"We the People" and the Rhetorics of Republicanism in America, 1776--1845 Thesis uri icon


  • As politicians of the Revolutionary generation knew, and as those who inherited the Revolution came to understand, American republicanism was malleable precisely because it was so vaguely defined and so absolutely revered; such knowledge made republicanism very useful. American republicanism can best be understood by examining the Revolutionary Whig and the Constitutional neo-Whig rhetorical visions, which were premised on assumptions about the correct ordering of republican governments and on emotional fears of political power resting in unworthy and dangerous hands. As these republican visions battled for supremacy they formed an American political fiction that was based as much on liberty as on the desire for control; as much on democracy as on the need for order; as much on rights as on the need for safety. As the rhetorics of republicanism evolved, the Revolutionary vision resonated more with the people, and thus became more useful for politicians who found that they could appeal to "democratic" principles while still advocating elite policies. After the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson the nation witnessed a republican revival in which the republicanism of the Founders was invoked, conflated, and rendered symbolic. Those who inherited the Revolution did not argue as explicitly about what republicanism meant as a form of government; rather they adopted the arguments of the preceding generation, following either the Revolutionary or the Constitutional vision of republicanism. By mid century other crises would require the attention of the nation. Americans who believed that the questions of republican government were long settled would forget the rhetoric of republicanism and replace it with the rhetorics of science, capitalism, and westward expansion. Thus the real questions of American republicanism, namely how and under what conditions should the people have political power in the United States, have never been satisfactorily answered. Yet these questions are not debated because Americans believe that those problems were solved long ago by heroic Founding Fathers. Hence the rhetoric of republicanism is America's political fiction. It is the myth that sustains the belief in America's freedom, liberty, and democracy in the face of the reality of political powerlessness.

author list (cited authors)

  • Mercieca, J.

editor list (cited editors)

  • Hartnett, S. J.

publication date

  • January 1, 2003 11:11 AM