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Republic: political theory and usage


Sir Thomas Smith introduced the term “republic” to describe the English system as long ago as the sixteenth century. He was an English diplomat and one of the greatest classical scholars of his time.

He studied at Padua and was made Regius Professor of Civil Law and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. He was also a Member of Parliament, an ambassador to France and as a secretary of state a very close and trusted confidante of  Queen Elizabeth I.

His book, “De Republica Anglorum; the Manner of Government or Policie of the Realme of England” , was first published in 1583.  His intention was to show how the English system differed from and was superior to others.

 “No one”, said the renowned historian, FW Maitland, “would think of writing about the England of Elizabeth’s day without paying heed to what was written about that matter by her learned and accomplished Secretary of State.”

But the term republic was still occasionally used to include ones where the executive was in the hands of an hereditary officer.  The best example from our point of view was King William III who was invited with Queen Mary II to take the throne after James II fled the kingdom.  William had been Stadtholder of  Holland and four other provinces  in the republic of the Seven United Netherlands, the Dutch Republic , which would become the Kingdom of the Netherlands. By the time of William, a sovereign Prince of Orange, the office of Stadtholder had become hereditary in practice if not in law.

It is surely of particular relevance that our first more constitutional monarch after the Stuart Kings came from an undoubted crowned republic.            


Eighteenth century republican theorists did not see constitutional monarchy as incompatible with genuine republicanism, says Professor Brian Galligan, A Federal Republic, 1995, p.4.  Indeed  Montesquieu praised the English constitution as an ideal model for republican government

 The French political philosopher Montesquieu, one of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment, declared England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be a ‘republic hiding under the form of a monarchy.’Seeing England  as one of the freest countries in the world, he found there the development of an important check and balance against the abuse of power.

This was the separation of the judicial power from the legislative and executive powers, one of the achievements of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 under King William III and Queen Mary II which established an earlier version of the constitutional monarchy, and was the basis of government in the United States which many regard as an elective monarchy.



The point is that no definition of the word “republic” is all encompassing. Indeed by itself the word ‘republic’  is so imprecise as to be almost meaningless.  It requires some qualification to explain what is intended. On this site we distinguish between crowned republics (also known as constitutional monarchies) and politicians’ republics. This does not purport to be an exhaustive classification. Falling outside of these are, for example, absolute monarchies, which have existed historically in say, France under Louis XIV and exist today in Saudi Arabia. But most countries today would would be either crowned republics ( constitutional monarchies)  or politicians’ republics. All crowned republics are democracies, many politicians’ republics are not.

Politicians’ republics can be classified in various ways. In Australia the republican movement proposed a republic where the politicians’ chose and closely controlled the president. This was rejected in 1999.Although they will not today reveal what sort of politicians’ republic they want, the two most talked about is, first, some variation of that rejected in 1999. The other is one where the president, and presumably the vice president, the six governors, the six lieutenant governors and the administrator of a territory are all politicians.


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