The United States of America is a Republic if You Can Keep it

The United States of America is a Republic if You Can Keep it

A Republic, IF You Can Keep It?

There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was:

"A republic, if you can keep it." The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.

A republic is (1) a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president and (2) a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law. (

Our form of government is a republic.  The People elect representatives and they are responsible for managing the government and making laws.

We have three separate branches of government: Executive (President), Congress (House & Senate) and the Supreme Court.  These powers are separated on purpose.

A republic provides a nearly unlimited liberty to the People and enables the People to be the final Sovereign in the government via elections.

The President has a great deal of power, but for no more than a four year term if the People don't want him.  If the People are pleased with the president, they may elect him for one more term, and that's it.

Mr. Franklin KNEW that KEEPING the form of government that they had created would be a significant task, and I can think of two reasons:

  1. Politicians Tend to Crave for Power
  2. Citizens Tend to Cave to Power

A Republic, if You Can Keep It . . . 

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787,  Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation. In the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention,  a lady asked Dr. Franklin “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy.”  Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

Our Constitution created a limited representative republic.  A republic is different from a democracy.  In a democracy, the majority can directly make laws, while in a republic, elected representatives make laws.  Basically, in a pure democracy, the majority has unlimited power, whereas in a republic, a written constitution limits the majority and provides safeguards for the individual and minorities.

In the United States, we actually have both systems.  There is no way for Americans to directly enact legislation at the national level, but half of the states allow ballot initiatives which, if passed by a majority of the voters, have the force of law.

The Founders’ intent at the national level was a representative republic.  The word democracy is not mentioned in the Constitution.   Most of the Founders distrusted pure democracy.  Some had been frightened by Shays Revolt and equated democracy with mob rule.  Others were convinced by Madison that different factions would come together until they formed a majority, and then take advantage of those who were not members of their coalition. In fact, Madison showed that throughout history, this phenomenon had destroyed every experiment in democracy.

John Adams wrote that “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide,” and James Madison wrote in Federalist 10 that “Democracies have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” The reason pure democracies fail is that majorities learn that they can legally take property and/or liberties away from others. Those subjected to abuse can be anyone outside the majority coalition, and their minority status can be based on race, religion, wealth, political affiliation, or even which city or state they reside in. Demagogic leaders become adept at appealing to the emotions of jealousy, avarice, and entitlement. They also denigrate opponents in order to justify prejudicial actions taken by the majority.  Soon, oppression of minority classes causes enough conflicts to collapse the democratic process.

A major difference between a republic and a democracy is immediacy. The Founders wanted laws made by representatives in order to put a buffer between popular passions and legislation. In a democracy, decisions are made in the heat of the moment, while periodic elections in a republic provide a cooling off period. To a great extent, democracies are ruled by feelings, while in a republic, the rule of law governs. In a republic, politicians can take principled actions that go against the will of many of their constituents with the knowledge that they will be judged by all the actions they take during their entire term in office. Political leaders are also given time to explain the reasons for their actions.

Of course, if an elected official does something grievously offensive, then the voters can follow the advice of Alexander Hamilton, who in Federalist 21 wrote, “The natural cure for an ill-administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men.” When the people’s will is thwarted, regular elections give them the opportunity to dismiss their representatives and appoint new ones.

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

What is a Republic? 

America is a republic and not a pure democracy. The contemporary efforts to weaken our republican customs and institutions in the name of greater equality thus run against the efforts by America’s Founders to defend our country from the potential excesses of democratic majorities.

American republicanism and the ordered liberty it makes possible are grounded in the Federalists’ recognition that non-majoritarian parts of the community make legitimate contributions to the community’s welfare, and that preserving these contributions is the hallmark of political justice.

But, the careful balance produced by our mixed republic is threatened by an egalitarianism that undermines the social, familial, religious, and economic distinctions and inequalities that undergird our political liberty. Preserving the republican freedoms we cherish requires tempering egalitarian zeal and moderating the hope for a perfectly just democracy.

Contrary to popular belief, America is not, nor was it meant to be, a pure democracy. America is a republic. Nevertheless, more and more voices today are calling for America to become a direct democracy.

A 2017 Pew Research survey found that 67 percent of those Americans polled considered a system in which citizens voted directly on “major national issues” to be a good thing.

Richard Wike, Kate Simmons, Bruce Stokes, and Janell Fetterolf, “Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy,” Pew Research Center, October 16, 2017, (accessed April 4, 2020).

