Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Formation of a Liberal Republicanism in England

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Certain English writers of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, whom scholars often associate with classical republicanism, were not, in fact, hostile to liberalism. Indeed, these thinkers contributed to a synthesis of liberalism and modern republicanism. As this book argues, Marchamont Nedham, James Harrington, Henry Neville, Algernon Sidney, and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, the coauthors of a series of editorials entitled Cato's Letters, provide a synthesis that responds to the demands of both republicans and liberals by offering a politically engaged citizenry as well as the protection of individual rights. The book also reinterprets the writings of Machiavelli and Hobbes to show that each contributed in a fundamental way to the formation of this liberal republicanism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A splendid book, well argued and carefully researched." P. Coby, Smith College, Choice

"Important and insightful...a valuable contribution to the study of early-modern political thought that extends beyond illuminating such seminal thinkers—itself an impressive feat—and goes further to provide a comprehensive acocunt of the way in which a number of well-defined ideas and principles shaped the development of nascent liberal and republican theory in England." APSA Perspectives on Politics

"This is an important, original, scholarly, and powerfully argued book. Though its primary readership will probably be political scientists—and especially theorists—it also has much to tell scholars whose main interests are in early modern British—and, indeed, American—history."

"Sullivan's style is clear and uncluttered" - Conal Condren, University of New South Wales, Australia

"This is an important, original, scholarly, and powerfully argued book. Though its primary readership will probably be political scientists—and especially theorists—it also has much to tell scholars whose main interests are in early modern British—and, indeed, American—history." - Johann Sommerville, Department of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison, H-NET

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521833615
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 2/29/2004
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.83 (d)

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Cambridge University Press
0521833612 - Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Formation of a Liberal Republicanism in England - by Vickie B. Sullivan


This work examines the writings of selected English thinkers of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries with republican sympathies. These writers, I argue, contribute to the reconciliation of elements of republicanism with liberalism that eventuates in a new synthesis - liberal republicanism. This particular formulation is intended to be disruptive of the current thinking on the relation between republicanism and liberalism, because republicanism was, and continues to be, a phenomenon associated, for the most part, with antiquity, whereas liberalism is decidedly a product of modernity. The republicanism of these English thinkers is fundamentally influenced, I will show, by the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, and their liberalism derives primarily from transformed elements of Thomas Hobbes's thought. The reconciliation of two such apparently contradictory terms - liberalism and republicanism - is unlikely to be a simple story; in fact, the history of that reconciliation is a complicated one.

The philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, for example, gives voice to the complicated character of the melding of republicanism and liberalism, of elements of antiquity and modernity. What this philosopher expresses as the entanglement of these elements has become in the thought of contemporary scholars and political thinkers a stark polarization: republicanism and liberalism are mutually contradictory. If thinkers evoke republican themes, then they are allied with antiquity and arrayed against the forces of liberal modernity. Because elements once understood as entangled are now simplified and portrayed as dichotomous, it is a crucially important task to clarify what each of the constituent elements is, how they interacted, and how each affected the other. The place to begin the unraveling is with Machiavelli and his English followers, who initiated this blending of antiquity and modernity and who have of late received a great deal of attention. That attention, though, cries out for even greater scrutiny of their writings because it has focused exclusively on the republican and ancient side and, hence, has oversimplified the character of their thought.

We can begin to see the complicated, intertwined nature of liberalism and republicanism when we turn to consider the constituent elements of the liberal republicanism of the English writers I treat. Liberalism posits that individuals are the bearers of natural rights and that all are by nature equal and free. Such natural equality and freedom dictate that there are no natural governors and no natural governed. In order for one individual to have political authority over another, that other must consent to be ruled. Political power, then, finds its origin in the consent of the governed. Contemplating the individual apart from the community on this understanding is not merely possible; in fact, it is absolutely necessary if we hope to understand the proper role and scope of government. Such a consideration reveals that individuals construct government as a mechanism that protects their natural rights. Governments are necessary in order to keep order, because rights can only be protected where law is known and settled and a power exists to enforce it against violators. Thus, liberalism emphasizes that government serves the individual by providing the security necessary to acquire property and to pursue private happiness and by refraining from infringing on the individual's liberty. On this view, government is a human construct intended specifically to serve the individual. The individual is prior to the state.

