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National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 3/Republics - The Ladder to Liberty

Republics—The Ladder to LibertyEdit

By David Jayne Hill, formerly U. S. Minister to Switzerland, to the Netherlands, and formerly Ambassador to Germany

If we spread out a map of the world, for the purpose of comparing the territorial extent of the different kinds of government existing at the present time, we find that the area covered by “republics” occupies approximately 30,250,000 square miles, or considerably more than one-half the habitable surface of the globe.

If we add the area of the British Empire, the spirit of whose government is now entirely democratic, and whose “autonomous colonies,” as the Dominions are now called, are virtually republics, the area of free government reaches the enormous total of about 41,500,000 square miles, or about four-fifths of the inhabited earth.

Turning now to the proportions of the population of the globe under the “republics” and other forms of government, we find that of the total inhabitants of the earth, estimated at 1,600,000,000, more than 850,000,000 are living under nominal republics; and if we add the population of the British Empire, which may be called a commonwealth of republics, the total would be about 1,250,000,000, or more than three-fourths of the human race.

If to these areas and populations we add those under constitutional governments, excluding all those under avowedly absolutist rule, we find only a small fraction of the globe still adhering to a system which only a century and a half ago was practically universal (see maps, pages 242 and 243).

Few republics in 1776Edit

These facts are the more astonishing if we consider what the result of such an examination would have been if made, let us say, in the year of our Declaration of Independence, 1776. At that time there would have been found upon the map of the world, apart from a few isolated so-called “free cities”—like Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen, and Geneva—only three or four little patches of color to which the name “republics” could properly be applied—the United Netherlands, the Swiss Confederation, the Republic of Venice, and the Republic of Genoa.

At an earlier time there would have been found on the map of Europe a number of Italian city-states, like Florence, Padua, and others, that were called “republics,” and one great area marked on the map as Poland, which was also called a republic; but in 1776 the Italian republics, with the exception of Venice, had totally lost what liberties they had previously been able to maintain and had become hereditary despotisms, while Poland, after having been partly partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, had sought refuge from utter dissolution by becoming in effect a protectorate of Russia.

With these examples before us, it would be extremely difficult to frame a definition of the word “republic,” expressed in positive terms, that would fit all of them; for no two of them were in all respects alike. Not one possessed a written constitution in the modern sense. Not one admitted universal suffrage. The one common characteristic was the negative quality of repudiating an overlord.

They were not, as the national monarchies—with the exception of Britain—at that time were, the private possessions of dynastic rulers, who regarded the territory over which they ruled as crown estates and their inhabitants as subjects, to be transmitted by heredity from generation to generation or acquired by marriage, like ordinary private property.

In the commonwealths called “republics” the res publica was considered as vested in the community as a whole, especially with regard to legislation and administration; and yet the relation of the individual to the State was not very precisely defined in any one of them.

The prominence of negative over positive attributes in these eighteenth-century republics is explained by the fact that they were all brought into being by revolt against some form of arbitrary power. They were monuments of protest rather than embodiments of a constructive idea.

Venice a republic in name onlyEdit

Venice, the oldest of these four attempts at self-government, was founded by refugees from the Italian mainland, who in the fifth century had sought refuge from the power of Attila in the islands of the lagoons at the head of the Adriatic. For self-preservation the islanders united, elected a leader, or doge, and formed a new State. This community was long considered as a dependency of the Eastern Empire, from which it did not become wholly independent until the tenth century.

In perpetual conflict with the imperial pretensions of the East or the West, Venice became through commerce and conquest a great maritime power, dominating not only the Adriatic and the lands bordering upon it, but also many of the ports of Greece, and possessing even a portion of Constantinople, which it held until the capture of that city by the Turks, in 1453, to whom it continued to offer a long and courageous resistance. At the end of the fifteenth century it had become the first maritime power of Europe, an ascendency which it did not entirely lose until the discovery of the sea route to India by the Cape dealt its commerce a death blow by making the Atlantic the main highway for Eastern trade.

Venice was never in reality a democracy. The doge, elected for life, in conjunction with the Senate, the Council of Ten, and other aristocratic bodies, ruled at times with almost absolute authority.

Although the Venetian republic was in no sense a democracy, it is interesting to trace the development of its safeguards of liberty. The perils to which the republic was exposed required both unity and continuity in the direction of its affairs. This use of centralized power was confided to the doge, but it was intended that he should never become a monarch.

