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Republicanism in United Kingdom

British Political and Social Thought: Republicanism

Introduction to Republicanism

The English Revolution produced another school of political thought, republicanism, which was drawn from classical Greek and Roman theories of government. The word republic derives from the Latin res publica, which literally means “public things.” The book Oceana, published by scholar James Harrington in 1656, describes a republican utopia. In Oceana, government is not a personal possession of a monarch but is rather the common business of the people. Citizens participate in selecting representatives in government and serve in the military to secure the common good. Republican writers such as Harrington and British statesman Algernon Sidney, his contemporary, argued that citizens should run their own public affairs. Citizens, according to Harrington, are motivated by public spirit or civic virtue, a willingness to set the common good above their own individual interests. In Harrington’s conception, bearing arms and forming militias for common protection express this public spirit and guarantee independence from autocratic rule.

The principal republican theorist of the 18th century was statesman Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, who headed the opposition in Parliament to statesman Sir Robert Walpole’s leadership of the House of Commons. Bolingbroke contrasted the republican commitment to public spirit and civic virtue with the political corruption that he perceived in figures such as Walpole. Bolingbroke greatly expanded the definition of corruption beyond simple venality: He considered all leaders who lacked civic virtue to be corrupt. He regarded such men as preoccupied with self and uninterested in the public good. According to Bolingbroke, this type of corruption brings about a cycle in which states decline and require periodic revitalization and renewal to return to the original and pristine republican commitment to civic virtue.

Bolingbroke was widely read in the American colonies, and some scholars interpret the American Revolution (1775-1783) as a republican effort to throw off corrupt British rule and return to public-spirited self-government. Other scholars focus on the influence of Lockean liberalism on the American Revolution. Locke, too, was widely read in 18th-century America. His belief in the natural rights of men to life, liberty, and property are concerned less with republican civic spirit and more with individual self-interest, which can be discerned in much of the political rhetoric surrounding the revolution.” (1)

Resources

Notes and References

  • Information about Republicanism in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  • Guide to Republicanism



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    • Article Name: Republicanism
    • Author: Danny W.
    • Description: British Political and Social Thought: Republicanism Introduction to Republicanism The English Revolution produced another [...]

    This entry was last updated: August 24, 2014

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