The longer I am involved in the political scene, the more I see the need for a consistent understanding of the basic philosophical difference between Democracies and Republics. The necessary distinction is often confused by so-called ‘constitutional authorities’ who loosely throw around terms like Democracy or democratic Republic without realizing the harm they are causing newcomers to the philosophy of liberty. This post is intended to dispel many false notions concerning the foundation of our country, and to reestablish a consistent and fundamental understanding between the two forms of government. There is much to write concerning this issue, and this post is not intended to be all-inclusive; however, as time permits I will edit and add to the post to constantly make it more comprehensive.
As he stepped out of Independence Hall, it is said that a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government we were given. His response, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Whether this story actually happened is irrelevant, it carries a necessary truth — that a Republic was the form of government intended by the founders, and that they knew it would take hard work and eternal diligence to maintain it.
What does this mean? What is a Republic? Today we hear all about Democracy or a democratic Republic, but we don’t hear much concerning a Republic. Are these forms of government synonymous? Are they different? If so, how are they similar and different?
The only guarantee in the U.S. Constitution is for a “Republican form of government” (Article IV, Section 4). This is certainly not to be confused with the Republican Party. What does it mean “a Republican form of government”? The answer is actually more important than most give credit for.
I grew up in a very political and pious home where the principles of liberty and freedom were common discussion. Yet, even in my youth I remember hearing my mother speak of our ‘democratic Republic’. Once I set on my own path to discover the truth of our American foundation, I constantly asked myself — why didn’t the Constitution include anything concerning our ‘democratic Republic’ or ‘Democracy’ in the text? Why did it only include the one word Republic?
It is all too often that those who are steeped in the ill-gotten traditions of our fathers will perceive this country in such a way that denies the glorious heritage that was bestowed upon us. Good people with sincere intent often promote inconsistent philosophies that necessarily tear-down the very freedom and liberty they seek to maintain. No wonder why the Latter-day prophets and authorities have told us that it is not enough for us to be sincere in what we support — we must be right (President Marion G. Romney, October General Conference 1960).
Amidst all the confusion, what is the answer? What is the difference between a Republic and a Democracy — or are there any differences at all?
The answer is found in a discussion of law.
Origination and Source of Law
In a Democracy, the only source of law and rights is a majority’s rule — nothing more, nothing less. The minority has no protection in a Democracy except what society’s conventions will permit, because rights and law themselves are a fabrication of the majority; furthermore, there are no inherent and inalienable rights in a Democracy, because the majority decides what rights everyone has. This, by its very nature, makes individual rights alienable at the whim of the majority.
Any perceived security the minority has is merely the social acceptance of society at large. While this system of government and source of law may work in times of peace, the founders were nervous for times of national excitement, fear, and panic (e.g. after 9/11, regarding instances of “illegal” migration, etc.) — those times when people do not think rationally and are apt to give up their rights for perceived security.
A Republic founds all government action on law — even before it turns to the social will. Even if 99.9% of the nation accepts the infringement of .1% of the populace, a Republic looks to the law first before ever addressing the desires of a majority. The majority may want to lynch a thief before the rule of law may be enacted, but a Republic protects the rights of the individual until he is found guilty (or innocent) by due-process of law.
The necessary question here is who exactly makes the law? Is law simply a rule that society must obey, or is the law a representation of reality? If the law is merely a rule derived from the majority, the distinction between a Republic and a Democracy is futile. This is why a democratic Republic is a worthless phrase. Any Republic that stipulates that the law is merely derived from the majority’s consent (i.e. a democratic Republic) is merely a Democracy in hiding. Any Republic that is built on the understanding and belief that the law is merely at the whim of the majority is inherently flawed and will necessarily fail.
There is no universal political dictionary that stipulates what a Republic is and how it should operate. Yet, the basic philosophical foundations of a Republic is that law reigns supreme. But what is this law that a Republic should adhere to that makes a Republic distinguishable from a Democracy? This necessarily supposes the discussion of legal positivism and natural law, but I will refrain on speaking of that in depth here and direct readers to a previous post concerning the issue.
Although the Declaration of Independence is not considered a ‘legal document’, it clearly shows the intent of the founders (if nothing, Jefferson and Franklin’s ideal) to appeal to and establish a government according to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The Declaration of Independence proclaims the foundation of law wherein our Republic was built: the natural law.
Why is this important? Because a Democracy is at the whim of social frenzy and excitement — i.e. the will of the masses. In a Democracy the people surrender their rights in a heightened and emotional state, as they combine into a mob against the minority in feeling that they can abdicate their rights for perceived security. However, our Republic negates such a frenzy by adhering to a law that is outside the majority’s scope and ruling power — a universal moral ethic that transcends emotionalism: the Laws of Nature.
Said John Adams, in a letter to John Taylor (15 April 1814),
I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such 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.
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.
In our Republic, all positive (human) law is required to bind itself down to a natural moral law; however, this is not necessary in a Democracy. Whereas the will of the majority is the moral law in a Democracy, the law in a Republic (as seen through the Declaration of Independence) is independent of any frenzied majority. The law in a Republic must find cause to move within the “laws of nature” to pass positive rules upon society. The majority, in a Republic, may act, it is true, but the majority’s actions are limited by a codex of universal realities and principles that transcend a majority’s opinion. Government, through a majority, is not the source of rights, but we are ‘endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights’ — this is to say that our Republic is built on the idea that God is the source of a moral law.
If the people are not aware, our Republic can easily slip into a Democracy (in fact, I argue that it already has). This can only happen through the ignorance of the people. When the people believe that their voting power is all that is necessary to grant them their position, then the people have necessarily supposed that might makes right and that a majority is all that is necessary to create law and rights. This is expressly against natural law and against the intended course of our Republican form of government as established by our founders. The people are to be moral and ethical, it is true. However, when the people believe that they can turn their moral behavior onto society at large (outside the scope of the direct infringement of life, liberty, and property) then the people accept Democracy at the expense and death of our Republic.
It is necessary to distinguish between the two forms of Government and to realize why we have a Republic. If anything, we have a constitutional Republic — but I still prefer the words of the Constitution itself: “a Republican form of Government”.