A Report upon the Italian city state republics, and a lesson in self governance for today
As I mentioned in the previous post, at the close of our previous MO HB1490 History 6-12 Curriculum work group, we had a disagreement over whether or not the Italian city state republics should be included in the list of governments to be studied at the close of the medieval period, apprx 600-1450 a.d. I was very much for including them, adamant even, while those with class time experience, thought it best to leave republics out, concentrating on monarchies, oligarchies, dynasties and theocracies.
I hasten to point out that this was not a ‘democracy’ vs ‘republic’ issue, but about what would be the best use of class time, for the closing of a semester. I do not, in any way, think that those opposed to my view had any hidden agenda in their selections, and I’m confident that were only thinking about what would enable teachers to cover the most material best, in the little time available to them.
At any rate, at the close of the previous session I was asked to prepare a report on why republics should be considered in that time period, so that the work group could consider the matter better and decide at the next meeting.
The following is what I reported to our work group (and it is, BTW, very relevant to what is happening in our nation today), and I’ll note how the vote turned out, at the close below:
Some of the reasons mentioned for not including ‘Republic’ while comparing and contrasting governing styles at the end of the middle ages, were that the Italian city states were in fact operating as oligarchies, without the vote, and that they were… Republics In Name Only (ahem). It was also mentioned that since it is common today to drop the term, we should too, as it would also simplify the course aims and ends.
I’ll try to make three points about why both Republic and Oligarchy should be included:
- The Italian city states have always been referred to as Republics, while well aware that they were at one and the same time Oligarchies and Republics, terms which are not mutually exclusive
- Republic does not require public enfranchisement of voting, or even that votes be cast by individuals
- Choosing Oligarchy to the exclusion of Republic, means staying silent upon what might be the most important lesson students can learn about government from, and from this period almost more than any other in history
The Italian City States have been, from their own time, up through ours, have been knowingly referred to as republics by everyone from Machiavelli (who we’ll hear from below) to Sismondi, taking pride at their having overthrown external princely rule, and had become self governing. From “History of the Italian republics in the middle ages” by Sismondi, J.-C.-L. Simonde de (Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde), 1773-1842:
“The spirit of freedom had penetrated to the Papal See, and schism enabled the Romans to revolt and complete the municipal enfranchisement of Italy. From the Alps to the confines of the Northern Kingdom every little city rejoiced in its own republican government, and exhibited a narrow, and too often a selfish, local patriotism. “
Having taken their government into their own hands, they experienced an explosion of wealth, prosperity and power, and yet soon succumbed and ceased being, in even their own eyes, self ruling. Why, is a question very much worth asking.
There are of late those who do not refer to the Italian city states as republics, but it is is hardly a universal conclusion, as can be widely seen from encyclopedia references,
“…The smaller Siena and Lucca were ruled by relatively broad oligarchies drawn from the leading citizens. However, none of the Italian republican city-states offered significant political rights to the inhabitants of their subject territories outside the capital city….”
,to political science writers such as Robert A. Dahl, even as they might get a bit snippy in pointing out some of the pairings that did, and didn’t, apply to these republics, as here in “A Preface to Democratic Theory, Expanded Edition“, that,
“… As for the Italian republics, they may have been aristocratic or oligarchic republics, but they were definitely not democratic republics.”
There are also many respected, modern, scholars, who have no difficulty in continuing to refer to them as Republics, for instance “Quentin Skinner: “Visions of Politics, Volume 2” Cambridge University Press, Sep 16, 2002 – History – 478 pages”
“pg 4: “… The context out of which the political theory of the humanists initially arose was that of the city-republics of the Regnum Italicum. These communities began to evolve their distinctive politica systems as early as the closing decades of the eleventh century. It was then that a number of Italian cities took it upon themselves, in defieance of papal as well as imperial suzerainty, to appoint their own ‘consuls’ and invest them with supreme authority. This happened at Pisa in 1085 (the earliest recorded instance), at Milan, Genoa and Arezzo before 1100, and at Bologna, Padua, Florence, Siena and elsewhere by the 1140s. During the second half of the twelfth century a further important development took place. The consular system was gradually replaced by a form of government centered on ruling councils chaired by officials known as podesta, so called because they were granted supreme power of potestas in executive as well as judicial affairs. Such a system was in place at Parma and Padua by the 1170s, at Milan and Piacenza by the 1180s, and at Florence, Pisa, Siena and Arezzo by the end of the century. By the opening years of the thirteenth century, many of the richest communes of Lombardy and Tuscany had thus acquired the de facto status of independent republics, with written constitutions guaranteeing their elective and self-governing arrangements.”
