Democracy or Republic?

By Williams, Walter E. | Freeman, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Democracy or Republic?


Williams, Walter E., Freeman


How often do we hear the claim that our nation is a democracy? Was a democratic form of government the vision of the Founders? As it turns out, the word democracy appears nowhere in the two most fundamental founding documents of our nation-the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Instead of a democracy, the Constitution's Article IV, Section 4, declares "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government." Our pledge of allegiance to the flag says not to "the democracy for which it stands," but to "the republic for which it stands." Is the song that emerged during the War of 1861 "The Battle Hymn of the Democracy" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"?

So what is the difference between republican and democratic forms of government? John Adams captured the essence of the difference when he said, "You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe." Nothing in our Constitution suggests that government is a grantor of rights. Instead, government is envisioned as a protector of rights.

In recognition that it is government that poses the gravest threat to our liberties, the framers used negative phrases in reference to Congress throughout the first ten amendments to the Constitution, such as shall not abridge, infringe, deny, disparage, and shall not be violated, nor be denied. In a republican form of government, there is rule of law. AU citizens, including government officials, are accountable to the same laws. Government power is limited and decentralized through a system of checks and balances. Government intervenes in civil society to protect its citizens against force and fraud, but does not intervene in the cases of peaceable, voluntary exchange.

Contrast the framers' vision of a republic with that of a democracy. According to Webster's dictionary, a democracy is defined as "government by the people; especially: rule of the majority." In a democracy the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. As in a monarchy, the law is whatever the government determines it to be. Laws do not represent reason. They represent power. The restraint is upon the individual instead of government. Unlike the rights envisioned under a republican form of government, rights in a democracy are seen as privileges and permissions that are granted by government and can be rescinded by government.

There is considerable evidence that demonstrates the disdain held by our founders for a democracy. James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, said that in a pure democracy, "there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious the 1787 Constitutional Convention, individual." At Edmund Randolph said, "that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy." John Adams said, "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." Later on, Chief Justice John Marshall observed, "Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos." In a word or two, the Founders knew that a democracy would lead to the same kind of tyranny the colonies suffered under King George III.

The framers gave us a Constitution that is replete with anti-majority-rule, undemocratic mechanisms. One that has come in for frequent criticism and caUs for elimination is the Electoral CoUege. In their wisdom, the framers gave us the Electoral CoUege so that in presidential elections large, heavily populated states could not use their majority to run roughshod over smaU, sparsely populated states. Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, or two-thirds of state legislatures, to propose an amendment and three-fourths of state legislatures to ratify it. …

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