Towards a modern “History of Republics”: a consideration of William Everdell’s “The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans”

Towards a modern “History of Republics”: a consideration of William Everdell’s “The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans”

In view of the horrific damage that the Trump Administration has done to the American Republic, during the past year I have done extensive reading of the histories of a number of the most successful or durable Republics over time. The reason has been to try to answer the question of whether there is an overarching narrative to the history of Republics: how they form and evolve over time, and whether they are ultimately doomed, as was Rome, to collapse into autocracy. As I briefly detail below, the answer to that last query, thankfully, appears to be a qualified and very hedged “no,” although maintaining one over the long term, as Benjamin Franklin quipped, is difficult. What has been missing is an overall “History of Republics.”

Americans generally are probably ignorant of the fact that Republics did not die during the 1800 years between Caesar crossing the Rubicon and the Declaration of Independence.  As I’ve written previously, Roman Emperors maintained many of the forms, if not the substance, of Rome’s republican offices, e.g., tribunes and consuls. After the Western Empire fell, a welter of small northern Italian city-states reconstituted Republics based more or less on the legacy Roman model. Subsequently the Swiss Cantons and the Netherlands also developed into republics, as did Great Britain briefly during its Commonwealth.

William R. Everdell’s “The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans” is a decent introductory level text exploring this issue. Each chapter is devoted to leading figures in historical republics: the prophet Samuel, Solon of Athens, two Brutuses at the beginning and end of the Roman Republic, the mythical William Tell of the Swiss cantons and John Calvin of Geneva, Machiavelli and medieval Florence, John Milton and Cromwell’s English Commonwealth, Robespierre of the revolutionary French first republic, Leon Gambetta and the founding of a parliamentary third French Republic, the Weimar failure, and John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thaddeus Stevens and several Senators over time in the US.



While there was no overarching dynamic, I did feel that at least I had not missed any important historical developments in my earlier reading. And the book does have an overall thesis: the enemy of Republics is inadequately checked Executive power.

To begin with, Everdell asks a basic question: what is a Republic? John Adams answered that it is defined as the Rule of Law rather than the rule of man; but Everdell prefers simply that it is government by no one individual; hence, “the end of kings.”

I disagree here: is rule by a five man military junta a republic? Obviously not. Rather, the fundamental difference in a republic is that the law-giver(s) are himself (themselves) made subject by other office-holders to the laws that they enact or enforce both in theory and in fact. One man rule obviously fails this test; but so can other systems if the lawgivers are not realistically subject to having the laws enforced against them.

I think Everdell is on the right track, however, in his wariness of strong Executive authority, and the corollary that a republic cannot long be an empire (because an empire requires a strong central Executive). He is plainly not a fan of the Madisonian presidential system; and *is* a fan of parliamentary representative democracies (realistically including “Constitutional” monarchies, where the monarch is simply the ceremonial Head of State, much as are figurehead Presidents in parliamentary systems). This is because in the former it is far too easy for the president to arrogate more and more autocratic power to his office, while it is much more difficult in the latter.

While the chapter-length biographies are interesting, where Everdell really shines is in his last chapter in which he draws conclusions. Surveying 3000 years of history, he writes that

To achieve this difficult goal [of preventing Executive autocracy], the republican leans on four essential political techniques … [which] are, in alphabetical order: minimizing appointment, multiplying constituencies, rotation in office, and separation of powers.

(p. 298)

Briefly, the less law -making and -enforcement authority is done by those appointed by an Executive, the more loyalty will exist to the Constitutional system rather than towards the appointing office and the individual occupying it. Multiple electorates give multiple legitimacies (viz. State governors vs. the president during the coronavirus epidemic). Rotation in office prevents arrogation of power over time by one person; further, when today’s Executive knows, as did the magistrates in midieval Venice, that he will shortly revert to ordinary citizen subject to law enforcement, he is far less likely to want to enshrine overweening Executive authority.

Finally, more importantly and specifically, as to separation of powers,

Since the ancient writers Polybios and Aristotle, much of republican thought has in fact been devoted to identifying those powers [that must be separated] and defining them. For the past two centuries the consensus has been that there are essentially three of them: law, money, and war…. For the republic to hold power, therefore, it must divide [these three powers] among several real hands. The irreducible minimum of magistrates in a republic must then be three, at least one for each power.


I believe this last point is very well taken. An Executive who can control taxation, the law, and the military all at the same time is well on his way to becoming a tyrant if he chooses. The US Constitution, as written, gave Congress power over taxation and the decision to make war. The Presidency only had control over administration of the law, and even there was subject to the Courts.

We see today that all of these have been eroded. War-making realistically has long been ceded to the Presidency. We have now seen Trump decide either to spend or to withhold money on his own in defiance of the will of a majority of Congress (aided by a fundamentally wrong Supreme Court decision mandating a 2/3’s majority of both Houses of Congress to overrule that decision). And we have Department of Justice guidance that criminal law is not to be enforced against a sitting President (which means, for example, that Trump’s likely obstruction of justice as indicated in the Mueller report must go un-prosecuted).

It is for the above reasons that Everdell prefers parliamentary democracies. (Alternatively, in our federal system, one solution might be a critical mass of State Governors and/or Attorneys General that could be empowered to bring enforcement actions, both civil and criminal, against an abusive President and his office.)

In ancient times, Aristotle believed that republics always decayed into democratic mob rule and from there into tyrannies. Polybios erroneously, as it turned out, thought that the Roman Republic had achieved a counterbalance against that tendency. Machiavelli, before he wrote “The Prince,” wrote a multi-volume “Discourses on Livy,” in which he examined the structure of republics.

With more than 500 years of history since Machiavelli, it is worthwhile to update the query: Is there a long-cycle dynamic to the evolution of republics?

For example, successful republics seem to form after an autocracy is thoroughly discredited by military defeat, or else on the periphery of civilizations: the republics of ancient Rome, as well  as midieval Venice, Genoa, and the Netherlands all formed distant from the most powerful States of their time, as did the US in far-away North America. Specifically, Venice was founded by Roman citizens fleeing the Goths and later the Lombard invaders to sandy islands in the Adriatic. The Netherlands was similarly founded by tribes fleeing invaders to the marshy delta of the Rhine.

Further, because there is no monarchical family vacuuming up wealth, republics tend to be mercantile semi-aristocracies, and to be wealth-producing machines in their earlier periods.  Ultimately this success does attract the avaricious attention from the autocratic power centers of the age, and so increases the need for military power to protect both the State and its commerce.

At a more structural level, another dynamic is that, unlike autocracies, which seek to consolidate power at the center, republics must continually maintain a balance of internal power. This is particularly crucial as to economic equity, because with the leading commercial families inevitably having much power, there is a continuing clamor by the lower classes for a   share of that power.  If that balance is fundamentally lost, as happened with the Roman Republic once the gigantically wealthy effectively dispossessed the rural farmers, violence becomes unavoidable either to sustain or redress that imbalance, leading to rule by the military victor(s).

How this long-cycle evolution is handled has much to do with how republics fare. For example, the Republic of Venice lasted nearly 1200 years, from roughly A.D. 600 to 1800, and along with Genoa and the Swiss cantons, only ceased to exist due to their military defeat and absorption by Napoleon. In the case of Switzerland, within 20 years the  confederation was again functioning. In the case of Venice and Genoa, within 70 years both were part of the Italian constitutional monarchy.

A lasting contribution will be made by the political scientist/historian who successfully undertakes an updated, modern “History of Republics,” thoroughly examining the evolutions of midieval and modern republics and comparing that with the ancient examples examined by Aristotle, Polybios, and Machiavelli.

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