Republicanism is defined as a preference for a republican form of government. Those who favor republicanism have a strong dislike of monarchies that are passed down as an inheritance, such as that of England’s royal family. Rather, supporters of republicanism prefer their government to be a self-government, established by the citizens of their particular country. To explore this concept, consider the following republicanism definition.

Definition of Republicanism


  1. Loyalty to, or sympathy for, a Republican form of government.
  2. Having Republican principles.


1685-1695       French républicain

What is Republicanism

Republicanism is a set of beliefs founded on the idea that the liberty of a country’s citizens is constantly being threatened by those in power, and that it is the responsibility of those citizens to protect that power. As an example of republicanism principles, it is felt that government officials should not run for public office, or use a public office position, for their own personal gain. Rather, they should act in ways that benefit their communities as a whole.

Initially, it was believed that all U.S. citizens under republicanism were considered equal, though the definition of “citizen” has been changed throughout the years to mean different things. For instance, in modern times, a black person is considered a citizen, whereas in the early days of republicanism, they were not. Republican citizens believe they must be prepared for any negative influences that could set the nation on a path toward tyranny or a dictatorship. Liberty is considered a fragile thing, and it is up to the nation’s citizens to protect it.

The definition of republicanism has become complicated, due to the fact that American republicans today interpret its principles quite differently from the republicans who initially created the concept during the days of the Renaissance.

Classical Republicanism

Republicanism was brought back to life in Europe during the Middle Ages when certain states were leaning more toward the idea of a republican system of government. These states tended to be smaller but wealthier. By the time the Renaissance rolled around, Europe was divided into monarch states and republic states. In a republic, power is given to elected individuals who act on behalf of their citizens, and government leaders rule in accordance with the law.

Because Renaissance scholars referenced ancient world ideals in order to advance what they believed was an ideal government, the form of republicanism that developed during the Renaissance is referred to as “classical republicanism.” Despite being a revamped system, this version of republicanism incorporated ideas from classic systems, hence its name.

Modern scholars believe that referring to this system of government is confusing, as the term “classical republicanism” could be interpreted as the system of government that was actually relied on in the ancient world. They have since proposed the usage of the term “early modern republicanism” to describe the system of government that developed during the Renaissance. That is why this system of government can also at times be referred to as “civic humanism.”

Classical republicanism, despite its name, is actually an early theory of democracy. Its core principle is that the best possible government is one that promotes a “common good” for the benefit of everyone in its society, as opposed to people being motivated by their own self-interests. Classical republicanism was inspired by the writings of such classical philosophers as Aristotle and Cicero.

Classical Republicanism and Natural Rights

Classical republicanism promoted the natural rights philosophy, which is echoed in the Declaration of Independence. Natural rights (or “unalienable rights”) are those rights that are not dependent on, nor can they be changed by, manmade laws, cultural customs, or the beliefs of any culture or government. These rights include such things as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Other natural rights include the right to protect oneself from physical harm, the right to worship as one chooses, the right to express oneself, among others.

The reason why classical republicanism is so prevalent in the Declaration of Independence is because of the colonists’ recognition of the fact that they wanted their government to be vastly different from that of the British parliament. They believed that they were following their civic duty by separating from Britain for the purposes of preserving the “common good.”

History of Republicanism in America

The history of republicanism in America is actually heavily influenced by the history of British parliament. American colonists in favor of republicanism were especially influenced by the writings of British philosophers during the early eighteenth century. Colonists during the early history of republicanism in America would compare the picture they had in mind of an ideal republic with the actual monarchy that was present in Great Britain.

The problem, however, was that Great Britain’s monarchy had become corrupt – the very thing that republicanism sought to avoid. Ultimately, British citizens valued their own personal gains over the self-sacrifice they would have to endure to profit. This led to British citizens accepting their king’s assumption of more power, the very power that would cost them their freedom. America watched this and realized that, if it was going to survive as a nation, it needed to do the exact opposite of what Great Britain was doing, and so began the early days of history of republicanism in America.

