Constitutional Corner

We are not a Democracy

Most Americans would say that we live in a democracy, but they would be wrong. In fact,neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution uses the word democracy. Why? Our Founding Fathers established a republic. They took a dim view of the idea of  democracy because of the dangers it would pose. So what is the difference between a democracy and a republic? And why does it matter?

A pure or direct democracy is rule by the majority. Whatever the greater part of the populace decides is the final verdict. That it is why it is sometimes called “the tyranny of the majority.” In a democracy, personal freedom is subject to the arbitrary whims of human nature.  Thomas Jefferson said, “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” Our Forefathers knew the end result of democracy. John Adams said it this way:  “Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy; such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable [abominable] cruelty of one or a very few.” Moses Ames, a Framer from Massachusetts, said a democracy is “a government not by laws, but by men.”

By contrast, John Adams said, “We are a nation of laws, not of men.”  We are a constitutional republic, a government in which people elect their fellow citizens to be their representatives in that government, and it is designed to protect the liberty of the minority as well as the individual. The government’s power is strictly limited to what is specifically outlined in a written Constitution. This Constitution is established by the people it governs, and it is only changed by Amendment. To ratify an amendment, it takes a two-thirds vote from both houses of Congress or three-fourths of the state legislatures.

The republic is protected by the separation of powers. As Alexander Hamilton put it, “Give all the power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all the power to a few, they will oppress the many. Both, therefore, ought to have the power that each may defend itself against the other.” The separation of powers keeps one branch of government from becoming more powerful than another. The Constitution provided that the power of the government be divided between three separate but equal branches: The Executive Branch (President) is indirectly elected by the people. The Judiciary Branch is an avenue of appeal and is appointed by the President upon the consent of the Senate. The Legislative Branch consists of the two Houses of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate). The House is the only body that was intended to be directly elected by the people. Today, the Senate is also directly elected by the people via the 19th amendment, ratified in 1913, but the Founders originally intended for Senators to be chosen by individual state legislatures

The Founders who gave us the Constitution and the Republic it protects gave us the freest nation on earth, but there is a limit. John Adams said “Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.”

If we are to remain a nation of laws rather than men, we must be a people who recognize the authority of those laws, abide them, and elect those who use the power entrusted to them to protect and defend the liberty of their fellow citizens, not to enrich themselves or abuse others. It is the only way to preserve the Republic and the freedom it affords us.

Sources Consulted:

A Basic History of the United States: Volume Two: The Beginning of the Republic; by Clarence B. Carson, 1984

The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Founding Fathers; by Brion McClanahan, 2009.

2 Responses to Constitutional Corner

  1. Albert J Sanchez says:

    So then, we are a democracy.


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