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  • The Failure of Success: Arendt and Pocock on the Fall of American Republicanism
  • Ellen M. Rigsby (bio)

No scholar of the American Revolution doubts that some form of republicanism influenced the founding of the United States. Most historians of the American Revolution though, find that republicanism as a national political discourse was replaced by liberalism in the nineteenth century. Liberalism grounds politics on interest rather than virtue, and presumes that private interest can be made into public interest. The narrative both Gordon S. Wood and Bernard Bailyn relate locates republicanism as an important but passing influence on American political discourse. Yet, Hannah Arendt and J.G. A. Pocock suggest for very different reasons that the history of American political theory would be better served by understanding the American engagement with republicanism as a lengthier or more complex interaction. Pocock suggests that republicanism remains part of the national dialogue well into the nineteenth century, though in a more diminished role, circumscribed not only by the increasing popularity of liberalism, but also by the limits placed on classical republicanism once it has merged with Christian theology in the European context. Arendt continues to use republicanism to take the measure of the American political landscape by her analysis of the failure of the Constitution to enact a republic. At the end of On Revolution she offers a plan for what might have been a successful republican Constitution based on Jefferson’s suggestions, many of which were rejected by the Constitutional Convention.[1] Pocock considers compromised versions of republicanism to continue the practice of the discourse of the American Revolution, while Arendt actually continues the discourse by using republicanism to criticize what the American revolution became. While Pocock and Arendt are at theoretical odds, each brings out useful aspects of republicanism. Furthermore, comparing Pocock and Arendt illuminates the fact that any understanding of American republicanism is lessened if either intellectual history or political theory is abandoned as a means of explanation.

In The Machiavellian Moment Pocock chronicles the changes that occur when Christianity and classical republicanism are made to work together in the Florentine Republic. He argues that these changes produce a flawed republicanism that all the Atlantic States work with. Arendt, in contrast, attempts to remove Christian metaphysics from what she portrays as the entirely secular political character of the American founding. Thus both thinkers lead their audiences to examine the places in republicanism that contain aspects of Christian theology, and to explore the implications of those vocabularies. The clearest case for this comparison is the desire for the perpetual republic — the attempt to establish a lasting republic impervious to the encroachment of private interest into the public sphere — and it is to Pocock’s and Arendt’s discussions of an American perpetual republic that this essay will now turn.

Pocock points out that in the conceptual realm of classical republicanism fate destroys republics. Others will spring up to take their places elsewhere.[2] Pocock argues that as Christianity becomes incorporated with republican theory during the Italian Renaissance, there is a change in how republics are said to decline. In classical Greek and Roman myth and history, republics decline because fate interferes. But as virtue takes on Christian ideals of purity, fate is replaced with an idea of corruption. And cyclical time is replaced with linear time that culminates in a heavenly state of perfection or in an absolute state of damnation. For example, Montesquieu mentions in Spirit of the Laws that republics come into and out of existence through a cyclical pattern in which republics degenerate into monarchies and despotism. For example, by the time Montesquieu is writing Spirit of the Laws, the modern work on Republicanism which heavily influenced the founders of the United States, Montesquieu argues that republics rise and fall entirely due to the eventual corruption of their citizens. Republics degenerate into monarchies and despotisms when their citizens cease to be virtuous.[3]

Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment links the desire to found a lasting republic with the incorporation of classical republicanism into Christian Europe. The attempt to found a republic that can withstand the corrupting influence of private interest, a perpetual republic, becomes possible with the adaptation of...

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