This presidential address was delivered at the Hilton Hotel, San Francisco, California, December 29, 1965. Published in the American Historical Review 71:2 (January 1966): 403-20.

At the Roots of Republicanism

A prominent characteristic of the writing of history in the United States since 1940 has been the retreat from the economic interpretation. In American history it is sometimes expressed by attacks on Charles Beard. In the interpretation of the French Revolution and the associated group of “democratic revolutions” economic conditions now receive less attention than do political situations and political conceptions.1 In the storm over the gentry and the Puritan revolution in seventeenth-century England the idea of class has been thoroughly torn to pieces.2 A somewhat similar reinterpretation of the history of such Italian city-states as Venice and Florence subordinates classes to republicanism.

My thesis here is that republicanism, not capitalism, is the most distinctive and significant aspect of these Italian city-states, that republicanism gave to the civilization of Italy from the thirteenth through the sixteenth century its distinctive quality and very largely explains the intensity shown in imitating classical antiquity. The attempt to revive the culture of the ancient city-states strengthened in turn the republican ideal and contributed mightily to its triumph later in modern nations and primarily in our own.

Applying to my own generation the method it has delighted to apply to earlier generations of historians, I cannot fail to observe that the obvious explanation of the general retreat from economic interpretations is to be found in the changing political situation. Not only the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union but also the tyranny and rigidity of postwar Communism threw shadows of suspicion and disgust over Marxist history and then by association over all kinds of economic interpretation. These extraneous influences intensified a reaction of which one can find beginnings in historical studies before 1940.

Fortunately the retreat from economic interpretations has not been accompanied by any retreat from economic history. On the contrary, freed from distracting demands to supply data that might be used to serve economic interpretations of politics, art forms, and other phenomena outside its own sphere, economic history has been better able to concentrate on questions concerning the amount and distribution of production and its methods. As a result of more knowledge about variations in economic growth, we can no longer attribute a progressive commercialization of culture in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to a growing volume of trade and wealth in those same centuries.3 Economic growth has not been continuous. Between 1300 and 1500 there were severe downward movements in population and production, and the recoveries were spotty. A more vigorous, more general growth in population and trade occurred earlier, during the so-called Age of Faith in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.4

For the Italian city-states, the so-called Age of Faith was in fact also an age of capitalism, if we mean by capitalism a society so organized that men can make money by investing their capital.5) Traveling merchants were beginning to be replaced by resident or sedentary merchants who were able by paper work to control transactions at a distance. The successful search for early documents regarding banking, double-entry bookkeeping, and big business partnerships has given more and more reason to date their beginnings in the thirteenth century, and the more we discover of the capitalistic aspects of the economic life of that age the closer appear the links between its civilization and that of ensuing centuries.6

This commercialized atmosphere certainly conditioned the way republicanism developed, as did also the appearance of the new classes: merchant capitalists, shopkeepers, craftsmen, and day laborers. Without the conditions created by economic developments, the new political institutions would have been practically unthinkable. One can accept that much of the economic interpretation while rejecting the Marxist theory of the state, namely, the view that all government is essentially the dictatorship of one class over another and that class struggles are the determinants of political developments. New political programs appeared in response to new economic conditions, but they were not class programs. An examination of the main stages in the development of republicanism shows that political ideas and actions pitted men of the same economic class against each other and brought men of different economic status together seeking common goals.

I use the word republicanism to summarize one set of goals: the rejection of hereditary kingship in order to devise other forms of government that their creators believed would permit and encourage more men to participate more actively in making laws and choosing leaders.

In this development, the first step toward republicanism was local independence. Only through the autonomy of small units could a substantial portion of the men in a political unit be given a share in decision making. A feudal kingdom containing millions from whom the king summoned a few hundred notables before making any declaration of law was less republican, for example, in our sense, than a city of twenty to fifty thousand where as many as a thousand gathered in the town square or cathedral, arguing, cursing, shouting, and perhaps also voting their approval and disapproval of laws and leaders. Unless these units of ten thousand to a hundred thousand had been insistent on their autonomy, laws and leaders would have been imposed on them from the outside. Independent, they became exponents of republicanism both in principle and in practice. They acted on the principle that rulers derived their powers from the people. Although the idea that the community was the ultimate source of political authority was carried over from antiquity in Roman law, kings and emperors who were accustomed to using the hierarchic descending theme showed marked reserve about embracing an ascending theme which might strengthen them against the pope, but might weaken their authority over their own subjects. The Italian cities felt no such restraints.7 Venice, the longest lived of these republics, expressed its claim to independence from the Byzantine Empire through the election of its own doge, and used that independence to turn the doge into a republican magistrate. Later, in their fights against the Hohenstaufen emperors, many Italian communes won freedom from an outside control that would have reduced the number of townsmen taking part in government and restricted the extent to which they could make their own rules.8 Compared to all other political organizations prior to the American and French Revolutions, the government of the communes was, Robert Lopez declares, the one that offered to the “greatest number a chance to make their voice heard in the conduct of public business.”9

These communal organizations were first formed in northern Italy, not mainly by merchants but by lower members of the feudal class. The association of knights as peers in a regional feudal court was one of the experiences that made joint local action seem natural and legitimate. To form a commune, various landowners joined together and pooled their rights, claiming to exercise jointly judicial and fiscal powers, fragments of which they might have asserted as individuals. They claimed, in addition, to speak for their bishop and exercise his temporal powers. The new kind of political organization would not have seemed practical or desirable, to be sure, without the commercial expansion of the twelfth century, but the leadership which built republics on that economic base came not so much from a new class of merchants as from landowners who set their loyalty to a commune above that to any feudal superior.10

