The Founding Fathers had to face hard and unprecedented questions about the size and scale of a political order.  They occupied a vast region, and conventional wisdom said that such could only be governed by monarchy.  They were determined to be republicans, however, and the conventional wisdom was that republics had to be small.  The problem, then, was how to be republican in a territory whose size and scale demanded monarchy.

Since size is relative, we must ask, what standard measures the proper size of a republic?  The republican tradition grew out of ancient Greek civilization, which was composed of hundreds of small city-states, few of which had populations over 10,000.  The point of political order, according to Aristotle, is to achieve human excellence, which is not possible without social corporation and the face-to-face knowledge that only small size can provide.  The proper size is that number needed to achieve human flourishing—namely, economic prosperity, internal and external security, justice, and institutions enabling the development of a high culture.  Plato put it at around 5,000 citizens.  When one adds women, children, servants, slaves, and foreigners, we reach a polity of around 40,000.  This was about the size of Athens, which produced such a high level of culture that we still take our bearings from it.  As Aristotle said, a great state is not necessarily a large one.

Medieval Europe gave us the parliamentary system, the ideal of the rule of law and limited government, an ethic of individualism, capitalism, and the universities in an order where few cities were over 30,000.  Renaissance Florence produced world-class architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, philosophy, science, opera, and modern banking with 40,000.  America’s Founding Fathers knew no city over 30,000.

The most famous modern theory of a republic is Rousseau’s Social Contract.  So small is Rousseau’s republic that he does not even allow representation but requires citizens to show up in person to conduct public business.  The republic is modeled on his beloved Geneva, which had a population of around 25,000.  Many modern anthropologists and city planners consider a polity of 50-200,000 to be all that is needed to achieve the ends of politics and a high level of human flourishing.

By this standard, republicanism in America might have seemed hopeless.  Each American state was far beyond the scale appropriate for a republic.  Rousseau and Montesquieu  held out the vision of a confederation of small republics, but no American state was such a confederation.  Indeed, the boundary of each colony was an artifact of monarchy.

David Hume posed a challenge to the traditional wisdom.  In “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” (1752), he argued that a republic need not be small.  If divided into what he called “county republics,” with constitutional checks that preserved local self-rule, a large republic was not only possible but would be the best of all polities, as it would embody what was true in the classical republican tradition while providing the advantages of large scale in respect to defense and commerce.

Both Hamilton and Madison were heavily influenced by this essay, which is reflected in their arguments to persuade Americans to ratify the proposed constitution.  The Antifederalists had objected that the U.S. Constitution would create a central authority ruling over a territory so vast that it would quickly degenerate into an empire under monarchy.  It was just this argument that Richard Lee had successfully used to persuade Virginians to cede the vast northwestern territory it had conquered from Britain to the Confederation.  Lee said Virginia could not both control such territory and remain a republic.  But in mapping Hume’s large republic onto the vast union of states proposed at the Philadelphia Convention—as a reply to the Antifederalists—Hamilton and Madison made an erroneous judgment in scale.

Hume derived inspiration for the large republic from the United Provinces of the Netherlands.  A federative order of this kind, he thought, could be mapped onto a country the size of Britain or France without a loss of republican scale.  By this standard, each American state was a large Humean republic, but a union of 13 such states was not itself a Humean republic.  We learn nothing from Hume, Rousseau, Montesquieu, or any other modern writer as to how such a vast political configuration as the American union could work, much less whether it could intelligibly be called a republic, as Hamilton and Madison described it.  So Americans were on their own to conjure with a republican political ideal that was entirely out of scale with the size of the territory to be governed.  Our political history is largely the story of attempts to resolve this conundrum.

Cicero defined a republic as an association of men under law.  By “law,” he did not mean legislationi.e., something made by men.  Law was something men were born into, and the “association” was largely voluntary.  There was no state machinery with a monopoly on coercion to tax and regulate the behavior of men.  In an emergency, citizens would gather and tax themselves, but the presumption was that foreigners, not citizens, paid taxes.

When Americans spoke of monarchy, they did not mean merely an hereditary executive; they meant “absolute monarchy,” a system Hume thought to be no older than the mid-17th century.  Medieval Europe was composed of thousands of independent and quasi-independent polities: principalities, dukedoms, baronies, margravates, kingdoms, republics, free cities, and leagues of free cities.  Woven throughout these were two universal institutions: the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.  From the 12th century on, kings began conquering and consolidating this mosaic of independent polities into larger and larger kingdoms.  To govern and exploit such vast holdings, the king created a coercive administrative system, which was later called the state.  Philosophers such as Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes endowed the state with the attributes of sovereignty traditionally associated with God: absolute power, judicial infallibility, and indivisibility.  Hobbes described the state as “an artificial man.”  Such an arrangement is not a republic in Cicero’s understanding (an association of men under law) because, in it, men are politically associated not with one another but with an artificial corporation.  And, having absolute sovereignty, the corporation is not under law but makes law.

