IS THE UNITED STATES A DEMOCRACY OR A REPUBLIC?
> Whoever wrote the comments about Founding Father Thomas Jefferson on your "Jefferson >on Politics and Government" page made a serious error. The writer refers more than >once to our country as a "democracy." With all due respect, our country is not, and >never has been, a democracy. It is a republic. A vast difference exists between the >two. The consensus of our Founders was that a democracy was an extremely poor system, >prone to all sorts of ills. They commonly referred to it as "mobocracy." They also >frequently mentioned that in a democracy, as soon as the citizens find that they can >"vote largesse to themselves," the system collapses. > Please correct this error. I concede that Jefferson was one of democracy's greatest >champions. Nevertheless, he too very much knew its weaknesses and tendencies toward >chaotic rule by the masses. A republic is a much superior system, and the Founders >knew it. Thank you for visiting the website and for your email. The term "democracy" has many different senses, and your objection is based on just one of those senses. In its general sense, the sense used on my website, a republic IS a democracy. Below is a portion of an essay, "Federalist No. 10 & Thomas Jefferson," included on my website, The Jeffersonian Perspective, that explains the confusion over the term "democracy." The entire essay is available at: http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/7970/jefpco55.htm ===================== There exists a gross misunderstanding of the term "democracy" and how it applies to our form of government. Let's begin with what the word means: it is essentially a general term, and is defined as: 1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. Notice that the basic definition of democracy is just a "government by the people." Notice also that a more specific definition includes a government by representatives of the people. To say that the Founding Fathers were opposed to democracy is absurd. Their whole purpose was to establish government by the people. They called their government a "republic," which is a form of democracy, but it is not a "pure" democracy. Confusion arises when "democracy," a generic term, is equated with "PURE democracy," a specific kind of democracy which ours is not. James Madison outlined the problems with democracies in his Federalist Paper #10. Federalist No. 10 is often cited as support by those who oppose democracy and majority rule. Nothing could be a more erroneous interpretation of this famous document, which was written to explain the new Constitution. Madison's intention was to show that the republican form of government established under the new Constitution was stable and would avoid the pitfalls encountered by other forms of popular government, especially "pure" democracies. He drew a distinction between a republic and a pure democracy when he wrote, "A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place..." and then, "Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy..." Both terms, "democracy" and "republic," are sometimes used interchangeably and should be defined (as Madison did) for clarity's sake. Jefferson used the term "republic" even when speaking of a pure democracy! ===================== Nevertheless, Jefferson did refer to our government as a democracy on several occasions. "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 William Short, 1825. ME 16:96 "We of the United States are constitutionally and conscientiously democrats." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:487 "The full experiment of a government democratical, but representative, was and is still reserved for us." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816. ME 15:65 He also made reference to "pure" democracies. The exact meaning of the term "democracy" must be gained from the context in which it is used. When used with reference to a government which is acknowledged to be a republic, it obviously does not refer to a "pure" democracy. To assume that the term "democracy" always refers to a pure democracy is a mistake. I hope that helps explain the use of the term "democracy" on my website. Best wishes, Eyler Coates
> I think you have an excelent page on Thomas Jefferson! However, I'd > like to add a bit of constructive criticism. I noticed that you make > statements such as "our democracy". I feel it necessary to inform you > that we do not have a democracy. I understand the point of view you are expresssing. It is an understanding that many have. The fact of the matter is, however, that "democracy" is a generic term that derives from "demos," the people, and "kratia," power, and means in its general sense "government of the people." That is the sense in which I have used it. You are making a distinction in your definition of democracy that Thomas Jefferson did not recognize. Although he more frequently used the terms "republic" and "republican," he nevertheless *did* use forms of the term democracy, as the quotes below will show, and, in fact, used the term to describe the government of the United States. "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 William Short, 1825. "We of the United States are constitutionally and conscientiously democrats. We consider society as one of the natural wants with which man has been created; that he has been endowed with faculties and qualities to effect its satisfaction by concurrence of others having the same want; that when, by the exercise of these faculties, he has procured a state of society, it is one of his acquisitions which he has a right to regulate and control, jointly indeed with all those who have concurred in the procurement, whom he cannot exclude from its use or direction more than they him." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. "The full experiment of a government democratical but representative was and is still reserved for us. The idea... has been carried by us more or less into all our legislative and executive departments; but it has not yet by any of us been pushed into all the ramifications of the system, so far as to leave no authority existing not responsible to the people; whose rights, however, to the exercise and fruits of their own industry can never be protected against the selfishness of rulers not subject to their control at short periods... My most earnest wish is to see the republican element of popular control pushed to the maximum of its practicable exercise. I shall then believe that our government may be pure and perpetual." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816. "Men, according to their constitutions and the circumstances in which they are placed, differ honestly in opinion. Some are whigs, liberals, democrats, call them what you please. Others are tories, serviles, aristocrats, etc." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1825. "In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them therefore liberals and serviles,... Whigs and Tories,... aristocrats and democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824. "The denunciation of the democratic societies [whose avowed object is the nourishment of the republican principles of our Constitution] is one of the extraordinary acts of boldness of which we have seen so many from the faction of monocrats... [and is] an attack on the freedom of discussion, the freedom of writing, printing and publishing." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1794. "The article nearest my heart is the division of the counties into wards. These will be pure and elementary republics, the sum of which taken together composes the State, and will make of the whole a true democracy as to the business of the wards, which is that of nearest and daily concern." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. I have written an essay for The Jeffersonian Perspective on this very topic, and it goes into detail on this question. This essay, "Federalist No. 10 and Thomas Jefferson," is available at: http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/7970/jefpco55.htm Federalist No. 10 is misquoted by many in an effort to discredit democracy and majority rule. But a closer examination reveals that Madison was speaking of a PURE democracy, not all democracies, when he spoke of the dissensions which destroy them all. I have read your critique and considered it. I hope you will read my essay and the above quotes of Jefferson and reconsider your view of democracy. The principle of democracy is that the people themselves are the ultimate sovereign, and Jefferson viewed them as only protection we have from tyranny.
The terms "democracy" and "republic" represent two quite different concepts. Democracy refers to the location of the ultimate political power in the people who constitute a nation. Republic refers to the organizational form through which political power is actuated in a government. A "pure democracy" has no organizational form; it is direct control of the government by the people, and is essentially uncontrolled, unregulated, and undisciplined by any organizational structure. It is theoretically possible to have a republic, i.e., a government conducted by representatives elected by a body of the citizens, which is nevertheless NOT a democracy, if the body of electors does not constitute the essential body of a free people, i.e., it is restricted in some arbitrary manner. Thus, a government which is elected by only those citizens with incomes above $200,000.00 per year might be a republic, but it is not a democracy. A government in which the people are permitted to vote on only one slate of candidates may be a republic, but it is not a democracy because the will of the people has no opportunity for free exercise. On the other hand, a government in which the people elect a king every four years, and he in turn appoints ministers to run the government, might be considered a democracy, but it is not a republic.
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