One thrust of Enlightenment was the search for a better form of government and this was generally considered to be resolved by some form of republic.
The historian Professor Knud Haakonssen commented that by the time of the Renaissance, Europe was divided into two approaches. The states that were controlled by a landed elite were monarchies, those controlled by a commercial elite had formed republics.
The best examples of the latter were the city-states of Florence, Genoa and Venice and northern Europe’s Hanseatic League. Perhaps because of this there had been a theory that a Republic was appropriate only for small states.
Greek philosophers had dry-run the notions of republicanism in their works, Plato’s ‘The Republic’ written in c380 BCE was a dialogue with Socrates to define the just city state and the just man. Aristotle took up the debate on systems of government with ‘Politika’ or politics. While Greece claimed to be a republic it was not in our modern definition of the concept.
Ancient Rome took up their thinking, they modelled themselves heavily on the older civilization. Cicero’s ‘De re publica’ usually translated as ‘On the commonwealth’. Having overthrown its monarchy in 509 BCE, Rome operated as a Republic until 27 BCE when it changed its structure in to an Empire. As a Republic it did achieve an exemplar of an effective separation of powers, by creating separate branches of the state for the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
Renaissance scholars looked back at these ancient times and cited them as an example for better governance in their time. Niccolò Machiavelli is more famous for his ‘The Prince’ that describes how to run a monarchy, but he also wrote ‘Discourses on Livy’ which defined how a republic worked. But during the Renaissance no thinker or author was prepared to suggest one system was best.
Prior to the Enlightenment in the 16th century the English lawyer and philosopher Sir Thomas More broke with that tradition and made clear that he saw the current system flawed and that there were better approaches. Even he tried to muddle this by presenting this within a piece named as ‘Utopia’ – a Greek pun that could be considered to mean ‘ou-topos’, no place or ‘eu-topos,’ good place. It proved controversial but his basic notion was that a monarchy constrained by law could operate effectively as a republic.
By the end of the 16th century it was the formation of a two-hundred-year Dutch Republic that had been heavily pamphleted running in to the Eighty Years’ War. The tenor had been that monarchies are tyrannies and therefore corrupt. Of course they were rebelling against their foreign and ‘absentee king’, the Habsburg Philip II of Spain.
The Dutch notion inspired the Huguenot (Protestant) movement in France during the Wars of Religion that was taking place at around the same time. These set the House of Bourbon and Lorraine’s House of Guise against each other.
Of course England became a Commonwealth, or republic, for eleven years under the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century. John Locke took up the republican cause in his writing, though he placed liberalism as the more significant philosophy. Locke is said to have to some extent inspired the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’. Though this was more about religion and monarchy change in its overthrowing James II for his tolerance of Catholicism.
It was ignited by the birth of a son who displaced the protestant Mary from the heir presumptive role; it was feared the son would be raised as a Catholic. The revolution installed Mary’s husband, the protestant William of Orange to the English throne as William III, co-ruled by Mary II.
When America was fighting for its freedom from England its leaders looked at all of the above writers and thinkers from classical times through to John Milton and Montesquieu to seek out their form of future administration.
When the French Republic was being conceived it had the recent American exercise to draw upon plus the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire.