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A Republic, Not a Democracy - June 6, 2005


A Republic, Not a Democracy



218 years ago, on May 25, 1787, the framers of the Constitution of the United States began meeting at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  The debates were secret – a deliberate decision of the delegates, designed to keep them free from outside pressures.  When the long, hot Philadelphia summer came to an end in mid-September, as the delegates were wrapping up their work and about to reveal to the public their proposed Constitution, it was said that someone asked the oldest delegate, Benjamin Franklin, what kind of government the nation would have.  Franklin’s response has become famous, an important part of U.S. historical lore:  “A republic, if you can keep it.”  

Franklin’s comment came to my mind last month, when I read about President Bush’s trip to eastern Europe.  Bush spoke glowingly of the progress of “democracy” in many of the nations formerly under Soviet Russian tyranny.  Yet, like other American presidents in the modern era – and indeed, like most commentators on political or cultural matters – he erroneously described the American system of government as a “democracy,” or the United States as a nation based on “democratic” principles.  It’s a common error, but one that shows how far out of touch most modern Americans are with the principles of their nation’s founding. 

The United States of America is not a democracy.  Let me emphasize that – THE UNITED STATES IS NOT A DEMOCRACY – and add, “Thank God!”  America’s Founders understood well the evils of democracy and deliberated created a system of government that was not democratic but rather republican.  The form of government in the United States (both the national government and the government of each of the 50 states) is not a democracy but a republic.  Indeed, it is most accurately described as a “limited-government constitutional republic.” 

The difference is not merely semantic.  The word “republic” comes from the Latin phrase res publica, which means, literally, “the public thing(s).”  It generally refers to a representative form of government, one in which the people’s representatives (chosen either directly or indirectly by them) govern but not the people themselves.  (Such was the form of government, in theory at least, of the ancient Roman republic.)  “Democracy,” on the other hand, is derived from the Greek words demos and kratein, which when combined mean, loosely, “the people rule.”  Democracy thus is synonymous with direct rule by the people, or more accurately, by a majority of the people. 

James Madison explained the difference between a democracy and a republic in two of the essays he wrote for The Federalist Papers.  In No. 14, he distinguished the two this way:  “In a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents,” he wrote.  “A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot.  A republic may be extended over a large region.”  In No. 39, while seeking to determine “the distinctive characters of the republican form,” Madison wrote that the term has been misapplied by many political writers.  Holland, “in which no particle of supreme authority is derived from the people, has passed almost universally under the denomination of a republic.”  The same was true of Venice, where “a small body of hereditary nobles” exercised “absolute power over the great body of the people.”  Even Poland, which Madison called “a mixture of aristocracy and of monarchy in their worst forms,” has been mistakenly called a republic.  So too Britain, which (as noted below) was rather a mixture of republican, monarchical, and aristocratic principles.  Madison asserted that all previous writers on politics had been wrong; he declared that a republic was, nothing more and nothing less, than “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.” 

In thus defining – and indeed reconceptualizing – republic, Madison was expressing the new science of politics (the novus ordo seclorum, or “new order of the ages,” as it is described in the motto on the Great Seal of the United States) that was devised by the American Founders.  To fully understand the Founders’ embrace of republicanism, as Madison defined it, and with it, their rejection of democracy, we first should note briefly how the Founders rejected classical political theory.    

The Founders’ negative views of democracy derived from the classic theory of politics held by most English-speaking people in the 18th century.  Under this theory – which in turn was based on ideas in Western political thought that could be traced back for dozens of centuries, back at least to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle – democracy was one of three basic “pure” forms of government; the others were monarchy and aristocracy.  Under this classic model, each of the three pure forms of government were unstable, ineffective guarantors of citizens’ rights, that inevitably would degenerate into something worse:  monarchy would degenerate into an absolute dictatorship (one-man rule); aristocracy (literally, government by “the best”) would degenerate into a tyrannical oligarchy (absolute rule by a few); and democracy would degenerate into either anarchy or the tyranny of “mob rule.”  To avoid these tendencies, the best form of government – under the classic 18th-century British model – was a “mixed” government that combined the best attributes of the three pure forms and which provided “checks” against their corruption into absolutism.  The British system of government – with a King representing, obviously, the monarchical element, and a Parliament consisting of two houses, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, representing, respectively, the aristocratic and democratic elements – was seen by Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century, before the American Revolution, as “the best form of government thus devised by the wit of man.”  William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law, published in the mid-century, for example, thus extolled the British constitution as the most perfect on earth.  

Americans of the Founders’ generation – in other words, of the American Revolutionary era – found that with American independence from Great Britain also came an unprecedented (and glorious) opportunity to improve upon the “mixed” British constitutional model.  They followed the advice of Thomas Paine, who in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense (the pamphlet that helped stir popular support for independence) had ridiculed monarchy as a “ridiculous” form of government.  They also followed the advice of John Adams, who in his pamphlet Thoughts on Government (also published in 1776) had argued that “there is no good government but what is republican.”  Adams’ definition of republic was different from Madison’s – he applied the term to any constitutionally-limited government, “a government of laws, and not of men – but in his suggestions for the new American constitutions, he recommended a representative government, not a democracy.  During the decade or so between 1776 and the federal Constitutional Convention in 1787, most of the American states experimented with early constitutions that employed various devices for limiting government power.  All were “republican” – not merely in the sense that they derived their authority, in theory, from the people of the several states, not from the British King – but also in the sense that they created various offices of government as agents for the people, as Madison would describe in Federalist No. 39.  In place of the British “mixed” system, with three social classes (the monarch, the aristocracy, and the “commons,” or middle class) being represented and checking each other’s power in three distinct parts of the government, the framers of the American constitutions substituted the principle of separation of powers, which distinguished the three basic functions of government – the legislative, executive, and judicial – and separated them into distinct branches, each representing (directly or indirectly) the people as a whole.  The Founders added other features to the early American constitutions, both state and federal, designed to help prevent the abuse of power – features such as the complementary principle of checks and balances, term limits (or “rotation in office,” as they called it), and enumerated rights protections – but overall, the system of government they created was republican, not democratic.  Indeed, Article IV of the U.S. Constitution provides that the national government shall guarantee to each state “a Republican Form of Government” – not a democracy. 

Examples of the Founders’ disdain for democracy abound in early American political writing.   The Federalist supporters of ratification of the U.S. Constitution touted it as a remedy to the “excess of democracy” that existed, practically speaking, in most of the state governments at that time.  (Thomas Jefferson, in later criticizing the Virginia Constitution of 1776, explained that its defects – chiefly, the concentration of power it gave to the legislature – could be explained by the fact that it was one of the earliest American constitutions, adopted at a time when Virginians were still “novices in the science of government.”)  For example, Virginia’s Edmund Randolph, a member of the 1787 Convention, reminded his fellow delegates that their mission was “to provide a cure for the evils under which the United States labored,” namely “the turbulence and trials of democracy.”  Samuel Adams championed the new federal Constitution in his own state, Massachusetts, because it was not democratic:  “Democracy never lasts long.  It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself,” he noted, echoing the classical model’s theory, “There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”  Alexander Hamilton, in a June 1788 speech urging his fellow New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, declared:  “It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government.  Experience has proved that no position is more false than this.  The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government.  Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”  And James Madison, writing in perhaps his most famous Federalist essay, No. 10, noted that “democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths.”  He went on to argue that only in a republic, “by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place,” and particularly in a republic spread over an enlarged “sphere” of territory, like that of the United States, would the rights of individuals be secure. 

The basic evil that the Founders saw in democracy – that is, direct rule by a majority of the people – was that it endangered the rights of individuals.  It was the problem that Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat visiting the United States in the early 1830s, would describe in his book Democracy in America by the phrase “the tyranny of the majority.”  He warned that the majority, in democratic societies, had virtually unlimited powers.  Thus, democracies had the “extremely natural” and “extremely dangerous” tendency to “despise and undervalue the rights of private persons.”  The rights of the individual in democratic societies are “extremely precarious,” he noted.  Tocqueville wrote alarmingly of the dangers that majority tyranny posed to the rights of individuals in democratic societies like the United States, but he identified several features of American society and of the American system of government that he hoped would help mitigate against this tyranny.  Among these were what Tocqueville called “voluntary associations” (today we call them “special interest groups”), in which individuals help protect their interests by forming associations with others who share them. 

