3 Political Languages Historically Defined

Book Review: The Shaping of American Liberalism: The Debates over Ratification, Nullification, and Slavery by David F. Ericson (Jun 1, 1993).

Ericson describes bridges between studies of liberalism, republicanism and pluralism and their essence therein. The pillars holding up the bridges come from an analysis of (1) the ends of political society, (2) the nature of citizenship, (3) the aggregate qualities of the citizen body, and (4) the character of the government. Conceptually, Ericson tries to define the uniqueness of the bridges according to liberalism, republicanism and pluralism in American political thought. He admits, “While I agree with the republican revisionists that American political thought has not been simply liberal, I also think that Hartz was right about the consensually liberal nature of American political thought” (1).

It is important to note that no one has still really bridged republicanism (self-government via virtue) and liberalism (representative government fortifies capitalism) or fully developed a political-economy for republicanism as distinct from liberalism.

This review will articulate Ericson’s analysis of the political languages found in Chapter 2, but there are a few caveats in order. Ericson sees some political scientists as exclusively focused on one of the political languages he describes, while he understands that republicanism is “related to liberalism as a species to genus” (2). I take this to mean that many political scientists who study American politics see republicanism as a lesser political language–or at least not prevalent!

Under liberalism today, republicanism is more about “non-domination space” in the public sphere, while pluralism occupies more space in the private sphere, especially when we think about the prevalence of capitalism.

There are classic versions of the languages which have evolved over time into modern languages. Political languages change through time but keep their roots.[1] Ericson asserts that modern republicanism, for example, is “a powerful impetus toward political democracy” (3).

There are other conceptual caveats to bear in mind considering the literature review. Ericson does not subscribe to the Hegelian dialectic; meaning, republicanism is not a causal force to explain long-term historical trends. Indeed, linguistic analysis of republicanism (Pocock) reveals that historical actors from the same era used republicanism in different ways. Even if researchers showcase the complex linguistic map, we are left with a multivocal political language—“not a univocal historical force” (5). However, in my eyes, by trying to bridge republicanism and liberalism, the author is poking for a dialectic (Socrates would be proud).

Also, political languages used during different political epochs may focus on one particular political language, such as republicanism during the founding of America; however, those elites played with incomplete information and imperfect information. Ericson thinks that scholars of modern republicanism determine that republicanism is didactic as descent of American political thought; yet wasn’t the Revolution and the Constitution something new?

This is the main point of Chapter 1: republican scholars may illuminate republicanism as a way to counteract “dissatisfaction” with today’s observed political bridges (9). The political language of republicanism advocates virtue to interests; yet, pluralism advocates interests to virtue—under the historical American construct of America’s liberal tradition.

The obvious hypothesis: Is there an example of a “republican” tradition overpowering the liberal tradition today?

Chapter 2 describes the core beliefs of the political languages of liberalism, republicanism and populism, in light of their interactions with the ends, the citizens, the citizen body, and the government. Ericson spends more time describing republicanism because it was the predominant language [in apparently liberal America] during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which may be differentiated from the language of liberalism and pluralism today. He seeks to describe republicanism in its whole, so that future discussions about political languages stop talking past each other.

The closest scholar to do so is probable Pettit in 2012 (to my knowledge). And Maloy (2011) explores if republicanism in America actually goes back to complex understandings of Machiavellian republicanism (via the British) through the earliest American settlers.

Ericson’s description of republicanism was the ideal type surrounding the American Revolution. By contrast, the traits I will soon rearticulate are not necessarily the ideal traits of the political language of republicanism which is articulated today. I try to accomplish that in my dissertation.

Overall, Ericson describes 16 core beliefs of republicanism. Four traits are attributed within the four categories of: ends of political society, the nature of citizenship, the aggregate qualities of the citizen body, and the character of the government. His analysis is complex, and I have simplified it here for space.

I have tried to keep to Ericson’s actual words when possible. Again, he articulates the language of republicanism as observed during America’s founding (when it was most predominant), and charts its use from that point on in the remainder of the book (with much attention given to liberalism and pluralism as well).


The Ends of Political Society (11):

(1) The public happiness is the true end of any political society.

(2)Liberty is a fundamental political end as an irreducible good and necessary condition of happiness.

(3) Public liberty takes precedence over private liberty and citizen participation is essential.

(4) public happiness is organic as a public good, which may require citizens to make sacrifices for the long-term interests of society.

  • Private interests are encouraged under a flexible public good ideal.
  • Private interests contribute to the public good.
  • Private rights to life, liberty, and property are valid.

The Nature of Citizenship (12-13):

(1) Civic virtue is the essential quality of citizenship.

  • Moral disposition towards long-term societal interests.
  • Entices greater democratic governance
  • Shuns authoritarian governance
  • Civic virtue requires citizen participation in public affairs

(2) Moral declension leads to fragile and extinct republics.

