Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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A Republic, if You Can Keep It . . .

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.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787,  Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation. In the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention,  a lady asked Dr. Franklin “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy.”  Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

Our Constitution created a limited representative republic.  A republic is different from a democracy.  In a democracy, the majority can directly make laws, while in a republic, elected representatives make laws.  Basically, in a pure democracy, the majority has unlimited power, whereas in a republic, a written constitution limits the majority and provides safeguards for the individual and minorities.

In the United States, we actually have both systems.  There is no way for Americans to directly enact legislation at the national level, but half of the states allow ballot initiatives which, if passed by a majority of the voters, have the force of law.

The Founders’ intent at the national level was a representative republic.  The word democracy is not mentioned in the Constitution.   Most of the Founders distrusted pure democracy.  Some had been frightened by Shays Revolt and equated democracy with mob rule.  Others were convinced by Madison that different factions would come together until they formed a majority, and then take advantage of those who were not members of their coalition. In fact, Madison showed that throughout history, this phenomenon had destroyed every experiment in democracy.

John Adams wrote that “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide,” and James Madison wrote in Federalist 10 that “Democracies have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” The reason pure democracies fail is that majorities learn that they can legally take property and/or liberties away from others. Those subjected to abuse can be anyone outside the majority coalition, and their minority status can be based on race, religion, wealth, political affiliation, or even which city or state they reside in. Demagogic leaders become adept at appealing to the emotions of jealousy, avarice, and entitlement. They also denigrate opponents in order to justify prejudicial actions taken by the majority.  Soon, oppression of minority classes causes enough conflicts to collapse the democratic process.

A major difference between a republic and a democracy is immediacy. The Founders wanted laws made by representatives in order to put a buffer between popular passions and legislation. In a democracy, decisions are made in the heat of the moment, while periodic elections in a republic provide a cooling off period. To a great extent, democracies are ruled by feelings, while in a republic, the rule of law governs. In a republic, politicians can take principled actions that go against the will of many of their constituents with the knowledge that they will be judged by all the actions they take during their entire term in office. Political leaders are also given time to explain the reasons for their actions.

Of course, if an elected official does something grievously offensive, then the voters can follow the advice of Alexander Hamilton, who in Federalist 21 wrote, “The natural cure for an ill-administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men.” When the people’s will is thwarted, regular elections give them the opportunity to dismiss their representatives and appoint new ones.

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention.


9 comments

1 Lech Dharms { 11.14.12 at 7:04 pm }

In my humble opinion, Madison’s worst fears have been realized. The 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections were won by an intentional co-opting of disparate minority and “special interest” factions, into a coaliton of power (to quote our Prez)—against the common interests of a majority of Americans.

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2 Henry David Ritscher { 01.01.13 at 8:57 am }

There are some today who believe that it is time to abandon the constitution and start fresh because we can not understand the original intent for the one we have. They wish to replace our republic with a true democracy where the will of the 99% out weighs the needs of the 1%. Our problems are not caused by following the Constitution, but by ignoring it. We are going over more than one cliff this January. Sadly the republic will not die with a whimper, but with thunderous applause.

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3 Elana { 03.02.13 at 10:42 am }

Brings tears to your eyes, doesn’t it. Franklin didn’t foresee the situation we have today. Like hog auctions, our elected representatives are for sale to the highest bidder, billionaires and corporations who want their own pet politicians. Jefferson saw it coming. He forewarned us. “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

.” Thomas Jefferson

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4 Brian { 02.26.14 at 2:19 pm }

Republicans seem to have forgotten we live in a Republic!

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Al Schumacher Reply:

Actually, Obama has forgotten that this is not a monarchy!

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Al Schumacher Reply:

I’ll say it again! This is NOT a monarchy. Is that what you voted for?

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Al Schumacher Reply:

Please post my comments!

5 Josph { 08.19.14 at 3:42 pm }

The problem with America is a combination of 1) allowing the immigraion of irreligeous peoples, of whose ways we have learned, 2) allowing wicked people to rob us of our God and of His virtue and 3) making the choice to turn our backs on God and on his virtue on our own. As Benjamin Franklin so elequently stated, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. ”

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Josph Reply:

P.S. The handwriting is on the wall. America is finished. It’s only a matter of time now… time that is rapidly running out.

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