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Are We a Republic or a Democracy?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

by Walter Williams (January 5, 2005)

(Note: I ran across this essay at Capitalism Magazine while researching the subject of Democracy vs. Republic. I liked it so much that I decided to post it here for others to read. Mr. Williams asks a very pointed question at the end of his essay that I believe needs to be asked and answered in all seriousness. As I study our country's history, I see where our leaders have made a distinct change in course that has turned us from a true republic into a high-bred democracy. Unfortunately, it will still fail because the masses can still consume the wealth of the nation and the rights of the individuals are subject to the will of the people. I hope you enjoy this essay as much as I did. I included a short bio at the end as well as some additional links to related essays. ~Don)

We often hear the claim that our nation is a democracy. That wasn't the vision of the founders. They saw democracy as another form of tyranny. If we've become a democracy, I guarantee you that the founders would be deeply disappointed by our betrayal of their vision. The founders intended, and laid out the ground rules, for our nation to be a republic.

The word democracy appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution -- two most fundamental documents of our nation. Instead of a democracy, the Constitution's Article IV, Section 4, guarantees "to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government."

Moreover, let's ask ourselves: Does our pledge of allegiance to the flag say to "the democracy for which it stands," or does it say to "the republic for which it stands"? Or do we sing "The Battle Hymn of the Democracy" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"?

So what's 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essence of the difference when he said, "You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe."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 a protector of rights.

In recognition that it's Congress that poses the greatest threat to our liberties, the framers used negative phrases against Congress throughout 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. All 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. 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 that envisioned under a republican form of government, rights are seen as privileges and permissions that are granted by government and can be rescinded by government.

How about a few quotations demonstrating the disdain our founders held for democracy? James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 10: In a pure democracy, "there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual." At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 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." 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 undemocratic mechanisms. One that has come in for recent criticism and calls for its elimination is the Electoral College. In their wisdom, the framers gave us the Electoral College so that in presidential elections large, heavily populated states couldn't democratically run roughshod over small, sparsely populated states.

Here's my question. Do Americans share the republican values laid out by our founders, and is it simply a matter of our being unschooled about the differences between a republic and a democracy? Or is it a matter of preference and we now want the kind of tyranny feared by the founders where Congress can do anything it can muster a majority vote to do? I fear it's the latter.

About the Author:

Born in Philadelphia in 1936, Walter E. Williams holds a bachelor's degree in economics from California State University (1965) and a master's degree (1967) and doctorate (1972) in economics from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Author Archives

Related Articles on Democracy:

Democracy vs.The Essence of Liberty
The False Hope of Democracy
Democracy and the Right to Vote
Are We a Republic or a Democracy?
Democracy is No Guarantee of Freedom for Iraq
Majority Rule: The Tyrants Next Door
Republic? Democracy? What's the Difference?
A Constitutional Republic for Iraq
Freedom--Not Democracy--for the Arabs in the Middle East
Do We Want Democracy?
De-mystifying Democracy
America, The Republic


Blogger WR Everdell said...

Don- A republic can be a democracy, too. What it cannot be is a monarchy or dictatorship. John Adams, quoted rather against himself here by Miller, defined "republic" that way more often than not. Here are three widely separated examples of Adams trying to define "republic."

1775 6Mar, John Adams, Novanglus, in Boston Gazette, 6Mar1775
“If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. If this definition is just, the British constitution is nothing more or less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate. This office being hereditary, and being possessed of such ample and splendid prerogatives, is no objection to the government’s being a republic, as long as it is bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend.”(The Papers of John Adams, V II, p. 314)

1789 17Jul, Adams to Roger Sherman
“In the first place, what is your definition of republic? Mine is this: A government whose sovereignty is vested in more than one person. (Works VI:428)

1790 18Oct, Vice-President John Adams to Sam Adams,
“All good government is and must be republican. But at the same time, you can or will agree with me, that there is not in lexicography a more fraudulent word... Are we not, my friend, in danger of rendering the word republican unpopular in this country by an indiscreet, indeterminate, and equivocal use of it?” “Whenever I use the word republic with approbation, I mean a government in which the people have collectively, or by representation, an essential share in the sovereignty... the republican forms in Poland and Venice are much worse, and those of Holland and Bern very little better, than the monarchical form in France before the late revolution.” (/Works* VI:415,420-421, Wood, 585)

1807 20 July, John Adams (to Mercy Warren) denying a “partiality to monarchy” (in McCullough, p595)
“[I] never understood” what a republican government was and “I believe no other man ever did or ever will.”(MHS Collections 5th ser. IV, 1878, Smith,48 & Bailyn,282-3n)

The key for Adams was to limit or bind both the executive magistrate and the natural elites by law made by popularly elected legislators.

I've written on this. Try me at

-WR Everdell

1:14 PM  

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