Classical Republicanism: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 What Is Classical…
  • 1:50 The Influence of John Locke
  • 3:34 The American Revolution
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom

Jason has a PhD.

Classical republicanism is the idea that a government should be based on the consent of the people. If a government deviates from the will of the governed, the people have a right to form a new government. Learn all about it in this lesson.

What Is Classical Republicanism?

The United States was the first modern nation to institute a republican form of government. Thomas Paine, perhaps the man most responsible for spreading the idea of republicanism in American colonies, argued that a representative form of government was superior to a monarchy because it was much more transparent. He said, Whatever are its excellencies and defects, they are visible to all.'

But, what exactly is classical republicanism? We can trace the idea back to the British Radical Whigs of the seventeenth century. These thinkers looked back to the age of ancient Rome and found a republican society where the people prevented government power from getting out of control. Citizens under the Roman Republic, the Whigs presumed, were virtuous enough to sacrifice their individual desires for the common good. Until, of course, Julius Caesar came along!

The Whigs built upon these observations and formulated a society in which the government's responsibility was limited to maintaining security and, avoiding at all costs, infringing on any citizen's life, liberty, or property. The people were justified in overthrowing any ruler or government who deviated from this ideal. Citizens could then form a new and better government. The Whigs promoted the basic idea that the most acceptable government was one that, above all, protected the people's welfare.

Another important influence on the idea of classical republicanism was the Glorious Revolution in England in the late 1680s. This bloodless overthrow of a monarch with absolute power resulted in Parliament's increased ability to check the authority of the king. The Glorious Revolution also set forth a Bill of Rights, which guaranteed the protection of a variety of individual rights, such as trial by jury and religious freedom.

The Influence of John Locke

Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) is the intellectual most responsible for defining the idea of republicanism. Locke's first assumption was that humans had certain inalienable rights--life, liberty, and property. Government should protect these rights and never do anything to threaten them or take them away. In return, citizens would act reasonably towards government. This is the idea of the social contract.

If a government broke the social contract (by failing to protect citizens' rights or making laws without the approval of the community, for example), the people were justified, and even obligated, to overthrow that government and form a new one. In Locke's view, the 'people' were not the everyday masses, but the propertied aristocracy who had the education and independence to act virtuous for the good of the community. Locke's ideas were used by reformers everywhere--especially in America during the struggle for independence from Britain--to demand constitutional government, the rule of law, and the protection of individual rights.

So, let's step back a minute and define the essence of classical republicanism. This idea suggests that government power must be limited and that the authority of rulers should not be absolute but should be checked by the will of the people. If a government abuses its power or fails to protect the rights of its citizens, the people can overthrow it and form a more desirable form of government. The best guarantee of the creation of an acceptable government was that its citizens remain virtuous and put their civic duty ahead of their individualism. Such virtue could rarely be found outside the class of independent, property-holding, educated men.

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