Friday, August 21, 2009

An analysis of Republics throughout history

Monarchy, the last defence of Liberty – 1: An analysis of Republics throughout history

(This is one of 3 parts, based on a paper I gave to the Prodos - Promoting Capitalism group in Melbourne. Large parts of the following are highly edited and re-arranged quotes from Wikipedia and the great philosophers – follow the links to get full versions and references.)

Let us look at the historical basis of Republics.

The word "republic" was not meaningful concept in the classical world, but by convention we often name as republics Athens and Sparta and the Roman Republic.


The first recorded democracy was also a direct democracy. Athenian democracy started in the 5th century BC, but included only male citizens. Women and slaves were definitely out. The system included an Assembly, the boule, 500 citizens chosen annually by lot, and the law courts composed by a massive number of juries chosen by lot, with no judges. There may well have been some 250,000–300,000 people in Attica but citizen families only amounted to 100,000 people and out of these some 30,000 will have been the adult male citizens entitled to vote in the assembly. Several thousand such citizens were politically active every year and many of them quite regularly for years on end. The non-citizen resident foreigners (metics) and slaves, outnumbered those of citizen stock but did not swamp them.

Only an adult male Athenians citizens who had completed their military training as ephebes had the right to vote in Athens. The theory was that only those who put their lives on the line for the state should have a say. (Rights only with responsibilities.) Interestingly we get the concept from this of 'idiot', (idiōtēs), meaning a private person, not actively interested in politics: from the disdain they held for men who would not play the necessary three parts of a citizens life – farming, soldiering, and politics.

Their democracy was hardly ideal. In 399 BC Socrates himself was put on trial and executed for 'corrupting the young and believing in strange gods'. His errors included standing up to witch hunt trials of defeated generals by the vengeful commons. His death gave Europe its first ever intellectual hero and martyr, but guaranteed the democracy an eternity of bad press at the hands of his disciple and enemy to democracy Plato.

‘Democracy’ really meant the oligarchy of the citizens. Yet Athens fluctuated between democratic and autocratic government, a cycle reflected by the ups and downs of her naval power. The consensus on Wikipedia suggests that Athenian Democracy is strongly bound up with Athenian imperialism. The common people (demos) were numerically dominant in the navy, in work as rowers, and in the hundreds of overseas administrative positions. Further they used the income from empire to fund payment for office-holding. The demos fed off an empire of subject states, and at times the imperialist democracy acted with extreme brutality, as in the decision to execute the entire male population of Melos and sell off its woman and children simply for refusing to become subjects of Athens.

Discrimination was also “more extreme under Athenian democracy than anywhere before or elsewhere” (Wik), particularly as concerns woman and slaves, and citizens versus non-citizens. By so strongly validating one role, that of the male citizen, democracy compromised the status of those who did not share it.

Male citizenship had become valuable, to be jealously guarded. Under Pericles, in 450 BC, restrictions were tightened so that a citizen had to be born from citizen parentage on both sides. Metroxenoi, those with foreign mothers, were now to be excluded. This was a clear indication of the demos limiting the bahaviour of the aristocracy: as traditionally, for the poorer citizens, local marriage was the norm while the elite had been much more likely to marry abroad as a part of aristocratic alliance building. So one of the key elements of this first ‘democracy’ was increasingly restricted citizenship rights.
Likewise the status of women seems lower in Athens than in many Greek cities. By contrast, at Sparta women competed in public exercise and women could own property in their own right, as they could not at Athens. Also Slavery was more widespread at Athens than in other Greek cities. Even with respect to slavery the new citizen law of 450 BC may have had effect: it is speculated that originally Athenian fathers had been able to register for citizenship offspring had with slave women.
Athens then, like most republics, was actually an oligarchy, where the restrictive citizen body practices democratic principles. (Though sometimes it became an autocracy, where a few ruled without regard to their peers.)

Athens did in fact set the model for most republics. Oligarchic: increasingly restricted citizenship; greater mistreatment of those who “do not count”, or do not fall into line; and constantly wobbling between the tyranny of the masses, and autocracy.


