By Philip Pettit




In 1782 the Westminster Parliament was pressed into repealing a law of 1720 under which the Dublin Parliament could have its resolutions nullified in London; this law had been designed, in its own words, ‘for the better securing the dependency of the kingdom of Ireland on the crown of Great Britain’. But the concession did not spark the sort of welcome it might have been expected to occasion. Critics protested that repeal was not enough, suggesting as it did that Westminster enjoyed the position of a master, albeit in this case a benevolent master, in relation to Dublin. Those critics called instead for renunciation: a public commitment by Westminster not to undo the repeal; in effect, an abdication of its power in the matter.

The attitude taken by these critics echoed the attitude that the American colonists had taken a couple of decades earlier to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. That Act had imposed a novel tax on the colonists and the Westminster parliament repealed it in the wake of bitter criticism. But the repeal came with a sting in the tail. The Westminster Parliament did indeed withdraw the tax but insisted at the same time, in the so-called Declaratory Act, that it did so as matter of grace, not because of any obligation. Parliament, so it was declared, ‘had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever’.

The Americans deeply resented this assumption of power on the part of Westminster. Joseph Priestley, the chemist, nicely encapsulated their feelings in replying to the question ‘What is the great grievance that those people complain of?’. His answer: ‘It is their being taxed by the parliament of Great Britain, the members of which are so far from taxing themselves, that they ease themselves at the same time. By the same power, by which the people of England can compel them to pay one penny, they may compel them to pay the last penny they have. There will be nothing but arbitrary imposition on the one side, and humble petition on the other’.

The defenders of the Dublin parliament, which now included Dissenting as well as Anglican Protestants, displayed the same resentment at the assumption of power by Westminster. And, perhaps because of the lesson learned in America, Westminster responded by passing such a renunciation in 1783. That response may explain why in 1800 London did not seek to re-impose its veto on the Dublin parliament but induced its members, largely on the basis of bribes, to dissolve the body.

The common theme in the responses of the Americans and the Irish to Westminster is a powerful signal that they each subscribed to a shared body of political doctrine that we can describe, in deference to its Roman origins, as republican in character. As I reconstruct that tradition of thinking, its guiding ideal was freedom as non-domination, a rich ideal that was displaced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by a thinner ideal of freedom as non-interference . It was because of an adherence to that ideal that both Americans and Irish were hostile to what on the face of it was a benevolent act of legislation on the part of the London parliament.

Suppose you face a type of choice between two options: say, turning left or turning right, whether in a spatial or political sense. And now think of those options as doors that you want to pass through. The ideal of freedom as non-interference, which classical liberals began to espouse in the early nineteenth century, suggests that you count as free in making that choice just so long as both doors are open to you. The ideal of freedom as non-domination, long associated with the republican tradition, maintains that this is not enough. What must also be the case is that there are no door-keepers on whose goodwill you depend for choosing as you wish: there must be no one who could block any door or option, if they happened to take against you. According to the republican ideal, freedom requires not only that you be able to choose as you wish, regardless of your own preference, but also that you be able to do this, regardless of other people’s preferences in respect of your choice.

The republican ideal implies that if you have a master in any range of choices, even a master who proves entirely benevolent, you are not free in that domain. What you choose does not depend ultimately on your own will but rather on the will of the person in the master’s position; what you choose you can choose only because, in effect, the master allows or permits you to make that choice.

Richard Price, an English radical like Priestley, expressed this point nicely when he wrote: ‘Individuals in private life, while held under the power of masters, cannot be denominated free, however equitably and kindly they may be treated’. And he argued that it applied to the relation between parliaments or peoples — he had the American case in mind — when he added: ‘This is strictly true of communities as well as of individuals’.

Priestley and Price were exemplars of the radical Whig tradition in England in the eighteenth century. Although generally reconciled to a constitutional monarchy, radicals in this tradition remained faithful to the republican ideal that had come to the fore in England of the civil war period. That ideal had been inherited in turn from the likes of Machiavelli — qua author of the Discourses, not The Prince — and Roman authors like Cicero and Livy. One of the great texts of this radical tradition was Cato’s Letters and this text offers a nice characterization of the received way of conceptualizing freedom. ‘Liberty is, to live upon one’s own terms; slavery is, to live at the mere mercy of another’ (Trenchard and Gordon 1971, Vol 2, 249-50).

