In view of the birth of the Prince of Cambridge, I thought it a bit fitting to consider the issues of Monarchy and Republicanism. An issue or debate which is perceived in many places to be as interesting as watching paint dry, but which in others can still provoke powerful, even violent emotions.
While you can debate the origins of both terms and practices, in general the ‘West’ falls back upon Rome as a central point in defining ‘Republic’. There the ancient Romans contrast their situation beneath Kings, and Tyrants with the freedom of the Republic. The political alignment of the rule of a single person or family, with a rule of s collection of people or families. For in Rome, the Gens, the family, was no less important than in any ‘Monarchical’ society. The Senate, the embodiment of Roman Republicanism, was a body formed of the patrician class, the nobles of Rome. The modern idea of a pure meritocracy is nowhere to be found. The question is the supremacy of one particular family, one dynasty, over the others, or of one particular man over the others. The liberty the Roman Republicans are speaking of is a liberty for the ruling class to not be subject to a single figure. It is indeed the establishment of a rule by that class.
The Republics that would emerge after the ancient world, in Europe at least, follow similar patterns and arguments. The Mercantile republics of Venice and Genoa, for example, had their own class, often even called patrician, that served as a sort of nobility. This however, because their wealth came from mercantile interests rather than land, did establish a contrast with the nobilities of the rest of Europe. There, where mostly Monarchies held sway, the establishment of connection between land and family were paramount.
Here we see the genesis of the conflict of Republic vs. Monarchy, or as Machiavelli phrased it, the Principality vs. the Republic. The Republics liberty is an abstract elimination of the control of a single individual. Yet even this conception seem strange if we look at actual history. The Florentine Republic was controlled by the Medici family as securely as any nobleman ever controlled his estates, and while the Venetian Republic certainly possessed more fluidity to it’s political and social dynamic, it was not a governance any less oppressive.
The appeal than in Republics seems often to a particular class, in these cases the Merchant class, and this is echoed in the next great period of Republican emergence.
The 17th century saw a series of titanic battles, and conflicts between kings, and also the emergence of the idea that one could do away with kings entirely. The British Commonwealth, relatively short lived though it was, while having some Monarchical elements, was in principle a Republic. No King or Queen ruled. Certainly the Americans formed their nation around the idea of Republicanism,though somewhat changed from its earlier incarnation. The French republic was both the most explosive and the most radical of it’s fellows, decapitating kings and nobles, though this would be eclipsed by eventual returned monarchies and empires. These conflicts are the genesis for our modern understanding of the conflict, and modify the previous rhetoric, while still adopting it, or co-opting it. Here, while Republicanism often ends up meaning the control of a certain class, it is framed in opposition to the tyranny of a single individual, or sometimes a single family. However the Monarchs of the 17th and 18th century very often were not those of the prior medieval era.
More simply put, this dichotomy is produced by the ‘Absolute Monarch’ model, most justly demonstrated by Louis XIV, who produced an elaborate court system to control and functionally neuter the effectiveness of the previous landed noble class, while generated a civil-service bureaucracy to actual handel his empire.
This growing supremacy of singular authority, rather than the prior patterns of familial authority in a structure of mutual obligation(what people often call the Feudal structure, though it exists, as we see in the case of venice, even outside that description), was thus contrasted with the Republican idea of a broad political franchise in which a class dominated.
The American revolutionaries take as their signal that they, Rich Property Owners all, would be the adjudicating class, along with some notion of meritocratic entrance into this class to justify their supremacy throughout the social sphere in contrast to a divine right of kings. A ‘We rule because we are the best, and if you are, you can rule too’ as oppose to ‘We rule because God says so’. In practice these distinctions can end up being very minimal. It is this minimal distinction between the two that most interests me, for while our present historical rhetoric see’s Monarchy often as a fragment of the past. Kings and queens as quaint anachronisms of a time of Tyranny, with Cartoonish Monarchs crying “Off with their Heads!”, it must be observed that even with devolved powers, Republics have been capable of horrific acts.
Slavery was central to the American Republic, for example, as it had been for the Roman millennia earlier. Slavery certainly existed within Monarchies, beneath the French, English, Dutch and Spanish, and of course the Muslim states. But despite the Rhetoric of liberty, the Americans held slavery centrally to their cause. Or perhaps it’s better to say that without an acceptance of Slavery, there would have been no America. While there was certainly a broad philosophical abolitionist sentiment in certain parts of the country, if Slavery wasn’t resolved as a fact in the new Republic, there wouldn’t have been a new Republic. That itself ties to a deep historical issue within American history that might be the focus for another post, but it does speak to how the contrasting idea that liberty can be a central theme for a Republican case against Monarchy, and yet the reality of that case is far more complex.
At the same time we have the emergence of the Constitutional Monarchy. I see in this less an emergence of a new class, but a changing of the conversation. Where the conflict between Monarchy and Republic was about the competing primacy of two different classes, I think the emergence of the Constitutional Monarchy is really both about the Victory of the Mercantile classes over the Landed Nobility, and a spreading social expectation among the broader population. Both Republics and Monarchies were radically altered by the liberal triumph of the 19th century and the challenges posed by socialism. These changes reflect shifts and broadening of politics in general.
By the late 19th and early 20th century, Monarchy as a concept is on it’s last legs. Modern Dictators often retreat from the accusation that they are generating a Dynasty and try and cloak their power under Republican goals and aims(indeed it’s one of the standard methods of maintaining power). With a few peripheral exceptions in Oil rich States, Absolute Monarchs, or even the narrowest of Constitutional Monarchies are long gone. Most ‘Monarchies’ these days resemble those of Denmark, the UK and Japan. Figureheads with limited to no actual political power. A Monarchist’s attempts to justify the monarchy today resembles nothing of the discussion of the 18th century and would in fact look absurd to those people. That a monarch acts as an abstract head of state and united element would appear a tad bizarre. That the Monarchy is valuable because it generates Tourism dollars or because it’s traditional would be seen the most empty sort of rhetoric, a pallid concession of the point.
The British Monarchy is sustained almost entirely at this stage by it’s status as Celebrity. How galling it must be for a family that once waged wars and carved out empires to now be reduced to a slightly fancier and stuffier version of the Kardashians. Their ‘property’ theirs only in so far as they please the masses. The question for this Baby George is whether he will even get the chance to be a monarch. Realistically, barring catastrophe, I think we can expect Charles and William in some combination to be on the throne for the next 40-50 years at least, and given how swiftly it would take to functionally end the Monarchy, that is a lot of time for politics to alter. Support for the Monarchy waxes and wanes with every picture of the Duchess of York or Tabloid exploit of the 4th in line for the Throne, Good Prince Harry. The Historical Irony is rich. The British Monarchy today exists as celebrity, and yet their very existence might depend on their capacity to be celebrities. Recall the ‘fairy-tale’ wedding of Charles and Diane, and how that devolved and ended up. How readily law and the historical tradition have been abandon in order to secure the Monarchy, to the point of making the most common previous argument for the monarchy, the cry of Tradition, seem absurd.