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Secession and American Republicanism

When the American colonists seceded from Britain in 1776, Europe was shared out among great monarchies.  Only Switzerland was republican, but Americans were determined to enjoy a republican style of government in the New World.  The republican tradition went back over 2,000 years to the ancient Greeks and consistently taught that a republic must satisfy three conditions.  Self-government: The citizens should make the legislation they live under.  The rule of law: Legislation should be made in accord with a more fundamental law known to all citizens through custom or natural reason.  Human scale: The republic should be small.

Most of us would accept the first two conditions but not the third.  We talk of the French and American republics, and of the People’s Republic of China, as if size no longer mattered.  But for over two millennia the most brilliant ancient, medieval, and modern republics rarely had populations over 200,000, and most were considerably below that.  Ancient Athens, one of the largest Greek republics, had around 160,000.  When a larger sphere of politics was needed—e.g., for defense or ease of trade—the remedy was a federation of small republics, as with the Swiss federation.

The vast territory Americans acquired after independence seemed to doom them to a centralized monarchy, whether they wanted it or not.  This was not perceived as a problem...

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