as in peace as in warre.

Later in the work, Smith articulates one of the fundamental principles of republican philosophy:

And if one man had as some of the old Romanes had (if it be true that is written) v. thousands or x. thousands bondsmen whom he ruled well and though they dwelled all in one citie or were distributed into diverse villages, yet that were no commonwealth; for the bondsman hath no communion with his master, for the wealth of the Lord is onely sought for, and not the profit of the slave or bondsman.

Surprisingly, despite these clear republican statements, Smith is not necessarily an anti-monarchist. Once again it depends on the regal powers being strictly circumscribed by a parliament or other representative body. He does, however, take pains to include even the lowliest sections of society, though as a means of emphasising that the English commonwealth is a collective project.

Drawing a Distinction Between the Office and Person of Monarch

A major impetus to republican theory in England was the heirless state of Elizabeth I. Her chief secretary William Cecil wrote a document which aimed to ‘tackle the potential problem of England without a monarch in December 1592, after Elizabeth suffered a bout of serious illness. It contained a clause which enabled parliament to establish a ‘conciliar interregnum’ and then nominate a successor. This established the all-important distinction between the two bodies of the monarch, the office and the person, in order to preserve the realm in a stable state. This distinction was to prove crucial during the 17th Century.

Cecil’s use of the term interregnum illustrates that following a short period of Parliamentary control, he fully intended that a new monarch should be crowned. This shows that politicians who used republican arguments were often just as repelled  by the thought of rebellion as more conservative thinkers. Furthermore it is important to note that republican ideas could be used to preserve as well as attack the monarchy.

Scotland in the Vanguard of Republicanism

Last but not least, a fertile breeding ground for republicanism in the British Isles during the 16th Century Reformation period was Scotland.  One of the most influential and original political thinkers. George Buchanan wrote three major works of political theory, De Jure Regni Apud Scotos (1579), Any detectioun of the dunges of Marie Queene of Scots (1571) and Rarum Scoticarum Historia (1582). All were familiar to people south of the border.

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