The idea of republicanism had a nearly 2,000 year old history before it made it to the shores of America. But over that 2,000 year history, the idea underwent some subtle changes.
Many feature of republicanism were suggested by Aristotle. He believed that human beings thrived when through “rational activity of the soul” they acquired and developed certain human excellencies or virtues. The role of the city-state was to cultivate these virtues in its citizens and to provide the means for the citizens to exercise these virtues in public life. Aristotle believed, however, that only a well-off talented few possessed the leisure time to develop virtue. They were expected to sacrifice time devoted their personal affairs to serve the city-state in some public capacity. Later historians described this idea as civic virtue.
Aristotle also introduced the basic classification of constitutions: monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by the few), and polity (rule by the many). He considered all forms legitimate as long as they governed for the common good. Because of his belief that the most virtuous should rule, Aristotle argued that an aristocracy was the best ideal form of government. He suggested, however, that the best possible government was a type of polity in which the many made the laws, but elected the virtuous few to be magistrates. In this type of mixed government, the citizens enjoyed the public liberty to participate in the constitution. Moreover, with both the aristocratic and democratic orders represented in the constitution, neither would be subject to the domination of the other and the public good would be served. Aristotle speculated that such an arrangement might ameliorate or even end the conflicts that tore apart Greek democracies when demagogues won over the people by promising their good only to establish tyrannies that in turn provoked additional violent reactions.
The Romans republicans derived some of their ideas from Aristotle.
Roman writers, too, celebrated civic virtue or patriotism of its elite. And like the Greeks, they depended upon the martial virtue of its citizen soldiers. Some later Roman historians suggested that it was the corruption of the elite through luxury that retarded their public spirit. Their turned away from public affairs and withdrawal into their private interests and led to the fall of both the republic and the empire.
Their government was a mixed constitution similar to Aristotle's polity. The aristocrats constituted the Senate while the commoners participated in their own lawmaking assembly. While the Senate was hereditary, writers such as Cicero celebrated the novus homo or new man-- the man who like himself came from non-aristocratic background but earned praise for his virtuous service for the republic. It was this government that first received the name res publica, or republic.
The Romans more explicitly recognized liberties of its citizens. Roman citizenship brought with it protection of the laws not enjoyed by foreigners. This meant rule by laws and freedom from arbitrary decisions by rulers. Perhaps the most famous example is when the Apostle Paul, when threatened with scourging by a Roman commander, declared that he was a Roman citizen and immediately stopped the proceedings.
After the overthrow of the Roman republic and the disintegration of the Roman Empire into the kingdoms and principalities of medieval Europe, republicanism rose again on the shores of the Italian peninsula. Florence, Venice, and several other cities secured their independence from the surrounding powers. They relearned and in some cases modified the ideas about the classical republics. They, too, recognized the need for virtue from leaders. In addition to the classical virtues, republican theorists of the Renaissance (except Machiavelli) advocated Christian virtues. (Machiavelli thought Christianity had made the world weak.) And these republican theorists also acknowledged the need for martial virtues in its citizens. Machiavelli especially perceived this need, having watched his native Florence lose several armed conflicts in which it depended upon paid mercenaries. According to Machiavelli, republic should depend upon its own citizens for defense. Ironically, Machiavelli suggested that a ruler could use religion to cultivate the devotion of the average citizen to the republic. And some of these republican writers warned about the corrupting influence of luxury derived from commerce.
Most of these republics had “mixed constitutions” of an executive magistrate, an assembly of nobles, and an assembly of commoners. According to Machiavelli, each of the three constituents would jealously guard its own liberties and preserve the common good:
All these republics eventually succombed to their larger, more powerful monarchies and principalities.
The most important developments in the history of republicanism took place in England. The English Civil War of 1642-1651 overthrew the mixed monarchy and established a republic. The monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished; a one-house Parliament made English law while magistrates under General Oliver Cromwell executed them.
While John Milton defended this one-house scheme, most other English republican writers such as James Harrington and Algernon Sydney built upon more traditional themes. Harrington acknowledged the foundation “of the ancients, and their learned disciple Machiavel” for his own ideas. Harrington advocated a mixed regime of an upper house, lower house, and a magistrate. He, like Cicero, preferred a "natural aristocracy" of talent and virtue rather than the hereditary one that filled the Roman Senate and the English House of Lords. He introduced an economic analysis of corruption. He advocated agrarian laws that prevented accumulation of the majority of land which allowed aristocrats to overawe the people. Imbalance of the wealth in the hands of the few makes public interest becomes more private and “luxury” takes the place of “temperance.”
The constitutional crisis that led the the Glorious Revolution of 1688 also resulted in the most widely read of English tracts on government: John Locke's Two Treatises of Government. Like ancient and medieval republcans, Locke affirmed that the legitimate governments must rule in the public interest. Ultimately, however, the legitimacy of government rests on the consent of the governed.
Locke introduced two radical notions into republican thought. First, he barely mentions the traditional republican scheme of a two house legislature in which each house embodies the upper and lower orders of society. Instead, he divides government by what kind of powers it possesses: legislature, executive, and federative. Second, he does not address virtue at all. The role of government is not to instill virtue; it is to protect property which he defines as life, liberty, and estates.
Perhaps Locke's silence on traditional virtues reflects the realities of late 17th century England. While the social structure of of the ancient world was simply the few wealthy and the many poor, by the time Locke wrote England had developed a much more complex social structure that included a rapidly expanding middle class. For most of human history, people have lived one crop failure away from starvation. Agricultural advancements in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, permitted English agriculture to produce not only enough to feed locals, but also to ship across the country to other markets. Soon market towns dotted the English countryside. And overseas exploration and colonization led to unprecedented foreign trade. This agricultural abundance contributed to it expanding population.
England experienced extensive geographic mobility that brought people to larger towns and cities and even to England's overseas possessions. London doubled in population in the first half of the seventeenth century. England experienced extensive social mobility as well. The expanding economy created opportunities in nontraditional fields such a trade, finance, and law and greatly expanded the middle classes.
Locke's several allusions to work (or industry) and to “enjoyment” of one's property and experiencing “comforts” in life seems to indirectly appeal to a different set of virtues—those of the middle class.
In addition, it conforms to a strain of English thought that began to develop in the crisis preceeding the English Civil War of the 1640s. First articulated by Puritans, this “Country” ideology spread beyond Puritanism to others who opposed absolute monarchy and court politics. It also appeared among those who like Locke supported the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In fact, those who embraced it seemed to formulate it using the court and aristocracy as a negative reference point. As historian Lawrence Stone summarized it:
Locke's Treatise abandoned concerns about ancient aristocratic virtues in favor of new middle class virtues of work, savings, thrift, and enjoyment of the modest comforts that these virtues secured. Classical republicanism became modern.