Because the individual receives such priority in liberalism, the status of the public realm, if not completely uncertain, is certainly diminished with respect to the private realm. The natural rights of individuals are exercised primarily in the private realm. This realm consists of the household, where people acquire possessions and educate their children, and of those voluntary associations, where they worship God and organize projects with like-minded neighbors, for example. The pursuit of these activities appears not to require political activity as such. Politics, of course, is in the background, for a life lived in private requires order, which necessitates that some others make the laws, enforce the laws, and judge and punish offenders. Because not all need tend to these functions, liberalism does not emphasize political participation and seems largely unconcerned with the type of regime, although John Locke, whose name provides an adjective by which to specify a type of liberalism, declares that property cannot be properly protected unless the legislative power "consists, wholly or in part, in Assemblies which are variable."1 On the basis of this claim, Locke points to a moderate monarchy as a preferred form of government. His specification arises directly from a concern for individual rights, underlining that for the liberal what matters most about politics is the government's promotion of the individuals' interests and well-being.

Republics, particularly the city-states of antiquity, not monarchies, whether absolute or moderated by parliaments, evince the type of intense political involvement of the citizenry so contrary to a liberal society. Indeed, such republics, where the people conduct the business of the regime, seem not to accord with the primary interests of liberalism: acquisition, industry, and the private pursuit of happiness. It is difficult for individuals to pursue their own interests when they are constantly being pulled into the public arena to debate the proper measures for the common good and, then, asked to sacrifice in order to institute them.

This ready contrast between the political life of the ancient and modern polities did not escape those political philosophers who contemplated the implications of a liberalism on the ascendant. Montesquieu, for example, highlights the chasm between ancient and modern political life, by describing the awe-inspiring political dedication of the citizens of the ancient cities. In addition, though, he points to the possibility of a modern form of republicanism, quite different from the ancient form. Modern republicanism has, in his view, absorbed liberal purposes and improved upon ancient republican practices. In this way, he reveals a more complicated picture of the relation between modern liberalism and republicanism than the one contemporary commentators so often depict.

Montesquieu draws a stark contrast between the political life of the ancients and that of the moderns: "The political men of Greece who lived under popular government recognized no other force to sustain it than virtue. Those of today speak to us only of manufacturing, commerce, finance, wealth, and even luxury."2 The engrossment in individual and private concerns, so characteristic of modernity, pushes aside the emphasis on the inculcation of political virtue, so characteristic of antiquity, Montesquieu suggests. He goes on to examine the consequences of that ancient republican emphasis on virtue when he comments that "[m]ost of the ancient peoples lived in governments that had virtue for their principle, and when that virtue was in full force, things were done in those governments that we no longer see and that astonish our small souls."3 What the moderns find so striking about the deeds of the ancients is the degree to which the citizens put the interests of the state before their own: "[P]olitical virtue is a renunciation of oneself, which is always a very painful thing."4 So self-denying does Montesquieu find the citizen virtue of the ancient republics that, in his chapter entitled "What Virtue Is in the Political State," he compares the ancient republican citizens with the extreme ascetics of the modern world: "Love of the homeland leads to goodness in mores, and goodness in mores leads to love of the homeland. The less we can satisfy our particular passions, the more we give ourselves up to passions for the general order. Why do monks so love their order? Their loves comes from the same thing that makes their order intolerable to them. . . . The more austere it is, that is, the more it curtails their inclinations, the more force it gives to those that remain."5 In this manner, Montesquieu indicates the extent to which the demands of the ancient polities transformed the natural inclinations of those who inhabited them.

Although Montesquieu finds the principle of virtue as self-renunciation so necessary to the republics of antiquity, he does not associate that principle with republicanism simply. He finds that England is a "republic" that "hides under the form of monarchy,"6 and England, as Montesquieu presents it, is certainly not a republic that promotes the self-renunciation of its citizens. That modern nation, where the citizens speak of commerce, finance, and even of luxury, takes not virtue for its principle, but rather "political liberty" for "its direct purpose." Political liberty he defines "in a citizen" as "that tranquillity of spirit which comes from the opinion each one has of his security."7 Individual security, not selfless dedication to the polity, is the focus of the modern republic, he claims.

