Tensions in Early American Political Thought

Liberalism and Republicanism Together Made for a Stronger Worldview

According to the eminent historian of political thought J.G.A. Pocock, republican theory (or “civic humanism”) was the most significant current of eighteenth-century English and American political philosophy. In the form of “country ideology,” republicanism gave “left” and “right” critics of government policies a framework and believable rhetoric for their arguments. The so-called “radical Whiggism” of the American Revolution was itself, on this reading, merely an extreme and consistent version of the republican ideas of the English opposition.

From 1656, when James Harrington published a definitive statement of English republicanism in Oceana, down to the Americans’ secession from the empire, republicanism furnished ideas for Tory party dissidents around Viscount Bolingbroke and their magazine, The Craftsman, and for various “commonwealthmen” and True Whigs on what we could perhaps call the original Left.

Civic humanism was an outlook grounded in the renewed classicism of the Renaissance. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was its major prophet in his Discourses. His ideas rested on a view of ancient Greek and Roman political life that came to him via Aristotle, Polybius, and Titus Livy. For these writers, the ideal state had a “mixed constitution” that combined the virtues of monarchy, aristocracy, and commonwealth (“republic” in the narrow sense), and thereby avoided the degeneration into tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy (mob rule) inherent in unmixed systems. A substantial “middle class” was needed to provide stability by preventing exploitation of the masses by a narrow oligarchy or, alternatively, the plundering of the wealthy by a great mass of desperate poor. This middle class was not “bourgeois,” or commercial, but a class of independent landed yeomen.

In Machiavelli’s republicanism, the monarchical element lessens as emphasis on the social “balance” grows. Machiavelli’s English interpreter, Harrington, stressed that the key to preserving a republic was for “the soldiers [to] be citizens and the citizens soldiers.”[1] The independent landed proprietor of small or middling fortune, able to bear arms on his own account, was the ideal citizen and the guarantor of the republic.

Reading the English Constitution

Pressed into the service of many causes, this ideal was at the heart of country ideology, or republicanism. An important difference over the interpretation of English history separated Harrington himself from later thinkers who were in other respects his disciples. The point of contention was the nature of England’s “Ancient Constitution,” which—allegedly—included the common law, Parliament (which thereby gained many centuries in antiquity and traditionalist prestige), fee simple tenures, and various rights and customs from “time out of mind.” Aware of the feudal basis of medieval English society, Harrington knew that the Constitution was the work of recent times and sought its origins in the passing away of the “Gothick” (i.e., feudal) balance of power and property. Royal encroachments had overborne real feudalism and its basis in military tenures (great estates held by nobles in exchange for their bearing the costs of providing military forces for the King). A new social “balance” thereby came into being, one nearer to the republican ideal and one reflected in the political struggles of the seventeenth century.

Later “Harringtonians” inverted his analysis, arguing that the old order had corresponded to the proper balance and that later developments unbalanced state and Constitution. They were thus able to say that the Ancient Constitution—from as far back as Alfred the Great—had embodied republican liberty and that this libertarian inheritance was now under attack. The King’s “standing army”—made possible by the financial revolution (in effect, the invention of national debt)—was the instrument of anticonstitutional forces. Hence the fundamental political division was between “Court” and “Country.”

Court and Country

The Court was the clique of stockjobbers, placemen, pensioners, and courtiers who made policy by means of high taxation, monetized national debt, and all manner of “corruption” (in the narrow sense). Their program undermined the Constitution (the larger “corruption” in republican thought) by overthrowing the republican balance of “classes,” property, and power. The Country, by contrast, consisted of the public-spirited opponents of such state-capitalism, or mercantilism. Over time, the concept of a Country party came to stand for an ever broader range of independent property owners, finally taking on board—in the radically altered American context—every farmer and planter on the land.

