Putting “Republicanism” in Its Place

“By 1990,” wrote Daniel Rodgers, the concept of republicanism in American historiography “was everywhere and organizing everything, though perceptibly thinning out, like a nova entering its red giant phase.” A quarter of a century later, it can seem barely more than a dull glow—and in part, we have Rodgers’ essay to thank for dimming the lights. If republicanism’s 1970s high-water-mark was followed by a decade of furious debate over republicanism-versus-liberalism, scholarship after 1990 often framed itself as moving beyond precisely that anachronistic question. There was, apparently, no such conflict in the minds of revolutionary-era Americans. The problems that troubled them were different ones entirely.[1]

In accounting for “the career of a concept” through the echo-chambers of contemporary academe, Rodgers’ essay never intended to ask historical questions about republicanism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He noted that just as its power seemed to be waning among revolutionary historians in the early 1980s, it was being picked up and applied by the historians of nineteenth-century labour struggles. Rather than successive paradigms, Rodgers wrote, they imagined “a running quarrel” between republicanism and liberalism, “rooted in rival social experiences.” But Rodgers never asked what this might have to do with the republicanism of the eighteenth century.[2] If his essay lay “republicanism” to rest, it said very little about the ground in which it was interred.

Why did the rhetorical formulae, the vocabulary, the pattern of logic and argument that have collectively been called “republican” become so central to the public discourse of the 1760s and 1770s? Why, by the nineteenth century, had it lost that hegemonic role in American culture, and exchanged it for a supporting part in the struggle of workers and their communities against the rising tide of capitalist industry? What happened in the crucial decades in between? These are questions that can’t be answered if the concept of republicanism is too eagerly kicked to the curb, or consigned to historiographical in-fighting. By approaching republicanism historically, without seeking to use it as a master concept, we can fit it into the larger picture rather than ignoring it.[3]

It won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog that I think the division between public and private power plays a crucial role in this story. Republicanism, in both its positive and negative forms, was always centrally concerned with the power of the state. The classical republicanism of, say, Gordon Wood’s Creation situates the state—the res publica—as the focus of all virtuous, disinterested behavior; at the same time, the radical Whig republicanism of Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins makes the state the object and source of all corruption and conspiracy.[4] Of course, in the pre-modern politics that inspires these movements, this emphasis made perfect sense: the state was indeed the sole source of power. Only with the separation of the economic sphere did the republican vision of power cease to be aligned with reality.

The other half of the story is the relation of periphery and centre. It was only natural that oppositional, republican language and thought would lend itself to the crisis that emerged from intensifying imperial state intervention in the colonies in the mid-eighteenth century. Likewise, in the nineteenth, republicanism offered marginalised, disempowered workers a form of resistance to what they perceived as a financial-state nexus that stood behind the transformation of their lives and communities. But the republican dream—the true res publica—could never have been implemented, because republican premises did not apply in the modern world. The state was no longer the sole source of power. Henceforth it would be no more than one terrain of a larger struggle.


[1] Daniel T. Rodgers, “Republicanism: the Career of a Concept,” Journal of American History 79, no. 1 (June 1992): 11-38, 11. Also, see The Republican Synthesis Revisited: Essays in Honor of George Athan Billias, eds., Milton Klein, et al. (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1992).

[2] Rodgers, “Republicanism,” 30.

[3] This, then, is what I mean by the title, which I have borrowed from Michael Merrill, “Putting “Capitalism” in Its Place: A Review of Recent Literature,” The William & Mary Quarterly, Third Series 52, no. 2 (April 1995): 315-326.

[4] Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1789 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969); Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967).

7 responses

  1. I admire the work of Daniel Rodgers a great deal, but I have always found that article unconvincing. I think it unwittingly repeats a kind of scaled down version of large parts of Pocock’s original argument (that republicanism is less a concept than a vocabulary that gets used and reused in a series of very different contexts while carrying over time a set of concerns that have to do with the common good, arbitrary power, participation, social and economic status, political judgment, historical narratives of legal and political development, etc). Rodgers did not put a cap on republicanism as a tool of historical analysis (far from it), but he did put a cap on several decades of early Americanists advertising, as Pocock puts it, a collective inability to count higher than two.