There may be disagreement over how long the spirit of republicanism endured, but few would deny that the Italian republics could be both an Oligarchy and a Republic, such as this from Lauro Martines‘ “Political Conflict in the Italian City States“:
“…Most scholarly opinion has played down the surviving sense of the commune and the force of republicanism in I 5 th-century Italy. But it is difficult to reconcile this with the temporary re-establishment of the commune at Bologna (1428-29), with the dramatic establishment at Milan of the Ambrosian republic (1447), and with the tenacious loyalties which enabled this republic to fight against overwhelming odds for two and a half years….
, and also,
“…This kept alive a 14th-century tradition. At no point did the opposition in Florence have the legal margins to prepare for organized action in the legislative councils, where in any case debate was prohibited. Yet it was by no means unusual for these councils to reject bills sponsored and strongly supported by the government. Care must be taken, however, not to misconstrue the forces behind such opposition. Like other municipal republics of the time, Florence always had an inner oligarchy: a tough core of families at the centre of the larger oligarchy, this larger body being the commune itself. As long as the inner oligarchy was united, its will prevailed and any opposition was soon dispelled. But no sooner was the inner oligarchy divided than opposition in the legislative councils immediately sprang into action – a function of the disaffected part of the ruling group. The legislative councils reflected the degree of unity or division which characterized this group at any given moment; hence the most significant or meaningful opposition – opposition which presented true alternatives – was that which went against the united inner oligarchy. It was practically impossible for this opposition to acquire a legal status”
Just as we today have Constitutional Republics, Representative Republics, Constitutional Representative Republics, and even stress testing the tensile strength of definitions ‘Democratic Republics’, they had Oligarchical Republics – with the first term(s) simply modifying the last and more primary term. What a Republic is, is a form of government which enables a people to be self governing, and while we today take it for granted that a republic is a form of government that preserves individual rights and extends the vote to the public, that is a use that has only became popular in our time; in the time of the Italian city states it was focused upon trade and finance, while for the Romans before them had turned it towards preserving the ‘public property’. As as difficult as it is to pin down a Republic’s defining trait, the one constant is that it is a form of govt which, by law, divides power amongst bodies, as John Adams noted in referencing (one of) Montesquieu’s definitions, that “…He defines a republican government to be “that in which the body, or only a part of the  people, is possessed of the supreme power.” This agrees with Johnson’s definition, “a state in which the government is more than one.”,
Oligarchy wasn’t a feature that surreptitiously crept into their govt, it was part of their plan from the get-go (a flaw that is certainly worth learning from), but it is its success or failure in preserving self governance for those who employed it, that is the history which is really worth paying attention to.
It should also be noted that while republics do use voting to decide measures, we mistakenly take it for granted that some form of popular voting extended the franchise to all, or some, of the people. It is even a mistake to assume that those who were involved in voting, actually voted their choice by hand or ballot, as we do today. But it was just as likely that votes were cast by elaborately contrived systems of chance – imagine this as an ‘election reform’:
“The usual method by which the Great Council of Venice elected magistrates was as follows: “Three urns were placed in front of the ducal throne, those on the right and left containing half as many balls each as there were members present, all the balls being white with the exception of thirty in each urn which were of gold. In the middle urn were sixty balls, thirty-six gold and twenty-four white. The office to be filled having been announced to the Great Council, the members drew from the urns on the right and left. Those who drew white resumed their seats, the sixty who drew gold drew again from the middle urn. Of the sixty, the twenty-four who drew white resumed their seats, the thirty-six who drew gold became electors. They then divided themselves by lot into four groups of nine each. The groups retired separately, and each nominated a candidate for the vacant office, six votes being required for nomination. The four candidates thus nominated were then presented to the Great Council and voted for by that body, a plurality electing. No two members of any family were permitted to serve as electors for the same vacancy. If all four groups of electors agreed on the same candidate, he was declared elected without the formality of a ballot.”
See George B. McClellan, The Oligarchy of Venice (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1904), pp. 159–60.
Bizarre as it seems, that wasn’t new to the Italians, even the Athenians often used lotteries of random selection to cast ‘votes’, and we can’t allow that anachronistic strangeness to caricature the past, rather than investigating and learning from it.
