Why Did the Founding Fathers Establish a Republic and not a Democracy?
America’s founding fathers intended the U.S. to be a Republic (elected officials vote on laws), rather than a Direct Democracy (everyone votes on laws).
More specifically, the founders intended the U.S. to be a “mixed-republic” comprised of a union of states (federalism), each with a republican government, ruled by elected officials and laws, bound by federal and state Constitutions, in which democratic and liberal principles were ensured. Indeed, they succeeded, and today the United States is a Constitutional Federal Republic; with a strong democratic tradition.
The Founders, Democracy, and the Republic
The Constitution specifically creates a Federal Republic, a federation of republican states and a central federal republican government. Meanwhile the focus on states’ rights, a separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial, and the liberal-minded the Bill of Rights (which amends the Constitution) helps to ensure “strong Democratic values.” Thus, “the U.S. is a Constitutional Federal Republic; with strong Democratic values” by design.
The Founders did not do this because they thought a “Representative” Republic (AKA Representative Democracy) was perfect, or because they all agreed a strong federal government was better than a looser Confederation of states (see all of American history and the Articles of Confederation, to States’ Rights, to the Confederates). They did it because they wanted to avoid the pitfalls of past governments, including factions, special interests, oligarchs, despots, monarchy, weak central government, and specifically mob rule. Mob rule, also called Tyranny of the Majority, is what happens when a “pure” Democracy devolves into Anarchy, and thus there is no law or laws are not followed.
Although no two founders agreed fully, and although they knew all styles of governments had drawbacks, they came to a consensus that the best way to avoid the pitfalls was to put the creation of laws and the electing of Presidents (and at the time Senators) in the hands of elected and appointed officials, rather than directly in the hands of the public (see how voting works). Thus, while the government is “by the people, of the people, and for the people”, it is not a direct democracy classically speaking.
These intentions can be verified a number of ways, including by: the Constitution which creates a Republic with an electoral college, the Federalist papers which make a case for the Insufficiency of the Confederation to Preserve the Union, a Day-by-Day Summary of the Convention, other written documents from the founders like Jefferson’s letters, the founder’s philosophical influences like Locke or even Aristotle (who was one of the first to warn of mob rule), the debates surrounding past governments, and the condition of America post-Treaty of Paris (1983) which demanded action.
At the time of the Constitution’s drafting in 1789, the U.S.’s currency was a bit of a joke (see Continental currency) and states were off making deals with other countries. This is why the Second Continental Congress called a meeting to discuss replacing the Articles of Confederation with a better document, to create a “more perfect Union”.
Without getting to deep into Locke’s rights or Montesquieu’s laws and liberties like Madison and Jefferson did, we can simply say, you need some form of stable government to protect democracy, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; thus “a mixed-Republic” (a mixed-government rooted in a Republic like we have).
For example, the anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson wanted a purer democracy in-line with the spirit of the French revolution, while the Federalist Hamilton wanted a more formal power structure like England’s. Meanwhile, James Madison, the father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights themselves, fell somewhere in the middle. It was Madison who, likely inspired by Montesquieu’s description of Lycia, designed the mixed-confederate-republic with a separation of powers.
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened), against domestic Violence. – Article. IV. Section. 4. guaranteeing every state a Republican form of Government.
ALL STATES, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities. – Machiavelli, the father of political science.
THERE are three species of government; republican, monarchical, and despotic. In order to discover their nature, it is sufficient to recollect the common notion, which supposes three definitions, or rather three facts: “That a republican government is that in which the body or only a part of the people is possessed of the supreme power: monarchy, that in which a single person governs by fixed and established laws: a despotic government, that in which a single person directs every thing by his own will and caprice.” – Montesquieu, Revolutionary America’s most cited author
TIP: See an essay on the form of government of America and what it means to be a “Constitutional Federal Representative Republic; with a strong democratic tradition“. It is too complex to fully describe here.Why Socrates Hated Democracy. The Tyranny of the majority has been a fear of political thinkers since Plato’s Socrates famously criticized Athen’s own “Athenian democracy” in Plato’s Republic. Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and almost every political philosopher whose name an average person can recall was a Republican who favored a Republic to direct democracy. The general idea is that the fate of the city-state (or today the nation-state) is best entrusted to those who have prepared for the duty (both in terms of who should rule and how should vote). You’ll be hard-pressed to find a champion of pure democracy in history, even those with a strong democratic streak like Jefferson or Rousseau valued the merits of Republicanism. See an article on Republicanism in history.
