How Large Can a Republic Be?

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How large can a republic be before it becomes too large and either disintegrates or else comes under centralized control and no longer is a republic? This question follows naturally from my post on the fact that the U.S. has been an empire from its inception. Daniel Pitrone raised it in his e-mail to me:

If Jesus were to rapture the US bases and troops stationed around the world, we would still be left with the empire at home .

“One unheralded truth that the great political philosophers of the past devoted their time and attention to was the question of the geographical limitations of a republic. This notion of the ‘proper’ size of a republic has been lost. The anti-feds commented on this frequently in their writings. From the sheer size of the new ‘republic’ they were able to determine that the centralizers and nationalists really sought imperial vainglory and not more liberty. The framers gave Americans security through the well-beaten self-destructive path of every ‘great’ people that preceded them — empire!”

He is correct, and for one citation to a source that goes into this question, see here.

In that cited source, we find brief accounts of arguments made by Hamilton and Madison in favor of the empire to be known as the U.S.A., which they called a “federated republic.” Although Montesquieu had thought that a republic had to be a small region, he also had thought that a federated republic could survive.  Hamilton naturally cited this idea triumphantly in his effort to have a strong central government. Madison went further with the following argument:

“In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of the country and number of people comprehended under the same government.”


“The larger the society, provided it lie within a practicable sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.

Even Thomas Jefferson was persuaded by this argument, for he wrote in a letter:

“I suspect that the doctrine, that small States alone are fitted to be republics, will be exploded by experience, with some other brilliant fallacies accredited by Montesquieu and other political writers. Perhaps it will be found, that to obtain a just republic … it must be so extensive that local egoisms may never reach its greater part; that on every particular question, a majority may be found in its councils free from particular interests, and giving, therefore, an uniform prevalence to the principles of justice. The smaller the societies, the more violent and more convulsive their schisms.”

Today, I think we can say that both Madison and Jefferson were mistaken in their prognostications. The War of Union Ascendance (1861-1865) certainly proved them wrong, in that “local egoisms” did not give rise to a majority “free from particular interests.”  Madison was proved wrong that a “multiplicity of interests” will result in an inherent cancellation of local concerns and a resulting security of rights.

Instead, what has actually happened within this domestic empire is that there is lobbying and log-rolling, there are entrenched parties, and there is resort to force to hold the empire together. The empire can call upon a combined force that far exceeds any that a single smaller state (or republic) could call forth. It can use this force to suppress internal dissent and to enter wars. The wars become the health of the state, triggering its expansion of powers. This is one avenue by which secure rights are undermined and replaced by tyranny.

Another way relies on the very existence of a multiplicity of interests that Madison thought was good. In that situation, no person has a large stake in fighting against the concentrated resources of a special interest group. Such groups then take over government and dominate the politics. This too decimates rights and justice.

This so-called “federated republic” of ours has always been an empire, and the defects of that mode of government have made themselves felt from the first Congress down to the present.

6:54 am on November 1, 2012