Ideas in Context (No. 18)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1991
Online Publication Date:July 2011
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511598463.011
What was republicanism in seventeenth-century England? The term was rarely owned to, and was more commonly one of abuse. Yet there was a movement which needs a word. I mean by republicanism the movement of intellectual protest which opposed the rise of the Renaissance and Baroque monarchies of early modern Europe, and which, in articulating that opposition, drew extensively on the political writings and the political practices of classical antiquity. This was the republicanism whose vocabulary Niccolò Machiavelli had done more than any other writer of the Renaissance to shape. By 1600 Italian republicanism had lost its vitality, although remnants of it survived in Venice, whose constitution was admired elsewhere in Europe as a modern equivalent to that of republican Rome. In the seventeenth century it was in England that Machiavelli's ideas were most substantially developed and adapted, and that republicanism came once more to life; and out of seventeenth-century English republicanism there were to emerge in the next century not only a theme of English political and historical reflection – of the writings of the Bolingbroke circle and of Gibbon and of early parliamentary radicals – but a stimulus to the Enlightenment in Scotland, on the Continent, and in America.
Before the civil wars of the 1640s, republicanism never appeared publicly in didactic or unambiguous form. Few people in Elizabethan or early Stuart England seem to have supposed that the rules of the ancient constitution could be fundamentally changed.