The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

He thought that the appointment of judges should be for limited terms and the judges more subject to being reigned in.

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:

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.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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