Living, he was subject to the advice of the councils and the restraint of many legal limitations; and, even when dead, his administration was open to review by an examining body, and in case of condemnation reparation was exacted of his heirs. Although elected for life, the average service of a doge did not in fact exceed sixteen years, only men of middle age being regarded as eligible to the office.

The oath of the doge involved an explicit renunciation of sovereign rights. He was required to promise not only to execute the laws and decrees of the councils, but not to correspond directly with foreign powers, or to open letters addressed to him, even by Venetians, without the presence of a councillor. He could hold no property outside the territory of Venice; he could not intervene in any judgment, either of fact or of law; none of his relatives could be appointed by him to any civil, military, or ecclesiastical office; he was prohibited from permitting any citizen to kneel before him or kiss his hand. But as a symbol of the State he was clothed with magnificence, and stood before the world as the outward representative of supreme power.

Genoa was like VeniceEdit

Like Venice, Genoa, which was founded as a city in the eighth century B. C., in the tenth century of our era threw off the imperial yoke and became an independent republic. Like Venice, it also developed into a great maritime and commercial power, extended its territory by conquest, and was the possessor of valuable colonies. Subjected to French rule in the fourteenth century, it afterward regained its independence, but in 1746 fell for a time under the power of Austria. By 1776 it had lost most of its colonies, having been obliged in 1768 to cede Corsica to France.

Internal discord had completely delivered the republic into the hands of the aristocratic party. Four hundred and sixty-five families of the nobility were inscribed in the “Golden Book” and divided among themselves all the public powers, honors, and offices, to the exclusion of the middle class and the common people. A Council of 400 members chose the Senate; the Senate chose the eight governors who formed the Executive Council, and this body chose from its own number the doge, who represented the nation.

The Swiss republic is very oldEdit

Altogether different in form and structure was the Swiss Confederation. It, too, came into being through a revolt against external authority. The three “Forest Cantons”—Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—comprised in the duchy of Suabia had fallen under the rule of the counts of Hapsburg. Upon the death of Rudolf, in 1291, “in view of the malice of the time,” these cantons formed a defensive league and resolved to recognize no chief who was not of the country, and to maintain the peace and their rights by their own armed force.

The parchment upon which their compact was written is still preserved, and bears as seals the cross of Schwyz, the bull's head of Uri, and the key of Unterwalden.

This document was not a declaration of independence and retained a trace of feudalism; for it enjoined that “whoever hath a lord let him obey him, according to his bounden duty.” But it was a declaration of rights and a firm resolution that they should never be taken away by the power of a usurper. The efforts of the Hapsburg emperors to reduce the cantons to subjection gave repeated opportunities for the fulfillment of this pledge.

In 1513 the Confederation had grown to thirteen cantons, Berne, Zürich, Lucerne, Friburg, Zug, Glaris, Bâle, Soleure, Schaffhausen, and Appenzell having united with the “Forest Cantons”; but this expansion had entirely transformed the original league. Subject territories, added by conquest, now formed part of the republic. The cities had contributed decisive elements of change, for they were less democratic than the “Forest Cantons.” In truth, in some instances, the cities had developed the attributes of ambitious and oppressive oligarchies.

A child of blood and heroismEdit

Like the Venetian and the Swiss republics, the United Netherlands was a child of revolution, but of a far more dramatic kind. In November, 1565, twenty confederates met at Brussels to form a league to resist the Spanish Inquisition, and in the following year a wave of popular indignation against the royal edicts, which condemned to be burned fifty or sixty thousand persons, swept over the Netherlands.

The Duke of Alba was sent to execute the orders which the Prince of Orange refused to obey and to exterminate the heretics. A reign of terror followed, during which the Prince of Orange raised armies, which he led with consummate military genius; but they steadily melted away before the Duke's superior power, until heresy and patriotism seemed fatally crushed.

With unfaltering faith, however, the Prince of Orange pursued his resistance, steadily demanding the withdrawal of the Spaniards from the Netherlands, the free exercise of religion, and the restoration of the ancient rights and liberties of the land. By the Union of Delft, in 1576, he had federated Holland and Zeeland. In 1579, by the Union of Utrecht, Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Friesland, Overyssel, and Gronigen united to sustain the freedom of religion and renounce allegiance to the King of Spain.

These seven provinces, presided over by the Prince of Orange as elective Stadtholder, formed a confederation with a central legislative body called the States General; but so jealous of all central authority were the provinces that no laws or engagements could become effective without the sanction of a majority of the separate provincial assemblies. In 1650 the anti-monarchical sentiment was so strong that even the elective stadtholderate was abolished; to be restored, however, in 1672, and made hereditary in 1674.

