Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


In Number 10 of The Federalist, James Madison defines “republic” and distinguishes that term from “democracy.” The latter, in its “pure” form, is “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, ….” Think of the classic New England town meeting or the administration of justice through a jury drawn by lot from the local citizenry. A republic, by contrast, is “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, ….” It is distinguished by “first, the delegation of the government … [given] to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of the country, over which [a republic] may be extended.” The last quality is due to the fact that direct participation by citizens means that the place of government cannot be too far from their homes, lest they must leave their livelihoods and families, whereas the indirect system of governance in a republic only requires that the comparatively small number of representatives be able to travel long distances from their homes. One argument by historians for the collapse of the Roman Republic and its popular assemblies is that eventually there were too many Roman citizens living long distances from the city to make the required direct participation in the assemblies possible.

Political theorists and Western expositors of constitutional structures have characterized various systems as republics more broadly than Madison’s functional and limited definition. Examples abound. Plato ascribed the title Politeia (“Republic”) to his principal work on government. His conception of the ideal system was one of balance among different groups in society, with the leaders to come from an elite “guardian” class bred and trained to govern. This has been called government by philosopher-kings, but it was an obvious aristocracy in the true meaning of the word, government by the best (aristoi). Such government would establish a realm of “justice,” the cardinal virtue of the individual and the political order, through trained reason. He analogized the system to a charioteer who, through his reason guides the chariot safely along the path to the destination. The charioteer relies on the help of the strong obedient horse to control and direct the unruly horse which, driven by its appetites for physical satisfaction, wants to bolt off the path in search of immediate gratification of its desires. The charioteer is the guardian class, the strong horse the auxiliaries—disciplined and competent military officers and civil administrators—, and the unruly horse the masses. The system allows all to achieve their proper status in society in reflection of their inherent natural inequalities, provides stability necessary for social harmony, and is guided by an ethical principle—justice; hence, it is a republic.

Aristotle in his Politika did not discount the role of the demos in Athens. Like Madison, Aristotle considered democracy to be unstable and dangerous. From an analytic perspective, as was the case for Plato, democracy was a corruption of politeia, which he considered the best practical government for a city. Man is a politikon zoon, a creature which by his nature is best suited to live in the community that was the Greek polis. Once more, preserving a stable society and governing system was the key to maximizing the flourishing of each resident in accordance with the natural inequalities of each. Aristotle saw that balance in the “mixed” government of Athens, neither pure democracy nor oligarchy, in which the formal powers of the demos in the assembly and the jury courts were balanced by the Council of 500 and the practice of deference to the ideas and policies advanced by the elite of the wealthy and of those who earned military or civic honor.

The government of Rome before at least the First Triumvirate in 59 B.C. of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus has consistently been described over the centuries as a “republic.” Polybius explained mikte (mixed government), the political structure of the Roman Republic, differently than did Aristotle. But he, too, deemed Rome a republic because of the balance among the monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements of its constitution. As important, the practical functioning of the competing political institutions limited the power of each. Polybius related the political structure and its evolution to Roman character traits that reflected Rome’s history and contemporary culture, which had stressed the maintenance of civic virtue. Polybius also understood that Romans were not immune to human passions and vices. Like Madison writing nearly two millennia later, he warned that Rome’s republican structures were better than other forms of government but were not impregnable barriers against political failure.

Cicero also described Rome as a mixed government, although his declaration that the people were the foundation of political authority was opposed to his approving description of the patrician Senate as preeminent. For Cicero, Rome’s system reflected the natural divisions of society, with leadership appropriately assigned to the best, the optimates. What made Rome a republic was that the mutual influences and overlapping authority of the various political institutions provided the stability for a successful community oriented to the thriving of all, the res publica. In the Ciceronian version, Rome was a republic, but an aristocratic one.

Closer to Madison’s time were the observations of Baron Montesquieu, an authority well-respected by the writers of The Federalist. Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws has been criticized as contradictory and lacking systematic analysis. In a relevant portion which describes the English system, he calls the structure a mixed government, with separate roles for monarch, Lords, and Commons. He characterizes this as a republic, similar to the Rome of Polybius, because they embodied different interests and were able to check each other to prevent any of them from exercising power arbitrarily. England was a republic in function, but a monarchy in form.

