America: Merging A Constitutional Democracy and A Republic

America is often referred to as a democracy, but in truth that is shorthand for a more nuanced reality. America is democratic, but it is also a republic. Democracy and republicanism, though related, are also opposed, much like the American political parties that bear those names.

The signing of the 1787 Constitution of the United States was significant to mankind for a myriad of reasons, not least of which was its innovative application of governance. Perhaps the most ingenious idea put into practice was federalism: the layering of local, state, and national government.

At the local and, to an extent, state levels, citizens are mostly free to self-organize as they please. No two state governments are exactly alike and neither are the community governments within the states. This is the crux of America’s democratic nature.

However, at the national level, the United States is a republic. The constitution does not explain why and how the revolutionaries and founders combined democracy and republic. They had to explain that and more to their fellow citizens in order to achieve ratification.

The struggle for ratification compelled the signatories to launch a campaign persuading the citizens of each state, and their governments, to ratify the Constitution. Doing their part, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay contributed a series of anonymous essays and pamphlets that were published in various state newspapers.

The result of their efforts was, as no less than Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, said, “The best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written.”

Today, the essays are better known as the Federalist Papers.

For the purposes of explaining the principles and application of democracy and republic, there has been no better effort than that of Madison in Federalist 10 and 14. Madison was well acquainted with political history as well as the “new idea” of the times: that individual liberty preexists the state, that legitimacy of authority can only be derived from the polity, and that the power of the state should be held in check by rule of law and sovereignty of the people.

In Federalist 10 and 14, he explains the fundamental differences between democracy and republic: democracy is a form of government in which the people, the demos, of the polity directly control the affairs of governance, and a republic is a form of government in which representatives of the people directly control the affairs of governance.

Both of these ideas, related in their embrace of self-governance, nonetheless have their respective dangers and shortcomings. Democracy has its drawbacks: by giving people direct power, you run the risk of rule by faction and demagoguery; democracy in its most common form means “majority rules,” but that comes at the expense of minority rights. A good democracy is constrained by geography because the people must be in the same community and not be too spread out in order to make good choices.

A republic is not without its flaws either. By giving representatives power, there’s the continuous risk that they will give themselves power and ignore the interests of the people/community. The challenge is keeping representatives accountable to the people they represent and ensuring equal representation.

As Madison explains, the Constitution exploits the advantages of both systems to mitigate their shortcomings. The greatest threat to the integrity of democracy is faction, particularly a faction of the majority. A republic ensures against rule of the many, and the few, because by delegating power to representatives, the power of faction is broken if not encumbered.

The greatest threat to the integrity of republic is the alienation of the representative from the represented. A democracy mitigates that threat through regular elections. An effective democracy is constrained to a small geographic area. A republic, on the other hand, may be extended over a large region because the larger the republic, the more likely that a higher proportion of “fit characters” will be elected to office. It also means more people who participate in elections.

“The more difficult it is for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.”

It is often forgotten that Madison, Jay, and Hamilton were not unopposed. Another group of writers, later known as the Anti-Federalists, wrote anonymous articles and essays arguing against the Federalists and urging states not to ratify the Constitution. While to the modern American the Anti-Federalists’ position may, at first glance, seem indefensible, many of their warnings have, to an extent, come to fruition.

They warned, among other things, that a powerful central government controlling a large expanse of territory will lead to an overpowered executive branch that will dominate the other two branches and that the Constitution would naturally veer toward a wholly national government at the expense of state autonomy. The Anti-Federalists were by no means anti-American, much less illiberal: their concerns and demands led to the adoption of the first ten amendments to the Constitution — today known as the Bill of Rights.

In short, the radical combination of the revolutionary ideas of democracy and republic is what makes America significant, but also challenging. Madison may be vindicated by the last two centuries, but will the Anti-Federalists ultimately be?

Photo Source: University of Virginia

About the Author

Joshua Alvarez
Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a writer and journalist living in Palo Alto, California. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and South America. He graduated from Stanford University in 2012.

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1251 comments
Debi Czajkowski
Debi Czajkowski

Both have a voting system, a republic protects minority interests.

Debi Czajkowski
Debi Czajkowski

I don't see how it can be both. A democracy is ruled by an omnipotent majority , minorities have no protection against unlimited power of the majority . A republic guarantees basic rights of minorities from complete under representing , or being over ridden by the majority .