    Or so I thought. The res publica of classical and neoclassical idioms was and is not synonymous with the modern, early modern, or late medieval state (if there can be said to be such a thing at all). A state that could be said to embody the res publica would be a very particular kind of state. Nor was it the case that the state was the only source of legitimacy before modernity; in point of fact, you don’t need to be a close reader of Hegel, Weber, or Skinner to know that actually the modern state is historically distinct and recognizable by its claim to be the only legitimate focal point of sovereignty, for its monopoly on legitimate use of force. European AND North American history after contact are by and large histories of mixed polities of overlapping and sometimes conflicting, multivalent, and dispersed sovereignties or spaces of legal and political power, and that it to say nothing of people and peoples living with politics and law and custom and culture and even empire but without anything that we could usefully call an early modern or modern state in the Mediterranean and Atlantic worlds.

    Tom uses republicanism to mean a bunch of different things without seeming awareness of it. If the “republican dream” became untenable, does he mean by this the state, as he says in the previous paragraph? Seems to me that if there is such a thing as a republican dream and it was the establishment of a state in general terms, that worked out just fine. If what we are referring to is the idea of a free state, or a republic, well then yes we are in uncertain territory, but nothing in Tom’s conceptualization as outlined in the post helps us think about what to do there.

    If find the idea of the separation of the economic sphere to be a kind of repetition of liberal and neoliberal narratives with the veneer of critique. The modern state in virtually all of its manifestations was rigorously involved in economic development, and continues to be. What’s next, a post on how the state is disappearing? The real problem here, of course, is the trope of absolutist duality between modern and premodern. Republican concepts show up in nineteenth century working class movements? Jefferson and Madison were worried about banks and the fiscal-military state? Those idiots. By Tom’s lights, these poor people were just confused. We should not be satisfied with historical writing that goes back into the past only to separate out who was modern enough to be taken seriously and who was not. To take that approach is to severely limit the potentiality of historical practice–we inhabit, at least potentially, a rich world of multiple temporalities. Tom wants to flatten that out, but that’s not the way it was, and more importantly, that’s not the way it is.

  2. Matthew, as always your comment shows your mastery of the oft-torturous literature of republicanism. I find that mastery impressive. As a social historian who dips a toe or two into intellectual history, I’m always struck by your commentary on these issues.

    Like you, I find the drive by historians to divide intellectual history into clear cut categories of modern v. pre-modern tiresome and not very useful. If memory serves it is an old trick, dating back the nineteenth century, and was polemical from day one. Modern is always good, right? And pre-modern bad, so who doesn’t want their ideas, or the ideas they admire, to be “modern?”

    However, I do not believe this is a binary which Tom is seeking to re-inscribe. This post, and many others he’s made here, are asking a different set of questions.

    Before I continue I want to make clear that this simply my personal reading of this post and Tom’s work, more broadly, on the blog.

    I think Tom is asking this question: how did the very American idea of politics and economics being very different spheres of human action develop? In the eighteenth-century American colonists-cum-Revolutionaries saw politics and economics as fundamentally linked but by the middle years of the nineteenth century our present segregation of the economic from the political was beginning to take hold. How did this happen? I think in his post today Tom begins to suss out some answers to this very important question. I also think that his previous work (see especially: https://earlyamericanists.com/2014/05/12/the-public-sphere-and-early-american-democracy/) does good digging around to start piecing together this critical story. For my part I think more attention should be paid to Andrew Shankman’s 2004 “Crucible of American Democracy.” It’s a great book.

    Whether you agree with me or Tom, I do think you were being unduly harsh in your assessment of this post. I, personally, find the idea that Tom is reproducing “a kind of repetition of liberal and neoliberal narratives ” laughable. Five minutes of googling or reading Tom’s work on the Junto would uncover that his work seeks the exact opposite. While we all have our own hobby horses (mine is the close link between religious practice and the state) it might be best, and more intellectually generous, not to whack folks so hard about them. Particularly in the context of a 300 to 500 word blog post.

    All in all, despite our disagreement, thanks for commenting here so regularly.

  3. Hi Roy, thanks for responding. I should say that if the tone of the comment is unduly harsh, and I would own that it might be, then I apologize for that. Based on earlier interactions here, my vision for how anyone reads my comments is with a kind of dismissive smile and a laugh, and I mean that in a good sense: its all taken as part of the game. My expectation was and is that Ken, Tom, and others read my comments to their posts with a hint of hilarity in their ears, and so that is how I write, exchanging jabs that will be entertained but still entertaining, and if I made a mistake in that or screwed that up or am just absolutely wrong, then I apologize, I really do.

