The United States Is Both a Republic and a Democracy

"Democracy" has long included representative democracy as well as direct democracy; and "Republic" was used by the Framers to refer to regimes that were not representative.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

[A couple of items I read in the last several days—including one I'll blog about later this week—lead me to write again about this question, adapting some items I wrote up when we were at the Washington Post site.]

[1.] I often hear people argue (often quite militantly) that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that's a false dichotomy. A common definition of "republic" is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, "A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them" — we are that. A common definition of "democracy" is, "Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives" — we are that, too.

The United States is not a direct democracy, in the sense of a country in which laws (and other government decisions) are made predominantly by majority vote. Some lawmaking is done this way, on the state and local levels, but it's only a tiny fraction of all lawmaking. But we are a representative democracy, which is a form of democracy.

[2.] And the same two meanings of "democracy" (sometimes direct democracy, sometimes popular self-government more generally) existed at the founding of the republic as well. Some framing-era commentators made arguments that distinguished "democracy" and "republic"; see, for instance, the Federalist (No. 10), as well as other numbers of the Federalist papers. But even in that era, "representative democracy" was understood as a form of democracy, alongside "pure democracy": John Adams used the term "representative democracy" in 1794; so did Noah Webster in 1785; so did St. George Tucker in his 1803 edition of Blackstone; so did Thomas Jefferson in 1815. Tucker's Blackstone likewise uses "democracy" to describe a representative democracy, even when the qualifier "representative" is omitted.

Likewise, James Wilson, one of the main drafters of the Constitution and one of the first Supreme Court justices, defended the Constitution in 1787 by speaking of the three forms of government being the "monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical," and said that in a democracy the sovereign power is "inherent in the people, and is either exercised by themselves or by their representatives." Chief Justice John Marshall — who helped lead the fight in the 1788 Virginia Convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution — likewise defended the Constitution in that convention by describing it as implementing "democracy" (as opposed to "despotism"), and without the need to even add the qualifier "representative."

Sir William Blackstone, who was much read and admired by the framers, likewise used "democracy" to include republics: "Baron Montesquieu lays it down, that luxury is necessary in monarchies, as in France; but ruinous to democracies, as in Holland. With regard therefore to England, whose government is compounded of both species, it may still be a dubious question, how far private luxury is a public evil …." Holland was of course a republic, and England was compounded of monarchy and government by elected representatives; Blackstone was thus labeling such government by elected representatives as a form of "democrac[y]." The same is so today. America is a democracy, in that it's not a monarchy or a dictatorship. (Some people claim it is too oligarchic, in which case they'd say America isn't democratic enough — but again they'd be distinguishing democracy from oligarchy.) America is not a democracy in the sense of being a direct democracy.

[3.] And the Framers didn't just refer to representative government as democratic—they referred to direct democracy as a republic.

One way to get at this is to ask: What is the first nation that you think about when you hear the word "Republic" today, and that the Framers likely thought about? What is the most famous historical Republic, indeed the one that gave us the word "Republic"?

Why, the Roman Republic, of course, which The Federalist and many others discussed as a republic. And yet in the Roman Republic, there was no representative legislature.

The Senate (which wasn't elected or representative) did have considerable interpretive and advisory authority, and the elected praetors could interpret the law in important ways. But the laws themselves were made by direct vote of the citizens (or just by the plebeians), in the comitia centuriata, the comitia tributa or the concilium plebis. (If someone suggests that the Senate was Rome's elected representative legislature, you can point out that it was not elected, not representative, and not a legislature.)

Roman lawmaking was thus direct lawmaking, though with a voting system that heavily favored the rich, not representative lawmaking. The laws had to be proposed by a magistrate, such as a consul or a tribune of the plebs, so it wasn't precisely like an American initiative. But the laws didn't have to first be passed by some elected legislative body first (again, remember that there were no elective legislative bodies); in principle, they just had to be proposed by one elected magistrate — such as one of the 10 tribunes of the plebs — and enacted by popular vote in the assembly. You can think of it as something between the modern American referendum and the modern American initiative. But it was direct popular lawmaking, not representative lawmaking.

And the Framers routinely called Rome a republic — indeed, they labeled Athens a republic, even though Golden Age Athens famously involved direct democracy. Hamilton in Federalist No. 6 states that "Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics." Hamilton in Federalist No. 34 specifically talked about the Roman legislative assemblies, yet called Rome a republic. Federalist No. 63, generally attributed to Madison, labeled Rome as an example of a "long-lived republic." (Profs. Akhil Amar and Rob Natelson have written more extensively on this.)

[4.] Today, "republican" does tend to refer more to representative systems, but "democratic" often refers to following the will of the people, whether through direct democracy or representative democracy—the precise meaning differs depending on the context. If you're asking whether to do something by direct ballot or by representative processes, you might ask whether we should be more democratic or more republican. If you're asking whether China would be better off giving more power to Chinese voters, you might ask whether it should be more democratic or less democratic, quite apart from whether you think the democracy should be direct or representative.

