However, today when most Americans are asked what kind of government we have they quickly answer that it is a democracy. When asked what a republic is, very few people know the right answer. In the minds of most Americans, they think a republic and a democracy are the same but, while there are some similarities, there are also some important differences.
A democracy is defined as a self-governing system of rule where the people directly vote to make their own laws, while a republic is often defined as a self-governing system whose laws are determined by the people through their representatives. Hence, in the mind of many people, a republic is nothing more than a representative democracy, however, that answer is misleading for two reasons.
The first is that under a republic there are certain laws that all men must obey, which are not subject to change by any size majority and which are set inviolate in a document known as a constitution. Furthermore, in a republic all men are to be treated equally, meaning that whenever a law is passed it applies to everyone. As such, under a republican form of government, no one is above the law including its rulers. By contrast, in a democracy there is no constitution and people can pass any kind of law they want, including excluding certain people from being subject to certain laws. As such, there is no guarantee of equality under the law.
The second problem with defining a republic as a representative democracy is that not all republics are set up the same. For example, the republic our founders established in 1787 is vastly different from the one that France established in 1792. Therefore, if our government is a republic then it is important that Americans understand exactly what kind of a republic our founders gave us. But, before we can do that we first have to understand what our founders were trying to establish as they debated which type of a republic they wanted to form.
Although in 1776 England had a king, a constitution, and a parliament and, as such was a representative form of government, it still vastly restricted the freedom that the American Colonists wanted for themselves. When these colonists declared their independence from England, they sought to establish a government that would allow them the most amount of individual freedom while still providing enough rules to wisely govern their society.
At this time in our history, Americans were nearly universally in agreement that they wanted a form of government where they could govern themselves. That is why our Founding Fathers choose to devise a republican system of government rather than having a democracy or following the European system of kings. Where they had the most strenuous arguments among themselves was how to balance two seemingly contradictory desires - the desire for individual freedom and the desire for a well regulated society. This conflict arose from the fact that the more freedom people have, the less structure their society has while the more their government controlled society the less freedom the individual had.
Prior to 1776 each state had its own form of self-government but the first attempt at creating a government that would unite all thirteen states into one nation was the Articles of Confederation. The balance that this agreement struck was to allow each State to have complete freedom to govern themselves any way they wanted with no central governmental authority regulating what they could or could not do but this eventually produced conflicts between the states which led to disunity rather than harmony.
It didn't take long before the states were in conflict with each other over numerous issues and, unless these conflicts could be resolved through a better system than was provided for in the Articles of Confederation, it became apparent that the union would splinter apart and war between the states was inevitable. Therefore, it became clear that another form of self-government was needed.
In May of 1787 fifty-five men met in Philadelphia to decide what kind of government to form that had enough power to "establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility… promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty" for its people while at the same time would also give individuals the most amount of freedom to live their lives as they wanted with as little government interference as possible. In an effort to come up with a better balance of power, what our Founding Fathers created was a republic that was unique in the history of the world.
What the Constitution of the United States did was to create two separate governments that were meant to operate simultaneously while setting rules to keep both of them from interfering with one another. One government was operated by each of the thirteen states and the other was operated by one, central, Federal government. In order to make this arrangement work, each of these two spheres of government were given separate powers and different roles to perform.
The Federal Government was given the responsibility of taking care of anything dealing with foreign countries, such as trade, treaties, and war, as well as protecting our national boarders from invasion and being responsible for coordinating activities or resolving disputes between the states such as commerce and domestic violence. At the same time the States were given the responsibility of governing everything else that related to domestic affairs, especially those activities that involved what people did in their personal lives.
James Madison explained this division of power in Federalist Paper #45 where he wrote, "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, [such] as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; … The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State."
He later explained in the same paper, "The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security."
What the founders of our Constitution created was a Federal government whose powers were deliberately limited in scope and whose duties were primarily for governing affairs outside of our borders, while the States retrained their right to govern nearly all other issues occurring within their own borders. And there was a specific reason for this separation of power.