“>>>to what extent are current conflicts the results of previous attempts to solve the problem<<<”
Of course the fact is that they did eventually fail as Self Governing Republics, in even the sense that they conceived of them sliding into full oligarchy or principates, but again that is not a reason for discarding dropping Republic from our study, but is instead a reason for looking closer at what it is we teach.
Cosimo deMedici, who the Florentine s lauded as the ‘Father of the Fatherland’, successfully deprived Florence of their republican freedoms, such as they were, by leaving them with only the appearance of them. From Will Durant’s Book V The Renaissance, III. COSIMO “PATER PATRIAE”
“… After serving three short terms Cosimo relinquished all political positions; “to be elected to office,” he said, “is often prejudicial to the body and hurtful to the soul. Since his enemies had left the city, his friends easily dominated the government. Without disturbing republican forms, he managed, by persuasion or money, to have his adherents remain in office to the end of his life. His loans to influential families won or forced their support; his gifts to the clergy enlisted their enthusiastic aid; and his public benefactions, of unprecedented scope and generosity, easily reconciled the citizens to his rule. The Florentines had observed that the constitution of the Republic did not protect them from the aristocracy of wealth; the defeat of the Ciompi had burned this lesson into the public memory. If the populace had to choose between the Albizzi, who favored the rich, and the Medici, who favored the middle classes and the poor, it could not long hesitate. A people oppressed by its economic masters, and weary of faction, welcomed dictatorship in Florence in 1434, in Perugia in 1389, in Bologna in 1401, in Siena in 1477, in Rome in 1347 and 1922. “The Medici,” said Villani, “were enabled to attain supremacy in the name of freedom, and with the support of the popolo and the populace.””
The republics of the Italian city states are not worth studying because of their enduring success or purity, but precisely because of their best intentions and worst failures and the ease with which they made them. Cosimo’s method of retaining the outward forms, while altering the particulars, is how Republics are in fact lost, just as how the exhausted Roman Republic slid into empire under Octavian as he became Agustus by preserving the appearances of a Republic – the Senate, etc. – as power operated in fact from elsewhere. That is a lesson worth learning, but it will not be learned if we simply re-categorize, or dismiss, the Republics of Italy, as Oligarchies, and leave it at that. It is important to see that they were Republics, whose people prided themselves on being self-governing, and yet they could not remain so – why? – because of critical flaws and errors in their systems, because of tolerating the overstepping of authority and due to pure, popular, abuse of power, resulting in a turbulence which succeeded in tarnishing the reputation of self governance for centuries thereafter.
That too is something that is worth learning from.
This is not just an academic point, it was an understanding that was critical to the formation of our own new form of Republican government, a form that would have been much less likely to have come about, had several studies of the maritime republics, from Montesquieu, to the very influential study of them by John Adams, not helped inform the Americans of the history of prosperous and independent Italian republics (BTW, if you haven’t read “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of The United States of America, Volume II.” with his study of the Italian republics, much of it being John Adams commenting upon Machiavelli’s (and others) comments upon the city states – you are missing out on one of the real intellectual treats of history!). Had his efforts not been as popular and successful, very likely that we have become yet another hard lesson for others to learn from.
From CHAPTER FIRST.: ITALIAN REPUBLICS OF THE MIDDLE AGE. FLORENCE
“… There once existed a cluster of governments, now generally known by the name of the Italian Republics of the Middle Age,* which deserve the attention of Americans, and will further illustrate and confirm the principles we have endeavored to maintain. If it appears, from the history of all the ancient republics of Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor, as well as from those that still remain in Switzerland, Italy, and elsewhere, that caprice, instability, turbulence, revolutions, and the alternate prevalence of those two plagues and  scourges of mankind, tyranny and anarchy, were the effects of governments without three orders and a balance, the same important truth will appear, in a still clearer light, in the republics of Italy. The sketches to be given of these cannot be introduced with more propriety than by the sentiments of a late writer,* because they coincide with every thing that has been before observed.”
John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 5. 4/9/2015. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2103#Adams_1431-05_19
, and that,
“>>>As Machiavel is the most favorable to a popular government, and is even suspected of sometimes disguising the truth to conceal or mollify its defects, the substance of this sketch will be taken from him, referring at the same time to other authors; so that those young Americans who wish to be masters of the subject, may be at no loss for information.
“The most useful erudition for republicans is that which exposes the causes of discord; by which they may learn wisdom and unanimity from the examples of others. The factions in Florence are the most remarkable of any.
