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tenets of republicanismOne may find four fundamental tenets to republicanism rightly understood. First, for a society to be effective, men must behave virtuously. Second, men must use the gifts that nature or God has bestowed upon them. Typically, republican thinkers believed the best economic activity for man was agricultural. Third, republicans must be independent and armed, willing to defend one’s family, beliefs, and community without hesitation and at a moment’s notice. Fourth, republicans fear power and prevent its accumulation through the delicate process of balance.

Tenet One: Virtue

The first fundamental tenet of republicanism, regarding virtue, is the most difficult for modern minds to grasp, as it is far from removed from our everyday cynical reality. Virtue, according to the ancients, involved duty, loyalty, mercy, justice, and, ultimately, being willing to lay down one’s life for one’s beliefs, the greatest of all sacrifices. Plato defined virtue as “conformity to a standard of morality.” The Roman Stoic and senator, Cicero wrote in his On Duties, that one “must believe that it is characteristic of a strong and heroic mind to consider trivial what most people think glorious and attractive, and to despise those things with unshakable, inflexible discipline.” Furthermore, he wrote, one must “endure reverses that seem bitter” and “to endure them so that you depart not one inch from your basic nature, not a jot from a wise man’s self respect.”[1]

As historian J.G.A. Pocock has written, this line of reasoning regarding virtue and republicanism continued through the great English Whigs of the Glorious Revolution. Thinkers such as Harrington and Sidney were far more concerned with virtue than commerce, seeing the latter as potentially harmful to community.[2] Thomas Jefferson also noted the need for virtue. In the Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote unequivocally that virtue “is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour.”[3]

It was Bernard Mandeville, Adam Smith, and, especially, Edmund Burke (1795 essay on scarcity) who understood that commerce and virtue were not incompatible. Like all true commonwealthmen, Mandeville, Smith, and Burke recognized that man is fallible. One can neither reshape nor redesign him. Man is a “very irrational and fallible being,” their twentieth-century disciple, Friedrich Hayek, wrote, “whose individual errors are correct only in the course of the social process, and which aims at making the best of a very imperfect material.”[4] The market process, and, consequently, the social process help attenuate the problems man’s inherent laziness cause. The system of private property rewards virtue and punishes vice. As an additional advantage, private property also, as Edmund Burke argued, reconciled “conflicting interests without giving one group power to make their views and interests always prevail over those of others.”[5]

Tenet Two: Property

The second fundamental tenet of republicanism is respect for property. Property can manifest itself in two essential ways: first, as creative, personal property; and second, as landed property. Federalist John Marshall affirmed a third type of property in the American tradition, abstract property such as banks and corporations.

The first type of property, creative and personal, is unique to each individual and comes directly from God or from nature, depending on one’s theological perspective. Each individual has unique traits and gifts. These may come from the mind or the hands of the individual. But, whether the creative result of one’s mind and hands is something tangible or merely an idea, it belong solely to its creator. Aristotle called this one’s teleology, or purpose. We have a moral duty, therefore, as well as a right to pursue our gifts and use them for ourselves as well as for the community.[6] We may never discover all of our gifts in our short lifetimes, but the journey is more important than the goal, our pursuit of happiness, as Thomas Jefferson put it, not happiness itself.[7]

St. Paul offered the best argument from the early Christian tradition for teleology and the moral duty to pursue one’s gifts in chapter twelve of his letter to the Romans. “For just as in a single human body there are many limbs and organs, all with different functions,” St. Paul wrote, “so all of us, united with Christ, form one body, serving individually as limbs and organs to one another.” Gifts such as teaching or speaking “differ as they are allotted to us by God’s grace, and must be exercised accordingly.”[8] The medieval Scholastics aptly labeled this “the economy of grace.”

Burke took this even further, arguing that men found their real personhood as sub-creators, or artists, made in the image of the Creator.[9] It is through art that one discovers his morality and goodness, tempering one’s fallen nature. Burke stated it simply: “Art is man’s nature.” Our moral imagination, rather than our passions, should rule in a commonwealth.[10]

Hayek also dealt extensively with this definition of property, noting that while “each man knows his interests best,” one’s gifts should be used in community, where reason is “tested and corrected by others.”[11] This agrees with Aristotle’s belief that “man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis.” That is, man must teleologically use his gifts within community to make render them meaningful.[12]

The second form of property is landed property. For republicans, from the ancient Hebrews to the Greeks to the Romans through the southern agrarians of America, landed property meant a life in agriculture. One of God’s earliest commands to man in the Pentateuch is to subdue the earth and have dominion over it.[13] Rising in the morning and settling down in the evening with the sun, according to republicanism, is virtuous. As a farmer, one works daily with life and death. In other words, one attunes oneself to the created order, to nature’s law.[14]

