I’ve recently encountered a suggestion (in personal communication) that it might be difficult for an Enlightenment thinker to envisage republicanism in barbarian or even more savage peoples. While that makes sense with regard to the civility and legal institutions that Enlightenment thinkers are looking for in a desirable state, and saw in the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, there are some other sides to this. I cannot look into properly right now, but it is sometimes held that the founders of the American republic took some inspiration from the Native Americans with regard to the institutional arrangements they were designing, particularly the federal nature of the republic (preceded by a period of confederation), which may have had some reference to the groupings and alliances of small native communities into nations. In any case, the dressing up in native garb during the Boston Tea Party certainly made some reference to the idea of a natural freedom.
Montesquieu’s account of republics is that in their most pure form they are small communities without much wealth, and that live by custom rather than written law. To some degree that is an account of the earliest phases in the history of Greek and Roman republics. The description is so pure that it seems to be earlier than any known historical account, a lost world of a presumed origin in unreflective obedience to custom and loyalty to the good of the community. Montesquieu thinks of a new birth of freedom in European history in the transformation of the ancient Germanic tribes from a-historical communities lying beyond the boundaries of empire, into a great historic force sweeping aside the Roman state across the west, and to varying degrees replacing Roman law with the laws of various old Germanic communities.
The German communities may have had princes, but clearly in Montesquieu’s account they have a republican kind of communal power, enforcing old customs, not resting on the will of one. In Montesquieu’s account they provide the aristocracy and kings of post-Roman states, with a particular interest in the role of the Franks in Gaul, in what was to become France in the Middle Ages. The account he gives suggests a line from the free spirit of fifth century Germans emerging from the forests and the role of judge-aristocrats like himself in the France of the eighteenth century, where a monarchy presides over independent institutions and a growing civil-commercial society.
This line provides a convenient point of focus on Enlightenment attitudes to liberty, civility, barbarism, and forms of government. In some significant sense the liberties of eighteenth century France originate from fierce independent minded warriors emerging from the German forest guided by their love of simple liberty and custom. Montesquieu could be said to make himself rather absurd here, not that I have any wish to mock someone of such great intellectual work and humane intentions. The possible absurdity reveals something about Enlightenment idea of law, liberty, and civll institutions. They appeal both to the energy and force of a ‘natural’ freedom, while emphasising the great role of the long historical progress of institutions of restraining natural force.
The ambiguity is not one simply of laws. With regard to political institutions, Montesquieu appears to be the supporter of French monarchy and the simple republicanism of the German forests, along with its analogues in early Greek and Roman republicanism. This cannot be an unrestrained admiration on the part of Montesquieu, who is in large part a great exponent of the enjoyment of a culture of hierarchy, wealth, and sophisticated manners. The ambiguity maybe comes out in his admiration for what he regards as the disguised republic of Britain, where some French sophistication (largely expressed by Montesquieu with regard to a culture of polished filtration) is lost in exchange for an element of public liberty lacking in France.
Looking at Britain itself, and the suggestion I encountered was with reference to Adam Smith, we can see a mixture of respect for ancient republics, even nostalgia for the intensity of bonds of patriotism and friendship, with a wish for commercial society, moral sentiments, and a correct understanding by governments of the public good, to replace the military and autarchic tendencies of ancient republics. It is difficult to maintain a complete separation between the two models of civil organisation, particularly as the Scottish Enlightenment maintained a fear that a society based on commerce, moral sensibility, and polished manners might be ill suited to defend itself against barbarian or possibly savage nations. It is not clear what nations of that kind might have been threatening Hanoverian Britain.
Adam Smith sometimes seems to take France, Montesquieu’s France, as such a threat. What this oddity is tending to over over is that the Hanoverian state had confirmed and intensified its power through the comprehensive and brutal defeat of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, which was more than the defeat of an army, it was the destruction of a social organisation in the Highlands and Islands or northern and western Scotland, which had strong overtones of the German tribes that Montesquieu thought had brought freedom again to western Europe. The authority and privilege of the Highland chieftains was not exactly republican in the of Enlightenment institutions, but rested on the same willingness as Montesquieu’s Germans to fight for a prince believed to represent communal justice, of a more immediate kind than that experienced in Enlightened parts of Britain.