Help support alternative media by visiting our advertisers

Democracy vs Republic, Defending the Founders Choice

Our legislatures need to look to the Constitution for their guide.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia by Ferdinand Richardt

Democracy vs Republic
Defending the Founders Choice


Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
~ Benjamin Franklin


by Cornel Rasor

So ended the constitutional convention in 1787 with the delegates exiting the hall in Philadelphia. Mrs. Powell asked this question of Dr. Franklin, his answer “a Republic, if you can keep it” tells us a great deal about that convention.

The founders debated everything that could be considered about governments in general and in specific. They determined the size of the House of Representatives, the size of the Senate and how it would be composed. They created a bicameral legislature and a single seat executive with limited powers. Indeed they created a document that is succinct, short and to the point covering the specific enumerated powers and responsibilities that would be delegated by the states, nations in themselves, to the newly crafted federal government. And so we see in article 4 section 4 of the Constitution that not only was the federal government a Republic, but the states were guaranteed that very form of government as well:

Constitution Article 4 Section 4:
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.

Prior to the passing of the Constitution, there was great concern in the country about how the colonies would be governed under their new form of government. Three men, John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton published a series of pamphlets, 85 in total called the Federalist Papers. In these publications they covered what you might call the colonial FAQ. They dealt with every possible objection to the new Constitution. The antifederalists and the state ratifying conventions had produced numerous concerns about this new Constitution, and the Federalist papers sought to answer those concerns.

Portraits of John Jay in 1794, James Madison in 1816, and Alexander Hamilton in 1806. Collage by Juliana Jiménez. Paintings by Gilbert Stuart, John Vanderlyn and John Trumbull.

While the Federalist papers deal with nearly every possible concern, the only issue I would like to address here is the type of government that we were given in 1787. For some reason, at some time in the past the government began calling itself a democracy. Calling it a constitutional republic is not just semantics. There are significant differences. I would like to cover those differences by using quotes from the founders in no particular order of time with comments about each. I have studied the Federalist papers for many years as well as the Constitution. I have also studied the debates of the federal convention. We have all the information we need to know what kind of government we were given and how it functions, or I should say how it should function. So let us begin.

A Constitutional Republic

In 1823, in a letter to Judge William Johnson, Thomas Jefferson was praising the distribution of powers and indirectly referred to the commonly understood fact of the day that the form of government we had was Republican. It should be noted that in a democracy there is no purpose in distributing powers because a democracy or a representative democracy enacts legislation simply by a majority approving it. In a constitutional Republic with a separation of powers, enactment of legislation is far more difficult and takes quite a bit more time. It must go through both chambers of the legislature and then be signed into law by the executive. Jefferson allowed that moving ourselves away from that distribution of powers or the Republican form would endanger the union:

“[T]o preserve the republican form and principles of our Constitution and cleave to the salutary distribution of powers which that [the Constitution] has established … are the two sheet anchors of our Union. If driven from either, we shall be in danger of foundering.” –Thomas Jefferson, letter to Judge William Johnson, 1823

In his “Notes on the State of Virginia”, Jefferson was discussing the idea of smaller divisions of the state with regard to education. There was a Bill which would divide every County into small districts of five or six miles square. It would also provide for the education of the children in those districts. Jefferson believed government should support and encourage education. He ended this dissertation reminding his readers that a Republic can only be preserved if the people in it are properly educated:

“It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.” —Thomas Jefferson (1781)

In Federalist 9, Hamilton was discussing The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. He lauded the constitutional provision of distribution of power, balances and checks in the legislature and the term of office of judges being during that of good behavior. He also mentioned elections, the only democratic activity in the constitutional Republic they were creating:

“The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election…. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided.” –Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 9

Many of the founders traveled to the states as they held their ratifying conventions for the new Constitution. They would make speeches, answer questions and meet with delegates. In one of those speeches, Hamilton alluded to the fact that during the constitutional convention, the delegates had debated using the history of ancient republics as well as currently existing ones. They had documented their inconsistencies and weaknesses and their strengths and used that information as they crafted the new Constitution.

