A Definition of Republicanism

A painting of the 1787 Constitutional Convention
Howard Chandler Christie's painting depicting the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

GraphicaArtis / Getty Images

The Founding Fathers of the United States of America may have declared independence from Britain in 1776, but the real work of putting together the new government got underway at the Constitutional Convention, which took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787, in the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia.

After the deliberations ended and the delegates were leaving the hall, a member of the crowd that had gathered outside, Mrs. Elizabeth Powell, asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Today, citizens of the United States assume they have kept it, but what, exactly, does a republic, and the philosophy that defines it—republicanism—mean?


In general, republicanism refers to the ideology embraced by members of a republic, which is a form of representational government in which leaders are elected for a specific period by the preponderance of the citizenry, and laws are passed by these leaders for the benefit of the entire republic, rather than select members of a ruling class, or aristocracy.

In an ideal republic, leaders are elected from among the working citizenry, serve the republic for a defined period, then return to their work, never to serve again.

Unlike a direct or "pure" democracy, in which the majority vote rules, a republic guarantees a certain set of basic civil rights to every citizen, codified in a charter or constitution, which cannot be overridden by majority rule.

Key Concepts

Republicanism stresses several key concepts, notably, the importance of civic virtue, the benefits of universal political participation, the dangers of corruption, the need for separate powers within government, and a healthy reverence for the rule of law.

From these concepts, one paramount value stands apart: political liberty.

Political liberty, in this case, refers not only to freedom from government interference in private affairs, but it also places great emphasis on self-discipline and self-reliance.

Under a monarchy, for instance, an all-powerful leader decrees what the citizenry is and is not allowed to do. By contrast, leaders of a republic stay out of the lives of the individuals they serve, unless the republic as a whole is threatened, say in the case of a violation of a civil liberty guaranteed by the charter or constitution.

A republican government usually has several safety nets in place to offer assistance to those in need, but the general assumption is that most individuals are capable of helping themselves and their fellow citizens.


The word republic comes from the Latin phrase res publica, meaning "thing of the people" or the public property.

The Romans rejected their king and formed a republic in about 500 BCE. There were three periods of republics until it finally fell in 30 BCE.

Republicanism saw revivals in Europe during the Middle Ages, but chiefly in limited areas and for short times.

It was not until the American and French revolutions that republicanism took more of a foothold.

Notable Quotes

“Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.” — John Adams
“Citizenship is what makes a republic; monarchies can get along without it.” — Mark Twain
“The true republic: men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” — Susan B. Anthony
“Our safety, our liberty, depends upon preserving the Constitution of the United States as our fathers made it inviolate.” — Abraham Lincoln
“In republican governments, men are all equal; equal they are also in despotic governments: in the former, because they are everything; in the latter, because they are nothing.” — Montesquieu


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Hawkins, Marcus. "A Definition of Republicanism." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-republicanism-3303634. Hawkins, Marcus. (2021, September 1). A Definition of Republicanism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-republicanism-3303634 Hawkins, Marcus. "A Definition of Republicanism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-republicanism-3303634 (accessed May 30, 2023).