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Beyond Publius: Montesquieu, Liberal Republicanism and the Small-Republic Thesis

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The thesis that republicanism was only suited for small states was given its decisive eighteenth-century formulation by Montesquieu, who emphasized not only republics' need for homogeneity and virtue but also the difficulty of constraining military and executive power in large republics. Hume and Publius famously replaced small republics' virtue and homogeneity with large republics' plurality of contending factions. Even those who shared this turn to modern liberty, commerce and the accompanying heterogeneity of interests, however, did not all agree with or know about Publius' institutional responses to the problems of executive and military power. Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and on both sides of the Atlantic, it remained a live question whether large states could be stable moderate republics, with responses ranging from embraces of Montesquieuian limited monarchy, to denials that there was any real large-republic problem at all, with a variety of institutional solutions in between for those who thought there was a real but soluble large-republic problem.

Keywords: Alexis de Tocqueville; Benjamin Constant; David Hume; Destutt de Tracy; Federalism Papers; Jacques Necker; Montesquieu; Publius; Republicanism; Thomas Jefferson; Thomas Paine; Willliam Paley; eighteenth-century political thought; federalism; liberalism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept. of Political Science, University of Chicago, 5828 South University Avenue, Chicago IL 60637, USA., Email:

Publication date: January 1, 2006


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