TIP: Arguments for the Republic can be found in the Federalist #10 (Madison), #47 and #51 (Madison, separation of powers) and #68 (Hamilton, the electoral college). Even a brief skim of documents like Jefferson’s letters and the Federalist Papers is quick to illustrate “a love of the republic” as Montesquieu would say.
TIP: To be clear, not only is the federal government a Republic, but the Constitution guarantees each state in the Union a republican form of government (remember we are a federation of republican states with a central republican government, so there is more than one layer to consider). State legislatures almost all consist of a higher and lower house (a bicameral legislature like the federal house and senate) where elected officials make laws. However, people do vote directly for some state-based laws, initiatives and referendums (see how voting works in the United States); the people can also bring to the table and vote on recalls. Given the complexity of America in practice today, it is very appropriate to refer to it as a “mixed-government” or “mixed-republic”.
TIP: America isn’t just “a Republic,” it is a Constitutional Federal Republic with a Democratic spirit. Democratic ideals led to the rejection of a Constitutional Monarchy or a more restrictive Republic. This said, America isn’t the first free trading Republic, its actually a lot like Britain, but it has no King/Queen or Parliament and instead has a President and Congress.Conflict & Compromise: The Constitutional Convention
TIP: See Forms of Government, The history of left and right Madison Drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the founding fathers and their classically liberal principles and History of the Political Parties.
FACT: The name “the United States” likely comes from CHAP. III.: Other Requisites in a confederate Republic of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws where he (discussing past confederations of republican states like Lycia) says, “It is difficult for the united states to be all of equal power and extent….Were I to give a model of an excellent confederate republic, I should pitch upon that of Lycia.” In this work Montesquieu coins many of the concepts Madison and the other founders would pick up on and bake into our Constitution. Importantly this includes the concept of a large confederation of republics with a central government and a separation of powers; a United federation of Republican States [and Commonwealths].Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights, and American Government. (Tom Richey). America is founded on the principles of liberalism (the political philosophy of liberty, i.e. life, liberty, the ownership of property, separation of powers, etc.) This video helps explain where these ideas come from.
Philosophical and Historical Justification for Creating a Republic
America’s founding fathers had studied history from Athenian Democracy, to the Roman Republic before and after Caesar, to the Maritime republics of the Middle Ages (including the successful mixed-government of the Republic of Venice), and they had seen the pitfalls of the other types of governments, which had been known since the Greeks philosophers.
In Plato’s Republic, Plato discussed how “the Republic” is the only practical and stable form of government that promotes Democracy. Hume called for a mixed government, Rousseau did too, Machiavelli a Republic (pointing to Venice specifically over his Florentine), Montesquieu a mixed republic ruled by law, even Burke supported a Republic. Etc. Madison was well read, as were other Virginians (like Virginia’s George Mason and Gouverneur Morris “the Penman of the Constitution”).
This is to say, the founders looked great city-states like Athens, Rome, Sparta, Alexandria, and Egypt and generally took the ideas of other great thinkers from the Greeks throughout the European enlightenment and applied them when moving from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. (See political philosophers who influenced the founding fathers).
Madison, pulled ideas straight out of political philosophy, including Montesquieu’s separation of powers when drafting the Constitution and Bill of Rights. With the Bill of Rights specifically being, by no stretch of the imagination, a list of classical liberal principles modeled on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. Jefferson, who was 33 at the time the Declaration is created, likewise, paraphrases Locke in the Declaration of Independence. Meanwhile, Thomas Paine draws heavily on existing political philosophy while creating his own new philosophies.
The founders did not all agree with each theoretical or practical provision regarding the structure and principles of the new government (and none is more telling than the three fifths compromise). They discussed the issues, compromised, and came to a consensus. They created a government that would allow the elites and aristocrats to step in as needed in Hamiltonian, pro-British, Roman style, while embracing a free-market democratic process that was partly influenced by the Athenians (Jeffersonian style), and partly influenced by the new economic philosopher Adam Smith (Benjamin Franklin style).
Republic vs. Democracy – What Is The Real Form of the U.S. Government. TIP: This is an excellent video and hits the nail on the head in some ways. However, the video is, at times, bias by omission, and its take on “left and right”, especially in modern context, is a little oversimplified and is misleading. This can be explained by understanding the video is done by The John Birch Society, a right-leaning think tank. See our take on Left versus Right to get an alternative view.
“Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.” – Alexander Hamilton (Implying that utilizing a centered mix of government styles, rooted in law, was the only way to ensure Liberty).
“In adopting a republican form of government, I not only took it as man does his wife, for better, for worse, but what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all its bad qualities.” – 1803 GOUVERNEUR MORRIS
TIP: In reality, Governments don’t use “pure” systems, this is especially true if we consider large groups and subsystems. Different groups work well with different systems. A “pure” anything is only possible with a type of Monarchy (typically an Oligarchy) that carefully structures a society. The principles of Democracy and even Republics are too messy to result in “pure” anything. The trick to a well-structured society is balancing a mixed system of checks and balances, while warding off special interests and demagogues, which is easier said than done.
TIP: When we say “basic political systems” we are using the time-honored systems of Plato (Republic) and Aristotle (Politics), and applying them to today. See Aristotle’s political theory, see Plato’s Republic.
TIP: According to Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, the “spring” of a Democracy is a love of equality and the “spring” of a Republic is moderation and modesty (a necessary virtue to ensure a love of country despite the inherent inequality found in this form). Thus, a Democratic Republic (a mixed government that is both Republican and Democratic) must uphold the virtues of both a Democracy and Republic. Thus, in the United States virtue would be understood (not like this), but as a love of country, equality, moderation, and modesty as encapsulated by law and tradition (paraphrasing). This is done by: 1. putting the common good before special interest, 2. creating law based on the common good, 3. putting the law before all else, 4. ensuring this with checks and balances between powers using the principles of mixed governments in the Republic. I’d also argue that the “spring” of monarchies applies, which is honor. See the Spirit of the Laws, Book 3. CHAP. III.: Of the Principle of Democracy, CHAP. IV.: Of the Principle of Aristocracy, and CHAP. V.: Of Education in a republican Government (he in this chapter and later chapters presents a very robust argument, of which many of our founders would have been familiar).
Republics Versus Oligarchies
To understand political science or political theory one has to understand the types of governments: monarchy (ruled by one), oligarchy (ruled by a few), republic (ruled by elected officials and governed by law), and democracy (ruled by many).
When all is said and done, there are two basic choices for a functioning Government: 1. Republic 2. Oligarchy (both types of aristocracies; see forms of government).
- Oligarchy means a small group of powerful people, which controls the nation.
- Republic means elected officials control the nation.
In simple terms: if we don’t want an Oligarchy (rule of special interests), we must protect the Republic (the rule of law). Some argue America has been taken over by the Oligarchs at times, and generally, the party system can be seen as a consistent push for, or against, this. You can see how this might look on the political left-right spectrum of basic governments below.
Why Don’t We Choose Something Other Than a Republic?
Speaking in simple terms, other government systems, including a pure Direct Democracy and Anarchy, tend to collapse into Oligarchy as they are unstable. Monarchy almost always becomes an Oligarchy as a single person can’t rule a nation alone. All other Government types are subtypes of these choices.
We can have a hybrid Republic as we do in the US, where communes like grassroots groups, oligarchies like corporations, and individuals all exist within the rule of law. Or, we can not.
A hybrid Direct Democracy that functions similarly to a Republic in many respects, but uses Direct Democracy for voting, worked well for Athens, one of the great city-states and a model for governments. For a balanced look at this see the Athenian Constitution by Libertarian philosopher Roderick T. Long.
Also, most modern civilized governments are mixed-governments. This means they draw from all the political systems. Many favor a Republic, while utilizing the many subtypes of Democracy within the structure of law. If you watch the above video and read this, you can see how nuance is used to sow confusion.Interest Groups: Crash Course Government and Politics #42.
TIP: Do not confuse “Republic” with the modern political party “Republicans.” The only things they have in common, aside a few ideals, is nomenclature. It is the same for Democrats and “Democracy.” Neither current political party is representative of a pure Republic, nor a pure Democracy. Both are further left or right on specific issues. Typically Democrats tend to espouse leftist ideology on social issues and are right-leaning on taxation. Republicans are generally the opposite. In this, we refer to the modern accepted usage of left and right. See the history of the political parties in the US for more information.
FACT: Article IV of the United States Constitution actually “guarantee[s] to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government”, it may guarantee Republicanism, but it doesn’t define a religion or an economic system. The underlying message is liberty by the rule of law and the mixing of the best aspects of political systems. This is well summed up by the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – The Declaration of Independence