before Plato wrote The Republic and
his Socratic dialogues, (in fact, when he was a babbling infant), Herodotus,
the father of history, recorded the first known political debate. It was between
three Persian princes about what was the best form of government: democracy,
oligarchy, or monarchy.
the wealthiest prince, argued for “democracy.” The monarchy should be
abolished, and replaced with the people, for “the state and the people are
countered one prince, Megabyzus, was dangerous. “The masses are a feckless
lot – nowhere will you find more ignorance or irresponsibility or
violence.” After all, he emphasized, what was the difference between
“the murderous caprice of a king” and “the equally wanton
brutality of the rabble”? He was all for oligarchy, the rule of “the
the third debater, argued hotly for monarchy, for only a strong man could keep
the empire intact, quash rebellious factions, and foil internal plots against
submitted their positions to other princes, who voted for monarchy. Darius won,
and became sovereign, but only after some kingly legerdemain and horseplay. It
was Darius who led the first Persian invasion of Greece. He forgave Megabyzus’s
desultory words about kings, and made him a general of his invading forces. His
plans for conquering all of Greece were ruined at Marathon in 490 B.C. He died
shortly after that disaster, leaving his son Xerxes to try again.
history lesson leads us to the absolutely crucial issue of the fundamental
distinctions that must be made between democracies and republics, that is, between
“mobocracies” and constitutional
republics that preserve and protect individual rights. Armed with hindsight not
available to Herodotus or the Persian princes, the Founders of the American republic debated the differences between
a democracy and a republic.
definitions of the two political systems are of little help. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines democracy as:
the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power lies in the
people as a whole, and is exercised directly by them (as in the small republics
of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely
denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or
arbitrary differences in rank or privilege.
O.E.D.’s definition of republic more or less seconds its
definition of a democracy.
A state in which the supreme power rests in the people and their elected
representatives or officers, as opposed to one governed by a king or similar
ruler; a commonwealth.
1969 edition of Webster’s Seventh New
Collegiate Dictionary offers a definition of democracy that isn’t much of an improvement:
government by the people; esp: rule
of the majority. b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people
and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation
usually involving periodically held free elections.
for the Webster‘s definition of republic,
it simply abets the vagueness of its definition of democracy.
a government having a chief executive who is not a monarch and who in modern
times is usually a president. (2) a
nation or other political unit having such a form of government b (1) a government in which supreme
power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by
elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing
according to law. (2) a nation or
other political unit having such a form of government.
dictionary definitions of these terms to be found, for example, in Funk and Wagnalls and American Heritage, simply replicate the imprecision,
especially in the context of the meaning of “supreme power” that
allegedly “resides in the people.” So, no fundamental distinction has
ever been made by any dictionary between a democracy
and the republic as it was
established by the Founders. And the meaning of “supreme power” and
it “residing in the people” is the nub of this column.
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia
repeats the same vagueness, but adds this qualification to its entry on democracy:
representative democracy arose less from ancient Greek practice than from ideas
and institutions that developed in medieval Europe, during the Enlightenment,
and in the American and French Revolutions. Today democracy has come to imply
universal suffrage, competition for office, freedom of speech and the press,
and the rule of law.2
of speech” and “rule of law” are elements of a more exact
definition. But Britannica‘s entry on
republic again repeats the fogginess
of its entry on democracy, however,
and adds this qualification:
also be distinguished from direct democracies [i.e., systems in which “the
people” directly participate, sans
representatives], but representative democracies are by and large republics.
and make an attempt to specify their meanings. Aside from a précis on the concept of democracy and
its evolution from the ancient Greek practice, it offers this evaluation:
sense democracy is essentially a philosophy which insists on the right and, in
the long run, the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through
representatives, to control their institutions for their own best ends. Such a
philosophy of necessity exalts the individual and would free him as far as
possible from restraints not self-imposed.
Columbia does not define what the restraints
on the individual should be, the gratuitous qualification which follows that
opinion is eminently “democratic”:
however, that complete individual freedom, which in the political sphere would
be anarchism, is practically impossible, but insists that restraints be imposed
only by a majority and that they be erected on the principle of equal
opportunity for all.3
“restraints” could take the form of censorship or property theft through
eminent domain. But majorities do not impose restraints; courts do, and
legislators, with or without the leave of a majority. Columbia‘s entry on republic
is even less illuminating than its entry on democracy,
except for this observation:
States is an example of a federal republic, in which the powers of the central
government are limited and component parts [i.e., the states] exercise a
considerable measure of home rule.
the time of the Founders, while most of “the people” were certainly
better read in their rights and in the politics of the age than are most
Americans today, the Founders, acting as intellectuals or political
philosophers, devised and honed the Constitution not on what “the
people” thought, but on their own
knowledge and first-hand observations of what “rights” should be and
mean. In the context of current American politics, the “state and the
people” are not synonymous, but mutually
antipathetic, if not mutually estranged.
If this were not so, it could not account for all the publications and
weblogs that exist now that are critical of the government and politicians.
Americans are ignorant of the true meaning of the terms democracy and republic.
