Constitutionally, was the United States founded as a democracy or a republic?
One of the most surprising things students hear in my classroom is that the United States was not founded as a democracy. Our Constitution established a federated republic. True, both a democracy and a republic assume that citizens are sovereign. But a democracy's constitution, strictly speaking, provides only for rule by the many. It does not provide for rule by one (a monarchy) or rule by the few (an aristocracy). To the founders and framers, the most famous democracy was that of ancient Athens. Because it was a direct democracy, Athenian citizens debated each other in assembly on the Pynx; they did not have representatives to do their bidding. The founders did not want the United States to be the latter-day Athens. In their view, the mercurial crowd was dangerous to public safety and civic order.
The alternative form of government for sovereign citizens was a republic. As I argue in another essay, most of our founders and framers were innovative republicans. As they understood the term, a republic encompassed several things. First, it was a commonwealth that was not ruled solely by a monarch (Dr. Johnson's criterion in his famous 1755 Dictionary). Second, a republic was a mixed constitution in which all three political elements -- monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by the few), and democracy (rule by the many) -- shared authority to govern, checking and balancing each other. Third, as Madison explained in Federalist Number 10, a republic as opposed to a direct democracy provided a buffer against the mercurial moods of crowds through elected representatives. Fourth, a republic, again as Madison noted in Federalist Number 10, could extend to a larger number of people over a greater geographic area than a direct democracy could.
The American republic was also to be federated -- that is, the various states were little republics that were united under a central authority. Federation separated the spheres of responsibility for governance between the national and state governments, just as state governments separated spheres of responsibility for governance between the state capitol and local jurisdictions like counties, townships, villages, towns, and cities.
(It is, by the way, misleading to speak of the central authority in Washington, DC, as the "federal government." More properly speaking it is the national government. The term "federal government" describes the type of government we have in the U.S., with separated spheres of responsibility between the national and state governments.)
This complex institutional ensemble -- this federated republic -- was designed to keep any individual or faction from acquiring too much power. There could arise no tyranny of the majority, ever the bane of direct democracies. Madison put it memorably: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions" -- the auxiliary precautions being the large, complex, federated republic that was designed in Philadelphia in 1787.
The revolutionary generation was clear about rejecting monarchy as the sole form of government. The Declaration of Independence is one of the most eloquent statements ever crafted against a monarch -- in this case, King George III and his violations against the English constitution.
The founders were also clear about establishing states with a republican form of government. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the most brilliant document crafted by the Confederated Congress, never once mentions the word "democracy." Rather, it stipulated that "whenever any of the said States shall have sixty thousand free inhabitants therein, such State shall be admitted, by its delegates, into the Congress of the United States, on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever, and shall be at liberty to form a permanent constitution and State government: Provided, the constitution and government so to be formed, shall be republican" (emphasis added).
The framers who met in Philadelphia in 1787 were wary of democracy. Edmund Randolph, looking at the state constitutions then in existence, expressed the opinion of most of the delegates when he said, "Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitutions. It is a maxim which I hold incontrovertible, that the powers of government exercised by the people swallows up the other branches. None of the constitutions have provided sufficient checks against the democracy." Nowhere did the framers include the word "democracy" in the text of the Constitution. Rather, they stipulated, in Article IV, Section 4, that "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government" (emphasis added). A republican form of state government would include a monarchical or executive element (the governor), an aristocratic element (in the judiciary and in those bicameral legislatures in which there is a senate), and a democratic element (in the House or Assembly).
The Federalist Papers that were written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay following the convention were filled with warnings against democracy. In Federalist Number 10, Madison wrote that "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."
Nor would our first presidents let up in the criticism of democracy. Our second president, John Adams, said, "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide." Our third, Thomas Jefferson, wrote, "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49." Our fourth, James Madison, observed, "Democracy is the most vile form of government." It is not odd that Americans today reflexively support a form of government that was feared by virtually every one of the framers of our Constitution?
In the American formulation of a republican constitution, the monarchical element is the presidency; the aristocratic elements are the Senate and Supreme Court; the democratic element is the House of Representatives. The original intent of the framers was to keep the people quite removed from direct governance. Not the people directly but electors would choose the president. Not the people directly but state legislatures would select U.S. senators. Not the people directly but the president would nominate Supreme Court justices, who then had to be confirmed by the Senate. Nothing like ancient Athens, this.
So constitutionally, our national frame of government and our state governments were set up to be republican in form.
That said, there were also powerful democratic elements in the American founding. Politically, local governance could rely on direct democracy, as the New England town hall famously illustrates. Economically, the marketplace is essentially a democracy of the cash nexus. In civil society, churches and numerous organizations choose leaders by direct democracy. We know that Americans on the frontier often relied on democratic methods. When the citizens of Springfield, Illinois, sent troops into the Black Hawk War, the local militia elected Abraham Lincoln to be their captain. (The Rail Splitter later claimed he was more proud of winning that election than any other.) From our earliest days, democracy provided the way founders, farmers, and frontier people got things done. It was an important element in local politics, the marketplace, churches, and even in the militia.
Another important thing to remember is that constitutional amendments have tilted the balance in the direction of the democratic element. So, for example, U.S. senators are now directly elected by citizens. By custom, moreover, it would be highly unlikely for any Electoral College to overturn the popular vote in a state. Progressive Era reforms -- initiative, referendum, recall -- are clearly democratic in thrust.
So, while national American politics are republican in character, American culture is strongly democratic.
Quiz: Was America founded as a democracy or a republic?
Yes, and yes! But the framers established republican national and state governments that subsumed the democratic order in society and politics.