Saturday, August 29, 2009

An analysis of Theories and Practices of Republics

Monarchy, the last defence of Liberty – 2: An analysis of Theories and Practices of Republics

(This is the second 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.)

A republic is a form of government in which the head of state is not a monarch and the people (or at least a part of its people) have an impact on its government. The word 'republic' is derived from the Latin phrase res publica which can be translated as "public affairs".

A further set of meanings for the term comes from the Greek word politeia. Cicero, among other Latin writers, translated politeia as res publica and it was in turn translated by Renaissance scholars as republic. This is not a very accurate translation and the term politeia is today usually translated as form of government or regime. Plato's Politeia thus known as The Republic.

The word "democracy" (Greek: δημοκρατια) combines the elements demos (δημος, which means "people") and kratos (κρατος, which means "force" or "power"). In the words "monarchy" and "oligarchy", the second element arche means rule, therefore democracy should be "demarchy". However the word "dematchy" already existed and had the meaning of mayor. So a new term was invented by Athenian democrats.

In Direct democracy, classically termed pure democracy, sovereignty is lodged in the assembly of all citizens who choose to participate.

Direct democracy stands in contrast to representative democracy, where sovereignty is exercised by a subset of the people, usually on the basis of election. Deliberative democracy incorporates elements of both direct democracy and representative democracy. (States that have the option of citizen sponsored referendum, like Switzerland, are considered to have a type of deliberative democracy. Some states in the United States joined that type after racism was removed from their franchise.)
The 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. Machiavelli soon 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 being the important thing, not the franchise). Later writers, decided that aristocracy belonged with monarchy (the hereditary element being the important thing, not the vote).

Unfortunately for both groups of writers, most of the aristocracies and republics they are talking about are in fact oligarchies (with the issue becoming one of perspective of power, not type of franchise). Certainly the vast majority of republics have been limited franchise oligarchies of some sort.

Here is the quick and dirty outline of theoretical developments through the eyes of the great political philosophers…

Theory of a Republic

(469BC to 399BC)

According to Plato, Socrates was strongly opposed to the evils of democratic mob rule, and preferred wise philosopher kings - or at least that was his theoretical ideal. When asked about being such a philosopher king he was said to have replied that he felt he could not himself see into men’s minds. In our terms, he apparently felt that he lacked the ‘wisdom of Solomon’.

Socrates two most telling experiences with mob rule have been used by Plato to vilify democracy. In the first Socrates adjudicated at a trial where the mob wanted to lynch some generals for the crime of losing. Socrates tried to argue for reason and justice, but was overruled by the fury of the mob. (They later apparently recanted, and then attempted a similar judicial lynching of the people who had forced the first trial.) Thereafter the mob turned on Socrates himself for ‘corrupting youth’, and demanded he take poison. (Which he did, despite the outraged arguments of his followers, out of apparent respect for the politeia.)

We are left with a picture of a man who respected the politae as an assembly of citizens, but abhorred mob rule as an evil result. Socrates clearly felt that democracy must be only part of a system where the mob rule could be tempered. Preferably by the reason and justice of some ‘philosopher kings’ that he could never adequately define.

Plato (428BC – 348BC)

Introduced the concept that the class structure of the citizen body corresponded to the appetite/spirit/reason of the soul/ body (an argument carried over into the medieval ‘humours’). There are three elements he claimed:
Productive - abdomen.(Workers or masses.)
Protective - chest.(Warriors or Guardians or social elite.)
Governing - head. (Rulers or Philosopher Kings, a very limited percentage.)

Unfortunately he felt that a state which is made up of different kinds of souls, will inevitably decline from an aristocracy (rule by the best) to a timocracy (rule by the honorable), then to an oligarchy (rule by the few), then to a democracy (rule by the people), and finally to tyranny (rule by one person, rule by a tyrant). (See Machaivelli for an outline.)

Plato believed that the noble ideals of a state were no match for the reality of slow degradation of motives by those who rule – whether individuals or groups.

Aristotle (384BC – 322BC)

Developed the concept that a society (City) is a living organism that constantly changes and evolves (which would appear to us to forecast a somewhat Darwinian approach). He did believe however, that any effective attempt to make a working state must be considered first and foremost a ‘partnership of nobility’.

Again we have someone who theorises an ideal, without being able to convincingly explain how it will work against the ‘inevitable degradation’ proposed by his own teacher.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527)

Emphasised the division between political Realism and political Idealism — thus, The Prince is a manual to acquiring and keeping political power. The Classical ‘ideal’ society is not the aim. (Bringing to mind the joke about later political theorists and economists… “Yes it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”)

The Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (an early history of Rome), is a series of suggestions about how a republic should be started and structured, including the concept of checks and balances, the strength of a tri-partite political structure, and the superiority of a republic over a principality.