Aristotle describes the kingship at Sparta as "a kind of unlimited and perpetual generalship" (Pol. iii. I285a); while Isocrates refers to the Spartans as "subject to an oligarchy at home, to a kingship on campaign" (iii. 24). Literally they had an oligarchic democracy under a hereditary paired kingship… a type of ancient version of a constitutional monarchy.

Citizens agoge were eligible to vote. However, usually the only people eligible to receive the agoge were Spartiates, or people who could trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of the city. There were two exceptions. Trophimoi or "foster sons" were foreign students invited to study. The Athenian general Xenophon, for example, sent his two sons to Sparta as trophimoi. The other exception was that the sons of a helot could be enrolled as a syntrophos if a Spartiate formally adopted him and paid his way. If a syntrophos did exceptionally well in training, he might be sponsored to become a Spartiate.

Helots did not have voting rights, although compared to non-Greek chattel slaves in other parts of Greece they were relatively privileged. The Spartan poet Tyrtaios refers to Helots being allowed to marry. They also seem to have been allowed to practice religious rites and, according to Thucydides, own a limited amount of personal property. (Though each year when the Ephors took office they ritually declared war on the helots, thereby allowing Spartans to kill them without the risk of ritual pollution – presumably a fantastic way to limit independence movements!)

Another class, the Perioikoi, did not enjoy full citizen-rights, though they were free and not subjected to the same harsh treatment as the helots. They were apparently a functional middle class, partly skilled craftsmen and partly agents of foreign trade. Although Perioikoic hoplites occasionally served with the Spartan army, the most important function of the Peroikoi was almost certainly the manufacture and repair of armour and weapons.

Spartan girls seem to have gone through a fairly extensive formal educational cycle, broadly similar to that of the boys but with less emphasis on military training. In this respect, classical Sparta was unique in ancient Greece. In no other city-state did women receive any kind of formal education.

Spartan women enjoyed a status, power, and respect that was unknown in the rest of the classical world. They controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army. (Women probably owned 35% of all land and property in Sparta.) The laws regarding a divorce were the same for both men and women. Spartan women rarely married before the age of 20, and unlike Athenian women who wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house, Spartan women wore short dresses and went where they pleased. Girls as well as boys exercised nude, and young women as well as young men may have participated in the Gymnopaedia ("Festival of Nude Youths"). Women, being more independent than in other Greek societies, were also apparently able to negotiate with their husbands to bring their lovers into their homes.

Sparta, with the benefit of a hereditary twin monarchy, maintained its democratic oligarchy in a much more satisfying fashion than did Athens. It was easier to become a citizen; and non-citizens, slaves, and women, had much greater rights than in Athens. Arguably it was better to be a Spartan Helot than an Athenian slave, or indeed woman.


Rome shifted from a monarchy to an oligarchic republic to an increasingly autocratic empire.

Roman Republic 509 BC, was a system theoretically reflecting Spartan principles. Annually elected magistrates and various representative assemblies were established. A constitution set a series of checks and balances, and a separation of powers. The most important magistrates were the two consuls (apparently modeled on the Spartan paired kings), who together exercised executive authority in the form of imperium, or military command. The consuls had to work with the senate, which was initially an advisory council of the ranking nobility, or patricians, but grew in size and power over time. Other magistracies in the Republic include praetors, aediles, and quaestors. The magistracies were originally restricted to patricians, but were later opened to common people, or plebeians. Republican voting assemblies included the comitia centuriata (centuriate assembly), which voted on matters of war and peace and elected men to the most important offices, and the comitia tributa (tribal assembly), which elected less important offices.

The Senate squabbled perpetually, repeatedly blocking important land reforms and refusing to give the equestrians class a larger say in the government. Violent gangs of the urban unemployed, controlled by rival Senators, intimidated the electorate through violence. The situation came to a head in the late 2nd century BC under the Gracchi brothers, a pair of tribunes who attempted to pass land reform legislation that would redistribute the major patrician landholdings among the plebeians. Both brothers were killed, but the Senate passed some of their reforms in an attempt to placate the growing unrest of the plebeian and equestrian classes. The denial of Roman citizenship to allied Italian cities led to the Social War of 91–88 BC. The military reforms of Gaius Marius resulted in soldiers often having more loyalty to their commander than to the city, and a powerful general could hold the city and Senate ransom. This led to civil war between Marius and his protegé Sulla, and culminated in Sulla's dictatorship of 81–79 BC. Follows Ceasar and Empire.