To be sure, in addition to being a representative democracy, the United States is also a constitutional democracy, in which courts restrain in some measure the democratic will. And the United States is therefore also a constitutional republic. Indeed, the United States might be labeled a constitutional federal representative democracy.

But where one word is used, with all the oversimplification that this necessary entails, "democracy" and "republic" both work. Indeed, since direct democracy — again, a government in which all or most laws are made by direct popular vote — would be impractical given the number and complexity of laws that pretty much any state or national government is expected to enact, it's unsurprising that the qualifier "representative" would often be omitted. Practically speaking, representative democracy is the only democracy that's around at any state or national level. (State and even national referenda are sometimes used, but only for a very small part of the state's or nation's lawmaking.)

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  1. The democracy-republic debate has become shorthand for:
    “What kind of democracy is this? My side is in the majority. We should get our way in all things.”
    “It’s not a democracy. We have a republic, a form of representative government that protects minorities by limiting the passions of the majority whose demands are filtered through legislative, executive and judicial bodies.”
    The post may well be right about the history and past use of words. But I think the the meanings have changed.

    1. I see it more as pedants gleefully posting ‘well actually…’ which is why I love this post.

      I shall meet the pedants in their own arena and, through citation, defeat them!

      1. This is the best–really only–way to defeat a pedant.

      2. I can’t believe we even need to produce arguments like this. We’re so determined to be right that we’d nitpick terminology to avoid more painful discussions and the fetid act of listening.

  2. People who emphasize “republic not democracy” are drawing attention to the explicit protection of individual rights from infringement by majorities. Once these inalienable rights are secured, issues are settled by “consent of the governed.”

    Your phrase “republic and democracy” captures this notion very succinctly.
    Regards,
    Bill Drissel
    Frisco, TX

    1. I’ve also seen them bring it up in reference to the Senate or the Electoral College.

    2. Every time I’ve seen people “emphasize” (make) the distinction is when they’re pointlessly rebutting someone who wasn’t asking for an argument. It’s the oxford comma of self-congratulatory political science, minus the benefit of actually being better. The purpose is not to draw attention to anything but the objector.

      1. Yes. Or just generally being pompous, or thinking they are making some sort of telling point.

  3. Related – *is* the United States a demcracy, or *are* the United States a democracy.

    You get an interesting answer from the states’-rights fanatics who adopted the Thirteenth Amendment:

    AMENDMENT XIII

    SECTION 1
    Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to *their* jurisdiction. (emphasis added)

    SECTION 2

    Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

    Why would the authors of the 13th Amendment use the plural term “their” in reference to the United States? I thought that the victors in the Civil War, the guys who abolished slavery, were such vehement Unionists that they would avoid any terminology rejecting the singular? And isn’t the use of the plural form simply a relic of slavery and discredited state-sovereignty doctrines, which the Civil War was supposed to have overthrown?

    1. Why would the authors of the 13th Amendment use the plural term “their” in reference to the United States? I thought that the victors in the Civil War, the guys who abolished slavery, were such vehement Unionists that they would avoid any terminology rejecting the singular? And isn’t the use of the plural form simply a relic of slavery and discredited state-sovereignty doctrines, which the Civil War was supposed to have overthrown?

      On the off chance these are sincere questions: no. It’s not political, but grammatical.

    2. No, as David Nieporent states, it was purely grammatical. There was a long, slow shift from United States as plural to singular, and the claim it was directly related to the Civil War, states rights, or similar stuff is mostly later revisionism. In the early 1900s the famous writer Ambrose Bierce, a former union soldier and hardly a “states rights” advocate, was still passionately asserting that United States is plural.

  4. “Why would the authors of the 13th Amendment use the plural term “their” in reference to the United States?”

    The use of plural pronouns as singular genderless personal pronoun. While that usage has never been universal, it does go back to at least the founding era if not further.

    1. Interesting…well, as long as we’re on this, I notice a lot of use of “its” in the Constitution, that is, the singular term. Some examples:

      “Each House may determine the Rules of *its* Proceedings…

      “No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing *its* inspection Laws…

      “No State shall…deny to any person within *its* jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws…

      “(The Twentieth Amendment must be ratified) within seven years from the date of *its* submission”

      …and so on.

      And what about this from Article II:

      “The President…during the Period for which he shall have been elected…shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.”

      DISCLAIMER: None of this contradicts the idea that the states gave a lot of powers to the feds and meant for the union to be perpetual.

      1. Excluding the term “United States,” are there examples of the Constitution’s “use of plural pronouns as singular genderless personal pronoun,” because they seem to use the singular when describing a state, a House of Congress, or an amendment.

        1. Just as a disclaimer, I don’t wish to re-introduce slavery or allow secession, etc, but for what it’s worth, I had been under the impression that the Constitution distinguished between singular and plural by using “its” for the singular and “their” or “them” for the plural – but it might be that I simply haven’t submitted the issue to an expert before, and there’s something I’ve overlooked.

      2. “I notice a lot of use of “its” in the Constitution, that is, the singular term. Some examples:”

        It works for things, but is never used for people.

        There is some bias against using it when referring to a group of people as a singular entity, but a group of people doesn’t have a gender.