Machiavelli is however, centrally concerned with how the noble theory of kingship devolves into tyranny; to be replaced by an idealistic aristocracy which then devolves into autocracy; to be replaced by an idealistic republic which devolves into ‘licentiousness’. At which point the people start hunting for a noble king - or dictator - to provide security. (For examples of the ‘democratic’ masses turning to a strong leader in desperation see Cromwell, Napoleon III, Adolf Hitler, and Charles de Gualle.)

Machiavelli designed the first practical balance of power, by arguing that the elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, should be incorporated into such a structure whereby any two can combine to stop the third becoming too powerful.

This has become the default practical basis of all stable and efficient modern states.

Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

Hobbes adapted some idea from St Thomas Aquinas to create the ‘state of nature’, He pointed out that without government the lives of men are ‘solitary, brutal and short’. His 1651 book Leviathan established what we now call social contract theory.

To escape the state of nature, men accede to a social contract and establish a civil society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede their natural rights for the sake of protection. Essentially the State is a Leviathan composed of men, with a life that might be traced from its “generation under pressure of human needs to its dissolution through civil strife proceeding from human passions”.

To make the state work (according to a man who had just gone through the English Civil War), the doctrine of separation of powers should be rejected. The sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. However, he also states that in severe cases of abuse, rebellion is expected.

Hobbes therefore accepts that states are an exercise in nobility, but cannot see beyond their inevitable devolution. His solution is essentially an absolute monarchy, hopefully kept on the straight and narrow of purity of purpose by the threat of rebellion if (or when) injustice becomes unbearable.

For all the elegance of the logic behind his argument for government as an escape from a ‘state of nature’; his exile with the Royalists after the civil war might be said to have biased his proposed solution excessively

John Locke (1632 – 1704)

Locke's political theory was founded on his own version of social contract theory. Based on reason and tolerance, and with a natural right to defend their “life, health, liberty, or possessions”: people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from a government.

Locke however did advocate governmental separation of powers; and believed that revolution is not only a right, but also an obligation in some circumstances.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689 – 1755)

Montesquieu repeated Plato and Machiavelli in dividing French society into three classes (or trias politica, a term he coined): the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons.

Montesquieu’s breakthrough was to see two types of governmental power existing: the sovereign and the administrative. The administrative powers were the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. These should be separate from and dependent upon each other so that the influence of any one power would not be able to exceed that of the other two, either singly or in combination. He thus adapted Machiavelli, to try and make them work together in a state.

He identified 3 social ‘principles’: monarchies (free governments with hereditary) which rely on the principle of honor;
republics (free governments popularly elected leaders), which rely on the principle of virtue; and despotisms (enslaved governments headed by dictators), which rely on fear.

Montesquieu emphasises that the free governments are dependent on extremely fragile constitutional arrangements. He therefore devotes four chapters of The Spirit of the Laws to a discussion of England, a contemporary free government, where liberty was sustained by a balance of powers.

He firmly accepted the role of a hereditary aristocracy and the value of primogeniture, as valuable to constitutional security. (Though a byproduct of his seperation of sovereignty from executive was that while he endorsed the idea that a woman could head a government, he held that she could not be effective as the head of a family!)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778)

In Rousseau's philosophy, society's negative influence on men centers on its transformation of amour de soi, a positive self-love, into amour-propre, or pride.

He started from the state of nature, and concluded that the division of labor and need for private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. He felt that a man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men while at the same time becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom. Only by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, can individuals both preserve themselves and remain free.

He believed that sovereignty (or the power to make the laws) should be in the hands of the people, thus expressing the ‘general will’. The notion of the ‘general will’ is central to Rousseau's theory of political legitimacy, but it is an unfortunately obscure and controversial notion. Some commentators see it as no more than the dictatorship of the proletariat or the tyranny of the urban poor. This was not Rousseau's meaning, as he emphasises that the general will exists to protect individuals against the mass, not to require them to be sacrificed to it.

Rousseau was opposed to the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a representative assembly. Instead he desired the sort of city state, of which Geneva was a model. He too made a sharp distinction between the sovereign and the government. The government is composed of magistrates, charged with implementing and enforcing the general will. The "sovereign" is the rule of law, ideally decided on by direct democracy in an assembly.

