Republics and Democracies

Written by  Monday, 10 July 2017 18:00
Statue of Liberty Statue of Liberty

Suppose that you were asked to prepare a one-question multiple choice test for your school classmates, asking: "What form of government do we have in the United States?" The possible answers would be: anarchy, monarchy, republic, or democracy. Which answer do you think most of your classmates would select? 

Few would likely choose anarchy, which means no government at all. Probably none would pick monarchy, which means rule by a king or queen. Few, if any, would select republic. Surveys indicate that the vast majority of high school students have been led to believe that the United States is a democracy, and has always been one.


The Founders were emphatic about the form of government they preferred for the new nation. The Constitution not only specified that the federal Government was to be a republic, but also guaranteed a republican form of government for every state. In fact, the word "democracy" does not appear in the Constitution (including the Bill of Rights), the Declaration of Independence, or the constitutions of any of the 50 states.


Actually, the men who framed the Constitution were very familiar with "democracy" as a form of government. And they both disliked and feared it. James Madison often called the father of the Constitution, described democracies in these words:


“.... 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 it in their deaths.”


Even Alexander Hamilton, considered to be one of the more liberal Founding Fathers, had this to say about the matter:


“It has been observed that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience had 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.”


Democracy was discussed at the Constitutional Convention. Each time it was mentioned, it was vigorously condemned. On May 31, 1787, Edmund Randolph told his fellow delegates that the purpose of the Convention was "to provide a cure for the evils under which the United States labored; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and trials of democracy.”


Perhaps an illustration will help clarify why the Founders had such an aversion for "democracy." Consider, for example, the "Wild West" of 150 years ago. Law enforcement was a big problem, since there were not enough marshals, sheriffs, and rangers to go around. Therefore it was not unusual for citizens to take the law into their own hands.


Perhaps you have heard of something called a lynch mob. A posse might track down someone accused of stealing horses or rustling cattle. Once the alleged culprit was caught, members of the posse might vote on the spot to decide his fate. Suppose, for instance, that there were 35 men on one side, and the suspected rustler on the other. It would likely be 35 to 1 in favor of hanging the supposed culprit. It would be democracy in action - majority rule with, literally, a vengeance.


In a republic, his case would have been handled in a far different manner. There would still be one suspected thief, and 35 men in the posse. But after apprehending the suspect, the leader of the posse would say something like, "Wait a minute. We can't hang this man. He deserves a speedy trial by a jury of his peers." Instead of being hanged, the suspect would be taken to jail to await trial.


The word "DEMOCRACY" comes from two Greek words:  demos meaning people, and kratia, meaning to rule. So democracy, in the early Greek city-states, meant the people ruled. Now in Greece, about 600 years before the birth of Christ, there were leaders of the people. We would call them "politicians," but the Greeks called them demagogues, which simply meant the leaders of the people.


The early Greeks learned that a very persuasive leader, or demagogue, could get the majority to do almost anything - to take the property of the rich for their own use; to go to war against another city-state; to imprison or enslave foreigners; or to suppress a different religion. So a very wise Greek named Solon proposed that written laws be adopted for all Greeks to follow, which would limit what government or the people could do. Solon stated that a well-governed state was one in which "the people obey the rulers, and the rulers obey the laws."


Unfortunately, back in the Sixth Century B.C., the Greeks were never able to fully implement all of Solon's proposals. But his laws were not lost, because in 454 B.C. the Roman Senate sent a commission to Greece to study and report on Solon's recommendations. As a result, Rome ultimately adopted The Twelve Tables. The Tables contained a code of government, posted for all to see, which specified what government could and could not do. And the first real republic was born.


The Roman historian Livy described a republic as "a Government of laws and not of men." In other words, under Roman rule, there were some things government was not permitted to do even if ninety-nine percent of the citizens voted for it. In a republic, the power of government is limited by a written constitution; and the rights of the minorities to be free, to own property, to worship as they please are protected from the prejudices, envy, or malice of the majority.


If the United States is a republic, and was meant by the Founders to remain one, why do so many Americans today believe that we are a democracy, and have always been one? Some might claim that we are a democratic republic, or a republic within in a democracy, but such men as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison would scoff at such notions. They knew that it is as impossible to mix a democracy and a republic as it is to mix gasoline and water. Government is either limited or open-ended.


One reason why so many incorrectly believe that the U.S. was founded as a democracy is that they have been misled by virtually all history books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and textbooks. But why would anyone expect such effort, patiently and gradually over many decades, to reeducate us to believe that our country is a democracy?


Part of the answer can be found in this quotation by the great English poet, essayist, and novelist G.K Chesterton. Writing nearly a century ago, he warned: "You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution."


The British Duke of Northumberland, in The History of World Revolution noted: "The adoption of Democracy as a form of Government by all European nations is fatal to good Government, to liberty, to law and order, to respect for authority, and to religion, and must eventually produce a state of chaos from which a new world tyranny will arise."


And another clue may found in the words of our own government's 1928 U.S. Army Training Manual, which was used by all of our men in uniform. It included this accurate definition of "democracy":


“A government of the masses. Authority derived through mass meeting or any form of "direct" expression. Results in mobocracy. Attitude toward property is communistic negating property rights. Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate, whether it be based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice, and impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences. Results in demagogism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy.”


By 1952, however, this is what the U.S. Army was saying about "democracy" in The Soldiers Guide:


“Meaning of democracy: Because the United States is a democracy, the majority of the people decide how our government will be organized and run - and that includes the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The people do this by electing representatives, and these men and women then carry out the wishes of the people.”


If the United States were to become a democracy, what could we lose? For one thing, we could lose the "unalienable rights" that the Declaration of Independence mentions. For another, we could lose the freedoms protected by the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, as well as the limitations on government mandated by those documents. And we could lose our right to own property, plan inheritances for our children, and work and live where we prefer. All of these rights and freedoms could be lost under a democracy, should a majority vote to take them away.


There are two major challenges ahead of us. First, convincing most Americans that we are, in fact, a republic. Second, keeping our nation a republic (rule by written law) and preventing a deomcracy (rule by majority).

Interested in learning more? Check out our Republics and Democracies booklet for timeless principles.


Adapted from the Family Heritage Series, a project of The John Birch Society's Movement to Restore Decency.


Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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