I have a friend at work who reads my commentaries and he began sharing them with a friend of his who happens to be a lawyer. I have no idea how long this has been going on, but recently his friend has been texting him questions to ask me. I have no idea whether these questions are designed to trip me up, or if the guy truly is interested in learning the answer to them. I just respond to the best of my ability and leave it at that.
Friday at work my friend came up to me before we clocked in and showed me the most recent text. It said, “Ask Ross if we are a Constitutional Republic or a Democracy.” First off, I’m going to have to tell my friend to tell his friend to start calling me by my first name; I hate it when people call me by my last name – it reminds me of basic training.
Getting back to the question itself, the answer is not as simple as it may seem; it can’t be answered with an either or answer – there are too many variables. Is the question asking if America was established as a Republic or a Democracy back in 1789, or is it asking if we currently are a Democracy?
Ben Franklin said we were a Republic when asked what form of government they had produced in the Constitutional Convention, and he then added the caveat, “…if you can keep it.” That implies that the Republic could morph into something else; but is that something else a Democracy, a monarchy, an oligarchy, or just an outright despotism?
I guess the first step in answering this question should be an effort to define the words republic and democracy. The problem arises when one goes to a modern day dictionary to find the meaning of words. Words change their meaning as time passes. For instance gay used to mean happy; carefree. Now it also means something else as well; a homosexual. So, to understand the meaning of a word in its political connotation one ought to try and find a dictionary from the era when the words were originally used. If one can’t do that, they should at least find a legal dictionary dating back as far in the past as they can find. I chose Black’s Law Dictionary to find the definitions I am about to provide, but you could use any you choose should you decide to do your own search for the meaning of these words.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines a Republic as: A commonwealth; a form of government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the general body of citizens, and which the executive power is lodged in officers chosen by and representing the people, and holding their office for a limited period, or at most during good behavior or at the pleasure of the people, and in which the legislative power may be (and in modern republics is) intrusted to a representative assembly.
Using the same source a Democracy is defined as: That form of govern in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of free citizens; as distinguished from a monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy. According to the theory of a pure democracy, every citizen should participate directly in the business of governing, and the legislative assembly should comprise the whole people. But the ultimate lodgment of the sovereignty being the distinguishing feature, the introduction of the representative system does not remove a government from this type. However, a government of the latter kind is sometimes specifically described as a ‘representative democracy’.
I know that doesn’t answer the question, but at least you now know what the words mean. To answer the question one must not give much credence to what people today say about the matter; they must look back to the time our country, or at least the Constitution was established. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “On every question of construction (of the Constitution) let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit of the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.” (Source: Letter to William Small, 12 June 1823)
John Adams once said that we are a nation of laws, not men. I can’t say for certain what was running through John Adams head when he said that but it would seem to imply that we are not a democracy, as democracies are subject to the whim and fickle caprices of men gathered together in large groups. In a democracy, a pure one anyway, what 51% of the people agree upon becomes the law the other 49% must obey; regardless of whether the law violates their fundamental rights or deprives them of their property.
Now I don’t want to go into too much detail on the fact that I have come to believe the Constitution is a worthless document due to its failure to include sufficient limitations upon our government’s ability to usurp undelegated power, and our inability as the true sovereigns of the country to punish them for violating its limitations upon them, but the fact is that the Constitution was supposed to be the Supreme Law of the Land; governing both the government it established and the voters who elected people to fill the positions within it.
That was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1866 when they held, “The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances.” (Source: Ex parte Milligan)
In 1787 a group of men gathered together in Philadelphia to come up with suggested amendments to the Articles of Confederation to make the existing government stronger and more efficient. However, they chose to ignore their mandate; instead choosing to devise an entirely new system of government outlined by a written constitution.
A vast majority of the people in this country have probably never even read that document; yet they vote thinking they are making informed choices at the polls simply because they have followed closely the campaigns of the various contenders for whatever office is being voted for. Fewer still have taken the time to read the arguments both for and against the ratification of that document; the Federalist and anti-Federalist Papers. Fewer still have taken the time to read through the notes of the various State Ratifying Assemblies to see what those who were charged with deciding whether to adopt or reject the constitution were promised would be the powers exercised by this new system of government.
I mention all that because if you want to know what we have today you must first know what those who adopted this system of government were told it would be. You can watch the news broadcasts today and hear them talk about ‘our wonderful democracy’ all day long, but just because they say we’re a democracy doesn’t make it so.
It is pretty apparent to me that most people do not know the nature of a constitution; they believe it to be a list of suggestions, or worse, a living document subject to whatever passes for political correctness these days. Wrong! The Constitution is, in fact, the law that tells our government, and the voters, what their government can and cannot do.
Thomas Paine explained the nature of constitutions in his book The Rights of Man, ” A constitution is not a thing in name only, but in fact. It has not an ideal, but a real existence; and wherever it cannot be produced in a visible form, there is none. A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government, and a government is only the creature of a constitution. The constitution of a country is not the act of its government, but of the people constituting its government. It is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and which contains the principles on which the government shall be established, the manner in which it shall be organised, the powers it shall have, the mode of elections, the duration of Parliaments, or by what other name such bodies may be called; the powers which the executive part of the government shall have; and in fine, everything that relates to the complete organisation of a civil government, and the principles on which it shall act, and by which it shall be bound. A constitution, therefore, is to a government what the laws made afterwards by that government are to a court of judicature. The court of judicature does not make the laws, neither can it alter them; it only acts in conformity to the laws made: and the government is in like manner governed by the constitution.”