The success of communal republicanism depended on the readiness of its leaders to share power with others as equals. It is characteristic of a republic, as distinct from a monarchy, that when conflicts arise in its governing councils they are settled, not by deferring to the will of a superior, but by accepting the will of the majority. Where that principle prevailed, men rose to power not through the favor of a hereditary prince but by winning the confidence of men of their own rank or below.11 In Venice, which had been largely commercial from its beginnings, republicanism was not firmly established until, in 1172, a group of the wealthiest families took control of the choice of doge and worked together, deferring among themselves to the vote of the majority and loyally taking second place when a rival was elected to the highest office. Sebastian Ziani and Enrico Dandolo are the best known of the group, but even more significant were Pietro Ziani and Rainiero Dandolo, their sons, men of high ability who did not insist on succeeding their fathers. By their restraint even more than their success in office, this group gave living effectiveness to the constitutional provisions which at the end of the twelfth century transformed the dogeship into a republican magistracy.12

Popular participation in the government of these city-states, which at first was slight or informal, was increased by a thirteenth-century movement closely connected with the rise of new classes. With deceptive simplification this movement was called the rise of the people, il popolo. Actually three distinct aspects of change in class structure were involved. New families were acquiring wealth through commerce and investing it in land. At the same time families of inherited wealth invested in trade and became partially merchants. These two developments changed the character of the ruling class, but it is to be noted that they did so not through a class war but by class transformation, through absorption of new men and new methods. At the same time craftsmen and petty shopkeepers increased in numbers so as to form a distinct class ranking below the ruling class even by their own standards. While the newly rich were struggling to be accepted as equals by the old families, craftsmen and shopkeepers were demanding a share in power, although accepting a secondary social position. These contests destroyed republicanism in some places, but in others they strengthened it by stimulating the formation of institutions that widened popular participation.13

In Venice the new rich were absorbed into the ruling class without destroying that class’s extraordinary solidarity, without the fierce factions that stained republicanism in so many other Italian cities. Crucial in this process was the reform of the Great Council in 1297, a reform misnamed “the closing” because the procedure then adopted was later used to restrict membership. Its immediate purpose and effect were to enlarge the membership. Between 1295 and 1311 the membership of the Great Council was increased from about 400 to 1,017. Analysis of the names of councilors shows that this was the culmination of a long process of acceptance of new men into positions of political importance.14

While republicanism was being more firmly rooted at Venice by the acceptance of new families into its ruling class, it was also receiving re-enforcement from the formation of guilds, which gave some self-government to artisans and shopkeepers. Just as municipal particularism was essential to enable more men to take part directly in making the decisions that affected them all as inhabitants of the same city, so professional particularism was the means by which more men gained a part in framing the rules that regulated their activities as members of an occupational group and in choosing its officials. In both cases participation by a larger percentage of its membership was made possible by the smaller size of the rules-making group. Of course if the principle had been carried to its extreme and each guild had become as particularistic as was each Italian city-state, there would have been anarchy within the cities, just as there was a kind of anarchy in intercity relations. In some cities the subordinate units within the city–craft guilds, trade associations, and family leagues–did destroy civic peace. But at Venice the guilds were given a strictly limited role. Their members could initiate rules governing their particular trade and could distribute among themselves the honors and duties of enforcing these rules, but in these activities they were subject to officials chosen directly or indirectly by the Great Council in which the guilds were not represented. Guildsmen as such were only second-class citizens, yet they had citizenship of a kind.15

Thus consolidated, the Venetian Republic gained a high reputation for the success with which it solved many problems in state building that were to confront European governments during the next few centuries, namely, upholding public law over private privilege and vengeance, curbing the Church’s political influence, and inventing mercantilist measures to increase wealth. Byzantine traditions and the relative weakness of professional organizations at Venice made it easier to establish there a coordination of social life under the sovereignty of the republic.

In Florence, as in most Italian city-states, new men were not accepted so smoothly into the ruling class; the artisan-shopkeeper class was not so easily satisfied; and the coordination of all social life by republican means was less complete. Since old families which had established the commune were less willing to share the honors and powers of office with the newly rich, the latter had to shove their way up. They did so by forming guilds of their own and allying with the artisans and shopkeepers. In Florence the crucial document in this development was the Ordinances of Justice of 1293, which the Florentines regarded as their basic constitution. Not so long ago, when economic interpretation was the vogue, these ordinances were believed to represent the triumph of merchant capitalists over feudal landlords.16 But merchants and landlords did not form separate classes at Florence at that time. Successful merchants were also landowners, and most of the big landowners were either merchants themselves or had brothers and sons so engaged and were quite ready to marry a daughter to a merchant provided he was sufficiently rich and of good repute. The wealth that enabled new families to enter the ruling class was derived mainly from trade, industry, or banking, but once arrived the newly rich bought land for economic as well as social reasons and merged their manners and political attitudes with the class to which they had attained. When that class divided on a political issue, as did the Florentine upper class in 1293, it was not in accordance with any division between merchants and landlords, for there was in fact no such division.17