As Pocock sees it, republicanism influenced the English opposition from the seventeenth century onward, so that “there can be traced a major movement of Country ideas into the radical-democratic tradition; not only much of the Chartist program, but a good deal of its ideology as well, can be shown to possess a history continuous since the days of Shaftesbury.”[2] An important strand of country ideology appears in the writings of the early eighteenth-century Tory leader Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, and his allies (including Jonathan Swift). Tory in his basic principles, socially conservative, and not at all opposed to a strong monarch as such, Bolingbroke nonetheless expounded a sort of “Tory populism.” Championing limited free trade, defending small craftsmen against state-sponsored monopolies, and attacking Court corruption, Bolingbroke and his circle often took positions that overlapped those of the growing pro-commercial and anti-monopolist “bourgeois” opposition.

His attacks on social upstarts and economic change separate his views from those who criticized state grants of privilege as impediments to the market and the rise of new men. Thus this “right-wing” opposition would have opposed an unsettling laissez-faire political economy almost as much as the unsettling “growth” made possible by Court-sponsored mercantilism and rent-seeking. Many historians who deal with these questions muddy the waters by lumping together all opponents of Court policies as “agrarians” and throwing all others together as “capitalists” (or, for U.S. historians, “industrialists”). The groups on both sides of the water that were pro-commercial but anti-mercantilist and pro-laissez faire thus fall by the wayside.

Bolingbroke’s group—dedicated to preserving an older England of gentry (large landholders below the ranks of the nobility) and retainers, ready to defend old established freedoms but seemingly radical in its assaults on the Court party—had an influence on the American colonists, however ambiguous. Certainly in the South, the conservatism of this kind of republican thinking proved attractive. (Jefferson, for one, had read his Bolingbroke.) The overlap between Bolingbrokean and bourgeois versions of republicanism made it easy for American radicals to treat the broad stream of English opposition ideas (including those of John Locke) as a unified inheritance.

Levellers, Locke, and Libertarians

Something must be said now about the relationship of classical liberalism to republican theory. Republicans idealized the independent armed proprietor as citizen and basis of the social balance, which in turn preserves the constitution. They worried little about the origin and justification of the state (which Locke sought to supply), but provided a world-outlook and language useful to various property-owning opposition movements. If pressed, a knowledgeable republican thinker might have fallen back on Aristotle, who rooted the political community in man’s social nature.

For liberalism (by which we mean classical liberalism) the point of departure is different. The liberal begins with the “natural” individual in full ownership of his natural rights who cooperates with others in “civil society” before the creation of any government (state). The liberal is not unaware—as is so often suggested—that families and social relations exist, but has noticed that only individuals can act.

Already in the Puritan Revolution, 1642–1658, so-called “Levellers” like John Lilburne and William Walwyn developed a radical program based on individuals’ ownership of themselves, natural rights, and equal access to unappropriated resources. (They did not actually want to “level men’s estates”—as their enemies charged—but merely wished to open up the market.) Unlike Locke, these “Lockeans before Locke” did appeal to history; but theirs was not the conventional “Country party” argument from an Ancient Constitution of Liberties but a denunciation of the “Norman Yoke” fastened on the free Saxons at the Conquest in 1066 and which must be swept away.

In the Second Treatise of Government John Locke derived individual rights from natural law and made a case for government by consent that stood independent of historical specifics. Men’s rights in a “state of nature” included self-ownership, acquisition of property by “mixing” one’s labor with resources (“homesteading”), and the right to defend oneself and one’s justly acquired property from aggression by others. With the “invention” of money by tacit universal consent (a notion that anticipates Ludwig von Mises’s “regression theorem”), a wider division of labor and bigger marketplace comes into being that allows inequalities to arise but only along the lines of differing natural ability. Owing to the inconvenience of each man’s being judge in his own cause, these pre-political individuals establish government mainly to overcome the lack of judicial services and common defense of their properties. This is the “social contract.” Men do not actually give up their natural rights for all time, but merely put them in trust. Property and self-ownership cannot be transferred for Locke even by conquest and change of regime. (One doubts he had the Irish case in mind.)