Rousseau and Montesquieu did praise republics, and looked on the city-states of Greece as a model, but both also felt that a nation-state like France, with 20 million people, would be impossible to govern as a republic. Rousseau described his ideal political structure of small self governing communes. Montesquieu felt that a city-state should ideally be a republic, but maintained that a limited monarchy was better suited to a large nation.

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809)

One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Paine was born in England and lived and worked there until age 37, when he emigrated to the British American colonies. His pamphlet Common Sense (1776), advocated colonial America's independence, and later he influenced the French Revolution. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791), a guide to Enlightenment ideas.

It is notable that Paine was not expressing original ideas in Common Sense, but rather employing rhetoric as a means to arouse resentment of the Crown. Much of what he wrote was received with derision. The Loyalist James Chalmers said, Paine was a political quack; and warned that without monarchy, the government would "degenerate into democracy". Even John Adams called it a "crapulous mass." Adams disagreed with the type of radical democracy promoted by Paine, and published Thoughts on Government in 1776 to advocate a more conservative approach to republicanism.

Possibly the most valuable statement we get from Paine is Of the Rights of Man: “there never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity through the ‘end of time’.”

In reality Paine was a political propagandist rather than a serious philosopher. But he did a great service in stating firmly that an overly idealized state was dangerous, at a time when the first attempts at wide franchise republics were being overoptimistically designed. It is notable that the far more experienced (in British style representative democracy), and educated (in both historical samples and practical experience of local government) American politicians, took heed of his warning more effectively than the relatively ignorant, inexperienced, and idealistic French.

>John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

Mill believed that the right to liberty justified freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. Unfortunately he was also an exponent of utilitarianism, which, in its fantasy of ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’, comes perilously close to ‘tyranny of the masses’.

Mill believed that there is an eternal struggle between Liberty and Authority. For him, liberty is a “contest... between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the government." Mill defined "social liberty" as protection from "the tyranny of political rulers." He introduces a number of different tyrannies, including social tyranny, and also – amusingly - the tyranny of the majority.

Mill is a return to the idealists, and his support for Utilitarianism makes his desire for Liberty a highly unlikely practical outcome (though it certainly reinforce his concept of an eternal struggle!). He did however add to our understanding of the weaknesses of mob rule, social tyranny, and un-circumscribed democracy in general.

There have been dozens of theorists since then, but few have added anything significant to the outline of the debate on how a republic should work (as distinct to endless prattle about the nobility of the ideal). The entire Marxist movement can be written off for instance: both by its practical results, and by the inevitable contradictions of such a phrase as ‘the dictatorship of the proleteriat’. In fact the many attempts at a new viewpoint in the last century or more are generally verbose, tedious, and largely unrewarding. One of the more recent writers who could be considered representative is Rawls (who is all three).

John Rawls (1921 - 2002)

Rawls is a ‘modern’ theorist, who tries to balance concepts of good government with individual rights, while simultaneously attempting a bit of socialist idealism in promoting ‘equality’ for those who aren’t. Despite and enormously complex set of theories and principles and qualifications, he fails to convince. Nonetheless he does define the underlying problem elegantly (which unfortunately simply emphasises the failure of modern philosophers and political thinkers to advance much beyond the limitations of Paine and Mill).

“Liberty can always be explained by reference to three items: the agents who are free, the restrictions or limitations which they are free from, and what it is that they are free to do or not do. The general description of liberty then, has the following form: this or that person is free from this or that constraint to do so and so.”

The distinction Rawls – like so many others – fails to adequately address (despite hundreds of pages of attempting to do so), is how individual liberty can be protected under any system.


So here is a quick and highly simplistic summary of the breakthrough concepts each philosopher made, and the qualifications they identified on their practicality…

Name - Innovatin - Qualification
Socrates - Logic and Justice - Philosopher Kings
Plato - Caste Inequality - Impossible ideal
Aristotle - Living Organism - Flux
Machiavelli- Realistic balance- Inherently unstable
Hobbes - Social Contract - Centralism = corruption = collapse
Locke- Separation of Powers - Necessity of Revolution
Montesquieu - Sovereign vs Admin - Free = unstable
Rousseou - Individual rights - Sacrificing rights
Mill - Contest btwn liberty & authority - Tyranny of the majority

So let us look at the application of the theoretical alternatives in modern states.

The following paragraphs have largely been quoted directly from various entries on Wikipedia.

A: Types of Democracy

A representative democracy that emphasizes individual liberties is called a liberal democracy. One that does not is an illiberal democracy. There is no necessity that individual liberties are respected in a representative democracy.