The problem that the Florentine Ordinances of justice most obviously attempted to solve was the enforcement of law and order on members of the upper class who conducted feuds among themselves, inflicting violence heedlessly on those who got in the way. Enforcing obedience to general or civic law was a major issue in many parts of Europe in the late thirteenth century. The king was the rallying point for such efforts in France and England. In Florence it was a portion of the ruling class of the city-state, a group of the landowning merchants, who put through a program for upholding civic law and penalizing those of their own class who held to knightly ideals of personal privilege. Their efforts at law enforcement were not notably successful, but in organizing for this purpose they expanded republican institutions. Guild membership was made the basis of political rights, and membership in the guilds was not hereditary. The new rich as well as the old rich were admitted to the great merchant guilds from which the rulers of the city-state were mainly chosen, and obscure parentage did not prevent the admission of either an outstanding scholar such as Leonardo Bruni or a rich businessman such as il Datini.18 At the same time, the shopkeepers and many of the artisans were permitted to organize guilds and were empowered through their guilds to have some of their members in the highest offices of state, as well as to formulate much of the regulation governing their own line of business. The larger role given the guilds made Florentine republicanism more disorderly but also more democratic than the republicanism of Venice.

Because representation in the highest councils was distributed among the guilds, Florentine politics appeared to be dominated more than it actually was by class conflicts over economic issues. Certainly there were some clear-cut cases of class war, for example, when those who were forbidden to organize their own guilds tried in vain to gain that right, as in the proletarian Ciompi rebellion. But most political struggles were between factions within the merchant-landowning upper class. Even during the depressed decades of the fourteenth century, rich men of new families competed for power with “old families” who had achieved high office generations earlier. In each generation the “new men” were the champions of the sovereign state against special privilege.19

The issues agitating Florence and other turbulent Italian cities were the same as those troubling contemporary monarchies–juridical immunities, tax exemptions, and so on–but the methods of political contest in Florence were distinctively republican. They made provision for the desire of citizens to share directly in decision making, to have their turn in holding important offices, and in feeling the honor and responsibility. Today political liberty means to many people the protection of private individuals against arbitrary acts by government officials. This is a negative conception, perfectly compatible with a selfish lack of interest in public affairs.20 It can lead to withdrawal in order to assert a kind of sovereignty over one’s self. Florentine institutions offered a different ideal of liberty, not protection from government but a chance to be the government. Freedom was action, social and political action, and demanded virtuosity.21

In distributing high office among members of the guilds, extensive use was made of lots, of drawing names from a bag, since this seemed the best way of assuring a rotation in office. Practicing the craft or trade of the guild was not considered necessary in order to be admitted to its membership; the guilds became as much election districts as occupational or profession groups; corruption was easy and took many forms. Real power almost always lay with some combination of the factions dividing the landowning merchant class, either because of the large representation given their own guilds or because of the influence that their money, family connections, and personal prestige gave them in other guilds and among the people generally.22 Florence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was a corrupt republic, but it was republican all the same, just as our government is today. In the United States also chicanery, emotion, and self-interest are sometimes more important than appeals to reason in the competition of leaders for the support of their fellow citizens.

The peak of popular participation in government was reached in Italy in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. Thereafter it was curtailed in several ways: by the suppression of particularism to the extent that the smaller cities were conquered by the larger; by a decline in social mobility; and by the spread of despotism. But the extent to which republicanism declined in Italy between 1250 and 1450 has been exaggerated. Many of the signori, whom we call despots in following the tradition fixed by the literary brilliance of John Addington Symonds, were in fact as well as in theory elective monarchs bound by oath to maintain the law of the city.23 They were the popular choice and were overthrown when they lost that support. Moreover the three leading commercial cities–Genoa, Florence, and Venice–remained republics. True, the republicanism of Genoa was expressed by deposing one would-be tyrant after another, as well as by the independence of the Bank of Saint George, but revolutions are as significant as the abuses that occasion them.24 In Florence the Medici family finally overtopped all the others, but adopted a princely style only with Lorenzo, and was driven out as soon as Lorenzo’s son neglected to consider the interests and dignity of the families with whose alliance the Medici had governed.25 Venice avoided the dominance of any single family and perfected a system of checks and balances within its ruling class. Although this class became strictly hereditary, its members were about as numerous as were the Florentines qualified for officeholding.26 Real power was concentrated in fewer hands at Florence than at Venice, because of electoral manipulation, but Florence was more democratic in admitting some of the artisan-shopkeepers to the higher offices and in keeping open avenues for the rise of new men.27 Unskilled laborers were not, of course, eligible for office at any time either in Florence or Venice. All my references to popular participation must be understood in a relative sense, appropriate to that age.

While republicanism lived on enfeebled in practice, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it conquered new ground intellectually. Defenders of the principles of republicanism had not been lacking earlier. Thomas Aquinas revived many of the ideas developed by the Greeks and Romans. Basing his political theory on Aristotle as well as on the Bible, he wrote more about city-states than about feudalism or universal empire, and he opened a channel for the later flood of republican theorizing by digging out within Christian theology a respectable, even an important place, for man as a citizen. Although he declared in favor of monarchy, St. Thomas praised popularly elected, law-abiding monarchies, which combined the best features of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.28 One of his disciples, Tolomeo of Lucca, was more explicit. Tolomeo explained why a republican rotation of many men through public offices was the form of government that best suited men of high spirit and intelligence such as the Italians, whatever might be good for men in other climes.29 Marsilius of Padua, building also on Aristotelian premises, asserted popular sovereignty more absolutely.30 But these discussions between 1250 and 1350 of the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy had a relatively detached, academic air. The form of government was a secondary matter to Thomas Aquinas; the essential for him was observance of the natural and divine law, and the burning issue of his time was the temporal power of the pope or the relations of Church and state.