Moreover, the modern form of republic no longer demands that its citizens constantly debate and determine its policy. In modern practice, representation replaces participation Montesquieu heartily approves of this innovation: "A great vice in most ancient republics was that the people had the right to make resolutions for action. . . . The people should not enter the government except to choose their representatives."8 In this comment, he suggests the superiority of modern to ancient republicanism.

Montesquieu finds in England, therefore, not only a model for a new type of republicanism but, in some important ways, an improvement over the ancient type. His modern form of republicanism relies neither on the moral character of its citizens nor on their direct political participation. It is a republicanism that embraces the liberty of the individual, understood as the feeling of individual security, as its purpose. This modern republic relies on institutional means to achieve that purpose: the separation of powers as embodied in England's constitution.9 Montesquieu's modern republicanism has thoroughly reconciled itself to liberal purposes.

Not only ancient practice but prominent elements of ancient philosophy, of course, furnish a stark contrast to liberalism's emphasis on individuals and their desires. Aristotle, after all, declares both that the city is prior to the individual and that it is natural.10 Further, he explicitly denies that a city can be a product of a compact. Politics, according to his conception, is intended to improve citizens, not merely to prevent citizens from committing injustices against each other and to promote business transactions, bare requirements of political life, he concedes.11 Although acknowledging that the latter purposes, which, in fact, closely approximate the liberal conception of politics, are necessary for a city, Aristotle declares that they do not approach the city's true function. On the basis of such declarations, of course, Aristotle's thought permits for a much wider swath of the intrusion of politics into the lives of citizens. Further, the ancient philosopher defines the political relationship as ruling and being ruled in turn.12 Participation, again, calls liberalism to account. The aspirations both of ancient politics and political philosophy, then, in some salient respects oppose themselves to the very purposes of liberalism.

Contrary to Montesquieu's suggestion that some new variant of republicanism could, and had, in fact, accommodated itself to the individualism of the liberal regime - as evidenced by the political experience of the English - recent scholars of intellectual history and political theory argue that adherents of republicanism not only persevered in maintaining their allegiance to ancient thought but also successfully contained the encroachment of modern, liberal ideas, in England and in America as well. In this way, these scholars offer an excessively polarized view of the relation between republicanism and liberalism: republicanism is necessarily ancient and is thoroughly hostile to liberalism and its purposes.

This thoroughly dichotomous depiction of the relation of republicanism and liberalism has had a profound impact in a number of disciplines. Perhaps deepest is its impact on the study of the American founding. During the second half of the twentieth century, a group of scholars transformed the study of the thought surrounding the founding period in America, which conventional wisdom had ruled thoroughly Lockean, by maintaining that classical republicanism ruled the thoughts and motivated the actions of the Americans. Although the details of their assessments vary, they are united in claiming that liberalism derived from Locke was not foremost in the American mind at the creation of the United States. Instead, they claim, the Americans were shaped by the classical republican tradition that had found fecund soil in Renaissance Italy, and that had then traveled to England with the thought of Machiavelli, taking root in the thought of various Englishmen who opposed the crown during and after the English Civil Wars.13 When it came time for the Americans themselves to oppose the crown, they drew inspiration from their English predecessors.14 These English thinkers, important scholars claim, had embraced the ancient and distinguished tradition of thought that spoke in terms of virtue rather than self-interest, looking to what the individual could sacrifice for the common life of the state.15

This historical scholarship, which interprets treatises from the Renaissance, tracts from the English Civil Wars, and pamphlets from the American Revolutionary War, has influenced contemporary political discussions. Many who reflect on contemporary politics and society ask with increasing frequency and urgency how, if governments are intended to serve individuals, do they elicit the service of citizens on their behalf, the very type of service that would nourish and promote the public realm. The community seems unequipped to make any claims on the individual. As a result, the community suffers as the claims of the individual are elevated. According to these thinkers, such a priority produces selfish individuals alienated from their communities and their fellow citizens; it teaches individuals to claim rights and to evade duties. Driven by their dissatisfaction with contemporary, liberal politics, they appeal to the republican tradition and its battle with liberalism (as depicted by the historians) in order to posit an alternative. Liberalism produces the unsatisfactory political life that marks the contemporary situation, and republicanism is its vanquished but intrepid opponent that harkens back to the vital politics of the Italian cities of the Renaissance and the city-states of Greece and of Rome. The worthier contender in this battle, these contemporary thinkers maintain, did not emerge victorious. The contemporary citizen would do well to learn from the experiences of a more fulfilling, because more selfless, political life.16

