Is America a “Republic”?
I entirely agree with the spirit of this roundtable but not with the language of restoring “the Republic.” The United States is not now and has never been a republic. It is a federation of states, each of which, in Article IV of the Constitution, is guaranteed a republican form of government. But a federation of republics is not itself a republic any more than the federation of nations in the United Nations, or in the European Union, is a nation. A federation is a service agency of the political units that compose it. Whatever else a republic might be, it is not a service agency of something else. So instead of talking about “restoring the old Republic,” we should talk of restoring republicanism in a federation of states. And this can only mean recalling the vast domain of unenumerated powers that the Constitution reserves to the states and which have been usurped by that artificial corporation, known as the United States, created by the states for their welfare.
This is not a quibble with words. To talk of the Republic inclines one to think of America as a single political society in the manner of Joseph Story, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln. In this view, the states are service agencies created by the sovereign will of the American people in the aggregate. That will is expressed through the central government, which, for all practical purposes, has the final say on the limits of its powers. This means that the states are merely administrative units of a unitary American state. If so, they are not republics at all, but counties. This is how Lincoln viewed them. He asked, “What is this particular sacredness of a State? . . . If a State, in one instance, and a county in another, should be equal in extent of territory, and equal in number of people, wherein is that State any better than a county?” Lincoln was tone deaf to the deep social bonds rooted in place and historic identity that are essential to the republican tradition—the bonds that made it rational for Socrates to take the hemlock and Jefferson Davis to say that if his state seceded he would “hug [Mississippi] to his heart,” and that compelled Robert E. Lee to risk all to protect his beloved Virginia. A Lincoln scholar, and an admirer, recently acknowledged that “[Lincoln] was intimately attached to almost no one, and this was how he believed community relationships–local, state, and national–should best function. . . . Lincoln’s imagined America was a nation of strangers.” This is a perfect picture of a modern unitary state, modeled on that of Thomas Hobbes, with an all-powerful central authority guaranteeing rootless and egoistic individuals their “civil rights.”
It is this unitary state, “one and indivisible,” that Lincoln and the Republican Party meant when they spoke of “the Republic.” But such a regime is no more a republic than is the “republic” of the French Revolution or the Peoples’ Republic of China. When Lincoln looked at Virginia he could not see a genuine political society two-and-a-half centuries old; one that was the leader in forming the American federation; fabled in song and story; and known as the mother of presidents and the mother of states (including Lincoln’s own). All he could see was an aggregate of individuals in rebellion against “the Republic”—the central government of a would-be Hobbesian unitary state.
Before Lincoln’s “republican” rhetoric, Americans most often described their polity as a “union,” a “federation,” or a “confederation.” And when it was described as a “republic” or a “nation,” it was usually understood to mean a federation or union. For example, in a speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Constitution, John Quincy Adams describes America as a “confederated nation,” held together by “kindly sympathies” and “common interests.” And he went on to say that, should these social bonds fail, “far better will it be for the people of the disunited states to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.” Thirteen years later Adams would sign a document stating that the annexation of Texas would justify the secession of New England. That is the spirit of American republicanism—rooted, as it must be, in a bold acknowledgment of state and local sovereignty.
The first step toward restoring genuine republicanism is to invert the Lincolnian inversion of republican language by describing America as a federation, not a republic. Today, such speech might appear odd and even radical. But there is no alternative. Talk of “restoring the Republic” cannot escape the connotations of the inverted Lincoln-ian “Republic.” But that regime does not need restoration. Not only is it flourishing, it is now on steroids.
This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.