Liberty has had many different meanings over the course of the history of the term. However, from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, it commonly appeared as an element in the intellectual tradition that scholars now term classical republicanism. The classical republican tradition flourished throughout Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and among its most notable exponents were Niccolò Machiavelli, Algernon Sidney, James Harrington, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Classical republicans drew heavily on ancient models and authorities, but they matched these models with new concerns and examples drawn from the world around them to create a distinct ideology that can be recognized in various forms throughout the history of European political thought.
Liberty in the classical republican context must be distinguished from both its modern and ancient meanings; when reading texts of the early modern era, it is important to remember that liberty did not always mean what we may take it to mean today. Nonetheless, the liberty of the classical republicans is in some ways an ancestor of the modern libertarian tradition. At the same time, ironically, it also has played a role in shaping modern collectivist ideologies. Therefore, classical republicanism is of crucial importance in the development of modern political thought.
Despite its name, classical republicanism did not oppose all monarchies. A “republic” denoted for its adherents what we might today call constitutional government, the rule of law, or simply good government, and this notion was thought consistent with monarchy as one of its components. The classical republicans concerned themselves far more intensely with the proper forms and duties of government, and they were always critical of both monarchs and other government actors who overstepped their prerogatives. This concern for limited government is a feature that classical republicans share with the later classical liberal tradition and with modern libertarians. Yet a fuller account of the classical republican worldview reveals differences as well as similarities to the modern libertarian view.
Classical republicans did not emphasize or even write often about the natural rights of individuals, yet they overwhelmingly agreed that good government was exceedingly fragile and that the vicissitudes of history could sweep it away for no foreseeable reason. Classical republicans often invoked the medieval image of the Wheel of Fortune to describe capricious historical change. Moreover, the reinvigorated study of history that came with the Renaissance convinced them that polities often suffered good and bad turns of fortune. For example, Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, was written to address the proper rule of a state whose republic had lately been overthrown and in which the key question was how best to save what could be preserved. No classical republican would view the collapse of a republic as surprising; for them, republics tended to do just that.
For classical republicans, the real question lay in how to prevent republics from declining. Therefore, they offered a number of strategies to stave off the threat. Modern libertarians still champion some of these methods, whereas others are rarely encountered or else have been abandoned. Classical republicans held that successful republics, although rare, typically owed their continued existence to a political or civic virtue. The public exercise of civic virtue made for good government and ensured the liberty of the citizens. In turn, civic virtue had several components.
Above all, citizens were expected to be self-sacrificing for the good of the political community, which was usually conceived of as a local city-state. Far-flung empires tended overwhelmingly toward despotism, classical republicans noted, and they generally disparaged empires for just this reason. To keep vigilant in defense of the republic, citizens were to refrain from luxury, effeminate living, and corruption; classical republicans held all three to be closely related to each other and ultimately fatal to a republic. As Machiavelli wrote in his Discourses on Livy, “no ordinance is of such advantage to a commonwealth, as one which enforces poverty on its citizens.” In the same work, he praised Lycurgus, the ruler of Sparta, for decreeing that all money should be made of leather, the better to discourage trade and manufacturing.
Participation in a civic militia was highly prized. Wealthy states might be tempted to hire mercenaries to defend them, but this was a bad idea according to classical republican thought. As Algernon Sidney noted in the Discourses Concerning Government,
The business of mercenaries is so to perform their duty, as to keep their employments, and to draw profit from them; but that is not enough to support the spirits of men in extreme dangers. The shepherd who is a hireling, flies when the thief comes; and this adventitious help failing, all that a prince can reasonably expect from a disaffected and oppressed people is, that they should bear the yoke patiently in the time of his prosperity; but upon the change of his fortune, they leave him to shift for himself, or join with his enemies to avenge the injuries they had received.
No government should be wealthy enough to hire an independent military force, and all polities should rely on their citizens alone for self-defense. In this way, the liberty of the subject would prove consistent with the success of the state, and citizens would be inclined to defend their governments.
Often agrarian life was valued above the urban because those who owned a piece of land could always make at least a meager living without becoming dependent on others for their livelihood. City life fostered dependence on others, and to classical republicans, this dependence was the first step toward corruption. The capital cities of large empires were especially dangerous because here money, political power, servility, and commerce converged. Imperial Rome was the paradigmatic example of this type of danger. By contrast, one figure much admired by classical republicans was Cincinnatus, a quasi-legendary Roman farmer who was chosen as dictator to repel an invasion. After his triumph, Cincinnatus surrendered all his power and returned to his farm.