Despite a good policy of separation of powers, and one of the most complex systems of checks and balances in history, the Roman Republic was never particularly stable. Some philosophers feel that the demos component of the state was undervalued; but in fact the real problem was the extremely short term elected monarchs had effectively the opposite affect on the stability of the state to their Spartan hereditary models.

Germanic tribal kings

In passing we need to note that these were often elected by conclaves of warriors from the various tribes concerned. Early presidents in fact. But to make states work long term they had to become hereditary, and then to make states stable they had to move to Primo-geniture.

The Renaissance (meaning literally ‘rebirth’ or ‘renewal’ of the ancient)

The ‘modern’ idea of a republic first appeared in the writings of Italian scholars of the Renaissance, To describe non-monarchial states writers, most importantly Leonardo Bruni, adopted the Latin word res publica (meaning ‘public affairs’). Machiavelli divided governments into two types, principalities ruled by a monarch and republics ruled by the people.
As Machiavelli wrote, the distinction between an aristocracy ruled by a select elite and a democracy ruled by a council appointed by the people became cumbersome. By the time Machiavelli began work on The Prince he had decided to refer to both aristocracy and ‘democracies’ as republics. The vote was the thing, the franchise was less relevant.

In Europe new ‘republics’ appeared in the late Middle Ages in small, but wealthy, trading states. A wealthy merchant class in the important trading cities, with little power in the feudal system dominated by the rural land-owners, began to advocate for their own privileges and powers. By the Renaissance, Europe was divided with those states controlled by a landed elite - being monarchies, and those controlled by a commercial elite - being republics.

The more centralized states, such as France and England, granted limited city charters, and founded the principle of elected representatives to parliaments. In the more loosely governed Holy Roman Empire fifty one of the largest towns became free imperial cities. While still under the dominion of the Holy Roman Emperor most power was held locally and many adopted republican forms of government.[30] The same rights to imperial immediacy were secured by the major trading cities of Switzerland. The two other most powerful ‘republics’ were the Republic of Venice and its rival the Republic of Genoa.


The Most Serene Republic of Venice existed for over a millennium, from the late 7th century AD until the year 1797. In the early years of the republic, the Doge had ruled Venice in an autocratic fashion, as an elected monarch but later his powers were limited by the promissione, a pledge he had to take when elected. As a result powers were shared with the (Major) Council, composed of 480 members taken from certain families, so that "He could do nothing without the Major Council and the Major Council could do nothing without him".

Venice claimed to be mixed republic combining monarchy in the Doge, aristocracy in the senate, and democracy in the Major Council. Machiavelli also refers to Venice as a republic, considering it "excellent among modern republics" (unlike his native Florence).

But it was hardly an ideal democracy. Slaves were plentiful in the Italian city-states as late as the 15th century. Between 1414 and 1423, some 10,000 slaves were sold in Venice, almost all of whom were "nubile" young women from Russia, Greece, Bosnia, Georgia, Armenia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

Like most other republics, an Oligarchy of families - citizens members of hereditary caste, had the vote. Over the centuries citizenship grew ever more restrictive. Sometimes it was possible to marry in, but even that was later tightened.

Venice worked is an extremely restrictive oligarchy with good division of powers and good checks and balances. It is notable that it’s elected monarchy lacked the long term viewpoint of the Spartan monarchs, or the inadequately restrained power of the Roman version. Yet it was always closer to being a Greek city-state than to a Roman Republic.


Modern-era citizen lawmaking might be said to have begun in the towns of Switzerland in the 13th century. See the Federal Charter of 1291. By the 16th century, the Old Swiss Confederacy was composed of thirteen sovereign cantons, and there were two different kinds: six land (or forest) cantons and seven city (or urban) cantons. Technically part of the Holy Roman Empire, it was de facto independent fro when the Swiss defeated Emperor Maximillian in 1499.

