The Volokh Conspiracy

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Law & Government

Our Constitution: "Well-Regulated Democracy," "In Its Principles … Purely Democratical"

I keep hearing the same (pointless, I think) claims that America is a republic, not a democracy. It's both a republic and a democracy.


But don't take my word on it; the quotes in the title are from James Wilson and John Marshall, then-future Supreme Court Justices, speaking in state conventions that ratified the Constitution in 1787 and 1788. (Wilson was also a principal drafter of the Constitution.) Wilson defended the Constitution in the Pennsylvania convention 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." He added,

Of what description is the Constitution before us? In its principles, it is purely democratical: varying indeed in its form in order to admit all the advantages, and to exclude all the disadvantages which are incidental to the known and established constitutions of government. But when we take an extensive and accurate view of the streams of power that appear through this great and comprehensive plan … we shall be able to trace them to one great and noble source, THE PEOPLE….

Chief Justice John Marshall—who helped lead the fight in the Virginia Convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution—likewise defended the Constitution in that convention thus:

I conceive that the object of the discussion now before us is whether democracy or despotism be most eligible. I am sure that those who framed the system submitted to our investigation, and those who now support it, intend the establishment and security of the former. The supporters of the Constitution claim the title of being firm friends of the liberty and the rights of mankind. They say that they consider it as the best means of protecting liberty. We, sir, idolize democracy. Those who oppose it have bestowed eulogiums on monarchy. We prefer this system to any monarchy because we are convinced that it has a greater tendency to secure our liberty and promote our happiness. We admire it because we think it a well-regulated democracy: it is recommended to the good people of this country: they are, through us, to declare whether it be such a plan of government as will establish and secure their freedom.

Thomas Jefferson, in an 1815 letter, likewise spoke of America's success in the War of 1812 as an example of

the excellence of a representative democracy [referring to the U.S.] compared with the misrule of Kings.

It's true that some of the numbers of the Federalist tried to sharply distinguish "democracy" and "republic"; but that wasn't the majority position among Framing-era Americans (as I discuss in even more detail in this post).