Republic (government)

November 24, 2012 4:43 pm

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Republic (government)
I INTRODUCTION
Republic (government) (Latin res publica, literally “the public thing”), form of state based on the concept that sovereignty resides in the people, who delegate the power to rule in their behalf to elected representatives and officials. In practice, however, this concept has been variously stretched, distorted, and corrupted, making any precise definition of the term republic difficult. It is important, to begin with, to distinguish between a republic and a democracy. In the theoretical republican state, where the government expresses the will of the people who have chosen it, republic and democracy may be identical (there are also democratic monarchies). Historical republics, however, have never conformed to a theoretical model, and in the 20th century the term republic is freely used by dictatorships, one-party states, and democracies alike. Republic has, in fact, come to signify any form of state headed by a president or some similarly titled figure, and not a monarch.
II REPUBLICAN THEORIES
Much of the confusion surrounding the concept of republicanism may be traced to the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s Republic presents an ideal state or, more accurately, an ideal Greek polis (“city-state”). Plato constructed his republic on what he considered the basic elements or characteristics of the human soul: the appetitive, the spirited, and the philosophical. Accordingly, his ideal republic consisted of three distinct groups: a commercial class formed by those dominated by their appetites; a spirited class, administrators and soldiers, responsible for the execution of the laws; and the guardians or philosopher-kings, who would be the lawmakers. Because Plato entrusted the guardians, a carefully selected few, with the responsibility for maintaining a harmonious polis, republicanism is frequently associated with ends or goals established by a small segment of the community presumed to have a special insight into what constitutes the common good.
Aristotle’s Politics provides another republican concept, one that prevails in most of the Western world. Aristotle categorized governments on the basis of who rules: the one, the few, or the many. Within these categories he distinguished between good and perverted forms of government—monarchy (good) versus tyranny, aristocracy (good) versus oligarchy—the main difference being whether the rulers governed for the good of the state or for their own interests.
Most relevant to republicanism in the Western world, however, is Aristotle’s distinction between democracy, the perverted form of rule by the many, and its opposite polity, the good form. He believed that democracies were bound to experience turbulence and instability because the poor, who he assumed would be the majority in democracies, would seek an economic and social equality that would stifle individual initiative and enterprise. In contrast, polity, with a middle class capable of justly adjudicating conflicts between the rich and poor, would allow for rule by the many without the problems and chaos associated with democratic regimes.
James Madison, often called the father of the U.S. Constitution, defined a republic in terms similar to those of Aristotle’s polity. In his view, republics were systems of government that permitted direct or indirect control by the people over those who govern. He did, however, warn against the effects of “majority factions” and emphasized the rights of minorities.
The Madisonian concept of republicanism parallels Aristotle’s vision of polity in many important dimensions, and both are essentially different from Plato’s. Madison and Aristotle were concerned with the means by which just and stable rule by the many could be secured. To this end Aristotle relied on a predominant middle class, Madison on an “extended” republic, in which varied interests would check and control one another. Madison also emphasized election of representatives by the people. These representatives, he believed, would be less likely to sacrifice the “public good” than the majority of the people. “Pure democracies,” in which the people ruled directly, Madison wrote, “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention.”
III REPUBLICS IN HISTORY
Some scholars regard the ancient confederation of Hebrew tribes that endured in Palestine from the 15th century bc until a monarchy was established about 1020 bc as an embryonic republic. That would make the ancient Israelite commonwealth the earliest republic in history and one of the oldest democracies; except for slaves and women, all members of the community had a voice in the selection of their administrators and were eligible for political office. For several hundred years after the early 8th century bc many of the city-states of Greece were republican in form. Carthage was likewise a republic for more than 300 years until its destruction by the Romans in 146 bc. For nearly 500 years Rome itself was a republic in which virtually all free males were eventually franchised.
The oldest extant republic is the state of San Marino on the Italian Peninsula, about 225 km (about 140 mi) north of Rome. According to tradition, it was established as a republic in the second part of the 4th century ad.
In medieval times the Icelanders established (930) a republic with a more or less democratic form of government that lasted for more than 300 years. The powerful and independent commercial city-states of northern Italy, ruled by the rising bourgeoisie, also found the republican form a more suitable political instrument than the monarchic state controlled by the feudal nobility and the Roman Catholic church. These Italian republics were for centuries disturbed by power struggles between the aristocracy and the commercial bourgeoisie, in which the latter represented the cause of democratic government and the former that of feudal conservatism. A parallel process took place in the commercial and handicraft communes of the Low Countries. The Hanseatic League was nominally a form of international republican government and a limited democracy. Republican elements were also characteristic of the league of Swiss cantons that eventually formed the Swiss state; the founding of the Swiss republic may be dated in 1291.
Republican sentiments were cherished by many leaders of the Reformation. Geneva, under the rule (1541-64) of John Calvin, was republican in form, although virtually a theocratic state. Reformist religious and antimonarchic doctrines were also contributory factors in the establishment of the Dutch Republic of the United Provinces (1648-1747) and the short-lived Commonwealth (1649-60) of England, Scotland, and Ireland under Oliver Cromwell.
IV MODERN REPUBLICS
The era of modern republicanism began with the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. Elements of republican government were present in the administrative institutions of the English New World colonies, but republicanism did not become dominant in American political thinking until the colonists declared their independence. The establishment of the United States as a federal republic with a government made up of three coordinate branches, each independent of the others, created a precedent that was subsequently widely emulated in the western hemisphere and elsewhere.
The French Revolution also created a republic based on suffrage—the first national republican state among the powers of Europe—and like its American predecessor it enunciated fundamental principles of liberty. Although this first French republic was short-lived, its impact on French and European society was virtually continuous. In the view of many historians the Napoleonic Wars that followed were essentially a military extension of the political assault on the remnants of the Continent’s feudal structure and eventually resulted in a new era of republicanism.
During the 19th century republics were established in most instances where revolutionary struggles were waged outside Europe. Thus, all the Latin American republics were products of revolutionary struggles for national independence; many of these governments, however, became military dictatorships. Two African republics, the South African Republic (1852) and the Orange Free State (1854), were finally annexed by Britain after the Boer War (1899-1902). Both in the United States and other republics, however, the passage of the century was generally marked by democratization of the electoral process through the enlargement of the electorate.
Two waves of new-state formations occurred in the 20th century—the first one after World War I, the second after World War II. Most of the newly independent states established themselves as republics, although some of those created in the first wave began as monarchies.
A new chapter in the history of republicanism began with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent transformation of the Russian Empire into the USSR. The development of the Soviet Union into a one-party totalitarian state demonstrated once more that republic and democracy are not synonymous, a fact that became even more obvious after World War II, when all the republics of Eastern Europe were fashioned in a similar mold as one-party “people’s republics” under the tutelage of the Soviet Union.
Of the dozens of new republics that have come into being since World War II, most have, in fact, displayed a definite trend away from democratic ideals and instead assumed the nature of oligarchies, single-party states, or military dictatorships. The many economically and politically developing nations that emerged from the liquidation of European colonial empires posed profound problems for democratic republicans. One was whether truly representative governments could be elected by nonliterate, ill-informed voters. Another was how to establish majority rule in a fundamentally tribal society. The hold of ingrained traditions on the one hand and the introduction of new doctrinaire ideologies on the other added a further element of chaos. The result, most often, was an authoritarian one-person, one-party, or military rule. Thus, in the last quarter of the 20th century, although some three-fourths of the nations in the world styled themselves republics, only a very few could be described as democracies.

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