    While we’re talking though, I do think there that sometimes there is an air of certainty and breezy dismissiveness here (on the blog in general) that as an admiring reader I think needs a bit of puncturing. Very little else would ever draw me into the academic blogosphere, but I’ve read here about how untenable, dated, or even irrelevant the work of Perry Miller, John Pocock, and Hannah Arendt is, I’ve seen generous senior scholars responding to points often ridiculed as not up on the times (I remember Jack Rakove being particularly and presumptuously waved off, in my view), and I think that corresponds to a larger attitude prevalent in early american studies that I really want to be on record as rejecting whole heartedly. I disagree with some of what I read from Gordon Wood these days, but I’ve read my dissertation a few times over, and Creation of the American Republic it’s not, and I try to keep that in mind.

    Its not just an anti-intellectualism that gets me, and of which I have complained before, but a broader kind of self-constitution by dismissal of the other that is in my view harmful to historical thought and practice. It wreaks of the unpleasant parts of graduate seminars, where we are all supposed to come up with something biting to say about someone’s life’s work spread out in front us. I know that the blog is meant to rekindle the good parts of those seminars, and if I rekindled some of the bad parts, then again I apologize, but I really do want to suggest that the “now this can be put to bed” or “we all know how wrong so-and-so was” starting points of some of the posts I read here is sort of disappointing. I get it, I’m there too, but maybe people at our early points in the profession could be a little more circumspect about the books in question, at least until we write a few of our own, and at least until they turn out to be half as influential or field-defining as some of the books and authors we still feel the need to blog about and footnote.

    Now part of me is working out my own beefs here as you astutely point out, and again, that can be petty, it probably is, and again, if I was inconsiderate, I apologize, and I hope I have made clear that it comes partly from a sense of raillery and play, and part of it comes from a (I hope) principled series of reflections that are always appreciatively prompted by what I read here. I hope Tom and Ken are glad that what they say engages people, myself included, and I hope that they take it as a more general compliment that their stuff is engaging.

    Now, to the post. I would own to being a bit over the top in the lines you suggest, but I do think the post runs into some of the problems I outlined, and in that I think it is indicative of a larger problematic about the field’s own understanding of itself since the days of the liberalism-republicanism debate. There is a kind of a ‘ho ho ho, we took care of that’ attitude that masks how fragmented the field has become (perhaps for the better) since then and lets us off the hook for a lot of the social theory and historical conceptualization that informed those and other debates. I think the post falls into this line a little bit. Its kind of roundly dismissive of the scholarship on republicanism (which, by the way, is still the go-to-stuff for many people from other fields looking to work with stuff on politics from ours). But it also makes the mistake of being fairly dismissive of those historical actors who seemed, unfortunately, not to realize that the res publica had lost its grip on reality. I just don’t think that is a helpful way to think about politics and political language in time. And I would also say that if the post is an indication, there is at least a risk, even if a small one in this case, of explaining the origins of the (uniquely American?) ideological disjunction of politics and economics in such a manner that would take that disjunction for granted, or read it back into the early nineteenth century. Either way, leveller, republican, or socialist groups or thinkers trying to politicize the economy or bring it under control of the public thing should not be taken only to have missed the boat. That’s really my only point.

    Again, thanks for responding. Thanks especially to Tom for the posts. You must join me in wishing I had done what I came to the office to do and worked on the book.

    • Hi Matt, thanks for taking the time. I’m afraid I really don’t recognise my post in your comments, though. Let me try to clarify.

      I think you may have misread my first paragraph a bit. You said “there is a kind of a ‘ho ho ho, we took care of that’ attitude” in my post. But actually, the post was meant to suggest that while scholars have generally agreed to move beyond republicanism (that’s the point of the first paragraph), it’s still very much worth looking at. “By approaching republicanism historically,” I wrote, “without seeking to use it as a master concept, we can fit it into the larger picture rather than ignoring it.”

      You say the post is “roundly dismissive of the scholarship on republicanism,” but where I cite Wood and Bailyn I take their readings of particular forms of republicanism completely at face value (so I could be accused of the opposite of dismissing them!). I’ve often been critical of Wood in other ways, and will be again I’m sure, but on this particular point, I’m right there with him–in fact, he’s very much the originator of this view, that republicanism was eclipsed by “modern” politics during the birth of the republic.