Today, in liberal democracies, representatives are usually elected in multi-party elections that are free and fair. The power of representatives in a liberal democracy is usually curtailed by a constitution (as in a constitutional republic or a constitutional monarchy) or other measures to balance representative power:
An independent judiciary, which may have the power to declare legislative acts unconstitutional (e.g. constitutional court, supreme court)
It may also provide for some deliberative democracy (e.g., Royal Commissions) or direct popular measures (e.g., initiative, referendum, recall elections). However, these are not always binding and usually require some legislative action - legal power usually remains firmly with representatives[where?].
In some cases, a bicameral legislature may have an "upper house" that is not directly elected, such as the Canadian Senate, which was in turn modeled on the British House of Lords.

(Note, most republics have not been democracies, and many still aren’t).

B: Types of Republics (and Presidential Systems)

The term republic may have many different meanings. Today, it often simply means a state with an elected or otherwise non-monarchical head of state, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or Republic of Korea. It may also have a meaning similar to liberal democracy. For example, "the United States relies on representative democracy, but its system of government is much more complex than that. It is not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered by minority rights protected by law".

If the head of state of a republic is also the head of government, this is called a presidential system. There are a number of forms of presidential government.

A full-presidential system has a president with substantial authority and a central political role. The United States was the first.
In other states the legislature is dominant and the president's role is almost purely ceremonial and apolitical, such as in Germany and India. These states are parliamentary republics and operate similarly to constitutional monarchies with parliamentary systems where the power of the monarch is also greatly circumscribed.

In parliamentary systems the head of government, most often titled prime minister, exercises the most real political power.
Semi-presidential systems have a president as an active head of state, but also have a head of government with important powers.

The rules for appointing the president and the leader of the government, in some republics permit the appointment of a president and a prime minister who have opposing political convictions: in France, when the members of the ruling cabinet and the president come from opposing political factions, this situation is called cohabitation.

In some countries, like Switzerland and San Marino, the head of state is not a single person but a committee (council) of several persons holding that office. The Roman Republic had two consuls, appointed for a year.

In liberal democracies presidents are elected, either directly by the people or indirectly by a parliament or council. Typically in presidential and semi-presidential systems the president is directly elected by the people, or is de facto directly elected such as in the United States. In that country the president is officially elected by the electoral college, but by convention the college directly reflects the results of the presidential election. Direct election confers legitimacy upon the president and gives the office much of its political power. In states with a parliamentary system the president is usually elected by the parliament. This indirect elections subordinates the president to the parliament, and also gives the president limited legitimacy and turns most presidential powers into reserve powers that can only be exercised under rare circumstance. There are exceptions where elected presidents have only ceremonial powers, such as in the Republic of Ireland.

C: Variations

Without other qualifier than the term Republic — for example France and Turkey.
Parliamentary republic — a republic with an elected Head of state, but where the Head of state and Head of government are kept separate
Federal republic, confederation or federation — a federal union of states or provinces with a republican form of government. Examples include Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Germany, India, Russia and Switzerland.
Islamic Republic — Countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran are republics governed in accordance with Islamic law.
Arab Republic — for example, Syria its name reflecting its theoretically pan-Arab Ba'athist government.
People's Republic — Countries like China, North Korea
Democratic Republic —German Democratic Republic (no longer in existence) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) — Both words (English and Polish) are derived from the Latin word res publica (literally "common affairs"). Used for both the current Republic of Poland, and the old Nobility Commonwealth. Apart from the Polish term, it should be noted that some subnational entities with republican governments (e.g. Virginia and Puerto Rico), as well as some sovereign monarchies (e.g. Australia and The Bahamas), also style themselves "commonwealths."
Free state — Irish transitional
Venezuela has been using, since the adoption of the 1999 constitution, the title of Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Other modifiers are rooted in tradition and history and usually have no real political meaning. San Marino, for instance, is the "Most Serene Republic" while Uruguay is "República Oriental", which implies it lies on the eastern bank of the Uruguay River.

D: Ambiguities

The distinction between a republic and a monarchy are not always clear. The constitutional monarchies of the former British Empire and Western Europe today have almost all real political power vested in the elected representatives, with the monarchs only holding theoretical and rarely used reserve powers. Real legitimacy for political decisions comes from the elected representatives and is derived from the will of the people. While hereditary monarchies remain in place, political power is derived from the people as in a republic. These states are thus sometimes referred to as crowned republics.