The six forest cantons were democratic republics, whereas the seven urban cantons were oligarchic republics controlled by noble families (a distinction in the type of oligarchy, not of real democracy), and conquered territories such as Vaud. During the Early Modern period of Swiss history, the growing authoritarianism of the patriciate families combined with a financial crisis in the wake of the Thirty Years' War led to the Swiss peasant war of 1653. In the background to this struggle, the conflict between Catholic and Protestant cantons persisted, erupting in further violence at the Battles of Villmergen in 1656 and 1712. To this point Switzerland was still more of a loose federation than a nation, and very much a federation of oligarchic republics.

The Helvetic Republic (1798–1803) was imposed on Switzerland by French military might. The Republic existed as a state for only five years, failing to achieve widespread popular support among its citizens. The new régime abolished cantonal sovereignty and feudal rights. The occupying forces established a centralised state based on the ideas of the French Revolution. Many Swiss citizens resisted these "progressive" ideas, uprisings took place, most notably in the canton of Nidwalden, which the authorities crushed, with towns and villages burnt down by French troops.

Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of France, soon recognised Switzerland as federal "by nature" and considered it unwise to force the country into any other constitutional framework. On February 19, 1803, the Act of Mediation restored the cantons. With the abolition of the centralized state, Switzerland became a confederation once again. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna fully re-established Swiss independence and the European powers agreed to permanently recognise Swiss neutrality.

The period of the Helvetic Republic is still very controversial as the first time that Switzerland existed as a unified country. For the first time the population was defined as Swiss, not as members of a specific canton. For cantons like Vaud, Thurgau and Ticino the Republic was a time of political freedom from other cantons. However the Republic also marked a time of foreign domination and revolution. For the cantons of Berne, Schwyz and Nidwalden it was a time of military defeat followed by occupation and military suppression. In 1995 the Federal Parliament chose to not celebrate the 200 year anniversary of the Helvetic Republic, but to allow individual cantons to celebrate if they wished.

Civil war broke out in 1847 when some of the Catholic cantons tried to set up a separate alliance. The war made all Swiss understand the need for unity and strength, and they realised that the cantons would profit more if their economic and religious interests were merged. A Constitution was introduced which provided for a federal layout, much of it inspired by the American example. This constitution provided for a central authority while leaving the cantons the right to self-government on local issues. Giving credit to those who favoured the power of the cantons (the Sonderbund Kantone), the national assembly was divided between an upper house (the Swiss Council of States, 2 representatives per canton) and a lower house (the National Council of Switzerland, representatives elected from across the country). Referenda were made mandatory for any amendment of this constitution.

Swiss citizens are subject to three legal jurisdictions: the commune, canton and federal levels. The 1848 federal constitution defines a system of direct democracy (sometimes called half-direct or representative direct democracy).

By calling a federal referendum a group of citizens may challenge a law that has been passed by Parliament, if they can gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days. If so, a national vote is scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority whether to accept or reject the law. Eight cantons together can also call a referendum on a federal law. In the past 120 years more than 240 initiatives have been put to referendum. The populace has been conservative, approving only about 10% of the initiatives put before them; in addition, they have often opted for a version of the initiative rewritten by government.

Before Napoleon Switzerland was a very loose confederation of oligarchic states and towns. After 1848 they institutionalized a federation with multiple levels and safeguards, including many checks and balances such as half direct democracy!

The Commonwealth

The Commonwealth of England, was the theoretically republican government which ruled first England and Wales, and then Ireland and Scotland from 1649 to 1660.

The English word commonwealth derives from a direct translation of res publica, and its use in English is closer to how the Romans used the term res publica, than other modern uses of ‘republic’. Some would call this government a "crowned" republican government, but I would simply call it a dictatorship. In Pride's Purge, all MPs (including most of the political Presbyterians) who would not accept the need to bring the King to trial had been removed. Thus the Rump never had more than 200 members (less than half the number in the original Long Parliament). The Rump never faced elections.

Just before and after the execution of King Charles I on January 30, 1649, the Rump passed a number of acts of Parliament creating the legal basis for the republic. With the abolition of the monarchy, Privy Council and the House of Lords, it had unchecked executive, as well as legislative, power. The Council of State, which replaced the Privy Council, took over many of the executive functions of the monarchy. It was selected by the Rump, and most of its members were MPs. Ultimately, however, the Rump depended on the support of the Army with which it had a very uneasy relationship.