So now that I’ve laid most of the groundwork, let me answer the question as to whether I believe we are a Constitutional Republic or a Democracy; but my answer will come in two parts.
I believe that, when the Constitution was adopted and the system of government it outlined was implemented, we were a Constitutional Republic. Our Founders feared and despised democracies – even Alexander Hamilton who was ultimately responsible for altering our system from a limited government to one with almost unlimited power hated democracies, stating, “It has been observed by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government.” (Source: Speech of Alexander Hamilton to the New York Ratifying Convention, June 21, 1788)
Taking Ben Franklin at his word, we were told that they had created a Republic whose government was to be established by a written constitution; hence making us a Constitutional Republic.
That said, are we still a Constitutional Republic or have we become something else altogether?
On paper and in theory we are still a Constitutional Republic; although so much has transpired which has rendered theory obsolete. The usurpation of undelegated powers; the diminishment of State authority in the actions of the federal government, and the division of our country into factions, or political parties as we call them today, has rendered any semblance of a Constitutional Republic to sunder.
In writing to the Boston Selectmen in 1795 George Washington said, “…the Constitution is the guide I will never abandon.” Although he ate his own words during his tenure as president, the premise remains as true today as it did when he said it back then.
Our government, for it to be just, should adhere to what the Constitution says are its specifically enumerated powers; not what powers they can squeeze out of it by construction; as Jefferson spoke of in his letter to William Small.
At the same time, being a government deriving its authority from the consent of the governed, it is/was our responsibility to only vote for candidates who would support and defend the document that created it. We have not done that. All we care about today is whether the Republicans or the Democrats are in control; based upon our own political party allegiance and whatever ‘issues’ are of concern to us today; such as immigration, gun control, taxes, the war on terror, etc. etc.
On December 15, 1952 President Harry S. Truman delivered the keynote address at the dedication of the new display at the National Archives for the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. During his speech he stated, “But we must face the fact that all this pomp and circumstance could be the exact opposite of what we intend. This ceremony could be no more than a magnificent burial. If the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were enshrined in the Archives Building, but nowhere else, they would be dead, and this place would be only a stately tomb. … We find it hard to believe that liberty could ever be lost in this country. But it can be lost, and it will be, if the time ever comes when these documents are regarded not as the supreme expression of our pro, found belief, but merely as curiosities in glass cases.”
Today, due to political party divisions, and the fact that people don’t know or care what the Constitution says, we have a cross between an Elective Democracy and an Oligarchy; which is a small group of people in control of a nation or a country. As Carroll Quigley so accurately explained in his book Tragedy and Hope, “The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies… is a foolish idea. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can throw the rascals out at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy.”
So while the American voters believe we have a democracy, that their votes actually matter, government keeps on doing what it has been; exercising unjust authority and depriving the governed of their liberty and God-given unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I know this was a rather long-winded response to what, on the surface, appeared to be a pretty straightforward question, but I felt it was one which deserved a bit more discussion than a simple one or the other answer.
And, as a side note, I have truly come to believe that those who gathered together in secret during the summer of 1787 in the city of Philadelphia intended all along for our government to morph into exactly what it has become today. Men like Hamilton wanted the kind of government we have now, but where voted down during the proceedings. Yet they managed to ensure that the document they produced had enough loopholes, and a dire lack of enforcing power by the States and the people upon the government they were creating.
Patrick Henry, the loudest voice in defense of liberty this country has ever produced, saw through their lies and deceptions and he spoke out fervently against the adoption of this system of government. I will provide as my closing statement, a few of his quotes for your consideration.
– My great objection to this Government is, that it does not leave us the means of defending our rights, or of waging war against tyrants.
– The Honorable Gentleman who presides, told us, that to prevent abuses in our Government, we will assemble in Convention, recall our delegated powers, and punish our servants for abusing the trust reposed in them. Oh, Sir, we should have fine times indeed, if to punish tyrants, it were only sufficient to assemble the people. Your arms wherewith you could defend yourselves, are gone; and you have no longer an aristocratical; no longer democratical spirit. Did you ever read of any revolution in a nation, brought about by the punishment of those in power, inflicted by those who had no power at all?
– Where is the responsibility — that leading principle in the British government? In that government a punishment, certain and inevitable, is provided: But in this, there is no real actual punishment for the grossest maladministration. They may go without punishment, though they commit the most outrageous violation on our immunities. That paper may tell me they will be punished. I ask, by what law? They must make the law — for there is no existing law to do it. What — will they make a law to punish themselves? This, Sir, is my great objection to the Constitution, that there is no true responsibility — and that the preservation of our liberty depends on the single chance of men being virtuous enough to make laws to punish themselves.
– Such a Government is incompatible with the genius of republicanism: There will be no checks, no real balances, in this Government: What can avail your specious imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances?
I leave it to you to decide whether or not Patrick Henry was justified in his fears over what would happen should this system of government be implemented…