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New wine in old wineskins: Republicanism in the Helvetic Republic

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2020

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Summary

When examining the transformation of republicanism in Switzerland in the aftermath of 1798, one has to answer a number of questions. What does republicanism mean? What was the nature of the republicanism (or republicanisms) that existed in Switzerland before the introduction of the Helvetic Constitution of 1798? Who were its supporters? What kind of republicanism unfolded around and after 1798? Is it possible to call it a transformation in the sense of the Latin term transformare, or is it better to speak of an innovation? Did anything change at all? This chapter tries to answer these questions.

Since the publication of J. G. A. Pocock's influential book The Machiavellian Moment, early modern republicanism is mostly understood as ‘civic humanism’, a paradigm that was developed in the Italian Renaissance, notably by Machiavelli. According to Pocock, Machiavelli, whose thought was shaped by the temporal finiteness of the republic and the Aristotelian philosophy of the polis, expressed his views on both the republic and its citizens in a specific language. Key concepts of this republican paradigm are virtue, armament, and property, as well as mixed constitution and participation. The political model that was developed in Renaissance Italy was a community of equal, independent, well-armed, and politically active citizens. Freedom of the single citizen was dependent on the freedom of the community, which could only be guaranteed by the virtue of its citizens. According to Pocock, this paradigm provided the backdrop of any argumentation around the term ‘republic’ in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England as well as in eighteenth-century America.

Unlike Pocock, Quentin Skinner emphasizes the influence of Roman authors, especially Cicero’s, on early modern republican thinkers. According to Skinner, these authors had focused less on the active, virtuous citizen and more on a new concept of liberty: independence from arbitrary constraint by others. Whereas Skinner speaks of a ‘neo-roman theory of free states,’ the paradigm that he has developed is also often named ‘republicanism’.

Almost all scholars who participate in this debate on early modern republicanism see changes in the republican paradigm in the eighteenth century.

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Chapter
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The Political Culture of the Sister Republics, 1794-1806
France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy
, pp. 57 - 64
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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