HISTORY OF THE UNIQUE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT: A DEMOCRACY OR A REPUBLIC?
Since 1776, our 246-year experiment with non-monarchical government is rather unique in history. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 officially ended the War of the American Revolution against the colonial power that had previously ruled us, Great Britain. King George III of Great Britain had the most powerful army and navy in the world, but the American Colonies threw off British control through several battles, starting in 1775.
But was the country’s government going to be a democracy or a republic?
Definition of Democracy and Republic
It may seem that these words are synonymous, but the difference between them is subtle yet profound. While there may appear to be overlap, they are quite distinct, as I’ll illustrate.
There are several definitions of these words. To be clear, I am not talking about the current political parties, “Democrat” or “Republican.” Let me use the most universally agreed-upon meanings that are also useful in differentiating these two words:
- Democracy: government by the entire population of citizens. The Greek roots are demos (people) + kratia (rule).
- Republic: government whereby citizens elect representatives delegated to rule for them. The Latin is Res Publica (public affair), something held in common by many people.
Stated differently, a direct democracy allows citizens to have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation without reliance on intermediaries or representatives. Majority rule stipulates that an election by the largest percentage of voting citizens decides a matter. A democracy is often contrasted with an aristocracy (rule by “the best”), a monarchy (rule by a monarch), or a dictatorship (rule by an autocrat.)
A republic, by comparison, rules through representatives elected by the citizenry to its governing bodies: House of Commons, Congress, Senate, etc. While this type of government is sometimes called a representative democracy, or an indirect democracy, it is crucial to keep these two terms distinct, as we’ll see later.
Uniqueness of a Non-monarchical Government
How unique was this American experiment in self-government? While self-government is popular today, it was not so before the founding of the American government. There were some, but they were either small or did not endure like ours for over two centuries. These examples come to mind:
- The Swiss Cantons of the 17th century had a form of direct democracy. Indeed, even today, this exists in some cantons. Swiss cantons are smaller than American counties or Louisiana parishes.
- Greek city-states of the 5th-century B.C. practiced a form of democracy; indeed, classical Athens was called the birthplace of democracy with its Assembly (ekklesia) and its Areopagus (Mars Hill, site of the Athenian governing council).
But as American Founding Father, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and President John Adams observed
“The lawgivers of antiquity… legislated for single cities… who can legislate for 20 or 30 states, each of which is greater than Greece or Rome at those times?”
This brings up a final example that proves the rule:
- The Roman Republic of Cicero, with its separation of powers, checks and balances, and the rule of law, was inspiring, if brief.
Cicero was elected Consul, one of two elected men who held the highest public office, and was called Pater Patriae, “father of the country.” This ideal lasted for one brief shining moment, less than his lifetime. He gave fiery speeches against Julius Caesar, who had transformed the country into a dictatorship.
When Marc Antony made a bid for power after Caesar’s assassination, Cicero eloquently and publicly attacked Antony for his “audacity, impudence, and stupidity.” Antony had Cicero beheaded and his hands cut off for his speeches and writing.
American’s Experiment with Democracy
America had briefly experimented with a democracy, but the Founding Fathers, the Framers of the American government, did not prefer a democracy.
Beginning in 1777, the American Articles of Confederation had been the guiding document of the new nation. But the Framers recognized the unworkable weaknesses of these Articles: they established a poor democracy and a weak federal government. They allowed each state (colony) to establish its own foreign trade policy. Each state had only one vote in Congress, regardless of size. Congress did not have the power to tax, maintain a standing army, regulate interstate commerce, or formulate foreign trade. There existed no executive branch to enforce any laws passed by Congress.
A meeting was set in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787. This became the Constitutional Convention. The delegates there, led by James Madison, realized that changes would not work. Instead, the entire Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced with a new U.S. Constitution that would dictate the structure of the national government.
What the Founding Fathers Said About a Democracy
The Founding Fathers were outspoken about their opinions on a democracy:
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
“Democracy, will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes, and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure and every one of these will soon mold itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues, and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable cruelty of one or a very few.”
“It is one of the evils of democratical governments, that the people, not always seeing and frequently misled, must often feel before they can act right; but then evil of this nature seldom fail to work their own cure
“If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.”
“Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”
“It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”
“Pure 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.”
John Jay (First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court):
“Too many… love pure democracy dearly. They seem not to consider that pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication, and with it a thousand mad pranks and fooleries.”
