“Beyond Publius: Montesquieu, liberal republicanism, and the small-republic thesis”
Abstract: The idea that republicanism as a form of government was only suitable for small states, given its definitive 18th-century formulation by Montesquieu, rested in that formulation on three major pillars: the difficulty of sustaining public-spirited virtue in the face of diversity of interests and inequality of fortunes; the problem of knowing the public interest when citizens’ circumstances varied; and the danger posed to republican government by a large state’s large armed forces. The first two worries declined as republican theory changed from classical and civic to modern and liberal, a change associated with Hume’s and Publius’ re-understanding of faction and interest in large republics. But Publius did not offer the only, or the final, defense of large republics. Other liberal republicans understood the problems differently, or denied that there as a problem at all. The intertwined problems of executive-legislative and civil-military relations, the worry that republicanism in large states would end in military rule à la Caesar, Cromwell, or Bonaparte, stimulated continuing work in constitutional theory decades after The Federalist. Accordingly, even among those who endorsed the new logic of faction, institutional remedies for the problems facing large republics remained, with particular dispute over federalism, the makeup of the executive, and the creation of a neutral or conservation-preserving power. This paper aims to broaden our view of the shift in republican constitutional thought beyond Hume and Publius; to bridge the Atlantic gap in our understanding of late 18th-century constitutional thought; and to show the breadth of the rejection of civic republican assumptions as well as the range of thought about institutional design in the era.