Constitutional Republic - History - Mercantile Republics

Mercantile Republics

In Europe new republics appeared in the late Middle Ages when a number of small states embraced republican systems of government. These were generally small, but wealthy, trading states, like the Italian city-states and the Hanseatic League, in which the merchant class had risen to prominence. Knud Haakonssen has noted that, by the Renaissance, Europe was divided with those states controlled by a landed elite being monarchies and those controlled by a commercial elite being republics.

Across Europe a wealthy merchant class developed in the important trading cities. Despite their wealth they had little power in the feudal system dominated by the rural land owners, and across Europe began to advocate for their own privileges and powers. The more centralized states, such as France and England, granted limited city charters.

In the more loosely governed Holy Roman Empire, 51 of the largest towns became free imperial cities. While still under the dominion of the Holy Roman Emperor most power was held locally and many adopted republican forms of government. The same rights to imperial immediacy were secured by the major trading cities of Switzerland. The towns and villages of alpine Switzerland had, courtesy of geography, also been largely excluded from central control. Unlike Italy and Germany, much of the rural area was thus not controlled by feudal barons, but by independent farmers who also used communal forms of government. When the Habsburgs tried to reassert control over the region both rural farmers and town merchants joined the rebellion. The Swiss were victorious, and the Swiss Confederacy was proclaimed, and Switzerland has retained a republican form of government to the present.

Italy was the most densely populated area of Europe, and also one with the weakest central government. Many of the towns thus gained considerable independence and adopted commune forms of government. Completely free of feudal control, the Italian city-states expanded, gaining control of the rural hinterland. The two most powerful were the Republic of Venice and its rival the Republic of Genoa. Each were large trading ports, and further expanded by using naval power to control large parts of the Mediterranean. It was in Italy that an ideology advocating for republics first developed. Writers such as Bartholomew of Lucca, Brunetto Latini, Marsilius of Padua, and Leonardo Bruni saw the medieval city-states as heirs to the legacy of Greece and Rome.

Two Russian cities with powerful merchant class — Novgorod and Pskov — also adopted republican forms of government in 12th and 13th centuries, respectively, which ended when the republics were conquered by Moscow at the end 15th - beginning of 16th century.

The dominant form of government for these early republics was control by a limited council of elite patricians. In those areas that held elections, property qualifications or guild membership limited both who could vote and who could run. In many states no direct elections were held and council members were hereditary or appointed by the existing council. This left the great majority of the population without political power, and riots and revolts by the lower classes were common. The late Middle Ages saw more than 200 such risings in the towns of the Holy Roman Empire. Similar revolts occurred in Italy, notably the Ciompi Revolt in Florence.

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