Republic - Encyclopedia

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REPUBLIC (Lat. respublica, a commonweal or commonwealth), a term now universally understood to mean a state, or polity, in which the head of the government is elective, and in which those things which are the interest of all are decided upon by all. This is notoriously a very modern interpretation of the term. In the ancient world of Greece and Rome the franchise was in the hands of a minority, who were surrounded by, and who governed, a majority composed of men personally free but not possessed of the franchise, and of slaves. Modern writers have often used respublica, and literal translation, as meaning only the state, even when the head was an absolute king, provided that he held his place according to law and ruled by law. "Republic," to quote one example only of many, was so used by Jean Bodin, whose treatise, commonly known by its Latin name De Republica Libri Sex, first appeared in French in 1577. Englishmen of the middle ages habitually spoke of the commonwealth of England, though they had no conception that they could be governed except by a king with hereditary right. The coins of Napoleon bear the inscription "Republique franchise, Napoleon Empereur." Except as an arbitrary term of art, or as a rhetorical expression, "republic" has, however, always been understood to mean a state in which the head holds his place by the choice of his subjects. Poland was a republic because its king had in earlier times to be accepted, and in later times was chosen by a democracy composed of gentry. Venice was a republic, though after the "closing of the great council" the franchise was confined to a strictly limited aristocracy, which was itself in practice dominated by a small oligarchy. The seven states which formed the confederation of the United Netherlands were republics from the time they renounced their allegiance to Philip II., though they chose to be governed by a stadtholder to whom they delegated large powers, and though the choice of the stadtholder was made by a small body of burghers who alone had the franchise. The varieties are many. What, however, is emphatically not a republic is a state in which the ruler can truly tell his subjects that the sovereignty resides in his royal person, and that he is king, or tsar, "pure and absolute," by the grace of God, even though he may hasten to add that "absolute" is not "despotic," which means government without regard to law. The case of Great Britain, where the king reigns theoretically by the grace of God, but in fact by a parliamentary title and under the Act of Settlement, is, like the whole British constitution, unique.

There is in fact a fundamental incompatibility between the conceptions of government as a commonwealth and as an institution based on a right superior to the people's will. Where the two views endeavour to live together one of two things must happen. The ruler will confiscate the rights of the community to himself and will become the embodiment of sovereignty, which is what happened in most of the states of Europe at the close of the middle ages; or the community, acting through some body politic which is its virtual representative, will confine the head of the government to defined functions.

The question of representation is dealt with separately (see Representation), but the conception of a republic in which all males, who do not belong to an inferior and barbarous race, share in the suffrage is one which would never have been accepted in the ancient or medieval world, for it is based on a foundation of which they knew nothing, - the political rights of man. When the Scottish reformer John Knox based his claim to speak on the government of the realm on the fact that he was "a subject born within the same" he advanced a pretension very new to his generation. But it was one which was fated to achieve a great fortune. The right of the subject, simply as a member of the community, to a voice in the community in which he was born, and on which his happiness depended, implied all "the rights of man" as they were to be stated by the American Declaration of Independence, and again by the French in 1789. As they could be vindicated only by revolt against monarchical governments in the old world and the new, and as they were incompatible with all the convictions which make monarchy possible, they embodied themselves in the modern democratic republics of Europe and America. It is a form of government not much more like the republic of antiquity and the middle ages than the French sansculottes was like Harmodius and Aristogeiton, whom he admired for being what they most decidedly were not - believers in equality and fraternity. But it does, subject to the imperfections of human nature, set up a government in which all, theoretically at least, have a voice in what concerns all.

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