        As I noted, the use of plural pronouns as singular genderless (or unknown gender) has never been universally accepted and the constitution wasn’t all written by one person, particularly when you start getting into the amendments.

    2. If you do a little research, at the start of the country “United States” was referred to more as plural than singular (“the United States are…”) but there was a long slow shift from plural to singular, with almost a hundred years of passionate debates by grammarians – which is contrary to Shelby Foote’s claim in his Civil War documentary that the plural->singular shift was directly because of that war (although to be fair to Foote, even in the late 1800s some people were making that claim). As late as 1910 no less than Ambrose Bierce was still publicly stating United States is plural.

  5. EV, the existence of the government is democratic, since it is by the consent of the people; the structure of the government is republican, because it would otherwise be too unwieldy; and the reality of the government is histrionic. That last is unfortunate and hopefully temporary, but that’s where we are.

    1. “EV, the existence of the government is democratic, since it is by the consent of the people”

      An absolute monarchy is a government, but it’s existence is in no way dependent on the consent of the people.

      1. M. Guillotin says otherwise.

  6. Federalist 10 excellently describes republican control of faction, with faction being defined as “a number of CITIZENS, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Madison’s definition of faction (whose effects can be controlled by republican means) is well-honed and distinct from his definition of invasion (whose effects cannot be controlled by republican means).

    Madison’s direct conclusion (and its indirect counterpart, which is best left for later) remains relevant today: in the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, there MUST be a republican remedy for the diseases MOST INCIDENT to republican government.

    “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. […] A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.”

    Can we talk a little about California chickens and Massachusetts eggs?

  7. “Baron Montesquieu lays it down…”

    Didn’t know Baron Montesquieu was a rapper.

  8. The great majority of the ‘We’re a Republic, not a Democracy!’ instances I’ve encountered over the last few years do not involve thoughtful analysis of the the Founders’ views of William Blackstone, the Roman Republic, or the Federalist Papers. No its most common use is as a triumphant, sneering exclamation of right-wing echo chamber types, replying to someone’s innocent and (per EV here) mostly accurate passing reference to the US as a democracy.

    In fact, it’s such a common theme in some of the less courteous sites that’s it’s become a fairly reliable marker of someone who speaks mostly in talking points and sound bites picked up from Fox. (I do observe that it’s only rarely encountered on VC).

    A hypothesis. The primary cause for this is the coincidental roots of the names of our two major political parties. Specifically, to a certain strain of Fox-oriented partisanship, everything is viewed through the lens of “Republican Good! Democrat Bad!” Therefore, “Republic Good! Democracy Bad.”

    Were it not for this accident of semantics and history, this topic would remain a subject of obscure and enjoyably pedantic commentary such as EV’s here.

    Oh well, carry on.

  9. Actually, “republic” is Latin for democracy, and “democracy” is Greek for republic. Once one understands that, the entire debate is stupid.

  10. The real question is are these United States a “floor wax or a desert topping”.

  11. Well, at the risk of a backlash or being labeled a Pedant; I would offer the following. I tend to think of certain questions as important — not for the sole basis of being argumentative – but sometimes just to plant a flag in the ground.

    It seems to me that the “motive” for this entire article (nicely done, I might add) was not to show the overlapping characteristics of these two terms (republic v. democracy) – but was prepared just to “put to bed” this argument once and for all and just bury it. Maybe an long, indirect approach to accomplish this. I would much prefer the author — instead of trying to explain away the differences and posting about the origins of the words, etc. — that the premise be exactly what the intent is to start with; (i.e., many arguments have abounded both pro Republic and pro Democracy – with the end result not providing much needed guidance either one way or the other). (Similar to arguing with your wife about whether you were at a “pub” or a “bar”). But, maybe the author felt such an approach wouldn’t accomplish this.

  12. However, I strive not to come back with an answer that merely throws the issue up for grabs. Either the US is a Republic (as that term was utilized then) — or we are a Democracy. I think we need to know what the hell we are! If the answer were totally irrelevant – it wouldn’t be hashed about ad infinitum. For now, people have used the terms so interchangeably for so many decades – we’ve now lost track. Now we are left with “Well, this Supreme Court said this in the 1800’s” and “Black’s dictionary said this in the early 1900’s” and “A noted legal expert said this in 1960” and so forth!! Our kids who will be moving into the legislature, state govt’s, local councilmen, Senators, Representatives and Federal Agencies will have no clue in 20 years what we are – or why? Hell, we don’t even know the answer now! It seems that the ‘flag’ is constantly being moved and we cannot even remember where it was initially planted. [Maybe they are having similar discussions in Russia. Are we still Communist? We do have elections so — are we moving toward a Republic or Democracy? Have we morphed into something else? What exactly are we? Let’s just call ourselves a Republic since no ones knows or cares anyway! Hell, Democracy has now become such a vague and overarching term – let’s use that!] According to the latest brilliant minds, you can use whatever term you like! No one has quite pinned it down!

    Carpe Diem!

  13. Despite all the lengthy comments from people trying to sound intelligent…we are indeed Constitutional Federal Republic

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  15. The real question is are these United States a “floor wax or a desert topping”

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