…After they were reunited, they divided the city into six parts, and chose twelve citizens, two to govern each ward, with the title of Anziani, but to be changed every year. To prevent any feuds or discontents that might arise from the determination of judicial matters, they constituted two judges that were not Florentines, one of whom was styled the captain of the people, and the other the podestà, to administer justice to the people, in all causes civil and criminal; and since laws are but of little authority and short duration, where there is not sufficient power to support and enforce them, they raised twenty bands or companies in the city, and seventy-six more in the rest of their territories, in which all the youth were enlisted, and obliged to be ready armed under their respective colors, whenever they were required so to be by the captain or the anziani. Their standard-bearers were changed every year with great formality.”
This is the very short description of their constitution. The twelve anziani appear to have had the legislative and executive authority, and to have been annually eligible—a form of government as near that of M. Turgot, and Marchmont Nedham, as any to be found;—yet the judicial power is here separated, and the people could so little trust themselves or the anziani with this power, that it was given to foreigners.
“By such discipline in their civil and military affairs, the Florentines laid the foundation of their liberty; and it is hardly to be conceived, how much strength and authority they acquired in a very short time; for their city not only became the capital of Tuscany, but was reckoned among the principal in Italy; and, indeed, there is no degree of grandeur to which it might not have attained, if it had not been obstructed by new and frequent factions.”
After this pompous preamble, one can scarce read without smiling the words that follow: “For the space of ten years they lived under this form of government;” especially when it appears that, during all these ten years, they were constantly employed in wars abroad, as appears by the following words: “During which time they forced the states of Pistoia, Arezzo, and Siena, to enter into a confederacy with them; and in their return with  their army from the last city, they took Volterra, demolished several castles, and brought the inhabitants to Florence.”
The United States of America calculated their governments for a duration of more than ten years. There is little doubt to be made, that they might have existed under the government of state congresses for ten years, while they were constantly at war, and all the active and idle were in council or in arms; but we have seen, that a state which could be governed by a provincial congress, and, indeed, that could carry on a war without any government at all, while danger pressed, has lately, in time of profound peace, and under a good government, broke out in seditions.1
Istorie Fiorentine di Nic. Macchiavelli, Proemio dell’ Autore.
John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 5
It is extremely important to our understanding of ourselves today, to understand how these processes worked and why they failed. As the Italian republics demonstrated, power isn’t held in place by Laws alone, but by a system capable of managing power, by a people who understand the dangers of power and the necessity of good laws, and by people insisting that the laws be followed. Drop any part of that, and no matter the enthusiasms and intentions to be self governing, power will soon prevail over them.
We cannot anachronistically look back on the 12th-15th centuries and declare that from our enlightened end of history, they didn’t know what the heck they were doing or even what to call themselves. The fact is that they very much knew and understood what it was they were doing, how they desired to form themselves, and it is only because of THEIR understanding and the errors, failures they made, that we were able to benefit from their experiences, and so be in a better position to understand ourselves – are we going to deliberately overlook such valuable lessons then, for semantics and ease of reference?
If we neglect, omit, or rewrite that history, we reduce our ability to understand ourselves and lose the opportunity to teach what is one of the most important lessons that history can offer for the consideration of a student, as John Adams’ hints at in this commentary upon Machiavelli:
“Encouraged by this, his enemies took up arms against him, and the greater part of the people, instead of appearing in his defence, forsook him and joined his adversaries. He was impeached, refused to obey the summons, and was declared a contumacious rebel. Between the accusation and the sentence there was not the interval of more than two hours. A civil war ensued; many were killed on both sides. After a furious defence Corso threw himself from his horse and was killed. Such was the unfortunate end* of Corso Donati, to whom his country and the Neri owed much both of their good and bad fortune, one of the most eminent men that Florence ever produced.”
But Machiavel should have laid the blame upon the constitution, not upon the restless disposition or turbulent spirit of  Corso; because it is impossible for a man of Corso’s genius, valor, and activity, in such a government, not to be restless and turbulent; he is never safe himself, and large bodies of people are continually flattering and soliciting him, while others are threatening and persecuting him. No nation has a right to blame such a citizen until it has established a form of government that is capable of protecting him on one side, and the people against him on the other. This flimsy sovereignty of the signori was inadequate to either purpose.”
John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 5.
Too often we give the impression that systems of govt are something more than plans, as if they were actual physical things, to be scientifically examined, cataloged and tested like a species of plant, having a DNA, etc. But systems of government are not fixed things. They are simply plans. And those plans, like any other, sometimes go awry, and if we don’t illustrate how that occurs, and focus intently upon why it occurs, we aren’t educating our students on what is most important for them to understand.