Today, one sees systems self-named as republics that are a far cry from the foregoing examples. North Korea as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics appear to have at most a passing resemblance to the Rome of Polybius or the England described by Montesquieu. Their “republican” connection seems to be at best a theoretical nod to the concept of the people, in the form of the proletarian class, as the source of authority, with the ruler chosen for long term, often life, by a token assemblage of delegates in a closed political system.

What then made classical Venice a republic? Based on classical taxonomy of “pure” political systems, Venice was an aristocracy. Although Venice had been founded under Roman rule, the most revealing period was the half-millennium between the constitutional reforms of 1297 and the Republic’s end after the city’s occupation by Napoleon in 1797. Like Rome and other classical polities, Venice had no written formal constitution or judicially applied constitutional law. The political structure was the result of practical responses to certain developments, the demands of popular opinion, and, as in Rome, the deference to custom traceable to the “wise ancestors.”

In 1297, membership in the nobility became fixed in certain families, and the previous fluid manner of gaining access through the accumulation of wealth during a period of economic expansion was foreclosed (the “Serrata”). That said, the number of nobles was significant, with estimates that it amounted at times to 5% of the population. The nobility governed, and their foundational institution was the Great Council. All adult males of the nobility belonged to the Council and could vote in its weekly meetings. That body debated and enacted laws. It voted on the appointment of the city’s political officials, of which at times there were estimated to be more than 800. Since the officials’ terms of office were brief, and turnover frequent, this task occupied considerable time of the Council.

In addition, there was another powerful political body, the 300-member Senate, Venice’s main effective policy-making institution. Nobles at least 32 years old were eligible to be selected by one of two procedures, election by the Council or by lot drawn from nominations by retiring Senators. Their annual terms overlapped, with no uniform beginning and end. As well, senior civil and military officers were members. The Senate determined policy for the government, most particularly in foreign and financial affairs. However, the agenda of the Senate was set by the 26-member Collegio, a sort of steering committee. While the Collegio could control what matters were debated by the Senate, it could only offer opinions held by various of its members about an issue, not submit concrete proposals.

The administrative part of the Venetian government was particularly complex, as described by Professor Scott Gordon in his well-researched book, Controlling the State. Regarding Venice, he refers frequently to Gasparo Contarini’s classic work from 1543, De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum. Selection to office involved a confusing combination of voting and selection by lot. Gordon provides a schematic of the selection of the Doge, the city’s head. At once amusing and awe-inducing for its complexity, a simplified version is shown by: 30L-9L-40E-12L-25E-9L-45E-11L-41E-Doge, where L stands for selection by lot and E for election. In other words, at a meeting of the Great Council, the names of 30 members were drawn by lot. From them, 9 were drawn by lot. Those nine voted for 40 members of the Great Council. From those, 12 were drawn by lot, and so on, until 41 nominators were selected who would select the duke. This convoluted procedure had some anticipated benefits. Together with the prohibition of formal campaigning, the unpredictability of the eventual selecting body discouraged election rigging. Moreover, the time delays involved and the likely variation of opinions among the members of the Council encouraged debate in the Council and among the public about the qualifications of various potential candidates. Factionalism is unavoidable in large bodies, but its effects likely were somewhat blunted by this procedurally chaotic approach.

Although elected for life, the doge himself had little formal substantive power. He could do nothing official by himself. To meet visitors, or when he engaged in correspondence, at least two members of the Ducal Council had to be present. The Ducal Council was composed of six members elected for eight-month terms by the Great Council, each representing a geographic district of the city. They were the doge’s advisors, but also his watchdogs, much as the ephori (magistrates) of Sparta shadowed their kings.

Upon election, the new doge had to swear an oath on a document which detailed the limitations imposed on his office. Those limitations could vary, depending on the political conditions and the identity of the person selected. To remind him, the oath was reread to him every two months. After the doge died, his conduct was subject to an inquiry by committees of the Great Council. If he was found to have engaged in illegality, his estate could be fined, a not unusual result.