      Finally, and most importantly, you say my post “also makes the mistake of being fairly dismissive of those historical actors who seemed, unfortunately, not to realize that the res publica had lost its grip on reality.” I’m sad that you got that impression! It can be tough to put ideas into a 500-word format without employing some fairly loose brush-strokes, and that does demand a bit of good faith from the reader. But I do think your interpretation is a bit of a stretch.

      I said that republican rhetoric was detached from the reality of power in late-eighteenth century America. That’s not the same as saying historical actors had lost their grip on reality. I would have thought it’s a fairly straightforward point, and a very common one in the history of political thought–the categories and vocabularies that had been useful and powerful in one context became confusing and obsolete when that context changed. As the post makes clear, the context that I think is particularly important is that of the state and its relationship to power, especially economic power. As Roy pointed out, this is a running theme in my posts, an interpretation that I’m developing here on the blog.

      I appreciate your willingness to engage with this stuff, Matt, but as I said, I think debate would benefit from a little more good faith. If we trust that we’re not just trying to tear each other (or older scholars) down, and that we’re all trained historians who don’t casually dismiss the lives and minds of people in the past, then we can move right on to talking about interesting ideas. If you don’t think there are any in the post, then that’s fine! But it probably just means we have different scholarly interests; not that one of us is doing something terrible. You know?

      Let me close with an offer–as a long-term commentator, and a fellow early-career historian (if my Googling has been correct!), I wonder if you’d be interested in writing a guest post for us? It would be great to hear about some of your own thoughts and projects. If you’re interested, do send me an email and we can discuss it. The address is my initial, followed without a space by my surname, @gmail.com.

      (Oh, and one more thing–you said “groups or thinkers trying to politicize the economy or bring it under control of the public thing should not be taken only to have missed the boat.” Absolutely! I don’t think I was at all dismissive of the labour struggle republicanism I mentioned here. As I hoped would be obvious, I think the separation of the economic sphere is disastrous for democracy and humanity; that’s why it’s so important historically. I’m one of the guys trying to bring private power “back” under public control!)

  4. Hi, thanks. To be fair, I don’t think I accused you of anything terrible, and if I did, that was a mistake. I only suggest that you kind of play fast and loose with the terms res publica and the state, suggesting they are untenable because they are malleable, varied, and protean, and then using the terms as unitary, coherent concepts to show that they in fact are not. I think someone who takes Pocock seriously here just has to sigh, say yes, and move on.

    Your point about discursive ethics and trust is well taken, and once again I offer my apologies. To clarify,

    I am not entirely clear on what you think the distinction is between saying a language or a vocabulary has lost its purchase on reality and the people using it have. Those might not be the same thing, but they’re not so obviously distinct to me. Republicanism was a language of power, one of many. I suspect this gets to a fundamental difference: to me if people are using the language to think and act in politics, to construct politics and their place in it in time, then that is part of the “reality” we need to be dealing with.

    I would only say that in response to your last point, yes that is obvious, but i have doubts about the ability of a kind of a modernization theory approach to the history of politics and political thought to let us get our hands on the historical materials in play. I don’t think its an unfair reading of your original post to suggest there is a modern/premodern thing going on there that some of the really great scholars who have written on the political thought of the early modern period have done a lot of serious work to challenge and rethink. I mean, did Machiavelli just not get it? Its becoming increasingly clear that this is my own quirkiness, but my expectation when someone is pronouncing on the concept of the res publica and the origins of the modern state, and “putting republicanism in its place,” is that they will have to deal with Quentin Skinner’s work, to say nothing of a few others, and that is really what the substance of the discussion would be about. My point is that deciding languages that are still in vibrant and dynamic use in a particular context are just losing their grip on reality is to overlook the richness and historically dynamic, earthy quality of language use in general, and its to risk naturalizing the victory of one mode of life over another, and I think the value of the history of thought is that it can bring concepts back into view for potential use and reuse. That is not to say that it will be the same thing when it pops back up. It never is. Even Marx, I would argue, had some understanding of the significance of dressing up in Roman clothes.

  5. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Discussions about Republicanism was central to American historiography until the 1990s. Since then “Republicanism” has fallen out of fashion. Tom Cutterham has an at The Junto trying locating “Republicanism’s” current place in American history. Cutterham argues that the role of “Republicanism” in debates about American history has been marginalized over time because it was overly focused on “the power of the state.” Few historians still believe that the state is “the sole source of power.” Check out Cutterham’s article.


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