Last, and anticipating much later political thought, classical republicans often advocated a mixed constitution. Machiavelli wrote in his Discourses on Livy that “where we have a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy existing together in the same city, each of the three serves as a check upon the other.”
Perhaps the remarkable thing about classical republican thought, however, is that it viewed the abuse of government as a ubiquitous problem, one amenable—perhaps—to human solutions. In an age when many other political thinkers proclaimed the divine right of kings and the notion that the forms of government were absolute, immutable, and God-given, classical republicans were in many respects the most realistic as well as the most libertarian voices to be found. For them, government was fundamentally a human affair, and it was subject to all of the many faults that plagued other human creations. Understandably, they viewed the state with constant anxiety.
There is much here that a libertarian can admire, but also much with which to take issue. The classical republicans’ admiration for small, mixed republics and their mistrust of empires are consonant with later libertarian thought, as is their love for a citizen militia, which finds expression in the 2nd Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms. The suspicion of standing armies, a key feature of early classical liberalism, comes directly from the classical republican tradition, and modern libertarians likewise wish the military force to be no larger than is necessary for the defense of individuals and their property.
Yet modern libertarianism embraces money, commerce, and self-interest, and herein lies a key difference between libertarianism and classical republicanism. Classical republicanism viewed self-interest and the desire for wealth as a danger to the public weal. Subsequent social thought overturned this notion and, in the process, altered the meaning of liberty, reconciling individual freedom with commerce where once they had been thought natural enemies.
Partly in response to classical republicanism and to the rising commercial society around them, thinkers including Bernard de Mandeville and Adam Smith argued that self-interest could motivate individuals toward knowledge, industry, honesty, charity, and peaceful relations with their neighbors, as well as material plenty. It is this later view that modern libertarians champion. Although libertarians do see governmental corruption as a danger, they reject the notion that corruption is an inevitable consequence of wealth or commerce.
The twilight years of classical republicanism were spent in attempting to counter this relatively new idea, which lies at the heart of 18th- and 19th-century classical liberalism. Understood in this light, the political thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was not a radically new contrarian position, but rather a throwback to some old ideas about the nature of commerce in a political community. Libertarians find Rousseau’s account of liberty unconvincing, in part, for just this reason.
Other areas of classical republican thought are objectionable to libertarians as well, most obviously the notion of the need for self-sacrifice in the interests of the state. The idea of a citizen militia has had a darker side as well—namely, conscription. To most modern libertarians, conscription makes a “mercenary” army seem perfectly honorable, whereas classical republicans would not have agreed.
Self-sacrifice in the interests of the state is problematic for theoretical reasons as well. Social contract theory holds that we citizens create, alter, or abolish states to preserve our own security and liberty, and that we create states to serve us, not the other way around. Meanwhile, individualist libertarianism draws somewhat different borders around the entire question. Objectivism, for example, mistrusts self-sacrifice for philosophical reasons, yet Ayn Rand held that a man who voluntarily dies fighting for his own freedom is not sacrificing himself because he is working for freedom, and this may just be one of his own highest values.
One question in the history of classical republican scholarship is of particular interest to libertarians—namely, the degree to which classical republicanism influenced the founding of the United States. When the United States was founded, classical republicanism still had powerful defenders, but a new appreciation for money and commerce also was gaining a foothold, and America was already a notably commercial republic. Additionally, theories of individual rights, social contract theory, and the somewhat amorphous political thought of Montesquieu clearly played important roles in America’s founding.
Yet the founding reflects elements of classical republican thought as well. We observe it when Franklin famously answered that the Constitutional Convention had given Americans “a republic, if you can keep it.” It also can be seen in how Jefferson envisioned a nation of small freehold farmers. Voting rights were denied to the residents of the capital city lest they become too powerful. It was a singularly classical republican gesture when Washington returned—with evident pride—to his farm, first after fighting in the American Revolution and then after two terms as president.
Hamowy, Ronald. “Cato’s Letters, John Locke, and the Republican Paradigm.” John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government: New Interpretations. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992.
Machiavelli Niccolò. Chief Works, and Others. Allan Gilbert, trans. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1965.
Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.
———. Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Sidney, Algernon. Discourses Concerning Government. Thomas G. West, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1990.
Skinner, Quentin. Liberty before Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Originally published .