Like Venice, the Dutch Republic became a maritime power of great importance, waged war on land and sea; and acquired by conquest valuable colonies.

Freedom has always been a delicate flower to keep aliveEdit

All these republics, as we have seen, were primarily based upon the repudiation of autocratic power; but no permanent political organization can be sustained by a mere negation. At the basis of republicanism in every form is a conception of liberty united with a sense of social solidarity.

The positive element in the conception of a republic is the freedom of the individual, which rests upon the conviction that there are in the nature of man certain innate qualities that may justly claim the right of expression, and which, therefore, ought not to be suppressed by arbitrary power.

The chief problem for a republic has always been the organization of liberty in such a manner as to render it permanently secure. In this no one of the republics of antiquity had ever entirely succeeded. The Greek city-states—like Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Argos—wavered between aristocratic and democratic control; but the existence of slavery and a subject class rendered all of them to some extent oligarchical.

The Roman city-republic was submerged by its own internal expansion of power and its external growth of responsibility, which created conditions that no democracy could satisfy or control. The later Italian city-states were either absorbed by more powerful neighbors or in their efforts at self-preservation from foreign intrusion degenerated into tyrannies, as the Greek republics often had before them.

Freedom has always proved a delicate flower to keep alive. Oligarchy has tended to narrow the depositories of power until it became the possession of a single master; while democracy, on the other hand, recognizing in emergencies the weakness of divided counsels, has tended to confide its power to the hands of a dictator.

Republics that have failedEdit

In no form of government is equilibrium so unstable as in a republic, which is essentially a balance of forces, any one of which, if exaggerated, is capable of consummating its destruction. In addition to this inherent internal instability, upon which the demagogue skilfully plays for the accomplishment of his selfish designs, a republic is always peculiarly exposed to the intrusion of foreign influences and to the peril of foreign attack.

For this reason, republics have usually sought to find a safeguard in federation, through which alone the republics of the eighteenth century were able to survive. Those which failed to avail themselves of this principle have been short-lived.

It was owing to this failure on the part of the Greek republics that Macedonian supremacy was finally established over the whole of Greece. A different foreign policy on the part of Athens, which might have united the rest of the Greek cities for common defense, would, in the opinion of historians, have saved the Greek republics from extinction; but democracies have usually been short-sighted in matters of foreign policy.

For obvious reasons, republics have as a rule possessed but a limited territorial extent; but magnitude alone is not a source of strength. Before the first partition, in 1772, Poland covered a larger area of territory than Spain, or France, or all the States of Germany put together.

A turbulent nobility had completely throttled the elective monarchy. It was the triumph of an oligarchy of landed proprietors whose anarchy was balanced by no industrial and commercial middle class, and which failed to evolve a leader sufficiently powerful to impose unity of action upon the nation.

By the liberum veto, adopted in 1650, a single member of the Polish Diet could, from that time onward, nullify the resolutions of the entire assembly, thus paralyzing every policy for the conservation of the republic.

The love of liberty spreads in FranceEdit

Between 1776 and 1806 profound causes of change were introduced into the European system, some of them from within and others from without, which at first greatly promoted the development of republics and afterward nearly destroyed them altogether.

It is important to note that in 1776 there was no expectation that a revolution would occur in France such as, fifteen years later, was to shake the continent of Europe to its foundations and institute, for a time at least, a wholly new order of things. No contemporary could possibly have foreseen this process of political evolution, for the causes of it were not confined to Europe.

The accession of the young king, Louis XVI, to the throne of France, in 1772, had aroused the hope that the evils brought upon Europe by the age of absolutism were likely to be remedied by a better administration of public affairs.

In 1776 there was not the slightest sign of the general upheaval that came to Europe during the young monarch's reign. There had been, it is true, much radical speculation regarding the nature of government. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Mably, and Rousseau had spoken out boldly for greater liberty. In fact, their work of iconoclasm was already finished, so far as mere discussion was concerned. Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, in which he extolled the English system of government as the most perfect guarantee of freedom that had ever been devised, had been published a whole generation earlier, in 1748. Young men who had read Rousseau's Social Contract in its first edition, in 1762, had passed into middle life.

Our first and greatest American inventionEdit

Although the sovereignty of the people and the right of the majority to rule, advocated by Rousseau, were theoretically hostile to the “old régime,” they had produced in 1776 no actual fruit. Not one of the philosophers of the enlightenment had propounded a concrete program of political reconstruction.