There are also elective monarchy - Malaysia where the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is elected every five years by the Conference of Rulers composed of the nine hereditary rulers of the Malay states. While rare today, elective monarchs were common in the past. The Holy Roman Empire is an important example, where each new emperor was chosen by a group of electors. Islamic states also rarely employed primogeniture instead relying on various forms of election to chose a monarchs successor.

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth for instance had an elective monarchy, with a wide suffrage of some 500,000 nobles. The system, known as the Golden Liberty, called their elective monarchy a rzeczpospolita, based on res publica. An amusing example of an oligarchic republic that was also an elected monrchy!


The theory and practice of republics has not yet managed to reconcile into a ‘pure’ or stable system, and the last century or two of theorists have been unable to find any practical ways around the problems. I would suggest we have plenty of evidence to show that a perfect Democratic Republic is about as realistic as a Soviet Socialist utopia.

The next article in this series of three looks at the alternative system which has actually worked, a Constitutional Monarchy…

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…

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Interactive Whiteboards for Technophobes


A presentation for the History Teachers Association of Australia conference (July 2009) by Nigel Davies of Medieval Education.

The first thing I ask when talking to a new group of teachers, is how many schools have interactive whiteboards? I then ask them to keep their hand up if they have regular access to these board’s, and then to keep it up if they feel that they have had adequate access to training. I usually get about 70 or 80% response to the first question, dropping to 40% of the second question, and finishing with less than 10% for the third question. In fact my staff were recently presenting at the school which had an entire wing of interactive whiteboards, but when we got students up to actually use them hands on they were amazed because their teachers had only ever use them as data projectors.

One of the reasons there has not been better take-up of this new technology in the classroom is that teachers are frightened of looking like a fool in front of their much more technologically literate students. In fact, this is missing part of the point of these new tools. Teachers should be willing to go into the classroom and ask the students to help them explore the new toys. I can pretty much guarantee students will be keen to play.

The starting point is to be able to put together two or three simple pages that add value to a lesson. Note, I’m specifically not suggesting that the interactive whiteboard be the entire lesson. Instead, I suggest that you use the interactive whiteboard to engage students in the lesson, and to assess their understanding of it.

My preference when you start is always to choose a topic that you know well, preferably with video clips or props that you have used before. That way you know what you are teaching and you know what information you want the students to get back from the lesson. So the use of the interactive whiteboard becomes simply an issue of designing a couple of pages to measure whether the students understand that information.

Measuring responses does not involve complex design on an interactive whiteboard. Usually it involves a simple set of multiple choice questions that can be ticked or crossed; or a simple graph that students can add points or lines to; or a simple map that students can add written or drawn information to; or a timeline that people can move dates around on; or any other form of feedback device where our students can take turns to make choices that the rest of the class then gets to vote on and discuss. In practical terms, a teacher is ready to use interactive whiteboard technology when they know how to add some lines or dots or dates to a page. Nothing more complex than that is required.

The sample that I give below is taken from one of our popular topics called “A Woman’s Place in Western History”. After giving the students a brief discussion about the various categories of subjection or equality, I present some with a grid where they can take turns trying to decide how women’s status changed over the centuries. Usually I pick a ‘volunteer’ - often the person who seems to be paying least attention - and asked them to move one dot. I then get the class to vote on who agrees, and ask some of those people to give reasons why; followed by who disagrees, with more reasons. Sometimes I go as far as adjusting the dot upwards or downwards by having people drop their hands when they think is that the correct point.
Usually if I give them a grid that looks like A (below) to start with…


They give me back agreed that looks like B...


Of course the sub point of my topic here, is to try and convince students that history is not linear. So after they had agreed on something that approaches a straight line, I move on to demonstrating a more accurate (if somewhat simplified) perception of how history really developed for women in Europe - C:


The rest of the lesson can then develop around whatever evidence I wish them to absorb. I like to include some video clips, or props, or reference to websites or photocopied texts.

Naturally I remove the above screen before we break into discussion groups and then get them to try and reconstruct it at the end of the session, with each group having to give a reason for where they put the dot for their period.

You will notice that my preparation time for this lesson was to grab a graph from the resources available on any interactive whiteboard, add a dozen dates and descriptive words, and copy eight little red dots. I then copy the screen three times. The first page is A, for them to adjust as seen in example B; the second I’ve pre-adjust to look like C; and the third is a repeat of the A, to see how they rebuild it at the end of the class.

