During the long hot summer of 1787, 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 democracy?” 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 Latin, “res publica” – which means the ‘public things’ or ‘the laws’. The word ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words, ‘demos’ and ‘kratein’ translating into ‘the people rule’ or ‘majority rule’. James Madison, known as the father of The Constitution, insisted in The Federalist, No. Ten, 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. It is important to note that Article One is the Legislative branch. It is the longest and most complete. Article Two is the executive branch. And Article Three is the Judiciary. They also approved the Bill of Rights in 1791 – 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 are all in the First Amendment. They guarantee minorities and all the people against majority rule.
It is now July 4, 2017 and the American people are witnessing huge dramatic changes in our federal government. The legislative and executive branches are controlled by the Republican Party. Paul Ryan, The Speaker of the House of Representatives is a Republican. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, is a Republican. President Donald J. Trump is a Republican. The judicial branch of nine justices has a five/four split between Conservative and Liberal opinions with Justice Kennedy seen as the “swing vote”.
The level of bitter bi-partisanship reached its apex when Senator McConnell would not allow President Barack Obama’s nominee for the open seat on the Supreme Court to have the confirmation hearing and vote that was the right of the president under the Constitution. Thus, Judge Merrick Garland, highly qualified and respected chief of the Second Circuit of Appeals never was given that opportunity. As informed citizens, we witnessed the “tyranny of the majority” in action.
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 Convention, “We are a Republican government. Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.” Finally, John Marshall, who served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835, and created the principle of judicial review, wrote, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.
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 our country as a democracy rather than a republic. This 20th century emphasis on a democracy can be traced to 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 during the Nazi Blitz of the British Isles in World War II.
Historians agree that Donald J. Trump is very different from any previous president in American history. He is the only man without any military or government experience or service. He prides himself on being a very successful business man with a vast worldwide real estate empire. His home was The Trump Tower in New York City before he won the November 2016 presidential election, passing 270 votes in the Electoral College. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, won the popular tally with over 3.5 million more votes. Trump has introduced Twitter as his means of communication to his base of supporters and the world at large. He is the first president to use the mass media and makes sure he is the cable TV story of the day from early a.m. hours. Trump held a very negative opinion of reporters during the campaign that has worsened since his inauguration. He calls the press, “the enemy of the American people. They give fake news every day.”
Since his inauguration on January 20, 2017, there has been a growing resistance movement, starting with The Women’s March on January 21. Millions of women, men and children gathered in cities and towns across the nation to protest Donald Trump’s election – the largest marches in the nation’s history. Successive Saturdays have seen protest marches continue. First, against Trump’s Travel Bans against Muslims from six countries with dominant Muslim populations. Then, in fierce opposition to the Congress and president’s plans to repeal and replace Obamacare. Crowds carry signs ACA (Affordable Care Act) as they march in the streets and outside offices of representatives, senators and the White House. Town meetings of members of Congress have resulted in large angry crowds shouting and telling stories of how the ACA saved lives in their families.
Other forms of resistance to Donald Trump and his policies include the Sanctuary Cities across the country who have refused to cooperate with Federal agents of ICE who come to round up undocumented immigrants for deportation. These cities found alternate funding to federal monies that would be denied to them. Other resisters are The Indivisibles, groups of people nationwide that oppose Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. They support clean energy like wind and solar versus the E.P.A. policies under Secretary Pruitt overturning Obama’s regulations that promoted clean air, water and safe working conditions. They go to Congressional home offices to protest and present their views. They also travel to offices in D.C. where a disabled group in wheel chairs, carrying ACA posters were arrested in the hallways several weeks ago.
There is a struggle going on across the United States where people are asserting their belief in the words of The Preamble to The Constitution, “We the people of the United States….” And the First Amendment giving them “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
What is happening today is proof that the United States is indeed a republic —based on laws protecting the people from the tyranny of the majority. We have a president who is just learning that the executive can be checked in his powers by the Courts and the Congress. The people are asserting their rights and opinions to the representatives they elected. The free press is doing their job questioning and holding elected officials to their responsibilities under the law. It is now up to our elected president, senators and representatives to be true to the oaths of office they each swore to uphold.
………………………………………………………………………………………………Joyce S. Anderson