The predilection by many in neoreaction for the monarchical system of government exists to such a great extent that one might almost deem it a fetish. Mr. Mencius Moldbug, of course, kicked the entire enterprise off with his blog of Unqualified Reservations, in which, among other things, the virtues of monarchy were extolled. It was often difficult to tell if, in his posts, Mr. Moldbug was being ironic; indeed, it was often difficult to tell if Mr. Moldbug was being ironic about nearly everything he wrote. But as is so often the case on the internet, what may initially have been proffered ironically quickly lost those trappings, and instead was advanced in a more literal capacity. Twitter, these days, is replete with monarchists, or at least those who avail themselves of the label. I should go so far as to say that this monarchist strain among neoreactionaries is the leading element in the controversy that surrounds the movement. To the average modern man, the idea of wanting a king is nearly unimaginable, or so he has been conditioned to believe. Yet it is precisely this unimaginable quality of monarchy in the modern age that, I believe, explains its appeal among those who count themselves reactionaries. Monarchy, more than any other system of government, is rooted in the old world. Kings and their rights were living on borrowed time since the beginnings of the Modern period. A full-blown embrace of monarchy, therefore, is only a natural response to a rejection of Modernity and all its trappings.
I might observe, however, that monarchy is not the only system of government with its roots in the days of yore. There is, of course, the ancient Athenian democracy, with its power shared by all male citizens in common. However, that democracy might rather be considered a subset of the form of government most common in the pre-Modern world alongside monarchy. I speak, of course, about republics.
Wikipedia’s entry on the republican form of government begins with this definition: “A republic is a form of government in which the country is considered a ‘public matter,’ not the private concern or property of the rulers. The primary positions of power within a republic are not inherited. It is a form of government under which the head of state is not a monarch.”
Though it may often be observed that Wikipedia’s entries contain a certain amount of pro-liberalist slant, I consider this definition a good one. Rephrased slightly, we may say that a republic is a system of government in which the ultimate store of power rests in the hands of more than one person. In a monarchy, of course, all power resides ultimately in the king; even if the monarchy is not absolute, it is the king to which all other parties have recourse, and when disputes and doubts arise, it is his word alone that ultimately settles the issue.
By contrast, we may say that in a republic, power rests in the hands of “some.” And in this, we may distinguish certain republics from democracies, in which power, theoretically, rests in the hands of “all.” And since “all” may be considered a species of “some,” we may consider a democracy a species of republic.
However, not all republics are democracies, and it is this other species of republic which now intrigues me. Indeed, many republics throughout Western history have been less than democratic, and have restricted the actors in their state who could effectively wield power. We might term these “aristocratic republics,” in the interest of greater precision. And we will see that for the bulk of the West’s history, it was this form of government that stood as the most primary contrast to monarchy. As much ink has already been spilled about the latter system of government, I thought it might be productive to briefly examine the former. I shall rely mostly on Wikipedia for facts and data, because in doing so I shall be making use of information freely available to all, and, thus, information that it is difficult to dispute. And, for illustrative purposes, I shall focus on three old-fashioned, aristocratic republics, and the principles they share in common.
It is highly proper, to begin with the Romans, for it is from them that our conception of this sort of republic flows; indeed, the very word “republic,” is derived from Rome’s name for itself, Res Publica Romana: the “public business” of Rome. I would direct my readers to this article on the republic’s constitution, and what may strike them immediately is how thoroughly local the government was. I refer here to the assemblies: the curiae, the centuria, and the tribes. In them a principle that will hold through the other two old-fashioned republics: local control of local matters. One of the chief reasons, we may surmise, that the more centralized, aristocratic power of these antique republics was not so often objected to was that its reach was not so great, or so extensive. It had not the ever-grasping tentacular quality of our modern centralized states. Local matters, all too often, were left to local powers, the ultimate example being the Roman family, over which the eldest male exercised nearly total sovereign authority. Small matters were best left to small authorities, and so they were.
Yet, of course, the Roman Republic had a central government, and here is where its aristocratic tendencies come more to the front. The Senate, that famous institution, was initially a hereditary body, made up of noble families from the old monarchy. In time, though, its membership was expanded to include Rome’s former magistrates, and its membership was controlled by one such magistrate, the censor. The consuls were the supreme magistrates, wielding executive power in the Roman state; they numbered two, and their terms were for a year only. The praetors, below them, primarily served to enforce the laws and acted in a judicial capacity. The censor, as his name suggests, conducted the census of Rome, and from there organized the Roman people into their appropriate centuries and tribes.
