The tradition of thought known as civic humanism has recently occupied the attention of a number of commentators. Not only has it been examined in the place of its birth, Renaissance Italy, and more especially Florence, but in a recent work J. G. A. Pocock has traced the influence of the tradition in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England, and finally in the New World. The question considered here is the particular use to which civic modes of thought and argument were put by a group of moderate reformers in the debates on parliamentary reform in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Although this period has received attention from social and constitutional historians, it has not been discussed by historians of ideas.
Civic humanism is both an analysis of a political problem and a range of recommendations as to how the problem is best to be solved. The problem is defined in terms of the deleterious effects of time on political organization. Human organizations rely on the ordered and rule-governed behavior of individuals. Such behavior exhibits, over time, a constant tendency to disintegrate into selfish action. Political and legal institutions provide the immediate incentives to prevent this happening. Yet how can these institutions themselves be safeguarded or rendered self-regulating?
The solution to the problem of achieving political stability through time is seen essentially as a moral solution, that is to say it is seen to lie in the creation of a particular set of attitudes towards political life amongst the citizens of the polity.