These issues became secondary in Italy when republican theories attained a new and practical importance after 1400 in conjunction with Florentine humanism. By 1400 the leading despots had abandoned all pretense of being popularly elected monarchs. The most powerful among them, the Visconti of Milan, had sought and received sanction of their power from above, from the emperor, and were adding to their domains so rapidly that they seemed likely to unite Italy under a Milanese monarch; at least it seemed that way to the Florentines. Supporters of the Visconti extolled the advantages of Italian unity under efficient administration in contrast to republican anarchy. In this situation Florentine patriots presented their defense of their own particularism as a general defense of freedom and republicanism.

The intellectual reverberations of this war propaganda were magnified by the rhetoric of that generation of Florentines who trumpeted their unlimited enthusiasm for humanistic studies. The leader of these civic humanists, as Hans Baron appropriately calls them, was Leonardo Bruni.31 Many of their specific arguments for considering republics better than monarchies, for example, the assertion that republics did more to stimulate virtue, had been suggested earlier by Thomas and Tolomeo.32 The civic humanists gave the issue personal meaning and applied it to their own historical situation. By treating monarchy as practically indistinguishable from tyranny, they identified themselves fully with republicanism. They glorified the Roman Republic, to the disparagement of the Roman emperors, rescued Brutus, the tyrannicide, from the place in hell to which Dante had consigned him, and instead of reproaching Cicero for neglecting literature out of preoccupation with politics, extolled him as an exemplar of the finest manly activity, the defense of liberty and general welfare in public life. This identification of their own republicanism and their own hatred of tyranny with the sentiments recorded in Greek and Roman literature was taken up in Venice also, which finally allied with Florence against the Visconti. In Venice and Florence men active in both the world of letters and in affairs of state applied political theories to current concerns in which the central issue was the nature and value of republican freedom.33

The republicanism of the Florentine humanists faded when the Visconti were crushed, and the only state that showed any possibility of dominating all Italy was the Venetian Republic. But the ideas of the civic humanists were revived vigorously in Florence at the end of the century in the republican enthusiasm that accompanied the expulsion of the Medicis. Francesco Guicciardini, Niccolò Machiavelli, and many other Florentines then went far beyond the humanists in systematic thinking about how their corrupt republic, or any corrupt republic, might acquire new and better institutions.34 Machiavelli is best known for advising princes to be unscrupulous. Like a daring physician trying to cure a patient in a desperate condition, he had the courage to prescribe poison, but his standard of health was republican.35 While the last Florentine Republic was being destroyed by Spanish and papal armies, its extremist leaders exalted the will of the people in a fashion that anticipated the Jacobins; of the French Revolution, and similarly turned the slogans of liberty into instruments of temporary tyranny.36 Caustic moderates like Guicciardini had meanwhile perfected the analysis of ancient and modern city-states in search of norms for an ideal constitution. They could depict their standards more concretely because there was one republic of their own time in which they saw them embodied, namely Venice. Impressed by Venetian prosperity and safety in spite of the clash of powerful monarchies that destroyed freedom elsewhere in Italy, Donato Gianotti first and then Gasparo Contarini created in the mid-sixteenth century a picture of Venice as the perfectly organized republic.37 This benign analysis lulled the Venetians into stagnation, but furnished inspiration to the scarce and struggling republicans of the seventeenth century.38

From its alliance with humanism, republicanism thus acquired the self-consciousness and sophistication that enabled it to survive as a fermenting element in the Western tradition even when it disappeared almost entirely from practice. The contrast between Italy and Northern Europe is striking. The growth of communes out of feudalism had not been restricted to Italy. Beyond the Alps also, men had formed these local units of self-government, and in some areas they had gained considerable autonomy. But the northern communes left no republican literary tradition comparable to that of the Italians. Their embryonic republicanism did not receive the same degree of stimulus from the revival of antiquity.

The junction between republicanism and humanism in Italy was not fortuitous. Although Petrarch was as much a friend of tyrants as of republicans, devotees of classical literature were likely to discover, sooner or later, whether because of the Visconti threat or some other incident, the similarity between their situation and that in the ancient city-states. Again men were deliberately attempting to shape institutions that would spread the powers of governing among the citizens and yet prevent a popular favorite from making himself master. Success was rare in either case. Tyranny as well as republicanism were experiences that the Italian cities shared with the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Ever since Christianity had triumphed over paganism, now one, now another aspect of classical antiquity had been studied with admiration in the West. The so-called revival of antiquity in fifteenth-century Italy was different only in being more nearly complete and in having distinctive emphases.39 For the first time there was a revival of the ancient attitude toward political life. The passionate concern of the civic humanists with politics made them understand, better than Petrarch ever could, why such men as Cicero had placed politics first. A St. Thomas could expound Aristotle’s generalizations about political organization, but a man of his principles and temper could not convey the feeling that politics was the most important thing in life, the feeling that pulsates through Machiavelli’s lines as it did through those of Thucydides and Livy.