Such literature as theirs might have existed forever without producing a revolution; and, in 1789, when the earliest tokens of a real revolutionary movement in France were perceptible, no definite proposition had been offered by any of the philosophical writers that could be of practical utility in guiding the nation in its desire to abolish the abuses of power from which France was then suffering; yet a whole generation had come to manhood since Rousseau's eulogy of democracy had appeared.

But in the meantime something of great import had happened. In America thirteen British colonies had, in 1776, declared their independence and had repudiated the Crown and the Parliament. Thirteen little republics had been created and federated. They possessed written constitutions which Franklin had translated, distributed, and expounded in France. The French armies that had aided in the War for Independence had returned to France full of enthusiasm. The Constitution of the United States had just been adopted. Lafayette was demanding the convocation of the long-forgotten States General, in order that France also might have a constitution.

The innovation in government introduced by the United States of America, an invention as essentially American as the telegraph and the telephone, was to revolutionize the governments of the world as completely as the telegraph and the telephone have changed our methods of communication.

It is not necessary here to follow in detail the development of the French Revolution. The circumstances of the time demanded a change, and the speculations of the philosophers had justified it, but it was the American example that marked out a pathway to effective action.

The reasons for the collapse of the first French RepublicEdit

Unfortunately, however, it was not the guarantees of the American constitutions, but the unrestrained democracy advocated by Rousseau that took possession of the French mind. The Constitution of the United States, as finally adopted, unlike any other that had ever existed, while securing the rights of the citizens, placed limits on the powers of government. The French Constitution, on the contrary, simply transferred absolute power from one government to another. What was most original in the unique American invention was entirely overlooked.

The Revolution, which in its early stages promised to be a new organization of liberty, soon became a new form of despotism.

Then began the titanic struggle of absolute popular sovereignty with the established power of royal absolutism—the general war of French democracy upon all kings—which brought a young Corsican officer to the surface, and at last carried him, in the guise of an apostle and protagonist of liberty, to the imperial throne of France. Unbridled democracy demanded and found, first, a servant and then a master.

It is not difficult to comprehend how the conservative eighteenth century republics were swept off their feet by the flood-tide of a larger liberty. They were not entirely unwilling victims of conquest. Everywhere the doctrines of the Revolution preceded its armies and prepared the way for them. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen announced the approach of a liberator. Even in the republics, the people had their grievances, which the new order of things that the French Directory proclaimed promised to abolish. Republics sprang up like mushrooms under the protection of the French armies.

As a result of the obstinacy and treason of Louis XVI, the French Republic had come into being on September 21, 1792. By the end of January, 1795, the United Provinces were in the possession of the French army, and the Batavian Republic was proclaimed on the model of the French Republic. In the meantime the Polish patriots, under the leadership of Kosciuszko, who had received a welcome in France, endeavored to restore the Polish Republic, but without success, and the final partition was arranged by Prussia, Austria, and Russia in 1795.

Bonaparte was sent to Italy as a conqueror, but his conquests were made in the name of liberty. Outwardly the obedient servant of the Directory, even then he meant to be in due time the master of France and of all that the Republic might acquire.

First of all, however, there was necessary the conquest of men's minds, which could only be made in the name of freedom; and freedom was, therefore, Bonaparte's constant watchword.

But his vision of his goal was from the first perfectly clear. Speaking to Miot, the French ambassador at Florence, he said in 1797 of the destinies of France: “What is needed is a chief illustrious by glory and not by theories of government—the mere phrases and discourses of ideologues—of which the country understands nothing.”

And, turning to Melzi, one of his Milanese adjutants, he continued: “As to your country, it has still less than France the elements of republicanism, and it is necessary to make less ado about it than with any other. We shall do what you wish, but the time has not arrived. We must yield to the fever of the moment. We shall arrange here for one or two republics in our own fashion.”

The cardhouse of republicsEdit

“The fever of the moment” was the orders of the Directory, which had resolved to impose the French constitution on all the conquered States of Europe. Bonaparte understood the expediency of obedience, but, referring to himself as conquerer, he said to Miot: “I wish to quit Italy only to play in France a rôle similar to that I play here, but the moment is not yet come. The pear is not ripe!”

At Venice, where he was received with honor and his wife Josephine was loaded with ornaments, the consummate diplomacy which had in so many emergencies averted calamity failed to maintain the independence of the Republic. Austria coveted its maritime advantages, while France wanted a free hand at Milan and the Rhine frontier, which Austria could accord. Accordingly, by the treaty of Campo-Formio that bargain was made and the Venetian Republic was delivered into the hands of Austria.