This book makes the case that the relation between republicanism and liberalism need not result in this hostile antinomy. Indeed, such a thing as a liberal republicanism is not only possible but was actually present very early in the history of liberalism. The process of reconciliation between the two, I argue, began even before Locke's Second Treatise was written, let alone promulgated. This reconciliation occurred in the thought of the very English writers to whom recent scholars have pointed as the source of the classical republican tradition for the later Americans, so radically opposed to liberalism.17 These writers expressed varying degrees of republican sympathies during and after the English Civil Wars.18 These writings that I examine belong to Marchamont Nedham, James Harrington, Henry Neville, Algernon Sidney, and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (who together coauthored a series of editorials entitled Cato's Letters).19 Their liberal republicanism eventuates in an understanding of politics that makes the private primary - that is, the rights of individuals - but relies heavily on a public means to effect that end. It brings the citizens into the public realm by relying on them not only to elect their representatives but also to be constantly vigilant so that they can act with dispatch and decisively - even vengefully - when those representatives forsake their interests and violate their rights. It blends liberalism with Machiavelli's republicanism.

The Foundations of Liberal Republicanism

The republicanism of the writers I examine derives primarily from Machiavelli's Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy - a republicanism far removed from that which can be termed classical - and their liberalism primarily from certain themes Hobbes expounds in his various writings, which these writers transform to fulfill their liberal purposes.20 Machiavelli and Hobbes, then, are the primary sources of this liberal republicanism, but the thought of each had to be radically transformed before either could contribute to this new combination. As my examination of the thought of each illustrates, neither Machiavelli nor Hobbes would endorse this synthesis had they known to what purposes their writings would be put. Liberal republicanism could hold no allure for either of them, although each offered essential components of it, nevertheless.

One of the most important elements that Machiavelli contributes to this particular form of republicanism is an intense dedication to a democratic republicanism. He, in fact, makes prominent claims in favor of the people and denounces, in their name, the tradition of "all the writers" on politics as being too aristocratic.21 The supporters of an aristocratic republicanism, he observes, would reject out of hand Rome's political life, pronouncing that the people had too prominent a role there: not only were the people able to enforce their demands against the nobility, but one such demand resulted in the institution of the tribunate, which gave the people and their supporters a direct voice in the government. The people's prominent role in Rome's governance resulted in a chaotic political realm and contributed to the republic's ultimate collapse. In contrast, Machiavelli has no such scruples. He endorses Rome precisely because it embraced the people.

Liberal republicanism, as we shall see, concerns itself with the people and their pursuits. It seeks to serve their own ends. Machiavelli's republicanism, then, serves liberal republicanism's purposes by bringing this class forward as worthy to participate in government. Machiavelli, though, would not endorse liberal republicanism's ultimate position on the people. As my chapter on Machiavelli emphasizes, his endorsement of the people is not an end in itself but a means to his own end of war and empire. In his view, any state capable of acquiring and maintaining an empire must have as many people as possible armed as soldiers to fight in this cause. His overture to the people originates from this necessity. In Machiavelli's Discourses, his own concerns consistently trump the people's.

In order to produce an aggressive republic, Machiavelli sets himself the task of evaluating the appetites of the two classes, the people and the great. The people desire security and property, whereas the great desire dominance and honor. He constructs his republic squarely on the desires of each. He determines that his purpose is served - his purpose of creating a belligerent republic - if both classes can to a degree satisfy their desires. Neither, though, can satisfy its desires to too great a degree. If the satisfaction of either were to occur, either the people would have overturned the great or the great, the people. In either case, the resulting form of government would be incapable of maintaining an acquiring army. Again, his republicanism serves his overarching purpose of war and empire.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments; Introduction; Part I. The Foundations of Liberal Republicanism: 1. Machiavelli's republicanism; 2. Hobbes on peace, the passions and politics; Part II. The Formation of the Synthesis: 3. Marchamont Nedham and the beginnings of a Liberal republicanism; 4. The distinctive modern republicanism of James Harrington; 5. Henry Neville's proposal for a republic under the form of monarchy; 6. Algernon Sidney as anticipator of Locke and secret admirer of Machiavelli; 7. Cato's thought as the reconciliation of Machiavellian republicanism and Lockean liberalism; Conclusion; Works cited; Index.

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