The re-evaluation of politics created more sympathetic understanding of other aspects of classical civilization. It contributed much to a kind of self-consciousness that was less self-reliant than the individualism of the feudal nobles or the pioneering merchants of earlier centuries while it was more deliberate, more intellectual, and more devoted to those skills in verbal expression and communication that enabled men to compete and cooperate simultaneously in civic life. The change of values which occurred in the Italian city-states is sometimes said to have emphasized the qualities esteemed by merchants and productive of success in trade. It is at least equally true that they were the qualities commanding admiration in political give and take, those which Alfred North Whitehead has called the qualities of persuasion.40

To summarize this interpretation: From the twelfth to the sixteenth century the feature which most distinguished Italian society from that in other regions of Europe was the extent to which men were able to take part in determining, largely by persuasion, the laws and decisions governing their daily lives. This republicanism was not a class product, although commercial growth was one prerequisite for its development. This republicanism strengthened and was in turn reinforced by the efforts to revive classical antiquity and the values connected with its humanism.41)

Acceptance of this interpretation invites a change in the usual periodization of European history. If the republicanism of the city-states was so important, it deserves to be seen as a whole instead of being split and assigned half to one period, half to another, as is now so often done, thus divorcing the period of stabilization and rationalization from that in which the cities formed their basic republican institutions. Such a division obscures the amount of republicanism existing in both the Age of Faith and the Age of the Despots, so-called. An alternative is to treat the economic growth, the elaboration of republican institutions, and the changing artistic and intellectual climate as a closely connected whole spread over a period extending at least from 1200 to 1600, or possibly all the way from Sebastian Ziani to George Washington, an Age of Preindustrial Republicanism.

During those centuries European culture was being reshaped by many different movements, some of which had little connection one with the other. The antecedents explaining Europe’s oceanic expansion are quite distinct from those relevant to the agitation for antipapal religious reform. Only a very narrow conception of life will stress just one aspect or consider a single cause sufficient to explain all the diversity of historical change. I am arguing only that the growth and transformations of republicanism deserve a place of honor equal to that accorded other themes.

We should not wait for Italian historians to take the lead in emphasizing this republican element in their history. Like contemporary members of the historical profession in other lands, including many members of the American Historical Association, they are largely concerned with the nationalism of their own nation. Many of them are preoccupied by the problem of national unity, even in describing a period in which such unity was conspicuous by its absence, and pay less attention to the content of republican institutions than to the near success of now one power, now another, in efforts to dominate the peninsula that was later to become their nation.42 As Americans we have reason to be less attracted by these repeated failures to effect Italian unity than by the successes and failures of the Italians as republicans.

When Charles Homer Haskins gave his presidential address to this Association a generation ago he urged Americans not to be content with receiving European history secondhand in packages prepared by European scholars, but to work it up for themselves firsthand from the sources. He stressed in 1922 the need of making our own evaluations of the “national psychologies” active in the First World War and its settlement.43 Let me urge a variation on that theme and one I think particularly relevant in these times of emphasis on non-Western cultures and their histories. Although that emphasis is certainly needed to correct past neglect, our central task as a historical profession is to examine our own cultural traditions. Now one part of that tradition, now another, needs re-examination as the problems of the historian’s own time change. Most of our cultural traditions lead us back to Europe, but current problems take different forms in the various Western nations so that we have different needs in re-examining our complex common heritage. To learn what is of most value for us in European history we need to dig deep and assay the ore for ourselves.

When we look back into the growth there of our democratic ideals we of course find that the city-state was not their only source. It was only one of three main sources, although it is that to which we owe most of the language of politics, much of its machinery, and the very conception of government by the people. I can hardly do more than mention the others here, but do so in order to place my theme in better perspective. A second source was in the feudal parliamentary institutions that produced effective limitations on monarchy both in theory and practice and built the habit of government by representatives into the growth of nations of more size and power than could be embodied in any city-state. Running deepest and most varied in its manifestations have been the outpourings from the third source, namely, the idea of the rights and the worth of every human being. This conception of the dignity of human nature was cultivated by Stoic lawyers, Christian divines, and eighteenth-century rationalists and is still receiving new applications. It asks that what was attempted for only a few communities in the city-state, and for only a few classes by feudal parliamentarianism, be effected for all men. The ideal has not been realized; all three democratic traditions, even that derived from the city-state, can boast of being a tradition of failure in the sense that it embodies examples of behavior higher than were ever generally practiced.

Although Athens and Rome were the fountainheads of our republican heritage from the city-states, we received that legacy by transmission through the Italians who lived in republics from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. To republican practices in a pagan society worshiping local and family deities, the Italians added centuries of their own experience within a Christian society. They established Greek and Roman authors as authorities on politics, a position that these authors occupied thereafter in Western thought. They added thereto their own aspiring but critical and often bitter reflections and formulated in terms of their experience the rules for mixing monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements so as to secure good government. When the upsetting of custom-established monarchy by the Puritan revolution gave seventeenth-century Englishmen reason to speculate about the best form of government, Machiavelli’s republicanism became better understood. James Harrington praised him as “the sole retriever” of ancient prudence and hailed Venice as a model republic proving that a skillful mixture of institutions could overcome human weaknesses and defy time. Although these English republicans were swept aside by the Restoration, their good name and their ideas were cultivated during the eighteenth century by writers and agitators known as the “Commonwealthmen,” and it was these radicals who pulled together antimonarchic doctrines, drawing from all three sources of the democratic tradition, and supplied the material used by the pamphleteers of the American Revolution.44

The founding fathers of this republic knew the republican tradition of the Italian city-states not only through the English Commonwealthmen but also by firsthand study. Seeking lessons from the city-states of Italy as well as from those of antiquity, they formulated their own judgments on that experience. John Adams, for example, completely rejected the idealization of the Venetian constitution, which had found favor among the classical republicans of seventeenth-century England. He looked on all the European republics as utter failures. Their vices were evidence of the corruption of the Old World, but they were instructive failures, “full of excellent warnings,” he said, for the people of America, “the young of the New World.”45

A John Adams writing today would probably say that the warnings are particularly relevant now when our republicanism has become similarly old and corrupt. We are very different, to be sure, because industrialization has changed social structure, and political communities are now huge and bureaucratized. New technologies and new methods of production have changed the ways in which individuals can have a part in making laws and choosing leaders. Democratic ideals are being transformed in the light of these new possibilities and difficulties. At the same time the aspirations that history has built into us are themselves at work shaping new institutions to meet these conditions. If ideas were entirely determined by class interests, the aims and practices of the Italian cities would be worthy of attention only as reflections of a particular system of production. But there is a kind of life in ideas that enables them to pass from one social setting to another, changing somewhat in the process but contributing to the formation of social structures as well as receiving new meanings in new environments. Ideas born in Athens lived in Florence and are alive today.