Most Rumpers were gentry, though there was a higher proportion of lesser gentry and lawyers than in previous parliaments. Less than one-quarter of them were regicides. This left the Rump basically a conservative body whose vested interests in the existing land ownership and legal systems made them unlikely to want to reform these. There were many disagreements amongst factions of the Rump. Some wanted a republic, but others favoured retaining some type of monarchical government. Limited reforms were enough to antagonise the ruling class but not enough to satisfy the radicals. Most of England's traditional ruling classes regarded the Rump as an illegal government made up of regicides and upstarts. However, they were also aware that the Rump might be all that stood in the way of an outright military dictatorship.

Cromwell, aided by Thomas Harrison, forcibly dismissed the Rump on April 20, 1653. Cromwell established his Protectorate, making himself a king-like figure until the year of his death in 1658. The government during 1653 to 1659 is properly called The Protectorate, and took the form of direct personal rule by Oliver Cromwell and, after his death, his son Richard, as Lord Protector.

On April 4, 1660, Charles II issued the Declaration of Breda, which made known the conditions of his acceptance of the crown of England. Monck organised the Convention Parliament, which met for the first time on April 25. On May 8, it proclaimed that King Charles II had been the lawful monarch since the execution of Charles I in January 1649. Charles returned from exile on May 23. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23 April, 1661.

It would be difficult to describe the Commonwealth as a republic: as it started as a remnant autocracy after a military coup, and finished as a dictatorship. It was replaced by a system that introduced modern concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances. See the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


There have been five republics in the history of France, and one of my old teachers accurately stated that the French national hobby is revolution.

French First Republic (1792-1804) Coup 1799 by Napolean 1st consulate, created Empire 1804.

French Second Republic (1848-1852) Presidential election - the peasants gave over 5,000,000 votes to a name: Napoléon, which stood for order at all costs, against 1,400,000 for the ‘repubican’ Cavaignac. Coup 1851. Created Second Empire.

French Third Republic (1870-1940) Napoleon III was ousted by the German invasion. Monarchists won the election, but Chambord (grandson of Charles X) refused to accept the use of the tricolor, so a temporary republic was installed to wait for his death, and his more liberal heir the Comte e Paris. Unfortunately Chambord didn’t die until 1883, by which time enthusiasm had been lost, so the default republic continued.

It consisted of a mass of unstable short term governments, up to two or three per year by the 1930’s. Adolf Hitler ended it with another German invasion, but effectively many Frenchmen had been saying for years “better Hitler than Blum” (meaning the socialist leader). Marshal Philippe Pétain stated in a radio broadcast that "The regime led the country to ruin" and in another that "Our defeat is punishment for our moral failures", and claimed that France had "rotted" under the Third Republic.

French Fourth Republic (1946-1958). 21 PM’s in 11years. Parliament dissiles itself under threat of a coup for De Gualle

French Fifth Republic (1958 - present) Introduces a proper Executive President, who was originally chosen by electoral college, then there was a referendum for direct election in 1974. It has had only 19 Pm’s in 51 years, but then there was de Gaulle.

I have three comments on the French Republic’s. They were the first to properly attempt equality under representative democracy, and God save us from ever experiencing the same chaos and Terrors. Secondly, that it is a good thing that Charles de Gaulle did not have a son of political bent. Thirdly - European Union… how far from a representative democracy can you go?

United States

The mythical ‘elephant in the room’ is the United States, which first introduced the concept of representative democracy on a large scale. The term was originally developed by James Madison, and notably employed in Federalist Paper No. 10. It was a novel meaning to the term, representative democracy was not an idea mentioned by Machiavelli and did not exist in the classical republics.

The term republic does not appear in the Declaration of Independence, but does appear in Article IV of the Constitution which "guarantee[s] to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government." What exactly the writers of the constitution felt this should mean is uncertain. The Supreme Court, in Luther v. Borden (1849), declared that the definition of republic was a "political question" in which it would not intervene. In two later cases, it did establish a basic definition. In United States v. Cruikshank (1875), the court ruled that the "equal rights of citizens" were inherent to the idea of republic. The opinion of the court from In re Duncan[50] held that the "right of the people to choose their government" is also part of the definition.
This would be informative, if the United States had ever achieved ‘representative democracy’, but unfortunately it hasn’t.

