Democracies, Republics & the People
The question is often asked, is the United States a democracy, a republic, a constitutional republic, or what? When Congress passes legislation, does it act on behalf of a majority of the people as in a democracy, or does it act in accordance with the Constitution as in a constitutional republic? Does the fact that the people elect their representatives by their majority give those representatives power to pass any act they think their constituents want?
The term "democracy" is from two Greek words: demos, meaning the commons, the people; and kratia, meaning rule or authority. Hence democracy is a general term meaning popular government, or government by the people. "Republic" has Latin origins, is not necessarily contrasted with democracy, but means a government conducted by elected representatives acting under authority of enfranchised citizens and in accordance with the law.
Thomas Jefferson made no particular distinction between a "democracy" and a "republic," though he usually preferred the latter term. His definition of a "pure republic" sounds very much like what we call a "pure democracy."
"It must be acknowledged that the term "republic" is of very vague application in every language... Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say purely and simply it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action of the citizens. Such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Taylor, 1816.
Most students of the Founding Fathers feel that Jefferson and Madison were not quite in agreement on the desirability of a "pure" democracy or republic. Jefferson seemed to have faith in it, while believing it impracticable for anything other than a city-state; Madison, as he explained in Federalist #10, believed it led to factions and the eventual and inevitable downfall of the government. But Jefferson seemed to hold it up as an unreachable ideal that would nevertheless serve as a beacon in our search for formative policy.
"The first shade from this pure element [i.e., from a pure republic] which, like that of pure vital air cannot sustain life of itself, would be where the powers of the government, being divided, should be exercised each by representatives chosen either pro hac vice, or for such short terms as should render secure the duty of expressing the will of their constituents. This I should consider as the nearest approach to a pure republic which is practicable on a large scale of country or population. And we have examples of it in some of our State constitutions which, if not poisoned by priest-craft, would prove its excellence over all mixtures with other elements; and with only equal doses of poison, would still be the best." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Taylor, 1816.
It could be said with both truth and humor that there is nothing pure about the government of the United States. As Jefferson expressed it, the term "republic" covers a widely varying form.
"Action by the citizens in person, in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves, constitutes the essence of a republic... All governments are more or less republican in proportion as this principle enters more or less into their composition." --Thomas Jefferson to P. DuPont, 1816.
It should be noted that he considered "Action by the citizens in person" to include the governmental function of serving on a jury. The further we get from this participation of the people in government, the less is the government entitled to be called a republic.
"The further the departure from direct and constant control by the citizens, the less has the government the ingredient of republicanism; evidently none where the authorities are hereditary... or self-chosen... and little, where for life, in proportion as the life continues in being after the act of election." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Taylor, 1816.
We are a "constitutional republic," of course, but that just means that our government, however republican it may truly be, is regulated by a constitution. The only difference between a bill which the majority supports that Congress may legitimately pass and one that it may not legitimately pass because it violates our constitutional rights, is that the first bill falls within the provisions of the Constitution and the second does not. Whether this is actually so or not can be a highly debatable question, but our system is set up in such a way as to settle such constitutional questions. And every step of the process except, perhaps, the very last (i.e., a decision on the Constitutionality of a law by the Supreme Court) is determined by the majority will of the people, expressed through their representatives.
Government is never under any system a perfect institution. The representatives of the people being ordinary men, there will always be occasions when interests contrary to the good of the whole of the people may find opportunity to undermine good government. Our Founding Fathers, recognizing this, set up the constitutional system that readily accommodates the necessary ongoing, routine legislative processes, but also prevents those processes from going too far afield in matters of basic rights. That's why to change those fundamental features of the Constitution that protect rights and specify our republican forms, a tortuous process requiring supermajorities was instituted. It can be changed, but only with great difficulty. And that's why basic things like freedom of speech cannot be altered by a simple majority of Congress. It is also why we have more freedom of speech in this country than is had in a country like England where, under a Parliamentary system, they CAN restrict that freedom by a simple majority of Parliament. It is said that the British have a "purer" democracy than we have, and perhaps they do. But I suspect that ours is better calculated to protect our inherent and inalienable rights, as apparently it has.
The only possible loop-hole in our system is that Constitutional questions are decided by the judiciary, and the judiciary is not under any kind of direct or even indirect control by the people. Jefferson felt that they should be. He was opposed to Judicial Review (i.e., review by the Supreme Court of the decisions of other departments of government), and feared that a totally independent judiciary was destruction of government by the people.
"At the establishment of our Constitutions, the judiciary bodies were supposed to be the most helpless and harmless members of the government. Experience, however, soon showed in what way they were to become the most dangerous; that the insufficiency of the means provided for their removal gave them a freehold and irresponsibility in office; that their decisions, seeming to concern individual suitors only, pass silent and unheeded by the public at large; that these decisions nevertheless become law by precedent, sapping by little and little the foundations of the Constitution and working its change by construction before any one has perceived that that invisible and helpless worm has been busily employed in consuming its substance. In truth, man is not made to be trusted for life if secured against all liability to account." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823.
He thought that the appointment of judges should be for limited terms and the judges more subject to being reigned in.
"Let the future appointments of judges be for four or six years and removable by the President and Senate. This will bring their conduct at regular periods under revision and probation, and may keep them in equipoise between the general [federal] and special [state] governments. We have erred in this point by copying England, where certainly it is a good thing to have the judges independent of the King. But we have omitted to copy their caution also, which makes a judge removable on the address of both legislative houses. That there should be public functionaries independent of the nation whatever may be their demerit is a solecism in a republic of the first order of absurdity and inconsistency" --Thomas Jefferson to W. Barry, 1822.
Dictatorial power was never intended in any branch of government. The system of divided government, with each branch independent of the other, was intended to prevent the assumption of dictatorial powers by any one. Or as Jefferson put it:
"An elective despotism was not the government we fought for, but one which should not only be founded on true free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among general bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Va., 1782.
The fundamental idea behind the whole process was the control exercised over government by the people. Though not competent to run the government themselves, they were to oversee it and to participate at such points where they were competent in order to keep it on the right path. This is the foundation of our government and the principle around which every aspect of it is, or should be, organized.
"Democrats consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them, therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1825.
"No government can continue good, but under the control of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1819.
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