The politics of Florence and Venice were very different from our own, certainly. In order to understand them we should start by putting aside concern with current problems and by entering into their fears and their enthusiasms for what they perceived as liberty. Not only have material conditions and social structures changed, but the kind of lives individuals desire to live and the kind of persons they want to be have altered, with a corresponding change in the purposes for which political rights are sought. Men whose main concern is to prevent the government from interfering with their private lives can only by an imaginative effort sympathize with an insistence on rights that enabled individuals to be the government, that is, to be sometimes the persons responsible for giving orders. Perhaps that attitude will become more easily understandable if citizens now, instead of continuing on the defensive against bureaucracy, undertake an offensive not to limit but to infiltrate it. That is only one possibility; an appreciation of the range of differences within our republican past widens the range of action that is possible in the present as we adapt our ideas to a new situation and thereby create new elements at work in that situation.

Frederic C. Lane was professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.



  1. R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (2 vols., Princeton, N. J., 1959, 1964), esp. II, 572-75. []
  2. Jack H. Hexter, “Storm over the Gentry,” in Reappraisals in History, ed. id. (London, 1961); Perez Zagorin, “The Social Interpretation of the English Revolution,” Journal of Economic History, XIX (Sept. 1959), 376-401. []
  3. This is the view strongly implied by Alfred von Martin, Sociology of the Renaissance (New York, 1963), 1. []
  4. Conflicting views are expressed in the articles of Carlo M. Cipolla, Robert S. Lopez, and Harry A. Miskimin in the Economic History Review. (Robert S. Lopez and Harry A. Miskimin, “The Economic Depression of the Renaissance,” Economic History Review, Ser. 2, XIV [Apr. 1962], 408-26; Carlo M. Cipolla, “The Economic Depression of the Renaissance?” ibid., XVI [Apr. 1964], 519-24; Robert S. Lopez, “The Economic Depression of the Renaissance?” ibid., 525-27; Harry A. Miskimin, “The Economic Depression of the Renaissance?” ibid., 528-29.) Although Cipolla rejects Lopez’ arguments for a “depression of the Renaissance,” he does not dispute the rapid growth in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. []
  5. This meaning of capitalism is applied by Oliver C. Cox, The Foundations of Capitalism (New York, 1959), but for Karl Marx the essential feature was “the division of classes between propertyless wage-earners and entrepreneurs who own capital.” (R. H. Hilton, “Capitalism–What’s in a Name?” Past and Present [No. 1, 1952], 32-43. []
  6. Armando Sapori, “La cultura del mercante medlevale italiano,” Rivista di storia economica, II (No. 2, 1937), tr. in Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings in Economic History, ed. Frederic C. Lane and Jelle C. Riemersma (Homewood, Ill., 1953), 53-65; Raymond de Roover, “The Commercial Revolution of the Thirteenth Century,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society (No. 16, 1942), 34-39, and “The Organization of Trade,” in Cambridge Economic History of Europe, III. On double entry and especially on the different meanings that he and De Roover give the term, see also Federigo Melis, Aspetti della vita economica medievale: Studi nell’ Archivio Datini di Prato (Siena, 1962), I, 391-403. On banking, see Roberto Sabatino Lopez, La prima crisi della banca di Genova, 1250-1259 (Milan, 1956). []
  7. Francesco Calasso, Medioevo del diritto (Milan, 1954), 182-83, 198, 209; Walter Ullmann, Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages (London, 1961), 219, 222-23, 296-97; Michael J. Wilks, The Problem of Sovereignty in the Later Middle Ages: The Papal Monarchy with Augustinus Triumphus and the Publicists (Cambridge, Eng., 1963), 184-85. []
  8. W. F. Butler, The Lombard Communes (London, 1906), 20, emphasizes the contrast between republicanism and feudalism. Antonio Pertile, Storia del diritto italiano (6 vols. in 8, Padua, 1880), II, Pt. i, describes the new republican institutions. []
  9. Robert S. Lopez, Naissance de l’Europe (Paris, 1962), 279. []
  10. Ernesto Sestan, “La città communale italiana,” in International Congress of Historical Sciences, XIth, Stockholm, 1960, Rapports, III, Moyen Âge (7 vols., Göteborg, 1960-62), 86-89; Luigi Simeoni, “Le origini del comune di Verona,” Nuovo archivio veneto, New Ser., XXV (1913), 74-133. Cino Franceschino, “La vita sociale e politica nel Duccento,” in Storia di Milano (16 vols., Milan, 1953-62), IV, 121, illustrates this spirit by citing a Milanese statute forbidding anyone losing a fief because of failure to render service against the city, “quia contra patriam suam, pro qua pugnare iure gentium debet, pro aliquo feudo adesse non compellitur.” On “patria,” see Gaines Post, Studies in Medieval Legal Thought: Public Law and the State, 1100-1322 (Princeton, N. J., 1964), 441-44, 449. Enrico Fiumi, “Fioritura e decadenza dell’ economia fiorentina,” Archivio storico italiano, CXVII (No. 4, 1959), 487-92, while admitting that nobles had a prominent part, argues that in Tuscany the lead was taken by landowning merchants. []