Irish republican thought derives from this radical tradition, with its fountainhead in Theobald Wolfe Tone, who penned some of his papers as ‘A Radical Whig’. Tone displays an unambivalent attachment to the idea of freedom as non-domination when he writes from exile in the United States, in a letter of 1795, that he could never live in a country where he had to depend on the leave or permission of the more powerful for his survival and prosperity. ‘I would exist in no country permissu superiorum’ (Tone 1998, Vol 2, 30). The theme appeared prominently in The Bantry Bay Proclamation of 1796: ‘True republicans fight only to vindicate the rights of equality and detest ever the name of a Master’.

The ideal of non-domination present in the founding of Irish republican thinking has two sides to it as an ideal of domestic politics. It argues for a rule of law under which each member of the community enjoys protection and resourcing in the exercise of the fundamental liberties, so called; this caters for private non-domination, guarding individuals against the power of their fellows. And it argues at the same time for a contestatory, constitutional democracy — in older terms, a mixed constitution —that would enable people to share equally in controlling how the law is made; this is meant to provide for public non-domination, giving people equality over the law as well as equality under the law.

Tone clearly embraced both of these ideals. He rails against the fact that in the Ireland of his day Catholics had to live in ‘degradation and infamy and contempt, or, to sum up all in one word, in slavery’ (Tone 1998, Vol 1, 125). He subscribed thereby to a regime of private non-domination in which people would each enjoy freedom under the law. This is a freedom that would enable them to look others in the eye without reason for fear or deference and it would support a raft of legislation, offering not just protection against crime but also protection against the excessive power of husband, employer or creditor.

At the same time, however, Tone insisted on the need for ‘AN EQUAL REPRESENTATION OF ALL THE PEOPLE IN PARLIAMENT’ — the capitalized words of the United Irishmen Declaration — that would give people freedom over the law as well as freedom under the law. This would ideally ensure a regime of public non-domination in which no one had to think that the laws, however personally uncomfortable, represented an alien will over which they had little or no control. What Tone expected under such a regime is nicely marked in an appealing understatement: ‘it is not a bad pledge for the good conduct of rulers, that they should have a wholesome fear of the spirit of a people united in interest and sentiment’(Tone 1998, Vol 1, 101). And that people, as he had emphasized in an earlier remark, would be maximally inclusive, consisting of ‘Catholics, Protestants, and Presbyterians’.

Republican theory is utterly trivialized, and the tradition of Wolfe Tone entirely misconstrued, if it is taken to argue only for the rejection of monarchy, in particular the rule of a foreign monarch. The opposition to monarchy comes naturally to the tradition insofar as a king or queen is the very epitome of an arbitrary master. But it is an antipathy to mastery, not an antipathy to monarchy, that defines the tradition. Construed in that way, the ideas it incorporates continue to provide material for political reflection and a base for developing a neo-republican conception both of how government should relate to its people — the ideal of public non-domination — and of what it should do for its people: the ideal of private non-domination.

Neo-republican thinking has attracted a good deal of international support in academic and political circles.[1] And recently it has been used as a lens through which to interpret the Irish Constitution and explore its political significance (Daly and Hickey 2015). Hasten the day when we in Ireland put aside the easy identification of republicanism with nationalism and seek to recover fully the rich resources of our founding tradition.


[1] An up-to-date list of English works in neo-republican thought should include these monographs: (Pettit 1997; Skinner 1998; Brugger 1999; Halldenius 2001; Honohan 2002; Viroli 2002; Maynor 2003; Lovett 2010; Marti and Pettit 2010; MacGilvray 2011; Pettit 2012; 2014); these collections of papers: (Van Gelderen and Skinner 2002; Weinstock and Nadeau 2004; Honohan and Jennings 2006; Laborde and Maynor 2007; Besson and Marti 2008; Niederbeger and Schink 2012); and a number of studies that deploy the conception of freedom as non-domination, broadly understood: (Braithwaite and Pettit 1990; Richardson 2002; Slaughter 2005; Bellamy 2007; Bohman 2007; Laborde 2008; White and Leighton 2008; Braithwaite, Charlesworth and Soares 2012). For a recent review of work in the tradition see (Lovett and Pettit 2009).