The American Republic
Instead, the Founding Fathers preferred a constitutional republic over a democracy.
“The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind.”
the very definition of a Republic, is “an Empire of Laws, and not of men.”
“Where a majority are united by a common sentiment, and have an opportunity, the rights of the minor party become insecure.”
Ben Franklin, responding to a question as he left the Constitutional Convention of 1787:
“Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
His reply: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
The Three Branches of the American Republic
The Constitution saw to it that America has three branches of the government, mostly following the lines of a republic, but with the third being an obvious and required exception.
Congress legislates or makes the laws.
Like the British Parliament of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the U.S. has a higher (Senate) and a lower (House of Representatives) arrangement, constituting what is collectively called the Congress.
Congress members are elected by a direct democracy. This is necessary to create our unique form of a republic. Citizens delegate the power to create laws to this representative body.
The role of the Executive Branch, headed by the President, is to enforce the laws made by Congress.
The election of the President is done quasi-majoritarian, or mainly by the majority. The Constitution imposes into the process something that prevents a direct democracy: the President is actually elected by the Electoral College. Since the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the citizenry delegates the election of the President to an Electoral College, which then elect the President.
Several delegates to the Constitutional Convention openly recognized this provision’s ability to protect the election process from cabal, corruption, intrigue, and faction. Some delegates, on the other hand, including James Wilson and James Madison, preferred a popular election of the executive. Alexander Hamilton, in 1788, explained in Federalist Paper No. 68 the advantage of this non-permanent College to avoid corruption.
This popular election of the Electoral College has worked for the most part, except in four elections in the last 150 years when there were six states in which the Electors were legislatively appointed instead of elected by a popular vote. And in 1824, the Electors were not able to select a winning candidate, passing the decision to the House of Representatives.
This system is not without complaint. There have been four elections when the Electoral College winner lost the popular (majority) vote, two in this century: Bush over Gore in 2000 and Trump over Clinton in 2016.
The role of the Supreme Court is to interpret the law in light of the Constitution.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Supreme Court is a counter-majoritarian body. That they make unpopular decisions is not surprising: they decide what is “law,” not what is “popular.” They are a non-elected body that judicially reviews popularly-created laws made by Congress. Consequently, this is a hotly discussed topic among constitutional scholars.
This is not a recent development but has been debated as far back as the presidential administration of Thomas Jefferson, as I discuss in my article Who Appoints the Supreme Court?
Nor are unpopular Supreme Court decisions a new thing; there are at least a dozen well-known cases, especially in high-profile, politically fractious ones. The citizenry does not pay much attention to other decisions the Supreme Court makes that do otherwise follow public opinion.
Space permits just three examples of such unpopular decisions within recent memory:
- In 1966 the Court decided in favor of law enforcement officials advising suspects of their right to remain silent and request an attorney, what became known as the “Miranda Rights.”
- In 1984 the Supreme Court voted that flag-burning counted as freedom of expression, protected by the First Amendment. Public outcry against the decision was “absolutely overwhelming.”
- In 2000 the Supreme Court decided one of the closest presidential elections ever. It determined that an election difference of 537 votes in Florida would stand and that no alternative recount could be performed within the state’s legal time limit. George W. Bush won the election over Al Gore.
That there is low confidence in the Supreme Court is no more surprising than that there is historically low confidence in Congress. Furthermore, the approval ratings of the current presidential administration are low, though several other Presidents within recent memory have scored lower.
Factoids of American Uniqueness
Nevertheless, the unique form of American self-government has produced significant and enduring benefits to citizens, some singular in all the world: (Source: 1440.com)
- The country has grown from 13 colonies with about 2.5 million people to 50 states and 14 territories with a population of more than 330 million.
- The economy has swelled to roughly $24T.
- Advances in public health—public sanitation, the germ theory of disease, and more—have cut the child mortality rate from more than 45% to under 1%, and our citizens live 35 years longer on average.
- We’ve built almost 4 million miles of paved roads and more than 5,000 public airports.
- More than 2.7 million miles of power lines electrify the country, with about 85% of households having access to broadband internet and 92% having at least one computer.
- In 1800, 95% of the population lived in rural areas, and now about 83% live in urban areas.
- The U.S. has also been responsible for more than 800 human visits to space—the most of any other country with a space agency.
Happy birthday, America.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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