From this centralized government, we may perceive yet another principle which seems to reoccur: the concentration of power, not in the hand of one, or in the hands of many, but in the hands of some. It is precisely this that distinguishes antique republics from modern, representative democracies, and likewise from monarchies. Even when the people are allowed a degree of power (as we shall briefly see), ultimate authority does not rest in them; neither, however, does it rest in a single person, as in the case of a monarchy. This arrangement carries with it certain advantages, perhaps the chief one being a moderation of viewpoints and responsibilities. If, as Aristotle says, virtue is often a mean between two extremes, we may take the republic’s concentration of authority as virtuous. On the one hand, it does not admit to the endless disagreement and shifting of sentiments that characterize the masses. On the other hand, it does not reduce supreme power to the thoughts and whims of a single individual. Authority is limited to those who have experience with and preparation for wielding it, as in the case of the aristocrats or the former magistrates; but these still existed in not-insignificant numbers, which allowed discussion, debate, and dialectic to exist between them, for the benefit of the state.
This is not to say the Roman people had no power. As mentioned, they exercised power at the local and familial levels of the government, albeit inferior to the decrees of the Senate. They also had their representatives: the aediles and the quaestors, and most importantly of all, the tribunes, who exercised authority nearly on the level of the Senate. For much of the republic’s existence, the tribunes wielded the power of a veto on the magistrates, able to block their actions if the tribunes deemed them unjust. And, in this, we see a third principle that mostly unites the older republics: the people, while not wielding ultimate power, are nonetheless granted an outlet for their discontent. The power of the Tribune did not make up for the bulk of Roman authority residing in the Senate and the magistrates. But the power he did wield allowed the plebians, the common folk of Rome, to know that someone from their own ranks commanded a certain level of authority. Their voices were, in theory, heard at the highest levels. This, too, might be viewed as a mean between two extremes. On the one hand is the representative democracy, when all power derives from the people. On the other hand is the monarchy, in which the people wield no power whatsoever. Again, we see that the virtue of the ancient republic is to moderate. It acknowledges that the people, who are ruled, deserve to have a voice in the affairs of the state. Yet, at the same time, it realizes that the people ultimately lack the wisdom and the expertise which is required for public business. Thus it charts a course between Scylla and Charybdis, between mob rule on the one hand and autocracy on the other.
The virtues of the Roman Republic were great indeed, and under its system, the city of Rome thrived for centuries. It is worth noting that, at least in the West, Rome was a republic longer than it was an empire, though it fractured in its latter years. And as a model of sober, limited government, in which wisdom and dignity prevailed throughout, its legacy has lasted far longer.
When the ancient world gave way to the medieval world, Rome’s Republican legacy fell into disuse, as monarchy became the dominant mode of government throughout much of Europe. As the High Middle Ages began, though, and as the Renaissance followed in its wake, a new admiration for the achievements of early Rome began to manifest again on the continent, particularly in Rome’s old lands on the Italian peninsula. A number of Italian city-states of this period adopted the republican mode of government, and of them, none were more successful and more renowned than the Most Serene Republic of Venice, which can be read about here. For close to a thousand years, Venice maintained itself as an aristocratic republic, in the process becoming enormously wealthy and influential throughout Europe, North Africa, and Near Asia.* As we shall see, the Venetian government in this period exhibited the three principles we identified in Rome’s republican government, and it was this success that allowed it to endure so long, and to prosper to such a profound extent.
Our first principle, of course, concerns local control of local matters, and here we might say that the Venetian republic exemplified this in a very easy, natural way. Unlike, of course, Rome, Venice’s radius of administration never swelled much further than the boundaries of the city itself; it controlled some tracts of land in the northern Italian reaches and maintained a few territories close at hand along the Adriatic coast, but it never achieved the vast empire of the Romans, nor did its extent of governance spread over as far a landscape as our third example. Thus, nearly all affairs of the republic were local affairs and remained so throughout its existence. Its power and control were rooted in influence and mercantile effect, not conquest. Therefore, Venice’s government was fundamentally a local government, and its business was local business, fulfilling our first principle.
It is in the application of our second principle that we see perhaps the greatest genius of the Venetians. That is to say, the Venetians were particularly adept at holding power in the hands of neither all nor one, but some. Niccolo Machiavelli himself praised the constitution of the republic, holding it in great esteem, particularly when compared to that of his native Florence. As one may see here, Venice is regarded as having possessed a ‘mixed’ government; but our label, the aristocratic republic, fits every bit as well. The Doge was the head of state, and was elected from among the city’s noble families; by the time of the Renaissance, the city’s administrative power was divided nearly equally between the Doge and the Great Council, composed of 480 members who themselves were all aristocrats. Indeed, the Doge’s power was eventually incorporated into a yet-more-elite ruling body named the Signoria, by which even supreme executive power became subsumed into a broader aristocratic establishment. A saying eventually arose: “The Doge is dead, but not the Signoria.” Thus the rule by some was perpetuated beyond the lifespan of any one Doge, and beyond the whims of Venice’s citizenry.
This is not, however, to say that the citizenry had no voice in the government; and here we see that Venice fulfills our third principle of the old-fashioned sort of republics. The people, broadly, do not wield full power, but they are nonetheless allowed a means of expression in the government. This, in Venice, took the form of the Concio, the general assembly of all the freemen of the republic. For much of Venice’s long history, it was their vote which chose the Doge, though they were forced to choose him only from among the aristocratic families. So there was a kind of democracy, but a limited one, and one which nonetheless preserved the authority of the aristocrats and the merchants. In 1423, they were stripped of most of their power, an act which may lead us to consider Venice somewhat deficient in popular expression, when compared with Rome. Still, the doge continued, ultimately, to seek the approval of the people, and was always presented to the assembled free folk of Venice before he fully assumed his authority.
