Common Sense: From Monarchy to an American Republic

Common Sense: From Monarchy to an
American Republic
While monarchies dominated 18 century Europe, American revolutionaries
were determined to nd an alternative to this method of government. Radical
pamphleteer Thomas Paine, whose enormously popular essay Common Sense
was rst published in January 1776, advocated a republic – a state without a
king.
Six months later, Jeerson’s Declaration of Independence armed the break
with England but did not suggest what form of government should replace
monarchy, the only system most English colonists had ever known. In the late
18 century, republics were few and far between.
Genoa, Venice, and the Dutch Republic provided examples of states without
monarchs, but many European Enlightenment thinkers questioned the stability
of a republic. Nonetheless, after their break from Great Britain, Americans
turned to republicanism for their new government.
Republicanism as a political philosophy
Monarchy rests on the practice of dynastic succession, in which the monarch’s
child or other relative inherits the throne. Contested dynastic succession
produced chronic conict and warfare in Europe. In the 18 century, wellestablished monarchs ruled most of Europe and, according to tradition, were
obligated to protect and guide their subjects.
However, by the mid – 1770s, many American colonists believed that George III,
the King of Great Britain, had failed to do so. Patriots believed the:
British monarchy under George III had been corrupted
King had been turned into a tyrant who cared nothing for the traditional
liberties aorded to members of the British Empire
The disaection from monarchy explains why a republic appeared a better
alternative to the revolutionaries.
American revolutionaries looked to the past for inspiration for their break with
the British monarchy and their adoption of a republican form of government.
The Roman Republic provided guidance. Much like the Americans in their
struggle against Britain, Romans had thrown o monarchy and created a
republic in which Roman citizens would appoint or select the leaders who would
represent them.
Republicanism vs. democracy
While republicanism oered an alternative to monarchy, it was also an
alternative to democracy, a system of government characterized by majority
rule, where the majority of citizens have the power to make decisions binding
upon the whole.
To many revolutionaries, especially wealthy landowners, merchants, and
planters, democracy did not oer a good replacement for monarchy. Indeed,
conservative Whigs dened themselves in opposition to democracy, which they
equated with anarchy. In the 10 in a series of essays later known as The
Federalist Papers, Virginian James Madison wrote:
“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have
ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of
property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been
violent in their deaths.”
Many shared this perspective and worked hard to keep democratic tendencies in
check. It is easy to understand why democracy seemed threatening: majority
rule can easily overpower minority rights, and the wealthy few had reason to
fear that a hostile and envious majority could seize and redistribute their
wealth.
While many now assume the United States was founded as a democracy, history,
as always, is more complicated with:
conservative Whigs believing in government by a patrician class, a ruling
group composed of a small number of privileged families
radical Whigs favoring broadening the popular participation in political
life and pushed for democracy
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The great debate after independence was secured centered on this question:
Who should rule in the new American republic?
Republicanism as a social philosophy
According to political theory, a republic requires its citizens to cultivate virtuous
behavior. If the people:
are virtuous, the republic will survive
become corrupt, the republic will fall
Whether republicanism succeeded or failed in the United States would depend
on civic virtue and an educated citizenry. Revolutionary leaders agreed that
the ownership of property provided one way to measure an individual’s virtue,
arguing that:
property holders had the greatest stake in society and therefore could be
trusted to make decisions for it
by the same token, non-property holders, should have very little to do
with government
In other words, unlike a democracy, in which the mass of non-property holders
could exercise the political right to vote, a republic would limit political rights to
property holders. In this way, republicanism exhibited a bias toward the elite, a
preference that is understandable given the colonial legacy. During colonial
times, wealthy planters and merchants in the American colonies had looked to
the British ruling class, whose social order demanded deference from those of
lower rank, as a model of behavior. Old habits die hard.
Blend of political and social philosophy
George Washington served as a role model par excellence for the new republic,
embodying the exceptional talent and public virtue prized under the political and
social philosophy of republicanism. He:
did not seek to become the new King of America
retired as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army
returned to his Virginia estate at Mount Vernon to resume his life among
the planter elite
Washington modeled his behavior on that of the Roman aristocrat Cincinnatus,
a representative of the patrician or ruling class, who had also retired from public
service in the Roman Republic and returned to his estate to pursue agricultural
life.
The aristocratic side of republicanism—and the belief that the true custodians
of public virtue were those who had served in the military—found expression in
the Society of the Cincinnati, of which Washington was the rst president
general. Founded in 1783, the Society admitted only ocers of the Continental
Army and the French forces not militia members or minutemen Following the
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