In the American experience, Thomas Jefferson probably expressed this best. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people,” Jefferson wrote in his 1785 polemic, Notes on the State of Virginia, “whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”[15] Farmers, by their very nature, are independent, able to fend for themselves, even in troubled times. They do not seek the assistance of government, but have cultivated a sense of self-reliance.[16]

For Jefferson, the American frontier offered a unique opportunity for republican salvation. He called American westward expansion, with no small amount of irony, his “Empire for Liberty.” This entailed the peaceable march of westering persons, miscegenation between whites and Indians, and republics made up of independent yeoman farmers. His greatest accomplishments were the Land Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, which partitioned the land into 160-acre plots, defined the mechanics necessary for a state to become a republic, forbade slavery north of the Ohio River, and demanded peaceful relations between Indians and whites. The two land ordinances remain the most republican laws in the history of the United States and two of the most important in the history of the world. The unconstitutional removal of the eastern Indians to Kansas and Oklahoma in the 1830s, and the advent of “Manifest Destiny” and the waging of the Mexican War in the 1840s ruthlessly adulterated Jefferson’s vision. Frontier settlement became imperial expansion, based on nationalism, greed, and brute conquest.[17]

The third form of property is intangible property, the type that holds together corporations and banks, those entities that exist primarily on paper. In the American experience of republicanism, it was Federalist Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall who challenged those who took Locke literally that one must mix his “hands with the soil” to make it real property. Heavily influenced by Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Common Law scholar William Blackstone, Chief Justice Marshall argued in a number of very important cases that property need not be tangible, but may merely exist in the minds of persons or on paper.[18]

Tenet Three: The Right to Defend

The third fundamental tenet of republicanism is the right to defend one’s self, family, faith, and beliefs at a moment’s notice. James Harrington described the ultimate republican in this fashion in his 1656 utopian novel, Commonwealth of Oceana. The most effective reification of this idea came from the minute men in the American Revolution. As many scholars have noted, it was the militias, not Washington’s army, that ultimately convinced the British they could not win the war. Militias could arise anywhere, anytime, and disappear just as quickly.

Defending home turf, the American farmers fought swiftly, bravely, and with very little mercy for their opponents. From the opening battles at Lexington and Concord and Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys taking over a startled and disturbed Fort Ticondaroga in the name of the Continental Congress and the “Great Jehovah” in 1775 to the final days of the war, militias proved indispensable to the Patriot war effort.[19]

Both the English and American republicans enshrined the principle of self defense in two of their most important documents. The 1689 English Bill of Rights states: “the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence.” Further, the English Bill of Rights forbids a standing army during peacetime without the consent of Parliament. In the United States, the Constitution permits the executive to be commander in chief only during wartime. Additionally, the second amendment guarantees the “right of the people to bear arms.” It places no limitations on the types of ordnance, the religion of those wielding weaponry, or the numbers of weapons.[20]

One of the greatest fears of all republicans is the standing army, which becomes beholden not to localities, local charters, and the organic or common law, but only to the sovereign will of the king.[21] Standing armies, no matter what the intentions, become playthings for the executive, thereby upsetting the delicate balance found in republics. “He was fully persuaded, that if such should be the event, they must be held in that subdued state by a great body of standing forces, and perhaps of foreign forces,” Burke wrote about his own philosophy in the third person. Having witnessed British troops ravage America during the Patriot counterrevolution of 1775, he continued, “He was strongly of the opinion that such armies, first victorious over Englishmen, in a conflict for English constitutional rights and privileges, and afterwards habituated (though in America) to keep an English people in a state of abject subjection, would prove fatal in the end to the liberties of England itself.” Further, Burke wrote, the possible success of the British armies against the Patriots would only increase government spending and debt, as well as jingoism and new wars to satisfy the puffed-up pride of the English.[22]

Tenet Four: Fear of Power

The fourth and final fundamental tenet of republicanism is the fear of power and its tenuous but necessary remedy, balance. Because man is fallible, he will always tend toward evil, unless properly restrained by societal and market norms. Power, of course, by definition, represents the opposite of restraint. Concentrated power leads to concentrated evil. Lord Acton, in his famous dictum dealing with the first Vatican Council, stated, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[23]

Typically, power concentrates at the governmental level in the hands of one person. The best, though certainly not perfect, solution is moderation and balance in government, thus limiting its ability to expand. Aristotle sought balance through three branches of government: the executive, deliberative, and judicial. The early Roman republic (founded 509b.c. after the successful anti-Etruscan revolt of 1510b.c.) had a very complicated, but balanced, two house system, the Senate and the Popular Assembly. Each had its own ministers and army. Burke argued forcibly against the unitary state developing in France after the bloody 1789 revolution and for the retention of a strong monarchy balanced by an equally strong House of Lords and House.

Perhaps the greatest error of the founding fathers was the belief (the certainty) that the jealousy of those possessing power would never had power or duties to another.  Certainly, the twentieth century disproved this as Pollyannaish–the Congress handing almost every one of its powers from making laws to declaring war to the executive.