As a result, America’s Founding Fathers had significantly different ideas than those held by the old world’s monarchies. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, among others, sought to establish a democracy of citizens that would be judged by their individual merits, not by who their ancestors were. They also worked to ensure that regular elections would be held, so as to ensure that those who were in charge were those who were committed to acting in the public’s best interests.

Further, a system of checks and balances was implemented to keep officials in check. Under such a system, one of society’s sectors could not end up obtaining too much power and threatening the majority, because the majority was permitted to veto that sector’s proposals. The Fathers believed that these elements combined would create an ideal example of republicanism that other governments the world over would look to emulate. Some historians believe that republicanism was more than a form of government to the Founding Fathers; it was a way of life.

Modern Republicanism

Modern Republicanism was a philosophy created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. The purpose of this philosophy was to establish more of a balance between governmental intervention and individual freedom. This idea opposed classical republicanism’s more extreme take that everyone should operate for the benefit of society with little to no governmental intervention.

Eisenhower’s modern republicanism philosophy was a response to the extreme Republicans of the time, who felt that President Truman’s Fair Deal and President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs should both be abolished. Both of these programs had previously worked to increase governmental spending and intervention. Eisenhower attempted to retain some of the prior presidents’ ideas, while also providing a way for people and the economy to maintain more freedoms.

Under Eisenhower’s modern republicanism plan, the government was able to implement more positive measures for its citizens. For one thing, it was able to expand the Social Security program, and better control the minimum wage. In addition, the new system provided low-income housing to those in need, and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was established to ensure that the government was deeply invested in caring for its citizens’ well-being.

Despite making all of these improvements, Eisenhower did not bankrupt the government, or its citizens, in order to do get things done. He actually supported a modest spending program that resulted in a full two-percent decrease in government spending over the course of his presidency.

Republicanism Example in Rhode Island

An example of republicanism disputes involved the state of Rhode Island, and came about in 1841. At that time, Rhode Island’s government was still operating under the outdated terms established in 1663 by a royal charter. This charter placed a strict restriction on who was allowed to vote, and didn’t allow for amendments to the law. Groups who were protesting the charter held a convention to enforce the drafting of a new constitution, as well as to overthrow the state government and elect a governor. This movement was known as the “Dorr Rebellion.”

The rebellion started off as a peaceful political protest, but it ultimately turned violent. As a result, the old charter government declared martial law for the area, meaning that a temporary law was imposed and enforced by military forces. Martial law is typically only imposed when the civilian government has been declared broken, or during times of civil unrest.

The state legislature required that federal troops be dispatched to the area to break up the rebellion, but President John Tyler ultimately decided not to send the soldiers in because he felt that the threat of domestic violence was fading significantly as time went on. The rebellion was squashed when Dorr decided to disband the group, after realizing that he would ultimately be defeated in battle by the approaching militia.

Martin Luther, a member of the Dorr Rebellion (no relation to Martin Luther King, Jr., nor the Martin Luther who authored the Ninety-Five Theses), was arrested by a state official, Luther M. Borden, who searched Luther’s home and allegedly damaged his property. Luther sued, complaining that the Supreme Court should find that because the charter government was not “republican in nature,” and therefore was unconstitutional.

In addition, he complained that Borden had not acted with proper authority in arresting Luther and searching his home. If the Court were to find in favor of Luther, then they would simultaneously find that the “Dorrite” government (an alternative republican government) was the true and lawful government of Rhode Island. The charter government would then be effectively overthrown.

The Supreme Court ultimately held that the federal courts had no authority to determine the qualifications for voting in each of the states; neither was it the federal courts’ responsibility to determine whether or not a state government had been lawfully established. The Court further noted that the creation of republican governments, as well as the control over any domestic violence matters that may break out within the states, are of a political nature, and should be decided by Congress and the President. The Court deferred the entire decision to them.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Martial Law – The temporary imposition of military control over the civilian population of a specific territory.

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