This information was used remarkably in one case to demonstrate the need for bicameral legislature and resulted in the creation of the U.S. Senate. Among the intricacies they crafted into the Senate was a longer term of office which they hoped would create an institutional knowledge in that portion of the legislature that would result in a barrier against imbalance:

“The history of ancient and modern republics had taught them that many of the evils which those republics suffered arose from the want of a certain balance, and that mutual control indispensable to a wise administration. They were convinced that popular assemblies are frequently misguided by ignorance, by sudden impulses, and the intrigues of ambitious men; and that some firm barrier against these operations was necessary. They, therefore, instituted your Senate.” — Alexander Hamilton (speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, June 1788)

Several years after the Constitution was ratified, Hamilton was writing an article for a local newspaper. In it he noted that the security of our Republic would result from a respect for the Constitution and the laws that grew out of it. Inherent in that statement was the idea that the respect for the Constitution would cause the members of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary to stay within its boundaries:

“If it be asked, What is the most sacred duty and the greatest source of our security in a Republic? The answer would be, An inviolable respect for the Constitution and Laws — the first growing out of the last. … A sacred respect for the constitutional law is the vital principle, the sustaining energy of a free government.” –Alexander Hamilton, Essay in the American Daily Advertiser, 1794

In Federalist 1, Hamilton starts the discussion of the Constitution observing how republics, which this government would be, could be overturned:

“Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” —Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1

Founder John Adams, in a letter to Mercy Otis Warren remarked that republics such as the government that would be formed on this continent, needed virtue to be part and parcel of the people in their private and their public lives:

“Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honour, power and glory, established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superiour to all private passions.” — John Adams (letter to Mercy Warren, 16 April 1776) Reference: The Spirit of `Seventy-Six, Commager and Morris (109); original Warren-Adams Letters, vol. 1 (221-222)

Often the founders would write under a pseudonym or a pen name. John Adams, in an exchange of pseudonymous newspaper letters between himself as Novanglus and Daniel Leonard as Massachusettensis, Adams stated that even the British were not so much a monarchy but a Republic. Clearly the discussion of the forms of government was passionate and common in the colonies prior to the formation of the Constitution:

“They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men.” — John Adams (Novanglus No. 7, 6 March 1775) Reference: Papers of John Adams, Taylor, ed., vol. 2 (314)

Indeed it was eminently clear in the founding era that the united states would be a republic. History was studied letters were written, debates were had and newspaper articles aplenty were written. In what might be called a colonial blog, Adams in his “Thoughts on Government” makes the statement that the only good government is a Republican government and developing his thought in the debate mentioned prior to this, he makes that statement:

“There is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; for the true idea of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men.’ That, as a republic is the best of governments, so that particular arrangement of the powers of society, or in other words, that form of government which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the law, is the best of republics.” –John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776

In 1833, Joseph Story, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court published his “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States”. It was considered a cornerstone of American jurisprudence in the the 1800’s and he understood our form of government to be a Republic, owing its existence to the intelligence of wise citizens:

“Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens. They fall, when the wise are banished from the public councils, because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded, because they flatter the people, in order to betray them.” –Joseph Story 1833

In another treatise within Story’s commentaries he alludes to Federalist 69 where Hamilton stated that going to war was the legislature’s responsibility and as such the question of war would not be quick in being answered in the new Republic:

“It should therefore be difficult in a republic to declare war; but not to make peace.” — Joseph Story (Commentaries on the Constitution, 1833) Reference: Story, Commentaries on the Constitution, 411.

In Federalist 39 Madison states the definition of a Republic as the constitutional convention held it:

“If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, 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.” — James Madison (Federalist No. 39) Reference: Madison, Federalist No. 39 (241)

In Federalist 55, Madison makes a reference to the fact that men are untrustworthy and that a Republican form of government addresses that by creating the controls necessary to hold that depravity in check:

“As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.” — James Madison (Federalist No. 55, 15 February 1788) Reference: Madison, Federalist No. 55.

In Federalist 14, Madison remarks that the general government of the Republic would actually be very limited. It would be limited to those specific items that were delineated in the Constitution, a limiting that has been exploded today:

“In the first place, it is to be remembered, that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws. Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any.” –James Madison, Federalist No. 14, 1787

Thus we see many of the positive affirmations that the founders gave to a Republic as the proper form of government for the United States. They also in their varied writings noted that democracy was vile and horrid and to be avoided at all cost.