The “applied” portion of Locke’s system is less liberal than his discussion of pre-state civil society. From the high ground of reason and justice we arrive at the actual distribution of property in England. Locke persuasively sketches out a highly libertarian theory of property rights and then pretends that the actual distribution of English properties rests on labor title (homesteading) rather than on conquest, enclosure, force, fraud, and (frequent) expropriation of real homesteading peasant farmers. (Marx, of course, pointed this out before wandering into his own erroneous conclusions.) As Murray Rothbard observed, it is critical when applying the Lockean theory to criticize pre-existing titles in the light of the theory. The difference is between apology for a semifeudal status quo, as in England, or assertion of popular rights to property as in revolutionary North America.[3]

Whatever the limitations of Locke’s writings, liberal ideas were broadly compatible with republicanism, and the new English opposition that arose after the Revolution of 1688 (which Locke’s writings served to justify before the fact) employed both sets of ideas rather interchangeably. Republicans and liberals believed in property rights, however they derived them, and Locke’s pre-state proprietors looked a lot like the ideal republican citizen, armed and on his own land. In the end, natural and historically prescriptive rights (“the rights of Englishmen,” the Common Law, and even Saxon freedoms) coexisted with little difficulty in the minds of Anglo-American radical Whigs on both sides of the water, and led to the same program of republican politics, freer markets, and (potentially) revolution. English opposition writers—the “Commonwealthmen” or “True Whigs”—placed side by side, and began mixing, two separate traditions into a potent new outlook: liberal republicanism. The writings of Algernon Sidney, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon (the latter two writing under the name “Cato”) made their way across the Atlantic in a broad stream alongside those of the Tory Bolingbroke and early liberals like Locke, Richard Price, and Joseph Priestley. Stifled by moderate Whigs who turned to political capitalism once the Catholic Stuarts were deposed, liberalism and republicanism took on new meaning and life across the water. English opposition ideology entered into and helped frame the debates that preceded the American Revolution. George III and his ministers, by their intrusive policies, unwittingly set fire to this ideological tinder.

The American Revolutionary Synthesis

According to American Revolutionary thought, political life is a constant struggle between Power and Liberty. The former is inherently aggressive, constantly attempting to escape its constitutional bounds. Society is therefore best served when people guard their liberty jealously.

People have rights—by nature or by English law—and continued violation of their rights by government justified armed revolution and the institution of new forms of government. Justification of popular revolution against governments that fail “to secure these rights” was, after all, the central message of Locke’s Second Treatise, and many passages in the American Declaration of Independence come directly from Locke.

The American colonists, whose leading figures were deeply read in the whole Radical Whig tradition, were primed to fear the overthrow of liberty by a Court clique using standing armies and abusing the power to tax. Royal policies after 1763, rather harmless by present-day standards,[4] were ideally fitted to touch the radical nerve of the Americans. English and Roman history and current events in Turkey, Denmark, England, and elsewhere, as understood by the colonists, prepared them to expect the worst from kings and ministers: corruption, overthrow of constitutional forms, military rule, public debt, standing armies. . . . (They also understood that they were expected, by consuming and paying taxes on tea, to make good the East India Company’s losses in the inflationary South Sea Bubble scandal.)

Working within a framework that drew from both liberalism and republicanism, the colonial radicals believed that the minimum practical content of natural law was already embodied in the “rights of Englishmen.” Imperial acts infringing on these rights necessarily excited resistance. The republican idea that the safety of the republic rests in the hands of virtuous property-holders able to bear arms held a central place in the Americans’ theory and practice. The differences between American social reality and that of England had democratized the concept. Broader ownership of property and firearms gave Country party ideas greater appeal and relevance in the colonies. The notion of an armed people was of great importance in a revolutionary war in which the militia may have played a decisive—if still under-appreciated—role.[5]

Pocock comments on the absence of an appropriate “bourgeois” (that is, modern and commercial) ideology in the eighteenth century. As a result, he says, radicals fell back on republicanism, which they developed along new lines. In America, both the rural gentry and yeomen, as well as urban strata, were therefore in hock to pre-bourgeois ideas. Thus revolutionary statesmen such as Sam Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson returned again and again to a pre-modern concern over the negative results of prosperity (“luxury” and “effeminacy”: dreaded nemeses of republican virtue), something over which more economically oriented leaders like Thomas Paine and—a bit surprisingly—John Taylor of Caroline showed little concern.