The remainder of Italy was promptly republicanized, partly to its liking and partly against its will. In rapid succession, in 1797–1798, the territories of Milan and the Lombard plain, at first intended to be divided into two, were constituted into the Cisalpine Republic. Genoa and the neighboring coast were transformed into the Ligurian Republic. Rome and the States of the Church, from which the Pope was expelled, were erected into the Roman Republic. Finally, Naples and the other continental provinces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies were taken from King Ferdinand and became the Parthenopean Republic.

Even the Swiss Confederation did not escape from the hand of the conqueror. Most of the cantons were feudal and oligarchical. Catching from France the contagion of revolution, in 1798 the people of the Pays de Vaud rose in rebellion against the Canton of Berne. In other cantons insurrection broke out; appeal was made by the peasants for aid from France; Switzerland was invaded by a French army; a constituent assembly was summoned, and the Helvetian Republic was proclaimed with a constitution on the French model.

But the Swiss found it inconvenient to be reformed by strangers. The “Forest Cantons”—Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden—revolted, and in the end the French were as cordially detested as they had at first been cordially welcomed by the Swiss people, whose problem then was how to regain their independence.

In 1804 this whole card-house of republics fell, and Napoleon I was proclaimed “Emperor of the French and King of Italy.”

Then followed the grand distribution of crowns. Joseph Bonaparte was made King of Naples and afterward of Spain; Louis, King of Holland; Jerome, King of Westphalia; Murat, a brother-in-law, King of Naples after Joseph was sent to Spain; Prince Borghese, another brother-in-law, Duke of Guastalla; Eugene de Beauharnais, a stepson, Viceroy of Italy. More than thirty of Napoleon's marshals and generals were made princes or dukes.

In 1806 there was only one republic on the map of Europe—the Swiss Confederation!

The influence of the United States incalculableEdit

All the more wonderful, in view of these events, is the fact of the present vast extension of the republican form of government in every part of the world. What has brought it about? Undoubtedly the spread of democratic ideas throughout Europe during the Revolution of 1789 greatly promoted the constitutional movement between the Peace of Vienna and the Revolution of 1848, which made France a republic for the second time and caused great gains for constitutionalism everywhere.

But it should not be overlooked that the continuous, unbroken development of the United States of America under a republican constitution has been an influence of incalculable consequence. The whole South and Central American development has found its inspiration in this influence, and a close study of the growth of the constitutional idea shows that there has been no instance of its adoption where this influence has not operated to some degree.

It has often resulted in a compromise, involving the retention of the monarchical tradition under constitutional limitations; but its logical outcome is the practical abolition of royal authority, which has been almost everywhere displaced by the authority of the people. It has been the chief cause of the gradual triumph of democracy.

All the people unlikely to go wrong at the same timeEdit

The strength of republicanism lies in the fact that all the people are not likely to go wrong at the same time. A monarchy or an oligarchy is liable to that calamity. Men may, however, go wrong in a republic also, and even a majority may sometimes do so.

There is for that reason need of constitutional limitations in a democracy as well as in other forms of government. Liberty can be secured only by restrictions upon the power of government, no matter what its form may be. These restrictions consist in the division of public powers, in deliberation of procedure, and the application of general principles of justice to all particular cases.

Herein lies the chief value of a constitution, and it is the combination of these qualities that gives to the Constitution of the United States its unique excellence. It renders possible the free selection of the wisest legislators. This is representative government. It divides by law the powers of government. This defines and limits official authority. It declares certain rights to be beyond the power of government to take away. This furnishes guarantees for life, liberty, and property. Finally, it places private rights under the protection of the judiciary. This insures that the citizen shall not be divested of his rights without due process of law.

But the supreme merit of such a constitution, united with the principle of federation, is that it applies to a great area and a great population, as well as to a small one, to which democracy was always before supposed to be necessarily confined.

But there is, in fact, no limit as respects territory or population to which the republican system may not be extended, provided it retains its truly constitutional character as just described. It is as good for 48 States as for 13. It may be as good for China or for Russia as for the original American colonies.

But an absolute democracy, a democracy that sets no bounds to its own arbitrary will, a democracy that is based on impulse and appetite, and not on reason and justice, is for any community of men an illusion and a danger. Any nation that is capable in the full sense of realizing this truth is ripe for self-government. A nation that does not realize it, no matter how glorious its past, is falling into decay and will not long survive as a free and independent republic.

Source: David Jayne Hill (March 1917), “Republics—The Ladder to Liberty”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(3): 240–254.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1932, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.