The National Citizens Initiative for Democracy, sponsored by former Senator Mike Gravel (D–AK) and endorsed by the likes of Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, calls for direct democracy through the creation of an independent “Legislature of the People,” which would allow American citizens to amend the Constitution directly and pass laws of their own choosing, bypassing both state and federal legislatures in the process.

Tom Steyer, in his bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee, called for something similar. In the spirit of ever more democracy, he advocated the use of national referenda on two major policy debates a year and repeatedly attacked the Electoral College as undemocratic.

Ben Christopher, “Tom Steyer Wants to Fix American Politics by Making it Californian,” CalMatters, July 11, 2019, (accessed April 4, 2020).

Indeed, the calls to abolish or circumvent the Electoral College in the selection of our chief executive represent the most visible sign of this democratic antipathy to our republican institutions. Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI), who introduced a bill to abolish the Electoral College, described it as “undemocratic and radical,” and called eliminating it “an unassailably logical evolution of our Constitution.”

Such a view seems to be a prerequisite for leading Democrats. Many of those Democrats who recently sought their party’s presidential nomination made the abolition of the Electoral College, in the name of greater equality, a formal part of their platforms.

Explaining his opposition to the Electoral College, Senator Bernie Sanders (D–VT) said “[i]t is hard to defend a system in which we have a president who lost the popular vote by three million votes.” Alexandra Hutzler, “Bernie Sanders Joins Effort to Abolish Electoral College: ‘We Have a President Who Lost the Popular Vote by 3 Million Votes’,” Newsweek, July 12, 2019, (accessed April 3, 2020).

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D–MA) opposed it on the grounds that “[e]veryone’s vote should count equally—in every election—no matter where they live…your power in our democracy shouldn’t be determined by where you live.” “I just think this is how a democracy should work,” Warren claimed. Warren Democrats, “Get Rid of the Electoral College,” Warren Democrats, March 19, 2019, (accessed April 3, 2020).

The movement to circumvent the Electoral College enjoys increased momentum with the spread of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) that seeks to “equalize [individuals’] votes among states across the country.” According to John Koza, the chairman of the NPVIC, under its plan “[e]very vote of every voter in every state would count directly towards the presidential candidate that voter wants see to be president, so it would make every voter in every state equal.” Tess Bonn, “Leader Behind Popular Vote Initiative Says Plan Will Make Every Voter ‘Equal’,” The Hill, March 11, 2019, (accessed April 4, 2020).

Similar hostility to the pillars of our republic in the name of more democracy is found across our political landscape: in the way many states rely on ballot initiatives to effect public policy; in the hostility to procedural limits that inhibit Congressional majorities from having their way; and in the increased dissatisfaction with the efficiency and responsiveness of our deliberative political institutions.4
Yascha Mounk, “America is Not a Democracy: How the United States Lost the Faith of Its Citizens—and What It Can Do to Win Them Back,” The Atlantic, March 2018, (accessed March 30, 2020).

As a result, there is an increased interest in non-republican “solutions” to any obstacles to more democracy, whether it be endorsing Congressional term-limits, scrapping the Senatorial filibuster, expanding the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, or developing more effective and immediate ways to express the will of the majority, such as quadratic, ranked-choice, and digital voting—anything to liberate more fully the direct will of the people.

America’s Founders carefully thought through the problems of direct democracy and explicitly rejected this model—and for good reason. They saw that because ancient democracies lacked any social or institutional forces that could check, refine, or moderate the will of the majority, they were prone to great instability, riven by factionalism, and subject to the passions and short-sightedness of the public. Direct democracies were thus vulnerable to tyranny.

American republicanism, by contrast, offers protections from the instability, rashness, impetuosity, and social and political tyranny of democratic politics because it recognizes that the majority does not equal the whole of the community. Republicanism recognizes the valid contributions to the welfare of the community by non- and even counter-majoritarian parts of the community.

Indeed, justice demands that, even in a nation rooted in popular consent, non- and counter-majoritarian forces must be blended together. In this way, republicanism protects the minority from unjust majorities and secures the conditions for the political and social freedoms that are the true goal of the American revolution.

But this is not all. As Tocqueville correctly foresaw, the limitless passion for equality—the root cause for seeking direct democracy—undermines respect for all of those social, familial, civic, and religious institutions that separate individuals from one another, establish hierarchies, dictate codes of behavior, and, most importantly, help us preserve our liberties. To advocates, this pursuit of ever more equality represents a panacea, a “one-size-fits-all” solution, to the various political conflicts we face.