Possibly one of the main attractions to the founding fathers of basing their models on the ancient republics, was the precedent of slavery. The new United States guaranteed equality for all, save of course, yellows, reds, and blacks (or women). This initial constitution was necessary to satisfy the South in relation to keeping slaves, and the North in relation to occupying Indian territory. It was later expanded into the United States’ imperial conquests on the continent and overseas. Unfortunately the phrasing of the Constitution refers to the voters as being the citizens of “these United States”, So American citizens who do not live in a full state do not get to vote.

Puerto Rico for example is an "unincorporated territory" of the United States, which, according to the U.S. Supreme Court's Insular Cases is "a territory appurtenant and belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States." U.S. federal law applies to Puerto Rico, and all federal laws that are "not locally inapplicable" are automatically the law of the land in Puerto Rico.

Contrary to common misconception, residents of Puerto Rico pay some U.S. federal taxes: import/export taxes (think Boston tea party), federal commodity taxes, social security taxes, etc. Most residents do not pay federal income tax but pay federal payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare), and Puerto Rico income taxes. They are also subject to conscription (think ‘no billeting of troops’ carried to huge extremes). If you like a good laugh, check these minor issues against the US constitution and Bill of Rights.

A judge of the US Appellate court recently stated that this meant that the US is not a representative democracy.

Contrary to popular opinion, particularly by Americans themselves, the United States is not and has never been a representative democracy. It has always been an oligarchic democracy, with the franchise restricted initially by race and gender, later by race and imperialism, and is still restricted by imperial leftovers. (One might also note the aristocratic ruling classes within the oligarchy, such as the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, and the Bush’s.)

Fortunately their system of representative democracy does not attempt to be freestanding. It has all the possible checks and balances of federal states, division of powers, and even elements of direct democracy via the States.

Nonetheless the system has not worked particularly well. There have been many attempts to fix the Constitution, starting with getting rid of the ridiculous concept of vice president as leader of the opposition, and wandering to such fantasies as prohibition. Yet, most importantly, there has never been any right in this federal constitution, for states to choose to leave the Federation.

So, despite all the checks and balances, the nation has collapsed into bloodbath, effective dictatorship by Lincoln, and suppression of such basics as habeas corpus and freedom of speech: during the Confederacy War of Independence.

Personally I believe that the United States was lucky to have the Second World War and the Cold War imposed upon it, before the combined effects of the Depression and the issues of race led to another round of state infighting and possible secession. (It has been only 144 years since a ‘Second Republic’ was forcibly imposed on many ‘citizens’ in 1865, and less than 50 years since a full franchise for continental residents ‘Third Republic’. Imperial subjects might yet get a fourth republic, but watch out for those ‘illegal immigrants’.)

Other Modern Republics

So the most common modern definition of a republic is simply a state without a monarch. Unfortunately that covers a lot of oligarchies and dictatorships and hereditary states that call themselves republics.

French Revolutionary Wars saw republics spread by force of arms across much of Europe as a series of client republics were set up across the continent. The rise of Napoleon saw the end of the First French Republic, and many of the oldest republics on the continent, including Venice, Genoa, and the Dutch.

Napoleonic Wars also allowed the states of Latin America to gain their independence. But Creole elites had little interest in giving Natives/Africans power and broad based popular sovereignty. Simón Bolívar, both the main instigator of the revolts and one of its most important theorists: was sympathetic to liberal ideals, but felt that Latin America lacked the social cohesion for such a system to function and advocated autocracy as necessary. Many states set up ‘republics’, by which they meant racial oligarchies like that of the United States. In Mexico this autocracy briefly took the form of a monarchy in the First Mexican Empire, and Brazil gained independence as a monarchy and the Empire of Brazil lasted until 1889. In the other states various forms of autocratic republic existed until most were liberalized at the end of the 20th century.

