Republics and Democracies:
The Founders Knew the Difference

From The New American, June 30, 1986

When our Founding Fathers established a "republic," in the hope, as Benjamin Franklin said, that we could keep it, and when they guaranteed to every state within that "republic" a "republican form" of government, they well knew the significance of the terms they were using. And were doing all in their power to make the feature of government signified by those terms as permanent as possible. They also knew very well indeed the meaning of the word democracy, and the history of democracies; and they were deliberately doing everything in their power to avoid for their own times, and to prevent for the future, the evils of a democracy.

Let's look at some of the things they said to support and clarify this purpose. On May 31,1787, Edmund Randolph told his fellow members of the newly assembled Constitutional Convention that the object for which the delegates had met 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...."

The Founders Knew the Difference

The delegates to the Convention were clearly in accord with this statement. At about the same time another delegate, Elbridge Gerry, said: "The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want (that is, do not lack) virtue; but are the dupes of pretended patriots." And on June 21,1788, Alexander Hamilton made a speech in which he stated:

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

Another time Hamilton said: "We are a Republican Government. Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy." Samuel Adams warned: "Remember, Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself! There never was a democracy that 'did not commit suicide."' James Madison, one of the members of the Convention who was charged with drawing up our Constitution, wrote follows:

. . . 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.

Madison and Hamilton and Jay and their compatriots of the Convention prepared and adopted a Constitution in which they nowhere even mentioned the word democracy, not because they were not familiar with such a form of government, but because they were. The word democracy had not occurred in the Declaration of Independence, and does not appear in the constitution of a single one of our fifty states-which constitutions are derived mainly from the thinking of the Founding Fathers of the Republic- for the same reason. They knew all about Democracies, and if they had wanted one for themselves and their posterity, they would have founded one. Look at all the elaborate system of checks and balances which they established; at the carefully worked-out protective clauses of the Constitution itself, and especially of the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights; at the effort, as Jefferson put it, to "bind men down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution," and thus to solidify the rule not of men but of laws. All of these steps were taken, deliberately, to avoid and to prevent a Democracy, or any of the worst features of a Democracy, in the United States.

And so our Republic was started on its way. And for well over a hundred years our politicians, statesmen, and people remembered that this was a republic, not a democracy, and knew what they meant when they made that distinction. Again, let's look briefly at some of the evidence. Washington, in his first inaugural address, dedicated himself to "the preservation . . . of the republican model of government." Thomas Jefferson, our third president, was the founder of the Democratic Party; but in his first inaugural address, although he referred several times to the Republic or the republican form of government he did not use the word "democracy" a single time. And John Marshall, who was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835, said: "Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos."

Throughout the Nineteenth Century and the early part of the Twentieth, while America as a republic was growing great and becoming the envy of the whole world, there were plenty of wise men, both in our country and outside of it, who pointed to the advantages of a republic, which we were enjoying, and warned against the horrors of a democracy, into which we might fall. Around the middle of that century, Herbert Spencer, the great English philosopher, wrote, in an article on The Americans: "The Republican form of government is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature-a type nowhere at present existing." And in truth we have not been a high enough type to preserve the republic we then had, which is exactly what he was prophesying.

Thomas Babington Macaulay said: "I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization, or both." And we certainly seem to be in a fair way today to fulfill his dire prophecy. Nor was Macaulay's contention a mere personal opinion without intellectual roots and substance in the thought of his times. Nearly two centuries before, Dryden had already lamented that ~no government had ever been, or ever can be, wherein timeservers and blockheads will not be uppermost." And as a result, he had spoken of nations being "drawn to the dregs of a democracy." While in 1795 Immanuel Kant had written: "Democracy is necessarily despotism."

In 1850 Benjamin Disraeli, worried as was Herbert Spencer at what was already being foreshadowed in England, made a speech to the British House of Commons in which he said: "If you establish a democracy, you must in due time reap the fruits of a democracy. You will in due season have great impatience of public burdens, combined in due season with great increase of public expenditure. You will in due season have wars entered into from passion and not from reason; and you will in due season submit to peace ignominiously sought and ignominiously obtained, which will diminish your authority and perhaps endanger your independence. You will in due season find your property is less valuable, and your freedom less complete." Disraeli could have made that speech with even more appropriateness before a joint session of the United States Congress in 1935. In 1870 he had already come up with an epigram which is strikingly true for the United States today. "The world is weary," he said, "of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians."

But even in Disraeli's day there were similarly prophetic voices on this side of the Atlantic. In our own country James Russell Lowell showed that he recognized the danger of unlimited majority rule by writing:

"Democracy gives every man The right to be his own oppressor."

W.H. Seward pointed out that "Democracies are prone to war, and war consumes them." This is an observation certainly borne out during the past fifty years exactly to the extent that we have been becoming a democracy and fighting wars, with each trend as both a cause and an effect of the other one. And Ralph Waldo Emerson issued a most prophetic warning when he said: "Democracy becomes a government of bullies tempered by editors." If Emerson could have looked ahead to the time when so many of the editors would themselves be a part of, or sympathetic to, the gang of bullies, as they are today, he would have been even more disturbed. And in the 1880's Governor Seymour of New York said that the merit of our Constitution was, not that it promotes democracy, but checks it.

Across the Atlantic again, a little later, Oscar Wilde once contributed this epigram to the discussion: "Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people." While on this side, and after the first World War had made the degenerative trend in our government so visible to any penetrating observer, H.L. Mencken wrote: "The most popular man under a democracy is not the most democratic man, but the most despotic man. The common folk delight in the exactions of such a man. They like him to boss them. Their natural gait is the goosestep." While Ludwig Lewisohn observed: "Democracy, which began by liberating men politically, has developed a dangerous tendency to enslave him through the tyranny of majorities and the deadly power of their opinion."

Freely Speaking: Speeches and Essays by Doug Newman

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