Among the key features of the American system of government that helps protect against the tyranny of the majority, the basic evil of democracy, is the republican, or representative, system itself.  (Not surprisingly, Tocqueville did not discuss this feature directly.  He tended to describe the American system as a “democracy,” as the title of his book shows, and thus helped create the modern confusion of the terms democracy and republic.)  Representative government helps protect against majority tyranny by filtering the people’s desires through the rational discretion of their representatives.  In a republican system, representatives ought not merely parrot the wishes of their constituents.  Rather, they have a duty to defy their constituents when they believe them to be wrong and to instead follow their own independent judgment, to do what is right.  The British statesman (and member of Parliament) Edmund Burke argued this in a classic speech in 1774, which was familiar to most of the American founders.  In his speech to the voters of Bristol, England, Burke observed: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion” (Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, Nov. 4, 1774, quoted in The Quotable Conservative (Rod L. Evans and Irwin M. Berent eds., 1995), p.41.) 

Another key protection against majority tyranny – against the evils of democracy – in the American system of government is the written constitution, limiting the power of government (and protecting the rights of individuals), enforced by the judges exercising “judicial review,” their power to declare laws unconstitutional.  In a limited-government constitutional republic like the United States, the “higher law” limitations on the powers of government imposed by the constitutions (both state and federal) help prevent governmental actions from depriving individuals of their rights, even when those actions are supported by a majority – sometimes an overwhelming majority – of the people.  In giving judges the power to enforce these constitutional limitations, the American constitutional system permits judges to stand in the way of the people’s will – to thwart democracy, some might say – in order to safeguard individual rights.  Judicial review was another mitigating factor stressed by Tocqueville, who argued that “the power vested in the American courts of justice of pronouncing a statute to be unconstitutional forms one of the most powerful barriers that have ever been devised against the tyranny” of democracy. 

The system of government devised by the framers of the United States Constitution in the summer of 1787 was wholly republican and not at all democratic.  All three branches of government represent the people (not the people of the United States as a whole, but the people of the several States), either directly or indirectly.  The House of Representatives is the most “democratic” branch, but it too is republican:  it reflects the will of the people most directly, with its members elected by the people every two years.  The Senate, as originally provided in the Constitution, was far less democratic; not only because its members held six-year terms, but also because they were to be selected by the state legislatures.  The President was to be selected by the Electoral College, whose members were to be chosen (as Article II provides) in whatever manner each state legislature directs.  Popular election of the members of the Electoral College, which became the universal practice only in the 19th century, was not anticipated by the Constitution’s framers, who simply did not trust the people to make so important a decision as the choice of the President of the United States.  And to apply the laws, and to exercise the judicial power (including the power of judicial review) the Framers decided on a federal judicial system in which judges would hold their offices for life – to insulate them from popular political pressures – and would be appointed by the President, supplemented by the Senate’s “advise and consent” check.  In its key aspects, the national government created by the framers of the Constitution was quite insulated from the direct will of the people. 

History has proven the Founders’ distrust of the people to be amply justified.  The average American voter today is an idiot who certainly cannot be trusted with defending the freedoms of his or her fellow citizens.   That’s why the rights of individuals are so insecure at the state and local levels of government, where the various anti-democratic checks of the U.S. Constitution do not apply and the system of government more closely represents true democracy.  Indeed, as Clint Bolick has shown in his provocative book Grassroots Tyranny, it is the institutions of local government – zoning boards, for example – that today pose some of the greatest threats to individuals’ property rights and other freedoms.  What helps make government at the local level so tyrannical today – what makes the tyranny of the majority a real threat to the rights of minorities (and to the individual, who is the most insecure “minority” of all) – is the post-20th-century regulatory/”welfare state” model of government, in which a pervasive government continually interferes with the freedom of individuals, in the name of helping make them more “secure.”  Not only has the 20th-century welfare state model directly undermined individual freedom, but it also has undermined general principles of morality and personal responsibility --- transforming the average voter into yet another pig at the trough of government “entitlements,” using the extraordinary power that the ballot gives him:  the power of limiting his fellow citizens’ freedom, or of reaching into his fellow citizens’ pocket and taking their earnings to spend on his desires, by force of law, provided a majority of his fellow voters agree with his preferences.  This, in essence, is what democracy means, in practice. 