Spain saw the briefly lived First Spanish Republic, but the monarchy was soon restored. By the start of the 20th century France and Switzerland remained the only republics in Europe. This would change in the aftermath of the First World War when several of the largest empires would collapse, being replaced by new republics. The German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russian Empire, and Ottoman Empire all collapsed and were replaced by a number of mostly short lived republics.

Republican ideas also spread in Asia, with protestant missionaries playing a central role. The liberal and republican writers of the west also exerted influence. These combined with native Confucian inspired political philosophy that had long argued that the populace had the right to reject unjust government that had lost the Mandate of Heaven. Two short-lived republics were proclaimed in East Asia, the Republic of Formosa and the First Philippine Republic. China had seen considerable anti-Qing sentiment, and a number of protest movements developed calling for constitutional monarchy. The most important leader of these efforts was Sun Yat-sen whose Three Principles of the People combined American, European, and Chinese ideas. The Republic of China was proclaimed on January 1, 1912.

After the Second World War, republics really took off, particularly amongst newly independent colonies.

An important question here though, is how many of these Republics were imposed by force? Napoleon, the Peace of Versailles, the White Russian wars, and colonial independence: led to many states being told ‘you will be a republic’, often with quite disastrous results. Many of these states were, and are, hopelessly dysfunctional. (This includes the many colonies people like the French and Americans made into republics, and the many artificial states with impossible boundaries, like Somalia, bodged together in the postwar cleanup.)

Interestingly the British attempted to encourage more individually appropriate setups in various areas, with mixed success. They allowed/encouraged/imposed Pure Monarchy in Jordan and Brunei; Constitutional Monarchy in Iran; Republics in Israel or Ireland; Federations in Malaysia and India; Councils of Chiefs in Fiji and Tonga; etc. Many of these states were however, unready to set up stable governments of their own. Others granted independence were too artificial – Iraq. Worse, some states granted independence often forcibly imposed new republics over their initially federal system - India over the princely states.

Of course there were some republic’s by popular reform, such as Italy and Greece in the post-war world. Whether you could call their governments since a success is debatable.

Scary statistics

Have a look at the very rough figures on types of states that existed in the last century, and their average life expectancy… (Trying to put all ‘republics’ under the same heading is a joke, so clarity on the 109 listed is achieved by categories…)

5 Socialist ‘Republics’ – average life = 47.6 years. Include China, Cuba, North Korea, Lao, Vietnam.

26 former Socialist Republics = 23.6. Include Afghan and Albania, to Yemen and Yugoslavia (Removing Russia and Mongolia from the list means life drops to 18.3.)

8 current socialist (not Marxist) republics = 36.63. Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Libya, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tanzania.

19 Former socialist (non Marxist) - dates for 8 = 20.63. Algeria, Burma, Chile, Guinea, Iraq, Madagascar, Mali, Sudan. Nicaragua, Senegal, Suriname, and Uganda.

23 ‘Ephemerals’ = 1.52. Bavarian Soviet Republic 1919, to Chinese Soviet 31-34, to Turkestan 18-24. (Paris Commune on that list but not included in figures as not 20C).

26 former Communist Republics = 24.5. Albania, Bulgaria, Mozambique, Poland, Yemen, Yugoslavia, etc.

By contrast there are 44 current monarchies, some absolute. Again, figures are hard, because most are very old, and many have redone their constitutions again and again. Apart from Bhutan 2007, and Qatar 2003, several also date from 1970’s…

11 current European monarchies = 139.6 (But only that low because Sweden introduced a new constitution in ’74, and Denmark in ’53, and Spain a new monarchy in ’78. Figures reflecting their real ages as continuous monarchies would be much higher).

Spain is particularly interesting. After decades of corrupt republics and dictators, they re-introduced a new constitutional monarchy; whose King stopped the next military coup cold by reminding the military of the check and balances in the new system. Thye have gone from a basket case to a shining example. (A nice contrast to monarchical Brazil being a shining example, and republican Brazil becoming a basket case.)

Making a choice.

Weather aside, hands up anybody who would prefer to live in the Italian, Portugese or French Republics, versus any Scandinavian Constitutional Monarchy?

