Republican Government

As Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, a woman approached and asked him what form of government the Convention had produced. Franklin responded, “A republic, madam—if you can keep it.”

If one asked the average American today the question posed to Franklin - what type of government do we have?—odds are the answer would be “a democracy” and not “a republic.” The idea that the United States is a democracy is reinforced in the rhetoric of public officials and within the media, and much of American society currently sees no difference between the two. However, our Founders did. In fact, many of the Founders, such as James Madison, were suspicious of what modern Americans seemingly embrace:

Democracy is self-government through popular sovereignty, based on the principle of majority rule. Simply put, the people rule, and legitimacy is determined by what more than half of the people want. A serious challenge, though, has long plagued the very concept of democracy: how can the principles of popular sovereignty be implemented in a manner that also provides for a stable society and preserves the rights and liberties of all?

Ch 2.3 we the people
Democracy is self-government through popular sovereignty, based on the principle of majority rule. Simply put, the people rule, and legitimacy is determined by what more than half of the people want.

The unique American answer to this vexing question has partial roots in an ancient source. Examining the various types of government that existed throughout the world during his time, Greek philosopher Aristotle classified them into three categories: rule by one (monarchy), rule by a few (aristocracy) and rule by the many (democracy). He noted that while all three types began their rule in what he called their “good form,”—ruling on the basis of the common good—all three have a tendency to degenerate into their “bad form,” in which the one, the few, or the many rule on the basis of self- interest. Monarchies devolve to tyranny, aristocracies to oligarchy, and democracies to mob rule. To Aristotle, the best form of government blended all three types into a “mixed regime.” This mixed regime would combine the best features of each and counterbalance their excesses.

Aristotle’s mixed regime, which allowed for—indeed advocated—both monarchy and aristocracy, took hold in some European countries by the 1600s. This was most notably true in England, where the king, House of Lords, and the House of Commons shared governmental power. Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Montesquieu, however, challenged vigorously the notion that a traditional monarchy or aristocracy could be compatible with the best interests of the entire civil society. Locke’s natural rights theory was premised upon the idea that all men are created equal, born with rights bestowed by nature and God, not by a ruler. Further, Locke argued that the very purpose of government was to protect these rights, and that popular consent is the source of a lawful regime.

Locke did not rule out the legitimacy of some kind of constitutional monarchy. However, absent an effective process to establish consent of the governed, rule by a king or by an aristocratic elite was illegitimate. Pure democracy, however, has long been as mistrusted as monarchy or aristocracy with respect to the safety of fundamental liberty interests.

An alternative was needed to preserve government based on the will of the many but curb the excesses of majority rule. For over a century various Enlightenment philosophers debated the very nature of human liberty and the purpose of government itself. The prevailing conclusion was that a republic offered the best hope for the many.

What, then, is a republic? A republican government is one in which the people—directly or indirectly—are the ultimate source of authority, electing representatives to make laws that serve their interests and advance the common good. A constitutional republic, however, also limits the power of the majority through a framework that promotes competent government and affords protections for fundamental rights.
Ch 2.3   separation of powers
A republican government is one in which the people – directly or indirectly - are the ultimate source of authority, electing representatives to make laws that serve their interests and advance the common good.

Republicanism would prove its political viability in the Founding of America. The American Founders sought to implement a form of democratic republicanism, not a pure democracy, through the Constitution of 1787.

The most basic feature of the American constitutional republic is the selection of representatives directly or indirectly by the people throughout all three branches of government, adhering to the principle that all power must flow from the people. While the direct election of representatives is reserved only for Congress, Americans indirectly choose the president (via the Electoral College) and all federal judges (via presidential appointment and approval of Senators, all of whom are now chosen by the people). Rule by the many is preserved as regular elections ensure the people maintain a constant voice in their government and remain the source of legitimate power.

Additionally, each branch represents distinctly different interests and is given specific powers and responsibilities that correlate with these interests. The legislative branch, for example, represents citizens (House of Representatives) and the states in which they reside (Senate), and is given the power to make law, raise taxes, declare war, and regulate commerce. The executive branch represents the interests of the nation, and as such is given the power to command the military, make treaties, and appoint ambassadors. Lastly, an example of judicial branch empowerment is through judicial review, to preserve the rule of law rooted in our Constitution and the laws enacted by Congress. This functional separation of powers is reinforced through a complex system of checks and balances that allows each branch to limit the reach and authority of the others serving to limit both passionate willfulness on the part of the people and the power of the government itself.

The Bill of Rights provides perhaps the clearest example of the dichotomy between a democracy and a republic. It is simultaneously the most celebrated feature of our “democracy” and the most anti-democratic feature of our constitutional republic. The Bill of Rights provides heightened protection for fundamental liberties, protecting both natural rights, such as freedom of conscience, and civil rights, such as protection against arbitrary search and seizure. Some rights can be confined if the government satisfies due process requirements. However, no matter how large the majority, one’s right to practice the religion of choice or to be free from arbitrary search by government officials cannot be abridged or simply voted away.