  • Pursuit of collective interests may decline as private interests increase
  • Egoism and selfishness may actively diminish republicanism to the point of a whisper.
  • Historically, political scientists see, cyclically, that republics degenerate into more authoritarian forms of governance.

(3) Luxury overtaxes civic virtue.

  • Private luxury paths are not [generally] coterminous with the public good.
  • These paths usually lead to declension.

(4) Republican government enables civic virtue by allowing individual citizens a considerable about of public liberty (italics mine).

  • Political participation and civic virtue are symbiotic.
  • [classic] republicanism allowed for citizen exclusion

The Aggregate Qualities of the Citizen Body (13-15)

(1) A highly homogenous citizen body is a necessary condition for a stable republic.

  • In the absence of social homogeneity, there can be no public good.
  • Sizeable factions will lead to one group tyrannizing the others.
  • Republicanism is like an organism: it’s only healthy if all parts prosper together.
  • Class conflicts between rich and poor do not exist [because a republican government would have solved these issues].
  • There is a generally equality of condition among all citizens.
  • Virtuous citizens create the mechanisms to solve collective action problems.
  • Republicanism [normally] does not create a prodigious government seeking to level property or private interests.

(2) Republics must be small.

  • The smaller the republic, the more likely the citizen body will be homogenous.
  • The more homogenous the citizen body, the closer the government will be to the people.
  • Small government will increase civic virtue as citizens increasingly participate.
  • Small governments enable direct participation and direct democracy.
  • Thus, large states should engage federalism as a type of government.

(3) Commerce destabilizes republican societies.

  • Commerce introduces complex economies that may undermine social homogeneity, which may increase social inequality.
  • Commerce need not be shunned, but moderated.
  • Commerce may boost public wealth if administered correctly.

(4) Political parties are conspiratorial.

  • Parties pursue the interests of their members, not the public good.

The Character of the Government (15-19):

(1) Republican governments are popular governments.

(2) Republican governments are also mixed governments.

  • Republican governments diverge from democratic governments
    • A representative sample of the electorate should not be elected to government, i.e. democratic governments.
    • There should be an overrepresentation of “the best and the brightest.”
  • There should be few electors with long terms.
  • Broad-based electorates.
  • A large, directly elected legislature.
  • Frequent elections for legislature.
  • Representatives may endure personal sacrifices to accomplish public good.
  • It’s an open government, regardless of family background.
  • Republicanism is a democratic teaching with the message of equality.
  • The state should not ignore natural inequalities, and it should not aggravate artificial ones.
  • Republicans value a widespread distribution of citizenship rights.

(3) All power corrupts

  • Corruption must be taken out by “returning to first principles” (Pocock).
  • Government corruption is worse than the threat of luxury or commerce.
  • A court party is the worst type of faction since it is entrenched in power.
    • A court party matures into an artificial aristocracy.
    • Manipulation of government patronage can subvert free elections without destroying their forms.
  • The antibody of a court party is a country party.
    • A country party is a faction of independents with the goal of purging the government of its corrupt court influences.
    • Revolution is the remedy of last resort.
  • Frequent rotation of office should prevent politicians from becoming corrupt.

(4) Republican jealousy is an important component of good citizenship.

  • Vote out of office every person with a tincture of corruption.
  • Be suspicious of people in power, but give deference when needed.
  • Create a constitution that would be appropriate for your society.
  • Government officials do have the power to manipulate the economy/society.


Ericson opens the discussion specific to liberalism (19) by reasserting the idea that there are genus-liberal aspects of [the language of] republicanism, and, parts of republicanism which are uniquely republican. Again he purports that American political thought is wholly in the liberal tradition, and the research is designed to determine whether or not republicanism is a “nonliberal, even neoclassical, category of political thought” (19). On the other hand, Ericson also examines whether or not liberalism may be conceived in atomistic terms as extreme pluralism.

Erickson continues the analytic narrative by describing breakthroughs in political thought by the philosophers Aristotle, Machiavelli and Locke. These authors of influence to political thought either caused new political discussions [i.e. language], or, they articulated the new political language / culture as evidence in their midst. Either way, political actions taken by governments radically changed after Locke, and in triumph was written / enforced the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. Ericson finds that the philosophers during the post-Lockean time period provided the framing of the liberal tradition. He concludes, “Liberalism, therefore, centrally defined itself in relation to classical and medieval philosophy. The original liberal philosophers were united by a distinctly modern vision of the human ends, virtue, society, and government” (19-20).

The Ends of Political Society (20):[2]

(1)Liberty and happiness are the fundamental ends of any political society.

  • Cultivation of human excellence and religious faith are private ends.
  • Commodious living (i.e. Hobbes).
  • Happiness refers to material interests.
  • Liberty refers to rights to pursue such interests.
  • Justice is the protection of such rights.