No matter how short lived, or odd to our eyes their conception of a Republic might seem, they were and are a vital part of how government, politics, ideas, people and states behave. The study of the Italian city states was critical to our system of govt developing the way it did, not because they gave such fabulously fine and clear illustrations of the ideal model of Republics, but because they illustrated just how easily it is that well intentioned, carefully thought out ideas, can nevertheless go terribly, violently, wrong, and fast, if they yet lack their critical components, features and safeguards.
The notion that ours will long endure without those same features and understanding of them… is without substance. Presumably we do not want to pass an absence of understanding on to our students, simply because they aren’t as easily demonstrated, or pristine examples of what a ‘Republic’ is, or should be – history waits to pounce upon those who are armed with easy understandings, turning them into lessons for others to learn from. Adams again:
“It is very true that most republics have undergone frequent changes in their laws; but this has been merely because very few republics have been well constituted. It is very true also, that there is nothing in the nature of liberty, or of obedience, which tends to produce such changes; on the contrary, real liberty and true obedience rather tend to preserve constancy in government. It is, indeed, oppression and license that occasion changes; but where the constitution is good, the laws govern, and prevent oppression as well as license.”
The form of Government a nation chooses is but a plan, a system for governance, and if that system is flawed, or if it is allowed to be manipulated by those in power, through the law, or by the defacto marginalization of The Law, then Power consolidates into a single set of hands and liberty becomes an illusion, a self flattering fig leaf for tyranny – benevolent to despotic – will, must, follow, as that society becomes but one more entry in the ‘lessons of history’ which future peoples will forget at their own peril. Our “Republic, if you can keep it“, has lasted longer than any other, and is as sound as it (hopefully) still is, not just because it is a Republic, or because it has a constitution, or because its laws preserve Individual Rights, but because from the start, We The People understood its pitfalls as well as in fact, and if one generation is to have any hope of enjoying and passing it on to the one after them, they’ve got to be aware that it is not something solid that they can just expect to count on, they must animate it and lend it their own strength, for it to carry on.. , Adams once again,
“Machiavel’s next task is to give us a detail of the Duke’s tyrannical behavior, which was as wild, cruel, and mad as all other tyrannies have been which were created on the ruins of a republic. The Duke perceived the general odium he had incurred, but affected to think himself extremely beloved. He was informed of a plot against him, in which the family of the Medici, and others, were concerned; but he ordered the informer to be put to death. He cut out the tongue of Bettoni for complaining of heavy taxes, &c. His outrages were sufficient to rouse the Florentines, “who neither knew how to value their liberty nor to endure slavery,” says Machiavel. But the truth is, they had no liberty to value, and nothing but slavery to endure; their constitution was no protection of right; their laws never governed. They were slaves to every freak and passion, every party and faction, every aspiring or disappointed noble; sometimes to the pope, sometimes to the King of Naples, sometimes to Lando; sometimes to one nobleman, sometimes to another; sometimes to their own signori, and sometimes to their captains of arts. If the word republic must be used to signify every government in which more than one man has a share, it is true this must be called by that name; but a republic and a free government may be different things.”
John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 5
I could of course go on and on (as if I haven’t already), but I’m hoping I won’t need to. The lesson worth learning is that having a Republic is not itself a defense against oligarchy or tyranny, but to learn that lesson, we have to point it out. But before we can do that, we’ve got to vote upon it. See you soon.
The Reported Result
When we met again last week, the members discussed the matter further. The first two points they agreed upon, and agreed upon the matter’s importance, but still felt that the biggest problem with including republics in the period, was that they felt that ‘most’ teachers, on seeing the word ‘Republic’, would immediately backtrack to the Roman Republic, cause confusion for their students and dilute the middle ages perspective, while cutting further into the available lesson time for the period being studied.
It was decided, obviously against my position, to not include republics in that period, but the alternative proposed was a very good one, that they be included during the ‘Age of Revolutions’ of the Enlightenment, investigating how the idea of a Republic had evolved over time, including the Italian city states’ attempts and failures, and how those influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
Historically speaking, I do still wish that they were considered in their proper period as well, but the work group was presented with opposing opinions, the matter was discussed and given proper consideration, and a vote was taken, which I lost, and I cheerfully complied with the decision of the majority.
And that is how it’s supposed to work. I’ll say again, there are differing views in our work group, but the quality and disposition of people in our group, and the Chair, are outstanding – I’m thankful for them, and for the opportunity to be working with them.