Gubernaculum Part 2
England and America in the eighteenth-century
In the last part we looked at the difference between the Gubernaculum and Jurisdictio and then we looked at how this dichotomy became less important with the rise of civic republicanism, in which the virtuous people became capable of government, rather than just being a repository of custom.
Civic republicanism originated in Florence, but it spread to England and thence to America. England had a bit of a hard time making sense of how civic republicanism could apply to them; how can the virtuous people rule in a monarchy? We won’t dwell too much on this, but one entry point was the person of the courtier. Rather than virtuous citizens, there was a place for virtuous courtiers who could advise the King, rather than rule in their own name.
The eighteenth-century contained a great deal of civic republican ideology. Of vital importance was the antithesis between virtú and corruption. Much like the older opposition between virtú and fortuna, corruption made everything unpredictable, it thrived in oligarchic systems and once it began to grow, it was all but unstoppable. What exactly was corruption? Love of luxury was one component, but most important was dependence. If you were dependent on someone else for your wealth, you could hardly be expected to exercise independent judgement. MPs were among the worst offenders: many were given ‘place’ by the government; pensions, places in government, commissions in the army for their family or some role in the church, this rendered them the tools of whatever sinister forces controlled the government. Because of this, there were various efforts to introduce place bills which would have forbidden such people from serving as MPs. Land qualification acts were also attempted several times, these forbade MPs who owned too little land from sitting in Parliament — the logic was that if you owned land you had an independent source of wealth and could therefore act in the interests of the country rather than chasing patronage from the government.
One of the most important innovations of the late seventeenth-century was the financial revolution. The invention of public debt made it possible for the state to borrow large amounts of money which they could spend on waging expensive wars. The eighteenth-century was full of such wars. People who bought and sold this debt were seen as among the archvillains of society: they were wholly dependent on the government for their wealth, and they were incentivised to encourage more war and higher taxes. The land tax was the main tax in this century, and it was a bone of contention that the independent landed gentry were effectively being squeezed to pay for debt borrowed by people with no connection to the land at all. Machiavelli had warned of the dangers of using mercenaries, among their flaws was that they would always want wars to continue because it was how they were paid; an army made of citizens, on the other hand, would only support wars that were in the interests of the republic and would prefer to go home and tend to their farms once the war had been sufficiently waged. In the same way, the landed gentry would be incentivised to wage war only in the interests of the nation, and would want them to end quickly so their taxes could be reduced. Among the problems with the debt was that it meant taxes did not go down as soon as wars ended, they had to stay high for a bit to pay down the debt.
America was founded on the principles of civic republicanism. The Second Amendment especially lay down the principle of a citizens’ militia, as does the clause which says that Congress can build a permanent navy, but that the army is only allowed in times of war. Clearly, America has at some point ceased to be entirely civic republican, the standing army that civic republicans hated (for many of the reasons they hated mercenaries) is alive and well. One of the uniquely American elements of civic republicanism was the frontier: the central problem of the ideology is that corruption’s growth is inevitable and cannot be stopped, Americans hoped to solve this by continually expanding to the West, this would ensure that the manly virtues of frugality and industriousness would be continually refreshed and reinfused into the polity, thus allowing the republic to last for a very long time. Expansion to the West happened far faster than anybody had though possible after the invention of the railways, so this plan didn’t work.
Anyway, it’s pretty clear that civic republicanism is mostly gone, though there are some traces still around in America. It was basically replaced by liberalism which rejects the central place of virtú. It is a fun irony that the widespread corruption of eighteenth-century Britain was vanquished (mostly) in the nineteenth-century, after the obsessive attention paid to it by the civic republicans had ceased.