The Nature of Citizenship (20):

(1) Political virtue is sharply distinguished from the moral and intellectual virtues.

  • Persuade people regarding what is in their interest.
  • Political virtue overlaps other virtues.
  • Virtues are a means to happiness, not as ends in themselves.
  • High demands on good citizenship, though initially exclusive to those who could meet the high demands.

The Aggregate Qualities of the Citizen Body (20):

(1) A perfectly homogenous society, even if possible, is not desirable.

  • Loose definition of what a good society is.
    • As long as it is based on liberal principles.
  • Diverse society insulates individual citizens from societal pressures.
  • The relaxed sociology is favorable toward commerce and size.

The Character of the Government (21):

(1) The government might not be popular, but it is democratic.

  • A thrust of liberalism may result from dissociation of political (or prophetic) wisdom and the expansion of citizenship rights.
  • Less hierarchical demands of public life.
  • Liberals may not necessarily advocate greater economic equality.
  • Political and economic inequality is highly probable because of the segregation of human activities into public and private sectors.


Ericson opens the narrative by pointing out that 20th century pluralists dramatically differentiated themselves with republican sentiments and, therefore, as a “vanguard for a more realistic political philosophy or, now even more, science” (21). Again he asserts that pluralists are actually under the umbrella of the American liberal tradition.

The Ends of Political Society (21-22):

(1) Reverse the republican priority of public over private liberty.

  • Citizenship rights enable the pursuit of private interests.

(2) There is no public good (as republicans conceive—a good society).

  • Public good is the summation of individual or group interests.
  • Public-policy process is bargaining over group interests.
  • Public-policy process is not about the long-term interests of society.

(3) Subscribe to interest group paradigm of politics.

  • Public-private boundaries are shifting.
    • Private interests may become public interests.
    • Public interests may become private interests.
  • Devalue the previous quintessentially public activities.

The Nature of Citizenship (22-23):

(1) Pluralists identify political virtue with fair play.

  • Game theory over organic metaphors.
  • Citizens abide by rules of the game (no sacrifice necessary).
  • Do not interpret political and economic conflicts as zero-sum games.
  • More accepting of conflict.

(2) Political virtue is not caused by the government.

  • Government should not seek to create virtue or better citizens.
  • Moral declension is not fear worthy.
  • Individual luxury is an incentive to spur economic growth.
  • There is no symbiotic relationship between political virtue and political participation.

The Aggregate Qualities of the Citizen Body (23):

(1) Conflict, not consensus, is the primary reality of the social vision.

  • Pluralist statesmen are less ambivalent towards social diversity than their republican predecessors.
  • Widespread agreement on the rules of the game.
  • Absence of bipolar racial, ethnic, or religious divisions almost essential.
  • Economic inequalities should fall within reasonable limits.
  • Indefinitely expandable states.
  • Do not need to federalize.
  • Weaker linkage between government and society.
  • Greater commerce desires, discounting potential social divisiveness.
  • Individuals and groups are equal under the rules of the game.
  • Politics is much less conspiratorial than republicans observe.

The Character of the Government (23-24):

(1) Popular government.

  • Representatives should foremost present the interests of their constituents in the public-policy process.
  • Increased emphasis on sympathetic and social-mirroring functions of representation.
  • Pluralist democracy is a free-market economy.
  • Vigorously defend majority rule, which is de facto minority rule.
  • Social reality is not very stratified and hierarchy is not usually necessary.
  • Reject the presuppositions of mixed government.
  • Elimination of the emotive terms: public good, factions, and tyranny.

Ericson determines that populism is more widespread than republicanism in liberal America today. This is due to republicanism’s opposition to current trends toward privatization of human existence, commerce, luxury, social diversity, nationalism, political-party systems, and even democracy (24-25). Whereas republicans are normative actors, pluralists are beholden to their constituents.

Ericson concludes Chapter 2 by questioning whether or not republicanism was the discourse of early America while pluralism was the unspoken reality. If modernity had its own momentum, then perhaps the liberal movement was constantly developing pluralism (and not republicanism). Accordingly, “The gradual abandonment of republicanism for public philosophies more congenial to modern trends was prefigured at the origins of liberalism when it was associated, in spirit if not always in detail, with those trends” (25). The remainder of the book uses the former analysis to discover answers to the puzzle of political languages in American history.

At a later date, I will post an analysis of the rest of the book.

[1] My dissertation, conceptually, sees liberalism, republicanism, biblical thought, conservative thought and populism as distinct strands of the American political thought twine. Therefore, I separate the twine, and I focus on the strand of republicanism. I plan to do surveys and experiments.

[2] Again, in this section, I try to use Ericson’s actual words.

One thought on “3 Political Languages Historically Defined

  1. Pingback: A Case for ‘republicanism’ Before Lincoln (an R1 APD) | Political Pipeline

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