One of the lesser-known founders, Fisher Ames, in one of his commentaries noted the internal inclinations of democracy:

“The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness which the ambitious call, and ignorant believe to be liberty.” –Fisher Ames

In 1814, in a letter to John Taylor, John Adams reminisces about the difficulties of monarchy and aristocracy. His discussion turns to the idea that those invested with the ability to plunder their fellows will indeed do that. An idea that Bastiat developed very well later on in “The Law”:

“Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” — John Adams (letter to John Taylor, 15 April 1814) Reference: Original Intent, Barton (335); original The Works of John Adams, C.F. Adams, ed., vol. 6 (484)

In Federalist 48 Madison explains the negative exigencies of democracy. Emergencies can be used very well to create tyranny in democracies. Whether a pure democracy where the government is administered the people at large or in a democratic representative government not constrained by the rule of law, the use of catastrophe to create control is well documented throughout history:

In a democracy, where a multitude of people exercise in person the legislative functions, and are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended, on some favorable emergency, to start up in the same quarter. James Madison Federalist 48

In Federalist 14, Madison notes that democracies are not suited to govern larger tracts of land but republics are well suited to that task:

It is, that 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. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region. James Madison Federalist 14

In Federalist 10 Madison covers some of the other difficulties and dangers of democracy. Majorities can destroy the rights of the minority. Democracies are turbulent and contentious, invidious violators of property rights and generally end violently:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; 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 have been violent in their deaths. James Madison Federalist 10

Further on in Federalist 10, Madison pronounces a Republic as a cure for democracy:

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union. James Madison Federalist 10

Having seen clearly from the founders themselves that they gave us a Republic, abhorring a democracy not just avoiding it, why would people refer to our government as a democracy when it is in no way, at least in origination such?. Slowly but surely by degrees we have become something of a democratic representative government. Our legislatures do not look to the Constitution for their guidance. They do not evaluate every possible piece of legislation as to whether it is allowed by the Constitution or not. No, they put their fingers to the wind and check with their constituencies to see if enough of the constituency will like what they are doing to reelect them. That is democracy pure and simple and it is destroying us.

We inhabit a republic. We need to start calling it that again not just so that the name of our government is corrected while everything falls down around us. But so that we continue the education process of our fellow citizens helping them understand that the demise of their government is at hand. Not only is it named wrong but it is implemented incorrectly partially because of that wrong name. The founders gave us a Republic. They gave us multiple reasons for giving us a Republic. They formulated our Republic upon time-tested principles. Let us return to those first principles.

Democracy vs Republic, Defending the Founders
Washington as Statesman at the Constitutional Convention by Junius Brutus Stearns


Cornel Rasor is the Owner and Operator of
Army Surplus in Sandpoint


4 Comments on Democracy vs Republic, Defending the Founders Choice

  1. A lot of hard work and careful thought went into this article.

    I am guilty as charged but changed my evil ways about 2006 when I actually “READ” the Constitution and the “Notes of the Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison”.

    Heck, I even descended to calling our government a “Democratic Triad” in a book I wrote (self published which no one read so it doesn’t really matter)…but still it is good to get things straight.

    We have a Republic…if we can keep it…which leads to another question, “What Patriot would live under anything other?”

    • This really is an interesting distinction. Hiking in the mountains today I could think of at least five pertinent and important segues.

      One of which is Federalist #39, which is referenced in this article, also makes the observation that lots of countries in circa 1787-89 called themselves Republics but did not meet the criterion of a Republic…so fast forward to today and look at how many countries have “Republic” in their names and still not meet the criterion…whereas the USA does not have “Republic” in their name but are/was a more true Republic (It is hard to say we have a clue what law means when deficit spending is normalized and the “Acceptable Amount of Public Debt” clause of the Budget Control Act of 1974 is routinely suspended or raised on a whim).

      A short list of “other” Republics:
      * Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) (antiquated)
      * People Republic of China
      * Republic of Cuba
      * Socialist Republic of Vietnam
      * Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
      …and more.

      • And one more example of the name of Republic being used contrary to what a Republic is:

        Republic of Indians:
        In many records of colonial Mexico, the terms república de indios (republic of Indians) and república de españoles (republic of Spaniards) appear with great frequency, often in legal and social contexts that assume two self-contained and fully segregated social or territorial units, one populated by Indians, the other by Spaniards, mestizos, Africans, criollos, and other non-Indian subjects.

        Indigenous peoples of Mexico
        The Spanish legal structure formally separated what they called the república de indios (the republic of Indians) from the república de españoles (republic of Spaniards), the latter of which encompassed all those in the Hispanic sphere: Europeans, Africans, and mixed-race castas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.