“A republic, if you can keep it.”

During the long hot summer of l787, the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were conducted in secrecy. When the proceedings finally ended, anxious citizens waited outside the doors. A famous interchange occurred when Benjamin Franklin emerged and was asked by one of the women, Mrs. Powell, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” He did not say a ‘democracy’.

What’s the difference between a republic and a democracy? And why does this issue matter today — over two hundred years later? The difference between a republic and a democracy is fundamental, not just a matter of semantics. The word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin, ‘res publica’ — which means ‘the public things’ or ‘the laws’. Democracy comes from the Greek words ‘demos’ and ‘kratein’ , translating into the people rule — synonymous with majority rule. James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, insisted in The Federalist, No.10 that the new Constitution had established a republic — not a democracy. He emphasized that a “Republican” form of government protected the people from the dangers of the tyranny of the majority.

At the heart of a democracy is the concept of majority rule. In a republic the power of the majority is subordinated to the rule of law and the protection of minority rights. The founders set up a system of government with separation of powers and checks and balances to prevent the majority from imposing its will without restraints. They also approved The Bill of Rights in l791 — the First Ten Amendments — to protect citizens against the powers of their government. The freedoms of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble to petition for grievance all guarantee minorities against majority rule.

Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.” Alexander Hamilton warned at the Constitutional Convention, “We are a Republican Government. Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.” And Fisher Ames who served in the U.S. Congress during the eight years of George Washington’s presidency, termed democracy, “a government by the passions of the multitude, or, no less correctly by the vices and ambitions of their leaders.” He also called majority rule, one of “the intermediate stages toward… tyranny.” Finally, John Marshal, who served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835 and created the principle of judicial review,reinforced Ames when he wrote, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”

Separation of powers exists in many forms: between a federal government and that of the states; among the three branches of the federal government, Legislative, Executive and Judiciary; between the two legislative branches, the Senate and The House of Representatives where each state — large and small — has two senators and a guarantee of at least one Representative based on population. Other checks and balances include a bill becoming a law only if it is approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. An executive veto can be overridden only by a two-thirds majority in both houses. In the judicial branch, members are appointed, not elected. And although the president has the power to nominate members to the federal courts, that power is subject to the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Since the members serve for six years rather than two, they were given this significant role.

Although we “pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and the republic for which it stands”, many people today think of the country as a democracy rather than a republic. This 20th century emphasis of the concept of democracy can be traced from Woodrow Wilson’s famous 1916 appeal to the nation on entering World War I that we would “make the world safe for democracy.” And Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 with his insistence that America “must be the great arsenal of democracy” to rush aid to England beleaguered by Nazi Germany during World War II.

It is now August, 2015 and The Iran Nuclear Deal is front and center for each senator and representative to decide whether to vote for approval in September. Congress is in recess and members are in their home states not in Washington D.C. A broad campaign is being waged by President Obama and his administration for approval. Certain groups have pledged millions of dollars to persuade members not to vote for approval. If either or both houses of Congress were to vote against approval, President Obama has the power of the Veto. Then, both houses would need two thirds of their members to override the Veto. Since the Republicans in both houses are heavily against approval, the final outcome rests with the Democratic members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. It is a drama being played out in 2015 between the Executive and the Legislature. The Democratic votes will finalize a significant event in the history of the Republic!

2 thoughts on ““A republic, if you can keep it.”

  1. This is very insightful. We are all in the class of the minority at different times. At those time the authority of the majority rule seems suppressive when the numbers replace true justice.

    Thank You

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