This use of interactive whiteboard is not technically difficult. It takes very little time or skill to put together screens such as this to back up a good existing lesson plan. What it does do, is make a great difference to the attention, and retention, of the class.
More students, with more learning styles, are willing to have a go when you use an interactive whiteboard. More importantly, “volunteers” can be dragged out from the less attentive students, with less emotional stress than in a normal classroom environment. Most importantly, using a simple technique like this - and lots of voting - will let you know during the lesson whether the point has been understood. You will not need to do follow-up lessons, set tests, or spend time doing marking. You find out that there and then whether you are had an effective lesson, and you fix it on the spot if necessary.

Of course this is only a starting point. High end users hardly ever use the proprietary software, having moved on to having students assemble online resources to answer whatever issues arise in class. But baby steps…

Properly used, interactive whiteboards are easy, fun, save time, and make a teacher’s life much, much, simpler.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

More oversimplification: the numbers fallacy of production and propaganda in World War II.

One of my weaknesses in overseas travel, is a number of times that I frequent secondhand bookshops. As usual I came back from my last trip to the UK, with two thirds of my luggage full with textbooks, reference books, and biographies.

As I work through some of these reference books, I am again stunned at how badly people tend to interpret the facts. I have commented on this previously in my discussion of oversimplification of forces, and in my discussion of oversimplification of historians viewpoints. So here I will give a few more examples from the statistical perspective, both from the production numbers issue, and from the value of propaganda fantasy.

WARNING: much of what follows is statistical pedantry (making too much of my areas of expertise)… skip to the CONCLUSION if necessary…

Left us start with the issue of tanks from the perspective of propaganda. More rubbish has been written about who had the best tanks during the Second World War than about any other topic to do with that war. Again and again you get supposedly serious historians talking about how the Germans started the Second World War with overwhelming tank superiority; that the allies were only brought back into the race by the arrival of the Sherman tank; and how German technology leapt ahead again at the end of the Second World War to give them unrivalled vehicles. All these statements are of course completely incorrect.

The best tank in the world in 1939 was the French Somua 35 (closely followed by the French CharB). These tanks were, for the period, the best armed, armoured, and most mechanically reliable vehicles available. They repeatedly demonstrated their complete invulnerability to the standard German tank and anti-tank guns, and were often able to destroy large numbers of German tanks, before eventually being themselves destroyed by hastily deployed German heavy artillery or anti-aircraft guns. There are records of single French tanks taking over 130 hits from German anti-tank guns, while blithely cruising around destroying German tanks, vehicles, and guns.

The main fault to be had with the French tanks however, was their one-man turret. It may have had a 47 mm gun capable of knocking out any German tank of the period, but it meant that the tank commander had responsibility for loading, aiming, and firing, as well as directing his own tank, and those of the other units in his squadron. Given that far too few tanks had radio, the magnificent equipment was always left down by command and control techniques.

Fortunately for the allies, the best tank of 1940 was the British Matilda II. Not only did it have armour invulnerable to any German gun except their heavy anti-aircraft artillery - the famous 88 mm - it also had a 40 mm gun capable of defeating any German tank of the period, and the magnificent advantage of a three-man turret with proper radio facilities. Unfortunately for the allies, there were only a few dozen of these available in northern France. Not nearly enough to turn the tide. They did however have the crucial effect of scaring the German divisional commander (one Erwin Rommel) into pulling back and re-fortifying his position rather than advancing after the Arras counter-attack; and an equally stellar affect on the German high command who froze Panzer operations for a few crucial days to let infantry catch up, and then refused permission for the Panzers to be wasted in the tax on the evacuating British and French forces at Dunkirk.

A minor sidelight here. I have always had trouble with history books, or indeed with graduates of various army training schools, who hold that Hitler should have allowed his tanks to roll over the Allies at Dunkirk. They manage to ignore several important details. The German blitzkrieg worked against second-rate troops, and only became a rout when they found their way into rear at areas with inadequate lines of defence. The German tanks facing the more professional Allied forces in Belgium were beaten off time and again with significant casualties. The idea that the Germans would have been effective in attacking the cream of the Allied forces, well-equipped with artillery, anti-tank guns, and tanks, in what would effectively become street fighting (the worst possible offensive terrain for tanks), is highly dubious. The fact that most of the German tanks had just completed several hundred kilometers of fast movement and now needed major maintenance was also an issue. As was Hitler’s quite sensible belief that it was more important to redeploy them to finish off France, than to waste them against desperate men in a fortified port.