In order for Americans to govern themselves, the best form of government that allows for that to happen occurs at the local level. States are composed of townships, countries, cities, and towns where small numbers of people are able to more easily decide for themselves what kind of rules they want to live under. Those who are not happy with the rules of their community can easily move to another. On the other hand, the further away a government is located from its people, the less influence they have in its decisions and the harder it becomes for its citizens to move where the rules are more to their liking. That is why the framers of our Constitution wanted the majority of governmental power to rest with the States.
It is because of this method of governing that allows for the development of the free market system. It is called the "free" market precisely because the marketplace of goods and services is free from government regulation and control. This system of commerce is also known as the "free" enterprise system, meaning that entrepreneurs are free to decide for themselves how they want to conduct their own business. On the other hand, the more that businesses are regulated by government, the less freedom each business owner has to operate their enterprise as they desire.
When any government begins to dictate to businesses what it can and cannot do then society no longer has a "free" market or enterprise system but has some form of a state run economy. When that happens people are not free to govern themselves but are required to behave in ways that are dictated by governmental decree. This is the kind of economic system most of the European countries had in the 1770's and which our Founding Fathers tried hard to prevent from happening here in America.
But, at the same time, our Founders also knew that a community of people cannot exist in harmony with one another without some form of government control. What they had to decide was, what government should be allowed to manage and what things it should be forbidden to have power to regulate. The Declaration of Independence answered that question when it stated that all men have been endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and that the purpose of government is to secure, preserve, protect, and defend those rights. Our Constitution is founded on the principle that the proper role of government, at any level, is primarily to protect the rights of all its citizens.
Thomas Jefferson, who was the main author of the Declaration of Independence, declared, "The equal rights of man and the happiness of every individual are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government which is instituted to obtain justice and to preserve liberty." To our Founding Fathers, the proper responsibility of government is to ensure that no one violates the rights of another.
For example, since the protection of one's property is an inalienable right and theft of property can happen in a wide variety of ways, the legitimate role of government is to protect its citizen from having their property stolen through whatever means is employed and to prescribe punishments for those who violate that right. Thus, governments are responsible for regulating only those actions of its citizen that would do harm to a person's God-given inalienable or natural rights.
On all other matters which the people themselves may want to regulate (known as "vested rights') they are to decide the rules of their society through the democratic process of majority rule. However, under the Constitutional form of government our Founders gave us, this primarily was meant to be done at the State and local levels rather than at the Federal level.
Furthermore, whatever laws are passed, under a republican form of government, everyone is required to obey it. This is the heart of republicanism but it is not necessarily a feature of a democracy. Whether a person is a farmer, a shoe maker, a mayor, legislature, governor, or even the president of the United States, no one is exempted from obeying or escaping the punishment of any law passed by the government.
However, to our Founding Fathers, equality under the law did not mean that everyone is to enjoy equal living conditions. In fact, both conditions cannot exist together. Our founders knew that not everyone had the same skills, talents, ambitions, or desires therefore they felt it was illogical to conclude that everyone should have the same style of living. To do that the government would, of necessity, have to take what rightly belonged to one person and give it to someone else who did not have a natural right to it. If that were allowed to happen it would be a violation of a government's duty to protect the rights of all its citizens.
Thomas Jefferson explained that "It was equality under the law…. not the equality or inequality of conditions" that government should be concerned about. He further taught "To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers, has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the fist principle of association, the guarantee to everyone of a free exercise of his industry."
Samuel Adams wrote, "The utopian schemes of leveling and a community of goods (i.e., redistribution of wealth) … is impracticable [just] as those which vest all property in the Crown (king). [These ideas] are arbitrary, despotic, and in our government, unconstitutional." Indeed, nowhere in the Constitution does it give Congress the authority to provide charitable help to its people through government sponsored social programs.
Furthermore, the idea of independence is only valid if people are free to do what they please, as long as they don't violate the rights of others. But such individual freedom also means that each person has to take responsibility for their actions. If a person makes an unwise decision then they must be free to face the consequences of their actions. If they are spared from those consequences, especial because of government protection, usually in the form of handouts, then they are not free but become dependent on others for their needs, which is one of the definitions of slavery. Hence, freedom not only provides the opportunity for someone to succeed but it also allows for the possibility for people to fail as well.