In many ways the United States today is suffering from “an excess of democracy.”  Like the welfare state itself, this problem began in the early 20th century, with the so-called “Progressive” movement, when political activists from both major parties fought to expand the power of government at all levels.  The “Progressive” era “reforms” included not only bigger government – government that, for example, regulated foods and drugs, broke up large successful companies like Standard Oil because they were deemed illegal “trusts” and that, for over a decade, prohibited liquor throughout the United States – but also more democratic (or less republican) a form of government.  The 17th Amendment, providing for the direct election of U.S. Senators by the people of the several States, destroyed the key feature that made the Senate distinctive from the House, a body more insulated from public opinion (arguably, the Senate today is even more closely influenced by public opinion than is the House), and removed one of the key checks the framers of the Constitution put on the power of the national government – the power of the state legislatures to appoint Senators.  Today, thanks to the 17th Amendment, states have no direct check on the power of Congress; they collectively have been transformed into merely yet another special interest group that has to lobby Congress to try to influence its decisions. 

Another “Progressive” era political reform that has undermined republican government in the United States was the popular referendum.  Beginning in the early 20th century, many state constitutions were changed, to give the people (that is, the majority of those voting at a given election) the power, directly, to recall their elected representatives or to bypass them altogether by initiating or approving legislation.  Today, many important issues that ought to be determined, if at all, by legislative bodies are being determined instead by popular election.  Both major parties and both sides of the traditional political spectrum – both conservatives and left-liberals alike – are guilty of using the popular referendum to bypass the legislature (and all the checks on popular impulses that the representative system provides) and to directly enact “special interest” legislation, favorable to their constituents’ pet causes.  In the last general election, conservatives used ballot measures (most of them amendments of state constitutions) to bar same-sex marriage to help increase turn-out of conservative voters.  Left-liberal activists are learning from that lesson.  A recent article in USA Today described how some leftist activists plan to use the issue of the minimum wage:  to put minimum wage initiatives on the ballots next year in nine states, to “pull progressive [i.e., leftist] voters to the polls.”  “The way the gay marriage amendment lured conservative voters to the polls (in November) was a wake-up call for us,” one left-wing activist said (May 31). 

Some measures contrary to the interests of legislators themselves – such as term limits, or limits on legislative salaries, or perhaps limits on taxing or spending powers – may justifiably be enacted by popular referenda.  But when the device of the referendum is used for issues like defining marriage, or imposing a higher minimum wage, or changing abortion rights, or any other “special-interest” cause, the checks provided by a republican system of government for the rights of individuals are lost.  Those checks include the ability to weigh multiple competing interests against each other, as well as the representative system itself, which, as noted above, allows representatives to defy popular opinion when it is wrong.  As Thomas Jefferson noted in his First Inaugural Address, although the principle of majority rule is important (he called it “sacred”), it is not unlimited; the will of the majority, “to be rightful, must be reasonable,” he added.  Whenever the majority decides to do something that falls outside the legitimate function of government (the protection of individual rights) and which denies freedom to individuals who choose to act differently, the majority decision is inherently unreasonable.   

Sadly, since the early 20th century – since the era when President Woodrow Wilson rationalized American entry into the European war in World War I as an effort to “make the world safe for democracy” – most of the changes made in American law and in the American system of government have not helped make individuals safe from democracy.


      | Link to this Entry | Posted Monday, June 6, 2005 | Copyright David N. Mayer