The Matilda and its successor the Valentine would probably still the best Allied tanks in the world in early 1941, when they swept Italian forces before them, and several times fought the German African corps to a standstill. The German response to their shocking failures in 1940, had been to upgrade the Panzer III and IV with slightly improved armour, and the long barreled 50 mm gun. But they were still on a losing wicket engaging the British infantry tanks in any sort of close terrain, such as in the siege of Tobruk. Fortunately for Rommel, out in the open terrain of the desert he could deploy his tanks behind screens of high-powered anti- tank guns, which the British tanks lacked the long-range high explosive shells to engage effectively.

This is where the myth of the value of the Sherman tank comes from. The Sherman arrived at a time when it’s armour and weapon were on a par with the Panzer III and IV tanks that it was facing. Despite the fact that its 75 mm gun was greatly inferior as an anti-tank weapon to the new British six pounder guns that were starting to equip British tanks, the high explosive shell that the Sherman could fire was incredibly useful for engaging Rommel’s 88 mm guns at long-distance in the flat desert terrain.

For several months, it seemed as though the mechanically reliable Sherman would be a war winner, despite its notable tendency to explode in flames whenever it was hit. (Allied troops refer to it as a Ronson - “lights first time every time”. German troops just referred to it as a “Tommy Cooker”.) But this concept was fantasy, which could be easily demonstrated within a few months, though it took the US government another two years to admit it.

In the Tunisia campaigns, Sherman’s came up against the Tiger tank (a response to the brilliant Russian T34), which was almost completely invulnerable to their 75 mm guns. (The British were very grateful that their more efficient six pounder anti-tank weapons were being reinforced by the magnificent new 17 pounder anti-tank weapons which could deal with these monsters.) Nonetheless American authorities learnt nothing from this campaign. (To be fair the British were also working on the assumption that a six pounder anti-tank gun would be adequate tank armament to see out the war at this point.) However the Italian campaign revealed conclusively that shorter range engagements against more heavily armed and armoured vehicles made the Sherman completely obsolete. Even the much more heavily armoured British Churchill, with it’s astonishing cross country ability and acceptable 6 pounder was not adequate.

The British response was immediate, not only designing and manufacturing 17 pounder version of the Cromwell from scratch in time to have some available for the D-Day landings; but also developing a version of the Sherman that carried the 17 pounder gun. This latter was offered to the Americans, along with all the other ‘funnies’ that Percy Hobart had designed for the campaign, but again American military authorities - particularly General Omar Bradley - felt that none of this was necessary. (See casualties at Omaha compared to British/Canadian landings. For the rest of the war the Americans had to borrow British ‘funnies’ for assault operations.)

The campaigning Normandy showed even more thoroughly how ineffective the standard Sherman was as an assault tank, but still American authorities insisted that swapping from a 75 mm to a 76 mm gun would be enough to see out the war. The new gun was significantly better, giving the Americans and the equivalent anti-tank firepower to the British six pounder (which had been recognized as being insufficient for two years in British service) or the Russian 85mm. However the weapon was nowhere near as efficient as the 17 pounder which the British now head in more than half their tanks and self-propelled anti-tank guns. In the last days of the war, both the Americans and British rushed the new models to the front line. The American Pershing heavy tank had a very good 90 mm gun, and much better armour. It also unfortunately, had the same engine as the Sherman for much greater weight, so was as slow and difficult to manoeuvre as many of the underpowered German heavy tanks. By contrast to the British were moving the first of their Centurion tanks to the front line even as the war finished. The Centurion had an unrivalled balance of armour, gun, and manoeuvrability. Whereas the Pershing had a service life of only a few years, the Centurion is still in front-line service with several nations in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, including Israel which has used them in many wars. (The South Africans have just announced yet another upgrade to keep the Centurion at battle standards).

So, in contrast to what many history books and documentaries will tell you, the French had the best tanks in 1939, and the British had the best tanks of 1940 and 1945. Also in contrast to what many history books will tell you, the Shermans effective front-line role can best be defined as the few months between the battle of Alamein, and the arrival of Tiger tanks in Tunisia. All attempts to use it after that in Italy or northern France just demonstrated how pathetic it was in modern engagements. Even the British version with the 17 pounder, was extremely vulnerable to any German tank. In fact it is amusing to note, that they came into their own for the blitzkrieg across open country in pursuit of the defeated German armies across France; which has a direct parallel to the inferior German tanks pursuing the defeated French in 1940. (The equally inadequate British Cromwell tanks, being significantly faster, were actually still better at this pursuit than the Shermans.)

Having compared these facts to the perceptions of the situation offered by a dozen major textbooks, and half a dozen serious documentaries, I came out baffled by the predominance of propaganda perception over reality. But the research exercise revealed an even more peculiar fact to me. Statistics of production.