Paine, Taylor, and many others set out a kind of libertarian republicanism, which completed the synthesis begun over the water, and which was certainly far more compatible with market relations (“capitalism”) than Pocock would care to admit. Americans used republican ideas alongside classical liberal ideas, and this synthesis became “the transforming ideology of the American Revolution.”[6] Liberal republicanism became the common American political language within which later struggles over mercantilism and laissez faire and slavery and emancipation would take place.

A Unique Balance

In the American Revolution “classical republicanism” underwent considerable change as its key ideas were intertwined with those of liberalism. Gone was the concern with balancing the three classical forms of government. Instead, as Robert Shalhope writes, a “unique frame of mind emerged,” which dealt with the balance between the people and their rulers. Americans went into their Revolution with “a negative view of government.”[7] With the substitution of people versus government for the older contrast of Country versus Court, the stage was set for characteristically American debates in which each side claimed better to protect the people’s rights against the rulers’ power.

Shalhope adds that the wide acceptance of liberal/republican ideas made political stability possible after the Revolution. The debates over the ratification of the second U.S. Constitution (the Articles of Confederation being the first) underlines the point. Acting in the best Radical Whig tradition, the misnamed Anti-Federalists opposed the new charter as creating uncontrolled power. Gordon Wood has shown how the Constitution’s proponents, the Federalists, justified creating a stronger federal government while staying within the theoretical confines of revolutionary thought. In effect, they made an end-run around the Anti-Federalists by suddenly becoming more democratic. Attributing a general “sovereignty” to the people (carefully avoiding the question of who were the people—the people as a whole or the people as thirteen states), the Federalists assimilated popular will to the new federal regime. So doing, they “created a distinctly American political theory but only at the cost of eventually impoverishing late American political thought.”[8]

Be that as it may, what we may loosely call early “liberalism” (with some of this coming out of English law and not from Locke) and republicanism run all through the Constitution, especially if the Bill of Rights is taken into account. The provisions about freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, search and seizure, and so forth reflect the liberalizing thrust of the English political battles of the seventeenth century, while the Second Amendment enshrines the ideal republican citizen armed on his own land. (A complete account of American Revolutionary ideology would have to trace how trends in English law ran parallel with liberalism and individual rights, as did the Protestantism of the thirteen colonies.)

It seems fairly clear that the two separate doctrines—liberalism and republicanism—were fused together by the English opposition writers and the American revolutionaries because together they made for a stronger, and reasonably coherent, worldview. Liberalism, as such, had no theory of government. The French physiocratic school of laissez-faire liberal economists had no better political theory or plan than simply to get the King to sweep away barriers to trade. Republicanism, as such, had no theory of individual rights. Writers like Rousseau showed how unalloyed republicanism can easily justify militaristic and authoritarian rule on the model of ancient Sparta or the Roman Republic. (The “radical phase” of the French Revolution teaches this lesson very well.) By combining the two ideologies, the Anglo-Americans forged a powerful outlook favorable to liberty and limited government.

Some recent writers have tried to ride the renewed interest in republicanism, set off by the work of Pocock, Bernard Bailyn, and others, to the left. They hope to find in American republicanism a charter for state interventionism, mercantilism, or communitarianism. This is futile precisely because revolutionary American republicanism was a unique outlook that thoroughly blended republicanism and liberalism. (Anyway, there are plenty of “foreign” ideologies they can work with.) As regards the Second Amendment, for example, Stephen P. Halbrook makes clear that the founding generation saw no conflict between an individual right to bear arms and defense of the larger society through a militia system.[9]

Liberal Republicanism Reappears

American liberal republicanism as defined here did not die out after the adoption of the Constitution, however, but kept reappearing in slightly different guises. The asserted right to resist abusive rulers who corrupt the constitution or trample on the people’s freedom found expression in the Whiskey Rebellion, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1789, the Hartford Convention (1815), the Nullification controversy (1833), and even in Southern secession and creation of an alternative confederation (1860–1861). The Jeffersonian and Jacksonian political movements, in particular, carried with them the ideas and language of the revolutionary generation. Inevitably, Northern and Southern heirs of liberal republican thinking diverged more and more from their original common ground. Already from the beginning there had been differences of emphasis.