  11. Obviously republicanism as I here use the term is more nearly equivalent to what Mosca calls liberalism and not necessarily linked with the social-political mobility that he terms democracy. (Gaetano Mosca, The Ruling Class, tr. H. D. Kahn, ed. G. A. Livingston [New York, 1939], Chap. xv.) But mobility and liberalism were in fact linked together for some centuries, forming liberal democracies. []
  12. Roberto Cessi et al., Storia di Venezia, II, Dalle origini del Ducato alla quarta Crociata (Venice. Centro Internazionale delle Arti e del Costume, 1958), 408-17, 442-47; Giuseppe Maranini, La costituzione di Venezia dalle origini alla serrata del Maggior Consiglio (Venice, 1927), 109-43. []
  13. Its architectural expression in large halls is pointed out in Helene Wieruszowski, “Art and the Commune in the Time of Dante,” Speculum, XIX (Jan. 1944), 14-33. []
  14. Margarete Merores, “Der Grosse Rat von Venedig und die sogenannte Serrata von Jahre 1297,” Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, XXI (1928), 33-102; Roberto Cessi, Le origini del ducato veneziano (Naples, 1951), Chap. xi, and Storia della Repubblica di Venezia (2 vols., Milan, 1944), I, 265-70. []
  15. This definitely inferior kind of citizenship of the guildsmen is described as a sharing in elective honors by Gasparo Contarini, De Magistratibus & repub. Venetorum libri quinque (Basel, 1547), 196-97. But to equate guild membership, even of artists, with citizenship in a general glorification of Venetian republicanism may be going too far. Cf. H. G. Koenigsberger, “Decadence or Shift? Changes in the Civilization of Italy and Europe in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Ser. 5, X (196-), 9-10. []
  16. The classic statement of this view is the youthful work of Gaetano Salvemini, Magnati e popolani in Firenze del 1280 al 1295 (Florence, 1899). It appears somewhat modified in Robert Davidsohn, Geschichte von Florenz (4 vols., Florence, 1896-1927), and in Ferdinand Schevill, History of Florence (2 vols., New York, 1961), I, 156. []
  17. Nikola Ottokar, Il Commune di Firenze alla fine del Dugento (Florence, 1926); Johan Plesner, L’Émigration de la Compagne à la ville libre de Florence (Copenhagen, 1939); Enrico Fiumi, “Sui rapporti economici tra città e contado nella età communale,” Archivio storico italiano, CXIV (No. 1, 1956), 18-36, and “Fioritura e decadenza dell’ economia fiorentina,” ibid., CXV (No. 4, 1957), 395-401, 429-39, CXVI (No. 4, 1958), 482-96, CXVII (No. 4, 1959), 427-502; Marvin B. Becker, “Some Aspects of Oligarchical, Dictatorial, and Popular Signorie in Florence, 1282-1382,” Comparative studies in Society and History, II (The Hague, 1959-60), 421-24. []
  18. Lauro Martines, The Social World of the Florentine Humanists, 1390-1460 (Princeton, N. J., 1963), 165-76; Melis, Aspetti della vita economica medievale, I, 55; Iris Origo, The Merchant of Prato, Francesco di Marco Datini (New York, 1957), 69-70, 75, 140-48. []
  19. G. A. Brucker, Florentine Politics and Society (Princeton, N. J., 1962), esp. 390-91; Becker, “Signorie in Florence,” 425-30, “An Essay on ‘Novi Cives’ and Florentine Politics, 1343-1382,” Mediaeval Studies, XXIV (Toronto, 1962), 35-82, “Florentine ‘Libertas,’ Political Independents and ‘Novi Cives,’ 1372-78,” Traditio, XVIII (1962), 393-407, “The Republican City State in Florence: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Survival, 1280-1434,” Speculum, XXXV (Jan. 1960), 39-50, and “Florentine Popular Government,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, CVI (No. 4, 1962), 360-82. []
  20. This conception dominates H. A. L. Fisher, The Republican Tradition in Europe (New York, 1911). He dismisses the Italian cities, saying, “Liberty in the sense of political independence and class privilege was better understood than liberty in the sense of political toleration…” (p. 18). []
  21. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York, 1961), esp. 153-57, contrasts this virtuosity with the “free will” of Christian and philosophic traditions. “Liberté politique” is contrasted with “liberté civile” by C. L. Sismonde de Sismondi, Histoire des républiques italiennes du moyen âge (10 vols., Paris, 1840), X, Chap. viii. The institutions which Sismondi describes as essential to “liberté politique” are the same as those Tolomeo of Lucca considered appropriate to a republic which he calls, in the work cited below (note 29), a “regimen politicum.” []
  22. See the studies of Becker and Brucker cited above in note 19 and the review of Brucker’s book by L. F. Marks in Past and Present, XXV (July 1963), 80. []
  23. John Addington Symonds, The Renaissance in Italy, The Age of Despots (London, 1875). []
  24. Jacques Heers, Génes au xv siècle (Paris, 1961), 563-611. []
  25. L. F. Marks, “The Financial Oligarchy in Florence under Lorenzo,” and Nicolai Rubinstein, “Politics and Constitution in Florence at the End of the Fifteenth Century,” in Italian Renaissance Studies: A Tribute to the Late Cecilia M. Ady, ed. E. F. Jacob (London, 1960); Rudolf von Albertini, Das Florentinische Staatsbewusstsein im Übergang von der Republik zum Prinzipat (Bern, 1955), 15-18. []
