In the Colonial Era, America’s Founders were aware of two types of republics. As they later discovered, neither was suitable for the vision they held of a free people under fixed law. The two republics they most closely observed were a unitary parliamentary republic and a confederated republic.
A Unitary parliamentary republic is a single unit or state composed of a legislative or parliamentary body that is supreme over the government of the entire nation. This type of republic was just starting to emerge in Great Britain during the Colonial Era by reducing the autocratic powers of the king and forcing him to share his power with the Parliament. However, the people did not gain the advantages they had expected because the Parliament then became supreme and, to some extent, autocratic. America’s Founders had already ruled out ‘legislative supremacy’ because it generally ended in tyranny over the people.
A Confederated Republic, also known as the confederation of independent states, is a system where each state retains its independence and sovereign supremacy, but bands together with other states for mutual defense and certain other advantages. This type of republic does not have legislative supremacy, but rather 'state supremacy.' The founders patterned the Articles of Confederation after this type of republic and almost lost the Revolutionary War because of it.
The American Republic Emerges
Realizing that a unitary republic had significant weaknesses as well, a convention of the states was finally agreed upon in 1787 to work out the problem areas in the Articles of Confederation. The goal was to figure out how to strengthen the union between the states and at the same time retain the right of the people to self-govern. To accomplish this, they had to go through four steps as outlined in The Making of America:
- "Clearly enunciate the fundamental principle that the power to govern rests in the people. (This was done in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.)
- "Although serving as delegates appointed by the state legislatures, they had to propose a government that would not become operative unless approved by the people.
- "To achieve this, they proposed to send the constitutional draft back to the Congress, and if it was approved by them, to have it submitted to the ratifying conventions elected by the people (not the legislatures) in each of the states.
- "When ratified, the Constitution would become the voice of the people (not the confederated sovereign states) and would thereby make the voice of the people the supreme law of the land.
"The Founders structured the Constitution so that the doctrines of legislative supremacy (as applied in England) and state supremacy (as applied to the Netherlands, Germany, and the American Articles of Confederation) would be replaced by the doctrine of 'constitutional supremacy,' a brand-new invention." (The Making of America, pp. 167, 175)
During the ratifying conventions, Madison offered a concise definition of a republic:
"We may define a republic to be ... a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans and claim for their government the honorable title of republic." (The 5000 Year Leap, p. 155)
Only under a Constitutional Republic do the people enjoy the full right of self-rule. The privilege of self-rule has not been had by many people throughout the entire history of the world. Americans should consider themselves an especially blessed people.
Self-Rule (Republicanism) in an Election is Really an Expression of Morality
Dr. Skousen explains what the Founders really meant by republicanism:
"Modern Americans have long since forgotten the heated and sometimes violent debates which took place in the thirteen colonies between 1775 and 1776 over the issue of morality. For many thousands of Americans the big question of independence hung precariously on the single, slender thread of whether or not the people were sufficiently 'virtuous and moral' to govern themselves. Self-government was generally referred to as 'republicanism,' and it was universally acknowledged that a corrupt and selfish people could never make the principles of republicanism operate successfully. As Franklin wrote:
'Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.'" (The 5000 Year Leap, p. 49)
Because self-rule gives many opportunities for the people to express their opinions and be involved in the legislative process, republicanism becomes a sacred responsibility to be taken very seriously. In a speech by Pat Buchanan in 1996, he reminded us of our responsibility under a republic:
"We have forgotten that, as a nation and a people, we are under God's judgment. We are under God's law. We have forgotten that America is more than her Gross National Product. She is more than the world's largest economy. She is more than the sum of all we buy and sell. She is our country, our home.... We are not just 'consumers'. We Americans are citizens of a republic, sons and daughters of a great nation, brothers and sisters; and we have obligations and duties to one another.... The issue of the new century will be whether America survives, as an independent republic...." (Human Events, Aug. 23, 1996. p. 14)
A Built-In Danger of Republicanism
The Founders knew that placing all power in the people, who then elect representatives of their choosing, could lead to those elected representatives exercising force or control over the people in areas not intended. They recognized that almost everyone could develop a love for power once he or she is placed in a position of public trust. The answer, said Jefferson, is for the people to be jealous and watchful of their rights and to bind public officials by the restraints of a written constitution:
"It would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights; that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism; free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence, which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power; that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no farther, our confidence may go....
"In questions of power, then, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." (The 5000 Year Leap, p.164)
Former university professor and noted constitutionalist, H. Verlan Andersen, described human nature in a free republic this way:
"Since almost all of us are unable, afraid, or ashamed to use unrighteous force on one another directly, it is difficult to believe we manifest the disposition to do so in this manner. But when the reins of government are placed in our hands, most of those considerations which deter us are removed. The lack of ability is no longer a problem because the power of government is now at our disposal.
"We no longer are restrained by fear because we now have the police power on our side. And since we can usually quiet the voice of conscience by deceiving ourselves into believing that the Golden Rule does not apply to the actions of government, we can quite easily suppress this restraint. And finally, we can undertake to exercise unrighteous dominion by doing nothing more inconvenient than voting or arguing for a bad law."
The Slide from a Republic to a Democracy
The founders’ writings are replete with evidence that suggests our nation was established with a republican form of government. This is not to be confused with the ‘republican party’. These are two entirely different things. The Constitution clearly states in Article IV, Section 4 that: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican Form of Government….” How is it, then, that nearly every politician, professor, and journalist today use the term democracy to describe our form of government?
While some may use the term innocently, others are accurately describing the headlong rush for emotional decision-making, forced economic equality, unstable law-making, political parties, and their national conventions, which always come with turbulent democracies. Against all these the Founders warned us explicitly. Madison wrote:
"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. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions."
Alexander Fraser Tytler (1722-1783), a noted judge, writer, historian, and Professor of Universal History, explained why a pure democracy tends to destroy itself:
"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until [a majority of] the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse [gifts] from the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy [taxing and spending], always followed by a dictatorship. The average life of the world's greatest civilizations has been two hundred years." (The Making of America, pp. 254-265)
If these warnings of yesteryear seem more like reality today, perhaps we are closer to a democracy than a republic. The question is, are we better off for it? I will leave that for you to decide.