In promoting greater equality, they would impose a single, uniform view of justice upon a republican order built on the recognition that the political community is more than just the majority of its citizens. Our republic is built on the recognition that no single part of the community has a monopoly on justice. Genuine political justice therefore requires tending to the legitimate needs and contributions of a community’s non-majoritarian elements and preserving the social, familial, civic, and religious practices that define them. Given the importance of such practices to human flourishing, the recovery of republicanism means the recovery of our humanity.

Republics, Not Democracies

The effort to recover an appreciation of our republican character must first confront the fact that for most Americans the two terms have become indistinguishable, each signifying the same thing: government by popular consensus.5
But while a republic draws on the people for its legitimacy, it does not valorize the majority or identify the majority with the whole of the political community.

The political institutions peculiar to republicanism derive from the insight that there is more to the health and well-being of a political community than the wishes of the majority of its citizens. Americans today confuse republicanism with democracy because they have forgotten, and our educators no longer remind them of, the non- and even counter-majoritarian rationale for our distinctive political institutions. Of course, this amnesia about republicanism is not simply due to non-existent or ineffective civics curricula. Its underlying cause is an insatiable love of democracy that seeks to apply its egalitarian principle to the family, education, social and religious life, and finally to the norms, practices, and institutions that define who we are as a republic.

Those who demand that we become more democratic forget that for the better part of the Western political tradition, republicanism, not democracy, served as the model of political health and excellence. Indeed, up until the beginning of the 19th century, European nations and their leaders viewed the republics of ancient Sparta and Rome, and not democratic Athens, as models worthy of emulation. This preference for republicanism over and against democracy was especially pronounced in America’s Founding political documents and in the numerous writings that justified and explained them. The word “democracy” is found neither in the Declaration of Independence nor in our Constitution. The term “republic,” however, does appear in the Constitution.

Ryan McMaken, “Stop Saying ‘We’re a Republic, Not a Democracy’,” Mises Wire, November 3, 2017, (accessed March 15, 2020). McMaken’s argument rests on the fallacy that the mere existence of representative institutions is sufficient for a modern democracy to qualify as a republic in the sense our Founders intended. But if republican institutions have been coopted to serve purely democratic purposes, as they have been in many European countries, then they no longer serve their intended non- and counter-majoritarian functions. As such, they cease to be republican.

This preference for republicanism over democracy stems largely from the fact that ancient democracies, rooted in popular consent, were also vulnerable to the passions and shortsightedness of popular rule. Thus, Madison writes, lamenting the popular governments of the ancient world:

[it] is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrasts to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage. If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliancy, they at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of government should pervert the direction and tarnish the luster of those bright talents and exalted endowments for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated.

United States Constitution, Article IV, sec. 4. 

These governments were tumultuous because they supplied no check on the people. They had no mediating institutions that could filter or delay the majority’s impulses. For instance, during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431 BC–404 BC), the Athenian assembly voted in favor of Alcibiades’ outrageously daring plan to conquer Sicily. This plan, on its own, would prove tremendously risky for the Athenians for numerous reasons, not the least of which was that the massive expedition, despite being sumptuously outfitted, still lacked the cavalry forces necessary to counter those of their enemies because the oligarchic elements in the city, who would normally be counted on to contribute the requisite horses and knights, silently opposed the campaign. And they were silent in their opposition because they feared for their lives and their property in the face of the democratic mania for the expedition.

James Madison, The Federalist No. 9, (accessed April 13, 2020).

Without a voice in the assembly to represent vigorously the interests of the oligarchic faction, the Athenian demos (the majority) was allowed to proceed under the mistaken belief that their particular wishes and views represented the entirety of the city. Had the Athenian assembly employed representation, with the protection of diverse views that it entails, the wisdom of the oligarchic faction might have saved the city from the catastrophic defeat to which its democratic ignorance subsequently doomed it.

Ancient democracies like Athens, what Madison calls “pure” democracies, could engage in this kind of behavior because they guaranteed in principle the right of each citizen to exercise directly the powers of government. As Madison states, “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.”

For an account of this assembly, see Book 6, chaps. 7 through 26 in The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert B. Strassler with an introduction by Victor Davis Hanson (New York: Free Press, 1996).

