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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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1014 comments
Ken Jacoby
Ken Jacoby

A Republic Sir, IF you can keep it!!

Steve Ludwick
Steve Ludwick

Very well. I stand corrected. I have for years attributed that quote to Jefferson. I'm embarrassed.

Deanna Marie De'Liberto
Deanna Marie De'Liberto

That quote was said by Benjamin Franklin NOT Thomas Jefferson in response to a question asked by Mrs. Powel.

Winston Smith
Winston Smith

Constitutional republic with democratically elected representatives.

Tom Clavel
Tom Clavel

I'm working on challenging local elections. Who else lives in a one-party town or city?

Ronald Porcke-Wms
Ronald Porcke-Wms

Supposedly a Republican form of Democracy; i.e., a democratic Republic? By the way many politicians who's gone from State to Federal level over the years have turned into very wealthy millionaires, and tend to be the greediest in power and money, and I don't think it was all in ethical investments either.

Aaron Mauthe
Aaron Mauthe

So what you're saying is that I live in the Democratic People's Republic of America.

Don Clark
Don Clark

It's a dictatorship ran by 2 parties is what it is

Chuck Herro
Chuck Herro

We are on our way to becoming a different hybrid.... A oligarchic theocracy.

Gary Olson
Gary Olson

Here is the conceptual ideals that make the United States a rather different form of governance for, and of, its citizens. If you do venture to read this, read it slowly and thoughtfully. Avoid knee-jerk reactions and see the strength of the founding fathers in their attempt to achieve checks and balances.

Zion Moulder
Zion Moulder

The United States at its core is a Republic that derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. (ie the American People)

Terry Kremin
Terry Kremin

EXACTLY! why this is so hard for people to understand is beyond me. they so cling to that word democracy and have no clue what it actually means.

William Woodburn
William Woodburn

Derek White: Actually, it's a theoretical Republic with democratic voting principles that, in actual operation, has become an oligarchic plutocracy.

Elbert Elrod
Elbert Elrod

That is a liberal lie. It is a Republic.

Billye Martin
Billye Martin

We are an oligarchy headed into fascism now.

Robert Weber
Robert Weber

YOU CALL YOURSELF KNOWLEDGEABLE ....?????? America is a REPUBLIC, FOUNDED AS SUCH. THE CONSTITUTION/ BILL OF RIGHTS /ARTICLES OF GOVERNMENT POLICY, PRACTICES, PROCEDURES IS /WAS/ALWAYS and ALL-WAYS IS A REPUBLIC....... look up the definitions of Democracy vs a Republic .......

JacKie LaTorres
JacKie LaTorres

Anyone who knows the Pledge of Allegiance should know we're a republic: "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United State of America, and to the Republic for which it stands..."

Frank Bolack
Frank Bolack

“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”

Frank Bolack
Frank Bolack

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Bill Donahue
Bill Donahue

it is a pretty racist place.....of course the founders owned slaves so nothing new........Washington and jefferson........Lincoln never anything so terrible

John Connolly
John Connolly

Show me the word 'democracy' in The Constitution. Take your time, I'll wait.

Judy Butler
Judy Butler

Which means the decisions come from the people.

Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns

Not anymore....oligarchy is more descriptive of what we are.

Bret Griffin
Bret Griffin

We are a republic based on democratic idea's

Austin Baca
Austin Baca

It's actually started as a constitutional republic. .

James Diggs
James Diggs

Cool, just thought I would share. I see so many people for either right wing or left wing but an eagle needs both wings to fly.

Asher Bob White
Asher Bob White

Yes, I knew that; and that is a huge part of our problems with our government. A Republic simply allows the olicharcy to rule, it esstops the poor and common people from gaining equity and it avoids the common good and the public service while big business opporates with virtually no regulation resulting in virtual fraud, theft along with ecological destruction.

Gayle Allen
Gayle Allen

Interesting reading including comments. Check the social studies books in schools. You might be surprised at the error taught or implied.

Brian Newton
Brian Newton

David Deruiter - we had this conversation.

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