What about in the Syrian, Egyptian, Iranian or Iraqi Republics, versus the Kingdoms of Jordan or the United Arab Emirates?

In fact any Islamic Republic, versus any Islamic monarchy (even the absolute monarchies)?

In Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia or Indonesia versus Malaysia, Thailand, or Brunei?

In any British Commonwealth Caribbean country, versus any other Caribbean country?

Consider a list of the two hundred or so republics or democracies established in the last quarter millenium, then write down the ones that have not collapsed in chaos; fallen to dictators; or indulged in bloody civil wars or racial cleansing. The second list will not take long to compile. Neither the United States or France are on it. The countries that are on it - Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other Commonwealth countries; as well as such constitutional monarchies as are common in Scandinavia and parts of Asia: have largely followed Machiavelli’s advice and achieved ‘balance’ in their governments (as has Switzerland, the closest thing to a long term and stable federal style ‘republic’ on any list).


So this leaves the basic problem with Republicanism. The only states which came close to being the Direct democratic republics of popular mythology were the small and exclusive city states of Greece and Rome. The main things they had in common were a very limited body of similar and right thinking, male and property owning citizens, of the right race, who could get together and agree in open assemblies. Oh, and slavery. The only other thing they had in common was eventual collapse into chaos, dictatorship, and foreign conquest.

Modern republics by contrast have attempted to some extent or other to use Representational Democracy to expand the franchise beyond just ‘people like us’. Property franchises have been expanded or abolished, sex franchises expanded, race franchises expanded, age franchises expanded. As a result modern republics have almost universally failed. ‘Consensus’ is rarely achievable by such disparate masses. Unfettered democracy usually leads to bread and circuses corruption, or to dictatorship, or both.

Traditional Republicanism is largely a failed experiment of the Ancient (and modern) slavery based societies. Modern Republicanism is largely the failed Enlightenment concept of unfettered democracy - which has led to the types of gulags and pogroms and terrors and dictatorships, which have made Ghenghis Khan look like a dilettente.

The next article in this series of three looks at the Philosophy of Republics…


  1. This is a brilliant and very useful piece of work. Thank you very much.

  2. I'm curious as to why you didn't include India in your analysis... simply an oversight, I'm sure.

    However, using India as an example, we see a nation comprising 1/6 of the entire global population and boasting the fastest growing economy on earth, at more then 8.5%, and it is already the third largest economy when parity is included in the determining formula.

    Like any nation of such vast diversity of culture and ethnicity, it has had its share of short-falls throughout its 50+ year history as a parlimentary republic, but it has shown itself as a form of government that can overcome difficulties and hazzards far better than most.

    Shouldn't India be given its place as an example of a republican form of representative democracy that has enjoyed a level of success above the average that you have shown in your study of historical examples?

  3. Fair point. I find India a bit of a problem on many fronts, and am still not convinced by how well it will turn out (though I am cautiously optomistic).

    India under the British was a federation of previous Mogul Empire and many independent Princely states. British plans were for it to remain a federation on independence. Political factions in the interwar period (assisted by American ignorance in WWII), meant that instead we got two, then three, separate nations that spent the next thirty years in violence , and are still on the edge of border conflict at the drop of a hat.

    Then the Federation of india, as its first act, took over the Punjab (at the request of its Prince who was Hindu), despite the obvious preference of the population to have a referendum to go with Pakistan. A democracy undermining democracy?

    Its next act was to use the excuse of democracy to undercut the Princely states, and effectively forcibly subject them to more direct federal control. They then introduced what was effectively a communist stye one party state (though with enough holdovers of British style law and precedence that it never quite worked... hope for South Africa yet!)

    Personally I think the rising indian middle class might make Indian democracy work... but there are two issues that concern me. first, the Argentinian approach to distracting unhappy voters... a short victorious war (Falklands). Second, the nationalistic approach of newly empowered middle classes as represented by Victorian Imperialism by the British, French, German and American experiences.

    It will be interesting to see what develops. but I will say that my work at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU concentrated on the Indian search for power. I particularly liked the quote fro tehe head of the Indian navy once they had power projection capabilities: "We will be paying more attention to the internal affairs of our near nieghbours... like Malaysia... and Kenya!

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