Europeans were familiar with this in the doctrine of the two bodies of the king expressed at the death of a monarch: “The king is dead, long live the king!”  The second body of the king was the artificial corporation with a territorial monopoly on coercion that the kings had created to exploit their extensive holdings.  Hobbes, however, did not view the state as what it actually was—namely, a peculiar form of government that had emerged out of the contingencies of European politics, to be distinguished from other forms of government, such as republicanism—but as the timeless form of government as such.

Viewing the state as it actually is (the second body of the king) introduces a radical ambiguity into early American talk about abolishing monarchy.  It would not be enough to kill Charles I, Louis XVI, and Czar Nicholas II and abolish their hereditary line.  That would merely be to kill the first body of the king.  To abolish monarchy, one must also kill the second body.  But that body, unlike the first, is a bloodless, artificial corporation with a territorial monopoly on coercion.  And no modern revolution has ever destroyed it.  Not only have all modern revolutions carried out in the name of republicanism—the American, French, Russian, Chinese, etc.—failed to abolish the second body of the king; they have merely renamed it and expanded its coercive powers beyond anything an 18th-century monarch could have imagined.

In this sense, all large modern “republics” are really 18th-century absolute monarchies without the monarch, having all the disadvantages of monarchy and none of its advantages.  The disadvantages come from the disposition of the second body of the king to expand power over society.  The advantages are the inability of monarchs to regulate society and exploit its resources to the extent that modern “republics” can.  The reason for this limitation is that the privileges possessed by the first body of the king prompt jealousies and resentments among competing proprietors (Church, nobility, free cities, commons) whose titles are rooted in the same traditions as the king and which have the corporate resources to resist.  Flesh-and-blood kings were limited in the power they could exercise in a way that the bureaucrats, managers, and CEO’s of modern “republican” states, who have only a limited term for exploitation, are not.  Monarchies could extract only around five to eight percent of GNP from society; modern “republics,” on the other hand, have been able to extract as much as 60 percent.  As bad as they were, no 18th-century monarch could have imposed an income tax, or ordered universal conscription, or taken children from their parents to be indoctrinated in state schools.

As Tocqueville saw, the much-vaunted triumph of republicanism over monarchy in Europe was, at bottom, a mass illusion.  Republicanism in Europe would mean little more than the doctrine that the people are sovereign and can discipline their managers through periodic elections.  Though not to be despised, these are superficial features of the older republican tradition, in which an artificial corporation having a territorial monopoly on coercion has no place.  Given the great size of modern republics (a legacy of monarchy), the people are sovereign in roughly the way that the queen of England is sovereign.  The queen’s voice is given through ceremony, just as the people’s voice is given through the ritual of elections.  The real sovereign, however, is the state and its temporary managers.  In the end, the second body of the king would conquer America, as it had conquered the emerging “republics” of Europe.  But it would take longer, and, in the process, some instructive attempts at resistance would emerge.

Republicanism in America was more a fact than a theory.  The wilderness had been cleared and a civilization built by small Protestant communities that were self-governing in roughly the way ancient republics were.  But the colonial boundaries within which this republican style of life flourished were the creation of the crown.  Theoretically, the colonists were subjects of the king; practically, they were living out a republican way of life in hundreds of self-governing polities of human scale.  When the crown became too intrusive, the people resisted and eventually seceded to live out a republican form of life free of monarchy.  The effort was not entirely successful, however, for the second body of the king survived in the form of new state corporations, each exercising a monopoly on coercion within the former colonial boundaries that had been imposed by the crown for its own purposes.

Two problems presented themselves.  One was whether republicanism could survive within each state, and the other was whether the republican idiom was even intelligible when applied to the unprecedented configuration of a vast union of would-be republican states.  Since the essence of republicanism is the human-scale polity of 50-200,000, no modern state can be called “republican” unless its constitutional rules are rigged to allow the formation, within the larger polity, of such small self-governing polities, free to pursue a uniquely valuable way of life.  Some powers will have to be given up to the larger unit; but they should be few, abstract, and with minimum moral content, such as defense and the regulation of commerce.

The fewer the substantial moral intrusions from the central authority, the more “republican” the large regime.  The greater the intrusions, the more monarchical it is.  It was this way of thinking that prompted Antifederalist fears about “consolidation” and the Jeffersonian critiques that their opponents were trying to restore “monarchy.”  Further, if a regime became too large for human-scale republicanism, it should be divided.  Indeed, the republican presumption—sublimated in large-scale republics—is just the historic memory of the Greek model of hundreds of small, self-governing states.  Any act centralizing power must be justified in the light of that presumption.  In modern monarchies, where sovereignty is said to be indivisible, the presumption is just the opposite; it is division that must be justified.  Consequently, republicanism, cast on a large scale, must allow some form of corporate veto to its republican units—and, as a last resort, secession.

