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Jun 1, 1979

Republicanism: Virtue or Lockean Individualism?

“Viewing the intellectual history of the late nineteenth century as a revival of the republican tradition enriches our understanding of the age of reform.”

“The Liberal Tradition Revisited and the Republican Tradition Addressed.” In New Directions in American Intellectual History. Edited by John Higham. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins Press, 1979, pp. 116–131.

The 1975 publication of J. G. A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition compels historians to re-examine the liberal foundations of American politics. Unlike Louis Hartz who, in The Liberal Tradition in America(1955), interpreted American political history as the flowering of liberal ideas traceable to Lockean individualism, Pocock views American politics as the expression of ancient and renaissance concepts about republican governance and the moral quality of society. Pocock’s history gives little weight to the Lockean influences in producing the dominant ideological positions in eighteenth-century political history. Pocock finds typical republicans intensely concerned with the moral well-being of society—a concern expressed in political discourse by the eighteenth-century fixation on corruption and the socio-political processes leading to tyranny, the ultimate stage of moral decay. This interpretation reads the history of American politics as one of changing content in the republican concept of governance.

This interpretation is extremely important in explaining the rise of the new liberalism during the late nineteenth century. If Pocock is correct about the basis of political debate in the eighteenth century, then political discourse in the late nineteenth century revives republican concerns about the moral integrity of government, the corrupting influences of monopoly, and the future of political freedoms. Nineteenth-century intellectuals, no less than eighteenth, believed that material and demographic progress resulted in the corruption of civic virtue if left unchecked or unregulated by government. This revival of republicanism appears strongest in the writing of Josiah Strong, Henry George, and Edward Bellamy, but it was also present in a wide range of work spanning the intellectual spectrum from academic debates to the protest literature of agrarian radicalism.

Viewing the intellectual history of the late nineteenth century as a revival of the republican tradition enriches our understanding of the age of reform. An intellectual kinship can be seen between the reform and revolution of the eighteenth century and the pervasive search for order that Robert Wiebe identified as the animating principle of reform movements between 1870 and 1920. Moreover, a suggestive tension appears between reformers in the republican tradition and the new process-oriented, bureaucratic reform mentality that ultimately dominated political activism in the twentieth century. Bureaucratic reformers embraced the idea of progress and worked to create a political and economic system that advanced the special interests of particular economic and social groups. The bureaucratic departure from the republican fear of such governmental activity leading to political and social corruption highlights the emergence of a new tradition, one that assumes the moral integrity of the citizenry and the ability of state action to create a better society.