The Founders were not. Let’s hear from them.
Jefferson freely used the terms democracy
and republic interchangeably. This
frustrates any reading of him. For example, in his letter to Phillip Mazzei of
April 24th, 1796, he writes:
our politics has wonderfully changed since you left us. In place of that noble
love of liberty and republican government which carried us triumphantly through
the war, an Anglican monarchical aristocratical party has sprung up, whose
avowed object is to draw over us the substance, as they have already done the
forms, of the British government. The main body of our citizens, however,
remain true to their republican principles….4
elsewhere and all through his writings, when he used the term democracy or democratic, meant a republican government whose constitution
limited its power and guaranteed the freedom and liberties of “the
people.” Like many of his generation, he used the term democracy loosely, and it may be that
such carelessness has allowed his successors in politics to adopt it without
thought or reservation. “We are all republicans – we are
federalists,” he said in his first inaugural address in 1801. He did not
say, “We are all democrats – we are the mob.” 5
Madison, who was the subject of the last column, “Madison vs. Obama,”
in No. 14 of The Federalist,
penned in November 1787, delved into the distinctions
between a republican form of government and a democratic one:
limits republican government to a narrow district has been unfolded and refuted
in preceding papers. I remark here only, that it seems to owe its rise and
prevalence chiefly to the confounding of a republic with a democracy….A
democracy…must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a
accidental source of the error may be added the artifice of celebrated authors,
whose writings have had a great share in forming the modern standard of
political opinions. Being subjects either of an absolute or limited monarchy,
they have endeavored to heighten the advantages or palliate the evils of these
forms; by placing in comparison with them the vices and defects of the
republican, and by citing as specimens of the latter, the turbulent democracies
of ancient Greece and modern Italy. Under the confusion of names, it has been
an easy task to transfer to a republic observations applicable to a democracy
only, and among others, the observation that it can never be established but
among a small number of people, living within a small compass of territory.6
distinguishing between the systems, Madison was clearer in his treatment of
republics and democracies.
Adams, writes C. Bradley Thompson in John
Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, was a stickler for precise language,
especially when discussing or writing about politics.
one of the primary reasons for the retarded growth of the political sciences in
modern thought and practice had been the failure of philosophers and statesmen
to develop a uniform lexicon and syntax for the science of legislation….[I]n
the political sciences, Adams lamented, “there is a confusion of
languages, as if two men were but lately come from Babel.”7
Adams, Bradley notes that
things “in their nature as different and contradictory as light and
darkness, truth and falsehood, virtue and vice, happiness and misery”; the
word king, “like magic, excites
the adoration of some, and execration of others”; the words virtue and patriotism were “enumerated among those of various and
uncertain signification”; and the word aristocracy
has “been employed to signify any thing, every thing, and
nothing.”….It was imperative, then, that his student lawgivers develop and
employ a political language that was “governed more by reason, and less by
on, Bradley underscores Adams’ dissatisfaction with the sloppy usage of the
of all words in the political sciences, for instance, was republic. In fact, Adams thought that it was not only the most
“unintelligible word in the English language” but also the most
abused word “in all languages.”….[I]ts advocates defined republic as
signifying “nothing but public affairs,” which meant that any and every
form of government, including despotism and a simple monarchy, was a republic.
When used in this way, the term had been “applied to every government
under heaven; that of turkey and that of Spain, as well as that of Athens and
Rome, of Geneva and San Marino.”9
is troubling, or at least is too often misunderstood with disastrous
consequences, at least today, is the gratuitous usage of the term the people and the ubiquitous notion
that “the people” have some species of authority or power over what
they consider to be rights, whether they are divided into majorities or
people” do not possess a collective brain or consciousness. “The
people” are not some creature with 600 million eyes that perceive reality
as a single consciousness, and then an interlocking, computer-like system of
300 million brains that can process data and reach a conclusion and spit out the
answer. The Founders knew this. They used the phrase “the people” in
the most benevolent sense, as an abstract group of men with whom they shared an
important value, freedom, and liberty. There might be a commonality of agreement on what things are or are not –
see Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence or his seminal work, A Summary View of the Rights of British North
America (1774), which helped to articulate and consolidate the knowledge
that an injustice was being committed by the British Crown, and which was an
overture to the Declaration.
however, does not change or rearrange reality, it cannot alter facts. Neither a majority nor a minority of one can
establish a truth; collectively, or singly, the truth can only be recognized by
and as individuals. Only individuals can distort, twist, ignore, or dismiss a
truth, not singly nor as a bloc of 300 million.
people,” Otanes’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding, are not
“synonymous with the state,” not even in the best of times when the
relationship between citizens and their government is harmonious and
conflict-free. And we are not today living in the best of times.
Who Invented History, by Justin Marozzi. Philadelphia: De Capo Press, 2008.
Jefferson. New York: Random House/Modern Library, 1944. Eds. Adrienne Koch
and William Peden. p. 537.
Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1999. Ed. Jack N.
Rakove. pp. 168-169.
Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of
Kansas, 1998. p. 186.