This lesson had been learned early in American history. The very first settlement in the New World was at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 but by 1610 the colony was still struggling to survive despite repeated efforts by England to supply them with both men and material. In May of 1611 Sir Thomas Dale was sent to govern the colony with the charge to make it profitable. Before his arrival, the men were employees of an English firm known as the Virginia Company and the way they provided for their needs was by sharing in the fruits of each other's labor. For all practical purposes, they lived in what could properly be called a communal village. But when Sir Thomas Dale arrived and saw their working habits, he gave every man a plot of land and told them they were responsible for providing for their own support. This was the first use of private property in the New World. Once people knew they had to depend on themselves and not on the labors of others for their own subsistence, they became more industrious and within a year the colony was thriving.
The same thing happened in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 when the Pilgrims established a colony there. Before leaving their ship they signed a compact agreeing to hold all things in common. Their leader was a man named William Bradford who, in his journal recounted how they had nearly starved to death because of this communal system of government. He wrote that this experience, "was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort." He explained that the young complained "that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense." The strong were given no more food and clothing than the weak received. The older men were expected to do as much work as the younger and felt it an indignity to "be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery." As a result, people didn't work very hard and their food production fell critically low.
Then, in 1623, "they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate… [they] gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves… And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number… This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means… The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression. "
In our day, the communal system of the old Soviet Union where both property and benefits were controlled by the government, was supposed to usher in a new era of prosperity and happiness for the Russian people but instead it led to greater poverty, misery, and discontent. After forty years of living under this form of government, things continually keep getting worse instead of better. It produced continual shortages and often outages of even the basic items of food, clothing, and housing, the quality of the products they used declined, crime increased, and alcoholism was rampant.
From experiences like these as well as from European history, the Founders learned that the surest way to create prosperity was by allowing individuals the freedom to take care of their own needs because they knew that once a person realized that someone else will take care of them they lose their incentive to work. Therefore, when the Founders wrote the Constitution, that is why they didn't put any provision in it for helping those in need.
Benjamin Franklin wrote, "I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer."
On another occasion he wrote ""Repeal that [welfare] law, and you will soon see a change in their manners. ... industry will increase, and with it plenty among the lower people; their circumstances will mend, and more will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves, than could be done by dividing all your estates among them."
But what if Congress wants to enact legislation to provide money for the poor, even if it is not allowed by the Constitution? The Declaration of Independence states that whenever any government goes beyond their prescribed limits, they then become destructive of the ends for which governments exists, therefore our Founders sought to establish a new form of government that would prevent this very situation from happening.
What all of our Founders fully knew from history was that governments can be destroyed from within when the power to rule over others becomes consolidated in one person (monarchy) or in one group of people (oligarchy) therefore they sought to set up a system that would, to the best of their ability, prevent government officials from going beyond their prescribe limits.
Since the Founders didn't have the authority to tell the States what kind of government they should have (that was left up to the freemen of each state to decide for themselves) what they sought to do at the Federal level was to divide governmental power between three equally powerful institutions - the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. With deliberate thought, they gave each department specific powers that the other two did not possess but which all three needed be in agreement with in order to pass any kind of law. In this way, the Founders sought to keep any one branch of government from becoming so strong that it could overpower the other two and thereby consolidate all power unto itself.
If that were to happen we would no longer be a republic but become some form of a dictatorship where our rights and freedoms were not protected but would be determined by the whim of government. James Madison explained this very principle in Federalist Paper #47 when he wrote, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
The Founders knew, from firsthand experience, that it wasn't the mechanical form of government that matters as much as it was the powers that government possesses. England had a king and a parliament but together they still held dictatorial sway over the Colonists. In our country, we could have a House of Representative and a Senate whose members are elected by the people but if the Executive branch is able to strip Congress of its powers, those elected officials will be unable to stop the President from doing whatever he wants. In the same way, if the Executive branch allows Congress to take away its power they will then have the ability to pass laws unobstructed by the President that could take away the rights and freedoms of its citizens.