Ch2.3 limited gov
The Bill of Rights provides perhaps the clearest example of the dichotomy between a democracy and a republic. It is simultaneously the most celebrated feature of our “democracy” and the most anti-democratic feature of our constitutional republic.

Significantly, a key feature of America’s constitutional republic also happens to run entirely counter to what many Enlightenment philosophers theorized was a necessary precondition for republican government: a small territory. Montesquieu, for example, argued:

“It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist…In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected” (Baron de Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, 1748).

In short, conventional wisdom at the time of America’s founding was that only a geographically small republic could provide competent self-government that protected liberty. Our Constitution, however, crafted the very “extensive republic” against which Montesquieu cautioned.

James Madison would turn the small-territory republicanism of the Enlightenment on its head in Federalist No. 10 (1787). He argued that in any free society people would naturally come together in groups to pursue common interests. While all groups pursue their desires under the assumption that they are rooted in the “common good,” many in fact may pose a threat to the liberty of others. Madison called these harmful groups, “factions”:

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (James Madison, Federalist No. 10, 1787).

Madison theorized that in a small republic the number of interests would be few and, therefore, both the influence of each and the threat each posed, would be greater. In an extensive republic, however, there would be a large variety of diverse and distinct groups animated by different beliefs and desires. These many groups, spread out over a large territory, would be less likely to develop into harmful factions, and less able to combine to oppress minorities. According to Madison:

“Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other” (James Madison, Federalist No. 10, 1787).

Madison’s republic invites coalition politics rather than factious politics. Successful coalition building demands moderation rather than political extremism. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once famously quipped: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” Benjamin Franklin, however, may have been closer to the truth of human experience: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” In forming a republic based in the will of the people, equipped to promote justice and protect liberty, the Founders placed great trust in the virtue of each generation. Today we might well echo Franklin—we have a republic, if we can keep it.

Video: Constitutional Principles - Representative Government
Video: Majorities Decide Everything

Test Your Knowledge

  1. Question 1 of 3

    Which form of government did the Framers of the United States Constitution believe would best provide for majority rule while protecting individual liberty?

  2. Question 2 of 3

    Aristotle advocated for a combination of certain aspects of three forms of government. Which of these was NOT part of the “mixed regime” that he recommended?

  3. Question 3 of 3

    According to John Locke, no one has the right to rule over a society unless the members of that society:

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Law of Demand
As prices decrease, the quantity demanded increases or as prices increase, the quantity demanded decreases.
Natural rights
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Inalienable rights
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Except where authorized by people through the Constitution, government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
Popular sovereignty
The power of government flows from the people.
Separation of powers
A system of distinct powers built into the constitution, to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.
Checks and balances
Powers distributed among the branches of government allowing each to limit the application of power of the other branches and to prevent expansion of power of any branch.
The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.
Fairness or reasonableness in the way people are treated or decisions are made.
private property
The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.
limited government
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
representative government
(or republican government) Form of government in which the people are sovereign (ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
republican government
(or representative government)Form of government in which the people are sovereign (ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
civil discourse
Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.
The fundamental principles by which a state or nation is governed. The United States Constitution, written in 1787, lays out the roles and powers of each of the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), the protections of due process and rule of law in the states, a republican form of government, and the manner in which to amend the document.
Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was a Virginia plantation owner who was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson served as a legislator and governor in Virginia, as well as an ambassador to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams, and the third President of the United States. During his political career, Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party with James Madison, and he bought the Louisiana Purchase from France. After his presidency, Jefferson started the University of Virginia near his home, Monticello.
Bill of Rights
The first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, which limit government power and protect individual liberties, including the freedoms of speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly, as well as protections against cruel and unusual punishment, unreasonable search and seizure, and other due process rights.
Second Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens’ rights to create a militia and to bear arms. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Due Process
The government must interact with all persons according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all persons.
Every individual is equal to every other person with respect to natural rights and treatment before the law.
Consent of the governed
The authority of the government must come from the people through elections and through the people’s interaction with government.
Individual responsibility
Individuals must take care of themselves and their families, and be vigilant to preserve their liberty and the liberty of others.
Rule of law
Government officials and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power.
Declaration of Independence
The document written in 1776 by the Founders to send to Britain’s King George III in which independence from Britain was declared and the reasons for the separation were explained.
Articles of Confederation
The first national government document developed in 1781 by the Founders. The Articles created a federal legislative branch, but there was no executive or judiciary. The states retained most of the governmental powers.
The group of people who wrote and influenced the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and the United States Bill of Rights. These men were instrumental in establishing the nation and its governmental documents and practices.
Federalist Papers
A series of 85 essays written to convince the people of New York to ratify the Constitution. The authors were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. These documents are considered to be the most authoritative explanation of the political theory of the Constitution.
First Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Law of Supply
As the price drops, the quantity supplied also drops.
Fourth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures of property and explains that warrants must be issued with probable cause. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Fifth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the right indictment by a jury, against double jeopardy, self-incrimination, loss of life, liberty, or property without due process, and just compensation for private property taken for public use. “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Tenth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it states that the powers not enumerated or delegated in the Constitution are reserved for the states and the people. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
Eighth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects against excessive bail and fines and cruel and unusual punishments. “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Ninth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, the listing of certain rights protected by the Constitution cannot be used to deny rights not enumerated in the document. “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Alexander Hamilton
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton served as General Washington’s chief of staff, promoted the ratification of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, and founded the nation’s financial system and first political party.
James Madison
Madison was a Framer who was instrumental in writing the Constitution and Bill of Rights. He is known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison partnered with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers in support of the ratification of the Constitution. He also served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, the United States House of Representatives, Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, and the fourth president of the United States.
George Washington
First President of the United States, George Washington served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
John Locke
An English philosopher and physician, John Locke was one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and is known today as the Father of Classical Liberalism.
Continental Congress
The Continental Congress, comprised of delegates from 12 of the 13 American colonies, represented the colonists during and after the American Revolution. The Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence and ratified the Articles of Confederation.
King George III
King George III was the King of Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution. His actions towards the American colonies, outlined in the Declaration of Independence, spurred the American Revolution.
Great Depression
Spanning ten years from 1929 to 1939, the Great Depression was one of the longest-lasting economic downturns in the history of the United States affecting the U.S. and most of the world.
An introductory statement, preface, or introduction.
Cruel and unfair treatment by people with power over others.
Using power over people in a way that is cruel and unfair.
John Adams
Before becoming the second President of the United States, John Adams served as the country’s first Vice President under George Washington. Adams was an advocate of American independence from Britain and a Federalist.
John Jay
Founding Father John Jay was one of the signers of the Treaty of Paris and served as the first Chief Justice of the United States. He was also one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.
Third Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens against the quartering of soldiers in private homes without their approval. “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
Sixth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the rights of impartial jury trials, the right to be informed of the accusations against you, the right to be confronted by witness, and the right to be assisted by counsel. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
Seventh Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the right of jury trials in law suits dealing with more than twenty dollars and protects against reexamination of the trial in any court if decided by a jury. “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
Alexis de Tocqueville
French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville is best known for his works Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution. He visited the U.S. in the 1830s and wrote admiringly about many aspects of American law and society.
Democracy in America
Written by Alexis de Tocqueville after visiting the United States, Democracy in America contains de Tocqueville’s analysis of and reflections on the United States’ democratic system and society. The first volume was published in 1835 and the second in 1840.
Magna Carta
Written in 1215, it is the oldest document in the British and American heritage of rights. Contributed to the adoption of the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments of the Bill of Rights, and speaks of these rights as ancient.
Two Treatises of Civil Government
Written by John Locke in 1690, the Two Treatises of Civil Government criticize absolute power for kings and outline Locke’s suggestions for a more civilized society based on natural rights and the social contract.
Thirteenth Amendment
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. “Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The group of people who actually attended the Constitutional Convention and participated in writing the Constitution.
Fourteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1868, it states that all people born or naturalized in the United States are citizens and ensures that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Sixteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress the ability to collect income taxes. “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census of enumeration.”
Eighteenth Amendment
atified in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment introduced Prohibition, the period of United States history when the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol was made illegal throughout the country. “Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. Section 2. The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.”
Twentieth Amendment
The Twentieth Amendment was ratified in 1933, and it establishes procedures for presidential succession and the start and end of federal officials’ terms of office. “Section 1. The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.
Twenty-First Amendment
In 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, ending Prohibition. “Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed. Section 2. The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited. Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.”
English Bill of Rights
Passed by the British Parliament in 1689, the English Bill of Rights limited the power of the British monarch, outlined the rights of the Parliament, and guaranteed Protestants the right to bear arms.
The legislative body of the United Kingdom (known as Great Britain or England during the Founding era).
Benjamin Franklin
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin was a statesman, author, publisher, scientist, inventor and diplomat. He served in the Second Continental Congress during the American Revolution and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. In addition, Franklin helped negotiated the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War and later served as a delegate to the convention that produced the U.S. Constitution.
The right to vote.
A government in which the power belongs to citizens through the right to vote.
Fifteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1870, it states that the right could not be restricted based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” “Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Seventeenth Amendment
Ratified in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment introduced direct election of Senators. “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures. When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct. This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.”
Nineteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1920, the amendment stated that a citizen’s right to vote must not be restricted based on gender. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Direct Democracy
Direct democracy is a political system in which the people vote directly on policies or laws, as opposed to voting for representatives who enact laws on their behalf.
Not planned or chosen for a particular reason; done without concern for what is fair or right.
Judicial Review
The process by which courts analyze the constitutionality of an act of government.
Majority rule/minority rights
laws may be made with the consent of the majority, but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.
An arbitrary order or decree.
Something that is owned by a person, business, etc. This includes possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, and the fruits of one's labor.
A government in which the power is held by the people.
Electoral College
A body of electors chosen by each state to vote for the president and vice president of the United States.
Conduct that reflects universal principles of moral and ethical excellence essential to leading a worthwhile life and to effective self-government. For many leading Founders, attributes of character such as justice, responsibility, perseverance, etc., were thought to flow from an understanding of the rights and obligations of men. Virtue is compatible with, but does not require, religious belief.