It has long been clear, that many of the fanciful production statistics provided by some nations are not particularly useful resources. I remember when I was working as a research assistant for the, now professor Joan Beaumont, being impressed by her discussion of lend lease statistics in her PhD thesis. She demonstrated fairly accurately, that much of the inflated American production statistics to meet President Roosevelt’s fanciful promises, was achieved by the simple expedient of producing thousands of obsolete aircraft to be crated and put into storage. Thousands, possibly 10s of thousands, of Buffalo or Tomahawk or Airacobra fighters, and equally as many obsolete bombers, were kept in productions for no particular purpose other than propaganda. These aircraft had proved unacceptable in front-line service, and not even the Russians could be convinced to take them for lend lease. It gives one call to look with great suspicion on Russian production statistics (which is not my area expertise). Nor are Axis statistics to be taken much more seriously. The Germans apparently produced more than 40,000 fighters in 1944, but there is no sign that the allies shot down, or found on the ground, anywhere near those numbers. Airframes and engines maybe, complete aircraft… no.

Possibly the most interesting statistics I identified relating to tanks, is the description that the British produced six Centurion tanks before the end of the war, compared to the American description of producing 2202 Pershings in 1945. In reality the British had six tanks near the front line before the end of the war in Europe, compared to the American 20 Pershings near the front line (three of them destroyed in combat). Nowhere are the British figures on how many they produced before the end of the war in Asia, let alone by the end of 1945. But American statistics run to warehoused tanks built months after the war ended. It shows a marked difference in perspective on how you run statistics.

So I did quick comparison with another manageably small control group, aircraft carriers. A typical seventies textbook (an H. P. Willmott someone referenced in most more recent books) states that at the end of the war “the Americans had 20 fleet carriers, eight light carriers, and 71 Escort carriers… and another 21 building, all but two of which were fleet carriers… by comparison of the Royal Navy possessed seven fleet carriers, five light carriers, 38 escort carriers.” Whereas the American total from this appears to be 99 in service, and 21 building; the British total appears to be 50. In fact the British had 75 in service at the end of the European war, and at least as many building as the Americans. Figures seem to be a little bit peculiar. For instance the American Commencement Bay class of escort carriers does not fit either statement, as, by the end of the war, they had 10 in commission (though mostly not in action), nine others launched, and one still to be launched. It appears that the nine launched but not commissioned must be included in the totals, but this does not compare with British numbers which seemed to based on commission, with no account of launched, or indeed in reserve.

In fact if you delete all the obsolescent escort carriers, and the older pre-war ships, and concentrate on modern heavy or light fleet carriers, it is hard to see how the comparative numbers face reality. At the end of the Pacific War, the Essex class for instance had 16 in commission, compared to the 20 launched or 24 laid down. Whereas to the end of the Pacific War the British light carriers actually had six in commission, compared to 14 launched and 15 laid down. The American figure of 20 under construction must include not just the remainder of the Essex class that was actually finished, but the other eight that were ordered and not finished; as well as the three Midway class finished well after the war. So comparative statistics for the British should at least include the extra 10 light carriers (Colossus and Majestic classes) already launched (after all the Americans include that category in their active total), as well as the half dozen Centaur class light carriers, or Audacious class fleet carriers completed later; and presumably even the other two Eagle and four Malta class fleet carriers ordered but never finished.


The truth is of course, that this playing with statistics means nothing very useful. But the warning to serious historians, or even amateur readers (in which class I included many graduates of military academies), is that making generalized statements based on statistics which are not comparable is an exercise in futility. If British statistics only include those units that reached the front line; while American statistics include units still under construction or stacked in warehouses; and German and Russian statistics seem to include fantasy numbers - often based on air frames or engines rather than completed aircraf – if on anything at all: then one must be extremely careful at how those statistics are used to the comparisons.

This becomes even more important when the statistics are ignored, to give a fantasy view of the propaganda value of equipment. German tanks for instance were extremely good at blitzkrieg in 1940 after brushing aside a weak defences, but completely incapable of facing Allied tanks or anti-tank guns in any concentration (or indeed one-on-one). The Sherman tank was an extremely valuable piece of equipment for six months in the Western desert, and a death trap anywhere else in North Africa or Europe (or indeed one-on-one).

Statistics are almost always questionable. Bad use of statistics is always a trap. Bad propaganda conclusions, from ignorant use of bad statistics: is unforgivable. But how many textbooks fall into the trap?