‘A republic, if you can keep it’ … or remember what that means

The following article originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on September 15, 2005.

Numerous surveys and polls indicate that students lack knowledge regarding both our history and our form of government. To address this historical ignorance, U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., inserted a mandate into a bill in 2004 that requires students to be taught about the Constitution on Sept. 17 (or during the preceding week) each year.

While some would question this as imposing a federally mandated curriculum, others welcome it as a long overdue restoration of attention to the Constitution. Over time, semantic sloth and inattention have caused us to use words and concepts too loosely.

For example, although many people refer to this country as a democracy, the word “democracy” appears nowhere in the Constitution.

This is because we are not a democracy, and our founding fathers used strong words to make it clear that we should never become one. Consider the following statements:

  • Benjamin Rush: “A simple democracy … is one of the greatest of evils” (1789).
  • James Madison: “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” (1787).
  • John Adams: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide” (1814).

The simple fact is that the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. It is inaccurate to use the two terms interchangeably. The source of authority and treatment of minorities are different for these two forms of government. In a democracy, the majority rules, meaning that there are no protections for minority rights. Whatever the majority wants rules the day. A republic, in contrast, is rule by law, and the law can protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

In a democracy, people hold the power to rule directly. Examples of democracy in action in this country include initiative and referendum, where the people vote directly on specific issues. Naturally, it would be impractical to try to administer an entire country if the people had to have a direct vote on every issue. According to Madison: “In a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents” (Federalist 14, 1787).

A republic is where people elect representatives who are responsible to them and who govern according to law. To quote Madison again: “The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended” (Federalist 10, 1787).

Previous generations clearly understood the difference between these words. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we pledge allegiance to a republic, not a democracy. The patriotic song that we sing is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” not “The Battle Hymn of the Democracy.”

After the Constitutional Convention had finished its work in 1787, a woman asked Ben Franklin what kind of government had been decided upon. He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

This week is a good time for our children to learn just what he meant.