  26. Francesco Guicciardini, “Dialogo del reggimento di Firenze,” in Opere, XXX, ed. Vittorio de Caprariis (Milan, 1953), 268-69, emphasized that “la plebe” was excluded in both cities and that the Venetian nobility were as numerous as qualified Florentines. []
  27. Hans Baron, “The Social Background of Political Liberty in the Early Italian Renaissance,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, II (The Hague, 1959-60). []
  28. Walter Ullmann, “The Individual in Medieval Society,” Lecture III, “The Humanistic Thesis: The Release of the Subject and His Emergence as a Citizen,” Lecture delivered at Johns Hopkins University in 1965; Étienne Gilson, Le Thomisme (5th ed., Paris, 1948), 455-59; and A. P. d’Entrèves’s introd. to Thomas Aquinas, Selected Political Writings, tr. J. G. Dawson (Oxford, Eng., 1918). []
  29. Since Tolomeo (often called Ptolemy of Lucca) continued the De Regimine Principurn ad regem Cipri begun by Aquinas, Tolomeo’s ideas on republicanism may be found in Thomas Aquinas, Opera Omnia secundum impressionem Petri Fiaccadori Parmae, 1852-1873 (reprint, 25 vols., New York, 1950), XVI, De Regimine Principum, Lib. II, Chaps. viii-x, and especially in Lib. IV. []
  30. Marsilius of Padua, The Defensor Pacis, tr. with introd. by A. Gewirth (2 vols., New York, 1956); C. W. Previté-Orton, “Marsiglio of Padua, Part II, Doctrines,” English Historical Review, XXXVIII (Jan. 1923), 1-17. []
  31. Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny (2 vols., Princeton, N. J., 1955). []
  32. Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, Lib. 1, Chap. iii, Lib. II, Chap. ix, Lib. IV, Chap. viii. []
  33. Baron, Crisis, I; C. C. Bayley, War and Society in Renaissance Florence (Toronto, 1961), Chaps. iii-v; N. Carotti, “Un politico umanista del Quattrocento,” Rivista storica italiana, Ser. 5, II (No. 2, 1937), 18-28. []
  34. Albertini, Florentinische Staatsbewusstrein; Felix Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence (Princeton, N. J., 1965), esp. 93-97. []
  35. Leopold von Ranke, Sämmtliche Werke (54 vols. in 25, Leipzig, 1875-1900), XXXIV, 174*. On Machiavelli’s republicanism, see also Hans Baron, “Machiavelli: The Republican Citizen and the Author of the Prince,” English Historical Review, LXXVI (Apr. 1961). Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, 171-79, also emphasizes his antiaristocratic republicanism. A good review of earlier discussions is Eric W. Cochrane, “Machiavelli, 1940-1960,” Journal of Modern History, XXXIII (June 1961), 113-36. []
  36. Albertini, Florentinische Staatsbewusstsein, 124-29. []
  37. Ibid., 113-14, 146-64; Herman Hackert, Die Staatschirift Gasparo Contarini’s und die politischen Verhaltnisse Venedigs in sechzehnsten Jahrhundert (Heidelberg, 1940). []
  38. Perez Zagorin, A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (London, 1954), 130, 141; Z. S. Fink, “Venice and English Political Thought in the Seventeenth Century,” Modern Philology, XXXVIII (Nov. 1940), 155-72. []
  39. R. R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries (Cambridge, Mass., 1954). []
  40. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York, 1955), 75-76; Hans Baron, “A Sociological Interpretation of the Early Renaissance in Florence,” South Atlantic Quarterly, XXXVIII (Oct. 1939), and his other articles there cited. []
  41. My interpretation is similar to Wallace K. Ferguson’s, but his emphasis on “urban laymen” seems to me to understate the significance of the contrast between Palermo or Paris on the one hand and Venice and Florence on the other. (Wallace K. Ferguson, “The Reinterpretation of the Renaissance,” in Facets of the Renaissance [New York, 1963], 15-16. []
  42. The not yet existing nation naturally supplies the unifying theme in any history of Italy, e.g., Nino Valeri, Storia d’Italia (5 vols., Turin, 1959-60), I, and his excellent, L’Italia dell’ età dei principati: 1343-1516 (Milan, 1949). Armando Sapori, on the other hand, has emphasized the unity of the whole period 1100-1600 and the vitality of republican liberty. See his “Il Rinascimento economico,” in Armando Sapori, Studi di storia economica, sec. xiii, xiv, xv (3d ed., 2 vols., Florence, 1955), I, 618-52, “Medioevo e Rinascimento,” Archivio storico i1aliano, CXV (No. 2, 1957), 141-64, and L’Età dell rinascita (Milan, 1958), 207-21. []
  43. Charles H. Haskins, “European History and American Scholarship,” American Historical Review, XXVIII (Jan. 1923), 215, 225. []
  44. Z. S. Fink, The Classical Republicans (2d ed., Evanston, Ill., 1962), Chaps. ii, iii; Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthmen: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), esp. 386; Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776, ed. Bernard Bailyn (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), I, 28-29. []
  45. John Adams, “A Defense of the Constitution of the United States of America,” in The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (10 vols., Boston, 1851), V, 332, accompanied by extensive discussions of Venice, Florence, and so forth, in IV and V. []