Robert Duane Phifer
Robert Duane Phifer

The best you can say is a Democratic Republic; but it is, none the less, a Republic first and forever. Very great thinker in the past made it clear that every democracy eventually becomes but Republics have longevity, as long as the people own it. Research the Byzantines. Theirs lasted 1000 years until arrogance and hubris caused their fall.

Donna Crase
Donna Crase

Everyone, please read, "The Real Thomas Jefferson". It contains the complete history of this great man. It also contains most of his letters to other great men of his time. There is also a topical index in the back 1/4 of the book that contains hundreds of topics in the book, so you can learn quite easily how Jefferson felt on many topics. You easily become informed on Constitutional history and basics!

Donna Crase
Donna Crase

Everyone should read the books, "The Real Thomas Jefferson", and " The Real George Washington ". They contain the histories and letters of these two incredible God fearing men. The books are very interesting and readable. They will leave no doubt in your mind as to what the founding fathers' intentions were because you will allow you to read some of the discussions and arguments during the Constitutional Convention. You must read them! There is even a topical index in the back 1/4 of the books so you can find how they felt on hundreds of topics!

Chris Williams
Chris Williams

The fact that your asking the question And the premis That everyone can vote or should be able to vote in any primary proves from the first time Ive seen your posts that you failed civics.

Penn Stallard
Penn Stallard

I agree with many of you that this country (irrespective of our First Nations before White folks from Europe got here) was set up as a DEMOCRATIC Republic. It was also set up with a separation of church and state. What happened that humans have forgotten these principles?'

Penn Stallard
Penn Stallard

interesting but solving nothing. What are you "people" up to?

David Halter
David Halter

The bath water represents all senators and congressmen. You are referring to the bath tub. ;) Seriously, if every elected official is convinced we are fed up and willing to dump them ASAP, the less allure the lobbyists have.

Mark Welker
Mark Welker

it is both, a democratic republic. it is based upon the balance of socialism and capitalism. the balance between socialism and capitalism. " socialism without capitalism, is communism. capitalism without socialism, is fascism." capitalism must be tempered with socialism, or it becomes fascism. socialism must be tempered with capitalism, or it becomes communism. there is a balance that must be struck between socialism and capitalism..... and they both must be kept equally strong within the society. because without that balance, you end up with totalitarianism in one form or another. because communism and fascism, the two opposite ends of that scale, have no social justice within them.... because the rights of the many, have to be protected against the one, just as much as the rights of the one, have to be protected against the many. this is the way our founding fathers set it up, And it worked pretty good for almost two and a half centuries...... and will continue to work even longer.

Matthew Crockett
Matthew Crockett

We are both. The founders knew that no system that existed at the time did everything they needed so they created a composite. The main document of our constitution defines a government of democratically elected representatives and their appointments. The Bill of Rights balances that by defining boundaries that block tyranny by the majority. The biggest problem we have today is that too many on both sides don't have any respect for the Constitution. Legal doesn't mean approval; it means the government doesn't take sides and allows the American people to organically decide issues for themselves via consensus building. For many, they sincerely believe that if they take offense the power of government should be harnessed to suppress those people with whom they disagree. The rights of other people don't matter, only your own.

Monte Braun
Monte Braun

Constitutional Republic... 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.

Steve Ludwick
Steve Ludwick

They would be looking at each other and say WTF? Madison & Jefferson are rolling over in their graves pointing to absence of a free press...an informed electorate? Hardly.

Joseph Havas
Joseph Havas

Look. Is something ain't broke and works well (the USA constitution) then don't attempt to fix the damn thing. Yes there are many issues and problems that needs fixing in America. What we don't need is: 1. Greater government controls over our lives 2. Layers upon layers of red tape or regulations that makes it difficult for any citizen to do what they need to provide for their families and selves. 3. More taxation to pay for pork barrel projects and other forms of patronage. What we do need is: 1. Ending the duopoly (2 party) stranglehold on the choices of Americans to choose their political preferences (yes this includes all spectrums, both right and left, conservative and liberal). 2. Streamlining our taxation system and returning more money to the working people. 3. More participation by Americans to join the political process, of which will happen if the American voter has more choices palatable to their views 4. Ending the pervasive and deeply entrenched corruption that is literally strangling the economy and political process. There's more but I like Rand Paul because he stands as a constitutionalist. Is he perfect? No, no one is, but his love for the American people shines bright. His compassion for others like the poor people in Haiti is not shown in words but in action (like performing eye surgeries for the poor for free). Name any other candidate who does this? Rand Paul, you are a genuine American hero!