Again, the test case for this is democratic Athens. There the largest power was the assembly (ekklessia) in which some 30,000 male citizens were entitled to participate. It was in this body that the citizens of Athens deliberated over and passed laws regarding peace, war, empire, citizenship, and taxes. Of course, the Pnyx, the small open-air, rocky outcropping where the assembly met, could only hold around 6,000 citizens. But every 10 days, these 6,000 citizens would gather to consider an agenda that had been prepared for it by an elected council of 500 citizens (boule), each of whom served terms of one year. Individual citizens were allowed to come forward in the assembly and either propose motions on the basis of the agenda supplied by the council or deliver speeches advocating, modifying, or contesting them.

James Madison, The Federalist No. 14, (accessed April 13, 2020). In an earlier formulation, Madison defines a pure democracy as “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” James Madison, The Federalist No. 10, (accessed April 13, 2020).

There were no procedural rules either for these speeches or for the behavior of the audience, which meant that assembly meetings could get raucous and violent depending on both the particular speaker and the mood of fellow citizens.

The only public officials present in the assembly were there to oversee the ritual sacrifices that opened the assembly and to ensure the orderly selection of speakers and the recording of votes. But these were different for each meeting and possessed no real formal powers. For a general overview of the structure and operation of Athenian democracy, see Alan L. Boegehold’s brief chapter “The Athenian Government in Thucydides” in The Landmark Thucydides, pp. 577–582.

In the end, the majority’s will on matters of state was registered through a raised-hand vote, with the outcome depending on the persuasiveness of a particular speaker, which may have flowed from his particular rhetorical gifts, his personal reputation, or his ability to direct the passions of his listeners.

The decisions rendered by such an assembly were absolute and there was no higher authority governing it. They were not even bound by precedent; the assembly could undo in one meeting what it had decreed the week before. With no outside authority to check their judgments, these 6,000 Athenians were free to make and act on whatever fickle or dangerous decisions.

Informed by such an insight, Madison could thus write in The Federalist No. 55 that “[i]n all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” James Madison, The Federalist No. 55, (accessed April 13, 2020).

And make them they did, whether it was the decision to execute some of their generals for failing to collect the wrecks of shipwrecked sailors after the victory at Arginusae (406 BC)

Writing two millennia later on the dangers of this kind of unchecked majoritarian rule, Tocqueville observes that “to give all power to the majority that represents the the language of a slave.” “As for me,” Tocqueville, continues, “I cannot believe it; and the power to do everything that I refuse to any one of my fellows, I will never grant to several.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, edited by Eduardo Nolla and trans. by James T. Schleifer (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), Vol. 1, Part 2, chap. 7, p. 411.

or the decision to kill all the adult males of the rebellious city of Mytilene (427 BC), (a decision that they revoked the next day).

See The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, Robert B. Strassler, ed., and trans. by John Marincola (New York: Free Press, 2010), Book 1, chaps. 6 and 7.

Madison may thus have had more than the Athenians’ execution of Socrates in mind when, in describing the fickleness of their assembly, he noted that these citizens were free to decree hemlock for some of their citizens one day and erect statues to them the next.

The Landmark Thucydides, Book 3, chaps. 36 and 49.

Athens was the freest of the ancient Greek city-states. But without the necessary checks afforded by republican institutions to protect the city from its majoritarian vices, this unbounded democracy produced a history filled with factional strife, revolution, regime change, political murder, and, in some cases, tyranny. The reasons for this are simple. In such a democracy, writes Madison, 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, The Federalist No. 63, (accessed April 13, 2020).

In this society, once the people’s passions have been agitated, there is little that can be done to extinguish them.

A republic mitigates these difficulties because, while it is literally a “thing of the people,” it is not a “thing of the many.” In other words, this “thing of the people” could only become synonymous with “the commonwealth” because it deliberately incorporates into its constitution the voices and interests of all of the various parts that make it up, and thus the many and the few, the rich and the poor, the educated and the unlettered, and the soldiers, craftsmen, and farmers. By doing so, it implicitly concedes that the interests of the many, while important, are not simply the same as the common good; for a republic, securing the common good reflects the proper balance of these distinctive and, at times, competing elements of the political community as dictated by political justice.

Republics can bring together these potentially discordant voices because they, unlike direct democracies, employ the principle of representation. Thus, in Federalist No. 39, when Madison defines a republic, he stresses that it can, but need not, be directly dependent on the consent of the governed. A republic is:

a government which derives all of its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it…. It is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people.

James Madison, The Federalist No. 10, (accessed April 13, 2020).

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