The Swiss Republics and Machiavelli
What were the life-chances of republics in the modern world of commerce? According to Montesquieu, whose Esprit des lois provided one of the most influential analytical frameworks for thinking about republics in the eighteenth century, the chances seemed very slim indeed. Republics, as he described them, were small, compact, highly motivated polities whose capacity to secure and uphold systems of government based upon laws, not men, depended upon maintaining a strict equality among their citizens. They were, he claimed, unable to cope with the socially dislocating effects of a modern economy; nor, in the long run, were they able to shield themselves from the values and ideals of neighbouring (and more splendid) commercial monarchies. The only way they could maintain the public spirit and patriotic self-denial they needed to survive was under conditions of natural poverty and the constant threat of political annihilation. Montesquieu did admit the possibility of commercial republics, but he insisted that for commerce to remain compatible with both the moral and social requirements of republican politics it had to be driven by necessity and be a central part of a people's continuous struggle for survival. This had been the case with the early Dutch and the early Venetians, who, as he put it, were ‘constrained to hide in marshes, on islands, on the shoals, and even among dangerous reefs’ and who, in order to live, were forced to draw ‘their livelihood from the whole universe’ (Montesquieu 1989: 341).