A few weeks ago, someone left a comment on one of my posts from December, 2021: “Are Members of the Media ‘Serving as Accessories to the Murder of Democracy?’”
The individual wasn’t responding to my question. He was insisting that my use of the word “democracy” was wrong. “We’re a Republic,” he wrote, “—not a Democracy.”
As rock-solid evidence, he quoted the oft-used phrase that Benjamin Franklin purportedly addressed to a group of citizens as he left the Constitutional Convention. What kind of government had the framers just created?, he was asked. “A republic,” he responded, “if you can keep it.”
To my commenter, Franklin’s statement proved that we’re not a democracy. “You could look it up,” he wrote. (We’ll return to this quotation, which a Constitutional scholar uses quite differently.)
I am tired of the trope “We’re a Republic, not a Democracy,” so I didn’t rush to answer the comment. And when I did, I accidentally (truly!) erased not only the response I was in the midst of posting, but his comment as well.
But the issue is nagging at me. Why can’t I let it go? Because this person wasn’t seeking clarification about whether the US is a republic or a democracy.
Though I don’t know him, the argument he’s making is part of an insidious campaign to persuade Americans that the very fragile democracy we must protect now isn’t really a part of our history and politics.
That is a seriously selective reading of the Framers’ efforts.
And it’s a dangerous one. People who are persuaded by this argument are less likely to fight for the rights that are under attack right now—first and foremost, the right to vote.
So please follow along with me in this blog post-sized effort to wade into a topic about which hefty scholarly books have been written.
The United States is both a republic and a democracy: we are a representative democracy, a democratic republic.
The framers, though leery of a “direct” democracy such as in ancient Greece, where individual citizens wrote the laws, placed emphasis on “We the People.” That was why they created the House, based on population, and “chosen by the people of the several states,” as well as the Senate, with two Senators from each state, initially elected by the state legislators.
(The Electoral College is such a gnarly issue that I’m going to leave it alone in this piece. It was a compromise that’s been skewing our election results in undemocratic ways.)
The House is described first in the Constitution, a point that Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Constitutional scholar, has stressed is significant because the “People’s House” is preeminent.
As far as the use of the term “democracy,” another Constitutional scholar, Eugene Volokh, wrote in the Washington Post,
“…indeed the American form of government has been called a ‘democracy’ by leading American statesmen and legal commentators from the Framing on. It’s true that some Framing-era commentators made arguments that distinguished ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’; see, for instance, The Federalist (No. 10), though even that first draws the distinction between ‘pure democracy’ and a ‘republic,’ only later just saying ‘democracy.’
“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.’
“And 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.’
(Volokh’s article links to all the relevant supportive materials.)
The Constitution’s framers—all white, Protestant, land-owning men, including a number who owned slaves—didn’t insert anything in the Constitution about the right to vote. They did, however, say that Congress has the power to decide the “Times, Places, and Manner” of Congressional elections.
But they were wise enough to realize that they didn’t have all the answers, and that the young nation’s development wouldn’t be static. Hence: amendments! They added the first ten, which became the Bill of Rights.
Since then, important amendments have been passed:
The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished slavery.
The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) guaranteed citizenry to all persons born or naturalized in the US.
The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) said the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The Seventeenth Amendment (1914) moved the election of Senators from the state legislators to the people themselves.
The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) granted women the right to vote.
The Twenty-third Amendment (1961) granted American citizens in the District of Columbia the right to vote in Presidential elections even though it’s not a state. (It’s past time that it becomes a state!)
The Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) prohibited a poll tax in federal elections.
The Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) granted 18 year old American citizens the right to vote.
You can see the pattern here. With time, the Constitutional amendments expanded the rights of individual citizens. All these efforts were in keeping with the Founding Fathers’ belief in a growing democracy, as long as the rights of the minority were protected. They were to be protected—but they were not to supersede the rights of the majority.
Unfortunately, the growing numbers of people who find democracy inconvenient at best are increasingly active.
We are witnessing some horrific attacks on voting rights by individuals who claim fealty to the Constitution as it was originally written—even though many of them, including certain members of today’s radical Supreme Court—would not themselves have been guaranteed the right to vote if they’d lived before the relevant amendments had been adopted. In Clarence Thomas’s case, that would have been in 1870; in Amy Coney Barrett’s, it might have been in 1920—depending on the state she lived in. [Update with thanks to a careful commenter.]
What’s infuriating, and the reason I felt I had to respond to the “We’re a republic, not a democracy” guy, is that the proponents of that idea are making decisions and passing legislation as if our Founding Fathers had elevated the rights of the minority above those of the majority.
The promulgators of this idea are doing so at a time when increasing numbers of our multiracial, multicultural population are insisting on full participation in the pursuit of a “more perfect union.”
This specious rebuttal of democracy is simply an attempt to depict the country as it once was because they fear what it has become—and more importantly, what it has the potential to become.
The late Dr. Richard Bremen, another Constitutional scholar, wrote the following for the Constitution Center. Though it appeared on constitution center.org more than two decades ago, it seems even more relevant to us today.
I was tempted to bold all the passages below because they strike me as so valuable–and timely. I did bold the closing paragraphs that bring us full circle.
“As we look at the state of our federal union 211 years after the Founders completed their work, there is cause for satisfaction that we have avoided many of the plagues afflicting so many other societies, but this is hardly cause for complacency.
“To be sure, the US Constitution itself has not only survived the crises confronting it in the past, but in so doing, it has in itself become our nation’s most powerful symbol of unity–a far preferable alternative to a monarch or a national religion, the institutions on which most nations around the world have relied.
“Moreover, our Constitution is a stronger, better document than it was when it initially emerged from the Philadelphia Convention. Through the amendment process (in particular, through the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments), it has become the protector of the rights of all the people, not just some of the people.
“On the other hand, the challenges to national unity under our Constitution are, if anything, far greater than those confronting the infant nation in 1787. Although the new nation was a pluralistic one by the standards of the 18th century, the face of America in 1998 looks very different from the original: we are no longer a people united by a common language, religion or culture; and while our overall level of material prosperity is staggering by the standards of any age, the widening gulf between rich and poor is perhaps the most serious threat to a common definition of the ‘pursuit of happiness.’
“The conditions that threaten to undermine our sense of nationhood, bound up in the debate over slavery and manifested in intense sectional conflict during the pre-Civil War era, are today both more complex and diffuse.
“Some of today’s conditions are part of the tragic legacy of slavery–a racial climate marked too often by mutual mistrust and misunderstanding and a condition of desperate poverty within our inner cities that has left many young people so alienated that any standard definition of citizenship becomes meaningless.
“More commonly, but in the long run perhaps just as alarming, tens of millions of Americans have been turned-off by the corrupting effects of money on the political system. Bombarded with negative advertising about their candidates, they express their feelings of alienation by staying home on election day.
“If there is a lesson in all of this it is that our Constitution is neither a self-actuating nor a self-correcting document. It requires the constant attention and devotion of all citizens. There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’
“The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.”
Republic or Democracy? One and the same—if we can keep it.
[Note: In searching for a free image of Ben Franklin that I could use immediately, I came up with only the one you see above. At first I thought it was inappropriate to show him surrounded by Bitcoins. Viewed metaphorically, though, the image suggests that the past remains an important part of us–even as we venture into new territory that’s somewhat cryptic to me at this point!]