And it is hard to argue with the results. The Venetian republic endured for a millennium only brought to an end by Napoleon’s ravishing of Europe. This is something we notice over and over in aristocratic republics: their durability. It is the particular virtue of a republic to be both steadfast and adaptable, thus capable of persisting as the times change around it. With neither the instability of a democracy nor the ossification of a monarchy, republics are free to change in response to circumstances, while still maintaining their fundamental structures and principles, to such an extent that it typically takes a true calamity to destabilize them.
Such thoughts were clearly on the mind of the founders of the last republic we will examine, arguably the most powerful and successful old-fashioned republic ever established. I speak, of course, about the United States of America. This may initially puzzle my readers. Is the United States not that bastion of democracy, that land of government “of the people, by the people, for the people”? In the present day, this is indeed a fair characterization. However, it was not always so. A reading of the original United States Constitution quickly dispels this illusion. As we shall see, the United States as originally envisioned did meet the definition of an aristocratic republic—a government that was ruled not by the whole of the people, but by a select few.
Let us consider our principle of local control of local matters. The very bedrock of government in the United States is built upon this notion. The original law of the land in America, the Articles of Confederation, did not even establish a strong central government, preferring to allow the states to heavily manage their own affairs and affairs between themselves. When the pro-government Federalists began the drafting, and later the defense, of the Constitution, they did so with the express reassurance that the local authority of cities and states would be curtailed only out of absolute necessity. This principle, moreover, was eventually enshrined in the Constitution itself, in its tenth amendment, the very last of the Bill of Rights. The text of the amendment plainly states: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. There is thus an explicit assurance of the kind of protection only implied in the Roman constitution, and largely unnecessary in the Venetian system. Limited interference in local business by the national government became the law of the land.
There is next the matter of rule by some to consider, and here we might, at first glance, deem the United States a failure. After all, is there not explicitly an election system in the country, one that purports to allow the people to choose who governs them? However, an examination of the Constitution’s establishment will reveal that the people’s power is quite limited. To begin, the people do not directly vote for the chief executive. Rather, they vote for electors, who report to the Electoral College in the aftermath of the election, and who then choose the President themselves. America was reminded of this, to the delight of some and the anguish of others, during the 2016 presidential election. Moreover, there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents an elector from changing his or her mind, though this is rare.
Furthermore, the original plan of the Constitution did not even guarantee popular choice of the entirety of the legislature. As originally envisioned, the Senate is chosen by the legislatures of the various states, by a vote in their own gubernatorial assemblies. Moreover, we see that the founding fathers clearly preferenced the Senate over the House of Representatives, preferring that it have more power and more stability; hence requiring senators to be thirty years of age, versus requiring representatives merely to be twenty-five years old, as in the House. Also, senators serve six-year terms, versus two for congressmen and four for the president. It is the Senate that confirms appointees to the judiciary, and the Senate that weighs in on the makeup of the federal government itself. This more powerful house of Congress is, thus, also far less democratic, and much more akin to the Senate of Rome or the Great Council of Venice, bodies chosen by, and from among, the learned and the landed of the country.
That is not to say that the plain people of the United States had no voice in their government. They, of course, had the House of Representatives, which, from the very outset, was decided on by popular vote. In this, we see the third principle of aristocratic republics, the idea that the people are allowed a limited voice in their government. True, the House was given the important power of beginning all matters of revenue and appropriations; it controlled, and still controls, the “purse strings” of the federal government. But, between the very short terms of its members, its low barrier for entry, and its corresponding lack of responsibility when compared with the Senate, it is clear that of the two houses of Congress it is decidedly the junior. It is the safety valve of the Constitution; it allows the people to vent their passions and immediate concerns into government, while the functionality of the republic is preserved in the longer terms of the Senate, the theoretically infinite reelection of the president, and the lifetime service of the federal judiciary.
If we consider the United States as an ancient republic, an old-fashioned republic, a republic—in short—formed in the style of Rome and Venice, then we might be less surprised at the tremendous success it has had. Its prosperity and military prowess are of course to be mentioned, but consider the stability of its system of government: no modern Western nation has maintained its constitution for so great a time, mostly unchanged. The virtues of stability and longevity are common to all of these republics. Rome lasted more than 500 years. Venice lasted a thousand. And if the United States suddenly appears to be weakening as a republic, it might be surmised that it weakens only insofar as it strays from the original plan of its founders, due to changes in its system of government brought on by democratic outbursts in the 19th and 20th centuries. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and their cohort knew well the lessons of Rome, and built their new nation with its triumph—and its tragedy—in their minds. They are lessons that no defender of the American republic can afford to forget.