In the North, some successors to liberal republicanism—Henry David Thoreau, Lysander Spooner, Stephen Pearl Andrews, and others—developed the logic of natural law and rights all the way into individualist anarchism.[10] In the South, the felt need to defend Southern interests and culture (and not merely slavery, the relationship being more complex) led first John Taylor and, later, such figures as John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Alexander H. Stephens to assert the South’s right of resistance to federal innovation and intrusion. Ironically, slavery itself may have contributed to Southerners’ assertion (for whites) of an extreme degree of personal liberty. Liberty for some and slavery for others reinforced one another on several levels, and all attempts at consistent resolution of the intellectual dilemma foundered on the problem of race. The painful evasions on the part of Jefferson and Taylor were characteristic.[11]

In this connection it might be said that the slavery question, among others, led to a partial unraveling of liberal republicanism. Southern thinkers became very good republican theorists indeed—but somewhat at the expense of the liberal elements of the American synthesis. By the same token, Northern abolitionists (at least those working with liberal, contractual thought rather than with post-Puritan religious ideas) focused rather exclusively on the individual rights and liberties found in liberalism and English law.

The Southern Confederacy was the embodiment of a consistent, if socially conservative variety of republican theory and its defeat could be taken as a sort of last stand of the Anglo-American Country party. We might equally well take the Spanish-American War (1898)—with its leap into the uncharted and unrepublican territory of overseas empire—as the final step in the marginalization of real republican thought (as well as real liberalism).[12] American participation in World War I, on that view, made the steps taken in the 1860s and in 1898 nearly irreversible. All the same, the “Founders”—Federalist and Anti-Federalist alike—appear to have had a better grasp of human nature and the notions of responsible power (that is, power “answering to” those with whose rights and safety it is temporarily entrusted), liberty, and the rest, than do either of our existing post-republican factions called political parties.


  1. Quoted in J.G.A. Pocock, “Machiavelli, Harrington, and English Political Ideologies in the Eighteenth Century,” William and Mary Quarterly, October 1965, pp. 549–83.
  2. Ibid., p. 582.
  3. Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty, vol. I (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1975), p. 123, note.
  4. As Bernard Bailyn writes, “The condition of British America by the end of the Seven Years’ War [that is 1763] was therefore anomalous: extreme decentralization of authority within an empire presumably ruled by a single, absolute, undivided sovereign” (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967], p. 204). George III and Lord North wanted to tighten up this loose structure and collect enough revenue to make it pay for itself. The Americans were quite happy to be neglected by arbitrary officials across the water.
  5. See John Shy, “The American Revolution: The Military Conflict Considered as a Revolutionary War,” in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), pp. 121–56, and William F. Marina, “Militia, Standing Armies, and the Second Amendment,” Law and Liberty, II, Spring 1976, pp. 1–4.
  6. See generally Bailyn, especially chapter 5, “Transformation,” pp. 160–229.
  7. Robert E. Shalhope, “Toward a Republican Synthesis,” William and Mary Quarterly, January 1972, p. 65.
  8. Gordon S. Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), p. 562.
  9. While the Constitution can be read—as by William Appleman Williams—as a partially “merchantilist” document, the Americans’ reading of such Scottish Enlightenment figures as David Hume and Adam Smith and French economists like J. B. Say (popularizer of Smith, but more importantly, someone possessed of many “proto-Austrian” insights) pushed their liberal republicans in a direction in which laissez faire became a real option. On the Second Amendment, see Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984). See also Robert E. Shalhope, “The Armed Citizen in the Early Republic,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Winter 1986, pp. 125–41.
  10. See Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (New York: Pantheon, 1968), pp. 100–48, and James J. Martin, Men Against the State (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Ralph Myles, 1970), for the connections between abolitionism and individualist anarchism.
  11. For the paradoxes of liberty and slavery in the South, see Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975); on Jefferson’s and Taylor’s grapplings with the problem, see Robert McColley, Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1973) and Duncan J. MacLeod, Slavery, Race and the American Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974), especially pp. 89–94.
  12. For a classical liberal and republican critique of our fin de siècle adventure, see Joseph R. Stromberg, “The Spanish American War as Trial Run, Or Empire Its Own Justification” in John V. Denson, ed., The Costs of War (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1997), pp. 169–202.