The Louisiana Purchase was the first serious threat to American republicanism.  It is significant that the Constitution made no provision for acquiring new territory.  Perhaps the Framers instinctively knew that the Union was already too large and had stretched the republican idiom to the breaking point.  Hume, who had argued for a large republic the size of Britain or France, insisted that its constitution “establish a fundamental law against conquests” (presumably, also, against expansion by purchase).  “Yet republics,” he said, “have ambition, as well as individuals, and present interest makes men forgetful of their posterity.”  The Constitution does, however, allow for the formation of new states out of old states.  New states were to be formed by secession, not expansion.  Kentucky seceded from Virginia; Tennessee, from North Carolina; Maine, from Massachusetts.  Had the territory of the Union remained that of the 13 states, and had the republican ethic remained strong, this process of secession might have continued down to the point of perhaps hundreds of small states, united for certain general purposes but each pursuing a valuable way of life of its own.  Or, if new and deep conflicts of interest emerged, the Union itself could have been divided into two or more unions of such small republics.

This republican presumption in the direction of small scale was severely strained by the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the Union.  This vast territory brought to life the monarchical disposition dormant in the central government.  Jefferson thought that neither he nor Congress had the constitutional authority to expand the Union through purchase.  New Englanders accused Jefferson of monarchy and of trying to create a Southern empire.  The American republican remedy to empire had been, and still was, secession.  Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts, in a speech before the House of Representatives, threatened secession if Louisiana were incorporated as a state without a constitutional amendment: “It is my deliberate opinion that it is virtually a dissolution of this Union; that it will free the States from their moral obligation; and, as it will be the right of all, so it will be the duty of some, definitely to prepare for a separation—amicably if they can, violently if they must.”  The speaker ruled Quincy’s language out of order, but the House took a vote and ruled that it was in order.  Writing to William Crawford in 1816 after 13 years of secessionist agitation in New England, Jefferson said: “If any state in the Union will declare it prefers separation . . . to a continuance in Union . . . I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate.’”

Though Jefferson might have lapsed into monarchy in acquiring the Louisiana territory, his vision of settling it was republican.  He imagined a Mississippi Confederacy alongside the old Atlantic Confederacy.  He thought John Astor’s settlements in the Northwest might issue in “a great, free and independent empire on that side of our continent.”  These would be “Free and independent Americans, unconnected with us but by ties of blood and interest, and employing like us the rights of self-government” (emphasis mine).  In a speech before the Senate in 1825, Thomas Hart Benton gave expression to this Jeffersonian vision of a number of unions on the continent.  “In planting the seed of a new power on the coast of the Pacific ocean,” he said, “it should be well understood that when strong enough to take care of itself, the new Government should separate from the mother Empire as the child separates from the parent at the age of manhood.”  An independent federation on the Pacific was still a real possibility as late as the 1850’s.

But the temptation to govern the western territories from the center proved irresistible.  Congress soon discovered its “sovereignty” and began governing the territories as the crown had governed the colonies.  The introduction of new states from these territories—all with a constitutionally guaranteed “republican form of government”—was only a superficial triumph for republicanism, because Congress viewed them as creations of its own sovereign will.

Lincoln would come to think of American states as counties in a vast unitary American state.  Following Joseph Story and Daniel Webster, he claimed that, when the colonies seceded from Britain, the sovereignty of the crown became vested in the American people in the aggregate.  This aggregate sovereignty spoke through the Continental Congress, which authorized the formation of states out of the ex-colonies.  This enabled Lincoln to make the historically absurd claim that “the Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as States.”  As in the French Revolution, the person of the king became the nation-person.  And, as the state became the king’s second body, so the central government of the United States became the second body of the American people in the aggregate.  As the second artificial body, in each case, expanded its power, however, the sovereignty of the flesh-and-blood king or people would become progressively ceremonial.

When 11 Southern states seceded to form a union of their own, they were acting in accord with the republican disposition to divide in the direction of a more human scale.  It is significant that the Confederate Constitution allowed any three states to propose and force a vote on a constitutional amendment and required only a two-thirds vote of the states for ratification.  It also allowed for non-slaveholding states.  And a Confederate state could secede.  The arguments the Union used to suppress brutally this thoughtful attempt to reconfigure a modus vivendi for republican government in a large territory were the same as those used by the crown to suppress the secession of the colonies.  The sovereignty of the Union, like that of the crown, was said to be irresistible, infallible, and indivisible.  This 17th-century notion of sovereignty, stolen from the divine attributes of God and applied to the king’s second body—now transformed into the nation-person—is reaffirmed every time we say, in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation, . . . indivisible.”  The political force that established this suppression of Jeffersonian republicanism in 1861 was, and still is, perversely enough, called the Republican Party.