PHILIP PETTIT is L.S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Human Values at Princeton University, and Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, Canberra. His recent books include Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World (2014) and The Robust Demands of the Good: Ethics with Attachment, Virtue and Respect (OUP 2015). You can hear Philip Pettit on republican liberty here:


For more reading, see:

Bellamy, R. (2007). Political Constitutionalism: A Republican Defense of the Constitutionality of Democracy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Besson, S. and J. L. Marti (2008). Law and Republicanism. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Bohman, J. (2007). Democracy Across Borders: From Demos to Demoi. Cambridge, MIT Press.

Braithwaite, J., H. Charlesworth and A. Soares (2012). Networked Governance of Freedom and Tyranny: Peace in East Timor. Canberra, ANU Press.

Braithwaite, J. and P. Pettit (1990). Not Just Deserts: A Republican Theory of Criminal Justice. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Brugger, W. (1999). Republican Theory in Political Thought: Virtuous or Virtual. New York, Macmillan.

Cronin, S. and R. Roche (1973). Freedom the Wolfe Tone Way. Tralee, Anvil.

Daly, E. and Hickey (2015). The Political Theory of the Irish Constitution. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Halldenius, L. (2001). Liberty Revisited. Lund, Sweden, Bokbox Publications.

Honohan, I. (2002). Civic Republicanism. London, Routledge.

Honohan, I. and J. Jennings, Eds. (2006). Republicanism in Theory and Practice. London, Routledge.

Laborde, C. (2008). Critical Republicanism: The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Laborde, C. and J. Maynor, Eds. (2007). Republicanism and Political Theory. Oxford, Blackwell.

Lovett, F. (2010). Justice as Non-domination. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Lovett, F. and P. Pettit (2009). “Neo-Republicanism: A Normative and Institutional Research Program.” Annual Review of Political Science 12: 18-29.

MacGilvray, E. (2011). The Invention of Market Freedom. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Marti, J. L. and P. Pettit (2010). A Political Philosophy in Public Life: Civic Republicanism in Zapatero’s Spain. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Maynor, J. (2003). Republicanism in the Modern World. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Niederbeger, A. and P. Schink, Eds. (2012). Republican Democracy: Liberty, Law and Politics. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Pettit, P. (1997). Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Pettit, P. (2005). “The Tree of Liberty: Republicanism, American, French and Irish.” Field Day Review 1: 29-41.

Pettit, P. (2012). On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Pettit, P. (2014). Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.

Price, R. (1991). Political Writings. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Priestley, J. (1993). Political Writings. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Rakove, J., A. R. Rutten and B. R. Weingast (2000). Ideas, Interests, and Credible Commitments in the American Revolution. Stanford Uniiversity. Palo Alto, CA, Available at SSRN: or

Richardson, H. (2002). Democratic Autonomy. New York, Oxford University Press.

Skinner, Q. (1998). Liberty Before Liberalism. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Slaughter, S. (2005). Liberty beyond Neo-Liberalism: A Republican Critique of Liberal Government in a Globalising Age. London, Macmillan Palgrave.


Tone, T. W. (1998). The Writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone, 1763-98. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Trenchard, J. and T. Gordon (1971). Cato’s Letters. New York, Da Capo.

Van Gelderen, M. and Q. Skinner (2002). Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, 2 vols,. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Viroli, M. (2002). Republicanism. New York, Hill and Wang.

Weinstock, D. and C. Nadeau, Eds. (2004). Republicanism: History, Theory and Practice. London, Frank Cass.

Whelan, K. (1996). The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 17609=-1830. Cork, Cork University Press.

White, S. and D. Leighton, Eds. (2008). Building a Citizen Society: The Emerging Politics of Republican Democracy. London, Lawrence and Wishart.

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