IX.3: American and European Republican Traditions

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American and European Republican Traditions

The word “republic” refers to a society that operates for the good of the public.

Philip Petit describes the origins of the American and European republican traditions. He says America’s republic is based on what he calls the “Italian-Atlantic” republican tradition.

Based on the writings of Aristotle and Polybius, Machiavelli developed the “Italian” part of that tradition. He applied his views in the medieval Italian city-state of Florence. Then later, the “Atlantic” (British-American) part was developed based on the “Italian” part. That is, British philosophers like John Locke, James Harrington, and Algernon Sidney, along with America’s founders, like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, were responsible for the Atlantic idea.

Petit writes that there were three basic concepts behind the Italian-Atlantic republican tradition:

  1. “nondomination” – every individual’s right to be free from domination by others;
  2. “constitutional constraints” – legal limits on power like those imposed by Great Britain’s “mixed constitution”;
  3. the ability of citizens to “contest public policies” – the right to protest the government. (Petit 2013)

“Mixed constitution” was the form of government that Machiavelli established for Florence.

“Mixed government” is another name for this form of government. It originated in the ancient city-state of Sparta in Greece, as Aristotle and Polybius described. In it, three independent groups shared power, each ideally holding an equal portion of sovereignty.

The three groups were (1) a monarchy, (2) an aristocracy, and (3) a democracy. And prior to about 1830, the British Parliament followed this model, based on the Magna Carta. Later, the U.S. Constitution, drawing from the Magna Carta, established a similar division of sovereignty. The following table shows how the American government elements correspond to the British.

British Mixed Government American Government
The King or Queen The President
The House of Lords The Senate
The House of Commons The House of Representatives

Petit goes on to describe how continental Europe followed a different republican tradition, which he calls the French-German tradition. This idea was developed by writers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss philosopher who greatly influenced the French Revolution, and Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant agreed with the republican idea of individual freedom.

But regarding constitutional constraints, both Rousseau and Kant wanted to replace the three sovereigns of the mixed constitution with one sovereign body of citizens. Rousseau wanted that body to be the people themselves, which could only be practical in a moderately sized city. But Kant believed a sovereign body of elected representatives could work in a larger society.

Regarding concept #3, Kant totally rejected the right of citizens to protest, while Rousseau put severe limits on it.

Even Great Britain has moved away from mixed government (concept #2 above) and somewhat in the direction of this French-German tradition. Today, the prime minister (who replaced the monarch as Britain’s executive head of government) is elected from the leading party in the House of Commons. So, one party always controls both the legislative and executive branches. This is called the Parliamentary system.

Conversely, America has a Presidential system, where the president and congress can represent different parties. Also, Britain’s House of Lords has been reduced in power, while America’s Senate is still very powerful.

So Britain has moved toward one sovereign body. But America still looks more like a three-way balanced mixed government.

Therefore, America remains more in line with the Italian-Atlantic tradition of a republic.

Given the American and European republican traditions, which do you think is the better way for a republic to operate? On the other hand, do you believe there’s some other way that’s even better than either of these?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Petit, Philip. 2013. “Two Republican Traditions”, in Andreas Niederberger and Philipp Schink, eds, Republican Democracy: Liberty, Law and Politics, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2013, 169-204.

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