“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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
 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).
 Rodgers, “Republicanism,” 30.
 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.
 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).