Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
Random header image... Refresh for more!
Make a blogger happy, come back. Sign up for email post alerts!

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.

16 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.

[Reply]

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.

[Reply]

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

[Reply]

4 Brian { 02.26.14 at 2:19 pm }

Republicans seem to have forgotten we live in a Republic!

[Reply]

Al Schumacher Reply:

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

[Reply]

Al Schumacher Reply:

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

[Reply]

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. ”

[Reply]

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.

[Reply]

Grady Lufkin Frank Reply:

Wise words, Josph. One reason God has blessed America is, to put it alliteratively, a preponderance of the populace was pious. While some of our Founders were devoted Christians, even those who weren’t embraced Judeo-Christian ethics as essential to a free society. It’s sad to see such widespread celebration of immorality.

[Reply]

Diana McIntosh Reply:

Wow! Although I grew up Christian, a big reason I am no longer in any type of religion is because religion breeds judgement and guilt and it is evident in your post. Where’s the love and tolerance? “All men are created equal” and I am all for a republic and the type of government our founding fathers designed for this nation! Is there a possibility we can let go of the judgement Grady, and the gloom and doom, Josph and find some positives in what we have? I am only one person, and I’ve been frustrated with the direction of this nation myself! However, I still believe that one person can have an influence for good – especially when we inspire with love, gratitude.

[Reply]

6 Grady Lufkin Frank { 05.16.15 at 2:38 pm }

One reason God has blessed America is, to put it alliteratively, a preponderance of the populace was pious. While some of our Founders were devoted Christians, even those who weren’t embraced Judeo-Christian ethics as essential to a free society. It’s sad to see such widespread celebration of immorality.

[Reply]

7 exile { 06.13.15 at 11:42 pm }

The first session of Congress was a two and a half hour Bible study on Psalm 35. In my opinion, King George lost the war with the fledgling republic because he forbade the dissemination of the Scriptures in the colonies. The Constitution is the foundation of our Republic, but the Bible is at the core of our Constitution. Why is it so hard for us to retain our reverence for God’s holy word? John 6:40

[Reply]

8 John Sawyer { 01.24.16 at 11:37 pm }

The US’s founders were something of a schizophrenic bunch. While many of them said that government required virtue of the sort expressed in the Bible, they also said that the Bible should not be our rule of law. Here are some quotes:

1. “If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”
~George Washington, letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia, May 1789

2. “Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”
~George Washington, letter to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792

3. “We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition … In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.”
~George Washington, letter to the members of the New Church in Baltimore, January 27, 1793

4. “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
~John Adams, “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” 1787-1788

5. “The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
~1797 Treaty of Tripoli signed by John Adams

6. “Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.”
~John Adams, “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” (1787-88)

7. “We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions … shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power … we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”
~John Adams, letter to Dr. Price, April 8, 1785, quoted from Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom (1991)

8. “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
~Thomas Jefferson, letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, 1802

9. “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”
~Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Horatio Spofford, 1814

10. “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, then that of blindfolded fear.”
~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787

11. “I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.”
~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Elbridge Gerry, January 26, 1799

12. “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
~Thomas Jefferson: in letter to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813

13. “Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
We have solved … the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.”
~Thomas Jefferson: in a speech to the Virginia Baptists (1808)

14. “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”
~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

15. “The civil government … functions with complete success … by the total separation of the Church from the State.”
~James Madison, 1819, Writings, 8:432, quoted from Gene Garman, “Essays In Addition to America’s Real Religion”

16. “And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
~James Madison, letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822

17. “Every new and successful example of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance.”
~James Madison

18. “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.”
~James Madison; Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments

19. “It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising the sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin. Let us, then, look to the great cause, and endeavor to preserve it in full force. Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.”
~James Monroe, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1817

20. “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obligated to call for help of the civil power, it’s a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
~Benjamin Franklin, letter to Richard Price, October 9, 1780

[Reply]

9 The Lost Glory of Americanism: "A Republic if you can keep it" - Dana Glenn Smith { 06.20.16 at 9:31 am }

[…] 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.” Source “A Republic if you can keep it“ […]

10 Independence Day 2016, The Death Spiral Of The Republic, "The Chaos Caused Trump" { 07.05.16 at 10:10 am }

[…] of what was to become the United States of America utterly repudiated democracy. As James D. Best summarized the sentiments of the […]

Leave a Comment