The office had little formal power, but it was more than simply ceremonial. The Doge presided over the meetings of the Great Council and the Senate, though he did so attended by the Ducal Council and the three chief judges of the criminal court. His power came from his long tenure and his participation in the processes and deliberations of all of the important organs of the city’s government.

There also were security and secret police organs, such as the shadowy Dieci (Council of Ten), elected by the Grand Council to staggered one-year terms, and the three Inquisitors. The Dieci targeted acts of subversion. The usual legal rules did not apply to them, to allow them to move quickly and secretly. The Inquisitors were a counterintelligence entity, set up to prevent disclosure of state secrets. Like all such extraordinary bodies connected to national security, they represented a potential threat to the republican structure of Venice. Notably, there is no record of them attempting to subvert the republic and seize power.

A final and very significant component of the Venetian system were the bureaucracy, the craft guilds, and the service clubs. All of these were controlled by the non-noble citizens of Venice. The first, especially, was an ever-expanding part of the government. Excluded from the political operations, commoners sought power through the bureaucratic departments. Eventually, a sort of bureaucratic oligarchy developed, as prominent families came to dominate certain departments over the generations. These cittadini roughly equaled the nobles in number, and they had the advantage that, unlike the annual terms of noble officeholders, they held their offices for life.

Venice acquired the reputation among writers during the 15th through 17th centuries of an “ideal” republic, with a stable constitution able to survive even catastrophic military defeat in 1508. The city was marked by good government and the protection of political and religious liberty. As noted by one modern commentator, Venice was “a Catholic state where the Protestant could share the security of the Greek and the Jew from persecution.”  The system stood in contrast to the violent chaos and bouts of persecution that characterized the history of Florence and other Italian cities, and the economic backwardness and lack of social mobility of the emerging nation-states, such as France. It was a wealthy, capitalist society, which was easily able to raise more tax revenues than nation-states with several times its population. On the military side, although it had no regular army or militia, Venice had for several centuries the most powerful navy in the world, with bases around the eastern Mediterranean to protect its far-ranging commercial interests.

However, by the 18th century, the “myth of Venice” had become tarnished, as the city acquired a reputation for civic decay. Hamilton and Madison wrote disparagingly about it in The Federalist, the latter claiming that the city did not meet the definition of a republic. Thus, coming back to that earlier question, why was Venice’s constitution described as such by so many? Madison’s own definition in No. 39 of The Federalist, in which he rejects characterizing Venice as a republic, emphasizes that the governing authority in a republic must come directly or indirectly from the “great body of the people,” and the government must be administered by persons holding office during good behavior.

It is true that the organs of state in Venice were controlled by a noble elite of at most 5% of the population. Yet, the general exclusion of women, children, convicts, and slaves from governance in the American states, along with the impact on free male adults of the property qualifications imposed by many states on voting well into the 19th century, undercuts Madison’s claim that the American states were republics. Moreover, in Venice the cittadini carried out the ordinary operations of the government and were, therefore, a significant force in the execution of government policy. Looking at terms of office, with the exception of the doge’s life tenure, office holders in Venice were usually selected for annual terms, unlike the longer terms of office for President, Representatives, Senators, and judges in the United States. Indeed, it was the very length of the tenures of officers of the general government which the Anti-federalists decried as unrepublican, and which Madison defended.

That is not to say that Madison’s focus is misplaced. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of a republic that there is a significant element of popular participation, albeit one not amenable to precise reckoning. As important, however, is that the government is not unlimited and power is not concentrated in a single person, class, or body of persons. The balance and separation of powers which Madison considers to be crucial in The Federalist Numbers 10 and 51, when he defends against the charge that the Constitution is a prescription for tyranny, is also clearly present in Venice’s, one might say Byzantine, structure of overlapping entities checking and supervising each other. It was a structure that, by Madison’s time had, with some alterations, served the city for 500 years since the Serrata, and another three centuries since its independence from Byzantium before then. It took Napoleon’s mass army, the military might of a large nation-state, to end Venice’s long-functioning, but obsolete city-state constitution.

Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.

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