Don Davison
Don Davison

I hear ya! They sure don't listen to their. " constituents " , that's for sure.. We need one big RESET button..

Tim A Felton
Tim A Felton

He may have great intentions but congress has sold out and are more influenced by big money

Don Davison
Don Davison

He may struggle to work with congress Tim, but he'll wake some people up on both sides by fighting for what's wrong with our political scene currently.

Jimmy Mac
Jimmy Mac

James Evans we could care less about Socialist Switzerland whose population very well controlled by aristocrats who have been manipulating their citizens since royalty still ruled Europe.

Ken Snyder
Ken Snyder

I'm glad to see that some of us know how our government is supposed to be organized and work. Too bad some of our elected federal official don't know, understand or don't care. Concerning federal elections: there is no mention of any political science parties in the Constitution so why have we been limited to 2 parties. Could it be to limit the power of the people and put the power into the hands of the "connected"

Kelly Brown
Kelly Brown

And the bath water represents big money lobbyists. (Nobody remembers the lobby money stays no matter who we elect)

Donna Debusk
Donna Debusk

Americans for President Obama & Madam President Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Frank Paul Kordus
Frank Paul Kordus

We are a rule of law, elected representatives, republic. A mob is a democracy.

Terrance Nolan
Terrance Nolan

What they told the King George III and what they actually did are two different things.

René Cabrera
René Cabrera

Constitutional Republic with certain democratic, socialistic, and capitalist practices.

Bonnie Jean Clancy
Bonnie Jean Clancy

Both the word Democracy AND the word Republic mean rule of the people. It's way past time for splitting hairs, and realize that freedom is possible ONLY when every citizen has his/her say. And ONLY when everyone is considered. A disaster like the Citizens United decision takes that away from everyone

Carlos Danger Baran
Carlos Danger Baran

The US has always been an oligarchy. It's merely a question of the government serving the private or public interest. These days the public interest seems completely lost to the concern of private interests.

Joel F Penick Jr
Joel F Penick Jr

Trump 2016? You want a guy who made his fortune saying what people want to hear and paying for people as policy. A guy who contradicts himself within the samw statement, who was against one thing yesterday and for it today, and visa versa. Yeah, cause that'll make things better. Rand Paul is the ONLY candidate who can be trusted, and who's history proves it.

Denise Lynn Hemmingway
Denise Lynn Hemmingway

Read Article 4, Section 4 of the United States Constitution describes the government's form as a Republic.

Janet Schiavo
Janet Schiavo

Republic...but right now, America is lost in a haze. God NEEDS to be in our lives and the minds of the men and women in government, once again. This is just MY opinion. TRUMP 2016! #MakeAmericaGreatAgain!

Brian Chan
Brian Chan

It's an oligarchy! Domination by the 1%. Otherwise, the government has almost no correlation with the desires of the people.

Ron Holmstrom
Ron Holmstrom

The founders called us a republic, with many eschewing democracy as a form of mob rule.

Robert Stevens
Robert Stevens

We are a constitutional republic, that is Democratically elected. We are a nation of constitutional laws, designed to keep everyone free. The Government out of our lives, and limit the power of our Government.

Mary Louise Chandler Hudson
Mary Louise Chandler Hudson

I don't identify with ANY party. I try to select a person on their platform. No one candidate will be a perfect match, but I try to pick the closest one to the things I believe in.

Joel F Penick Jr
Joel F Penick Jr

They also don't have the population we have, no real immigration problems, and so on. You're comparing apples to oranges.

James Evans
James Evans

2 of Switzerland's cantons use direct democracy its given more power to the people and they have less government corruption and a much higher voter turnout

Freddy Marriott
Freddy Marriott

And to the rupubilc for which it stands with freedom and justice for ALL!

Joel F Penick Jr
Joel F Penick Jr

We, as Americans, have allowed our Constitutional Republic to turn into what can best be described as a Socialist Oligarchy, which is the exact opposite of what our forefathers fought and died for. The founding fathers gave us a Constitutional Republic but it has always been up to us to keep it. And now hat we've let it slip away it will be up to us to regain it. Truly a David versus Goliath scenario, but David won that battle and so can We the People.

Bill Bombard
Bill Bombard

As Ben Franklin stated, we have a republic, if you can keep it.

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