As Americans, our internal and external struggles will continue as long as the American people allow the government to concentrate its power in the executive.

First Lady of the War for Independence

It’s worth ending this primer with the words of the second historian of the period, Mercy Otis Warren (1805).

Though the name of liberty delights the ear, and tickles the fond pride of man, it is a jewel much oftener the play-thing of his imagination, than a possession of real stability: it may be acquired to-day in all the triumph of independent feelings, but perhaps to-morrow the world may be convinced, that mankind know not how to make a proper use of the prize, generally bartered in a short time, as a useless bauble, to the first officious master that will take the burden from the mind, by laying another on the shoulders of ten-fold weight. . . . She has in great measure lost her simplicity of manners, and those ideas of mediocrity which are generally the parent of content; the Americans are already in too many instances hankering after the sudden accumulation of wealth, and the proud distinctions of fortune and title.  They have too far lost that general sense of moral obligation, formerly felt by all classes in America. . . . We wish for the duration of her virtue; we sigh at every appearance of decline; and perhaps, from a dread of deviations, we may be suspicious of their approach when none are designed. . . . She has in great measure lost her simplicity of manners, and those ideas of mediocrity which are generally the parent of content; the Americans are already in too many instances hankering after the sudden accumulation of wealth, and the proud distinctions of fortune and title.  They have too far lost that general sense of moral obligation, formerly felt by all classes in America. . . . This may in some measure have arisen from their late connexions with other nations; and this circumstance may account for the readiness of many, to engraft foreign follies and crimes with their own weak propensities to imitation, and to adopt their errors and fierce ambition, instead of making themselves a national character, marked with moderation, justice, benignity, and all the mild virtues of humanity . . . . If this should ever become the deplorable situation of the United States, let some unborn historian in a far distant day, detail the lapse, and hold up the contrast between a simple, virtuous, and free people, and a degenerate, servile race of beings, corrupted by wealth, effeminated by luxury, impoverished by licentiousness, and become the automatons of intoxicated ambition.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


1. Cicero, “On Duties,” in History Department, Hillsdale College, Western Heritage: A Reader (Acton, Mass.: Tapestry Press, 1998), 179-94.

2. J.G.A. Pocock, “Machiavelli, Harrington, and English Political Ideologies in the Eighteenth Century,” William and Mary Quarterly 22 (October 1965): 549-83.

3. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the States of Virginia (1785; Avalon Project:

4. Friedrich A. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” chapter in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 8-9.

5. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” 13.

6. See Aristotle, The Politics, Book I.

7. See, for example, Henry Babcock Veatch, Aristotle: a Contemporary Appreciation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974).

8. Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 12: 4-6.

9. The language and terminology used here, especially sub-creator, comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s profoundly meaningful and deep essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” but the sentiment and ideas are identical to those of Burke. Indeed, the Inklings, especially Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, were very much rooted in the classical republican, Old Whig traditions. See J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” chapter in Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader (1939; New York: Ballantine, 1966), 33-99; Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981); and C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1944; New York: Touchstone, 1996).

10. Edmund Burke, “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” chapter in Daniel K. Ritchie, ed., Further Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis, Ind., Liberty Fund, 1992), 169, 182. The works of Tolkien, Lewis, and T.S. Eliot best exemplify Burke’s idea of the “moral imagination.”

11. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” 15.

12. Aristotle, The Politics, Book I.

13. Genesis 1:28. Hayek discusses the implications of this command in Hayek, Fatal Conceit, 6.

14. On the Greeks and agrarianism, see Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (New York: Free Press, 1995). On Marcus Cato, see Plutarch, Lives (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

15. Jefferson, Notes on the States of Virginia. See also, Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (New York: New York University Press, 1984).

16. Russell Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke; A Study in American Politics, with Selected Speeches and Letters (Chicago, Ill.: Regnery, 1964); and John Taylor of Caroline, Arator: Being a Series of Agricultural Essays, Practical and Political, in Sixty-four Numbers (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1977).

17. For a comparison between empires and frontiers, see Walter Nugent, “Frontiers and Empires in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Western Historical Quarterly 20 (November 1989): 393-408.

18. Russell Kirk, “John Marshall and the Rise of the Corporation,” chapter in Kirk, Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution (Dallas, Tex.: Spence Publishing, 1997), 211-24.

19. Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: the Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill : Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virg., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1980)

20. The American people, of course, have witnessed nothing but degradation in regard to these two provisions of the Constitution in the twentieth century.

21. Bruce Frohnen, “Revolutions, Not Made, But Prevented: 1776, 1688, and the Triumph of the Old Whigs,” chapter in Gary L. Gregg II, ed., Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition (Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1999), 281.

22. Edmund Burke, “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” chapter in Daniel K. Ritchie, ed., Further Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis, Ind., Liberty Fund, 1992), 108.

23. For Hayek on Acton, see F.A. Hayek, The Fortunes of Liberalism: Essays on Austrian Economics and the Ideal of Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 210-15.

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