Worse yet, if the judicial branch is allowed to become too powerful it can legislate laws from the bench without the consent of the governed. Furthermore, they would be able to circumvent the powers of Congress and the Executive branch without the power of the people to vote them out of office. Should that happen, our form of government would still look as it does now - with three different branches, a constitution, and elections - but it would no longer operate as a republic.
During the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin said to those assembled, "There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice - the love of power and the love of greed…. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor that shall, at the same time, be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it."
In Federalist Paper, #25 Alexander Hamilton wrote, "For it is a truth which experience of all ages has attested that the people are commonly most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those whom they entertain the least suspicion," and James Madison wrote, "I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."
John Adams said, "There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty," and Thomas Jefferson likewise warned, "Let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." He also declared that "power makes a difference in the temper and behavior of men and often converts a good man in private life to a tyrant in office."
To prevent our republic from slipping into a dictatorship there are three things that we as the governed must do. The first is to make every effort to elect virtuous leaders. George Washington stated, "It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government."
John Adams wrote, "The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a great Measure, than they have it now... [then] they may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty."
A virtuous person is one who is honest in his dealings with his fellowman, whose word can be trusted, who has a sincere interest in preserving the liberties of his countrymen and who possess a clear understanding of and a deep commitment to upholding the principles contained in the Constitution. Yet, even with these qualities, men of such character can still be seduced with the idea that they need more power in order to do more good. And if that is true, then how much more true is it of those who are not as virtuous?
That leads to the second thing that needs to be done which is for the American public to know what our elected leaders are doing. Our Founding Fathers knew that power corrupts those who hold it, whether it is an elected official or the people themselves. Our republic cannot be preserved if its citizens are not vigilant and aware of what their elected representatives are doing. The Constitution gives every American the power to control their own government through the ballot box but if they don't replace those who violate the principles set forth in the Constitution then the violators will become embolden to continue consolidating their power by taking it away from those who were elected to represent them.
It is reported that Edmond Burke, one of political philosophers whose writings the Founding Fathers read and drew upon for their ideas on government, said, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Thomas Jefferson observed that in Europe there were two classes of people - the wolves and the sheep - and if the citizens of a republic were not attentive to what their elected leaders were doing they risked the danger of their leaders becoming like wolves while they became as sheep.
Alexander Hamilton wrote, "If it be asked, What is the most sacred duty and the greatest source of our security in a Republic? The answer would be, An inviolable respect for the Constitution and Laws - the first growing out of the last.... A sacred respect for the constitutional law is the vital principle, the sustaining energy of a free government."
Jefferson also said that the Constitution should be understood "according to the plain and ordinary meaning of its language, to the common intent of the time and those who framed it." Unfortunately, men have a tendency to deliberately define the Constitution broadly, inferring things that aren't specifically stated rather than following "the plain and ordinary meaning of its language." In this way they can interpret its words in such a way as to give themselves greater power while still claiming they are following the Constitution. However, Jefferson warned, that "If the powers of the constitution is [understood to be] boundless, then we have no constitution. If it has bounds, they can be no others than the definition of the powers which that instrument gives."
To prevent this from happening we need to know whether or not our representatives are violating the Constitution. Therefore, the third thing we must do is to educate ourselves and our children of every generation to know and understand the principles embodied in our supreme law thereby enabling them "to know ambition under every disguise it may assume and knowing it to defeat its views" as Jefferson put it. Without that knowledge it becomes almost impossible to keep our liberties from being taken from us.
James Madison wrote, "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." Thomas Jefferson declared, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." George Washington stated, "A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government." John Adams advised, "Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom," and Benjamin Franklin said, "A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved."
The kind of government our Founders gave us was not a democracy nor a monarchy but one in which we had the freedom to govern ourselves in our individual lives to the fullest extent possible allowable in a civilized society. As Benjamin Franklin put, it is now up to us to govern ourselves in a way that we can keep the America Republic they gave us.