As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him, "Sir, what have you given us?"
His immediate response was, "A republic ma'am, if you can keep it.."
Yet many Americans today have come to believe America’s governmental system is a democracy and not a republic.
The difference between these two is essential in understanding the American system.
Before we discuss political systems however, it is helpful to address the confusion about the political spectrum. Many people believe that the political spectrum places groups such as communists on the far left, fascists or dictators on the far right, and political moderates or centrists in the middle.
However, a more accurate political spectrum will show government having zero power on the far right to having 100% power on the far left. At the extreme right, there is no government. The extreme left features total government under such labels as communism, socialism, nazism, fascism, princes, potentates, dictators, kings, any form of total government.
Those who claim that nazis and fascist are right wing never define their terms. This amounts to spreading confusion. The type of government limited to its proper role of protecting the rights of the people is toward the middle of the spectrum. That’s where the Constitution of the United States is. Those who advocate such a form of government are constitutional moderates.
So, let’s analyze the basic forms of government. They are, monarchy or dictatorship ruled by one, oligarchy ruled by a few, democracy ruled by the majority, republic ruled by law, and anarchy which is ruled by no one. A discussion of these five will narrow down the types of government.
Looking first at monarchy or dictatorship. This form of government doesn’t really exist. In the practical sense, it’s always a group that puts one of its members up front. A king has his council of nobles or earls and every dictator has his bureaucrats or commissars, the men behind the scenes. This isn’t rule by one even though one person may be the visible leader. It’s rule by a group. So, let’s eliminate monarchy dictatorship because it never truly exists.
Oligarchy, which is rule by a group, is the most common form of government in all history and it is the most common form of government today. A powerful few rule most of the nations of the world and therefore oligarchy remains.
At the other end, we find anarchy, which means without government. Some people have looked over history and found that governments committed many of its worse crimes. Therefore, they decided that having no government might be a good idea but this is a mistake because as the ancient Greeks stated, without law there can be no freedom.
America’s Founding Fathers agreed and held that some amount of government is a necessary force in any civilized orderly society. In a state of anarchy, however everyone has to guard life, liberty, and property and the lives of family members. Movement is severely restricted and arming everyone is necessary to protect ones property at all times.
Civilized people have always hired someone to do the guarding, a sheriff, a police force, or some branch of government. Once law enforcement was in place, the people were freer. They could leave their property, work in the fields, and so on. In short, the proper amount of government makes everyone freer.
Tragically, the people living in such chaos often go to those best able to put an end to it and beg them to take over and restore order. Who is best able to put an end to the chaos? The very people who started it.
The anarchist who created the problem then creates a government run by them, an oligarchy, where they have total power. This is exactly what happened in Russia that led to Lenin taking total power and in Germany where Hitler’s Brown Shirts created the chaos that brought him to power.
However, anarchy isn’t a stable form of government; it’s a quick transition from something that exists to something desired by the power hungry. It’s a temporary condition and because it isn’t permanent, we eliminate it as well.
The word democracy comes from two Greek words, demos meaning people and kratein meaning to rule. Democracy therefore means the rule of the people, majority rule. This of course sounds good but suppose the majority decides to take away one's home or business, or children. Obviously, there has to be a limit. The flaw in democracy is that the majority is not restrained. Persuading more than half the people to want something in a democracy means they rule.
What about republic? Well that comes from the Latin, res, meaning thing and publica, meaning public. It means the public thing, the law. A true republic is one where the government is limited by law leaving the people alone.
America’s Founders had a clean slate to write on. They could have set up an oligarchy. In fact, there were some who wanted George Washington to be their king, but the founding fathers knew history and they chose to give us the rule of law in a republic, not the rule of the majority in a democracy.
Why? Let’s demonstrate the difference in the setting of the old west. Consider a lynch mob in a democracy. Thirty five horseback riders chase one lone gunman. They catch him. They vote thirty five to one to hang him. Democracy has triumphed and there is one less gunman to contend with.
Now consider the same scenario in a republic. The thirty five horseback riders catch the gunman and vote thirty five to one to hang him but the sheriff arrives and he says you can’t kill him; he’s got his right to a fair trial. Therefore, they take the gunman back to town. A jury of his peers hear the evidence and the defense and they decide if he shall hang. Does the jury ever decide by majority rule; no, it has to be unanimous or he goes free. The rights of the gunman aren’t subject to majority rule but to the law. This is the essence of a republic.
Many Americans would be surprised to learn that the word democracy does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the U. S. Constitution. Nor does it appear in any of the constitutions of the fifty states. The founders did everything they could to keep us from having a democracy.
James Madison, rightly known as the Father of the Constitution wrote in essay number ten of the Federalist papers, "Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."
Alexander Hamilton agreed and he stated, "We are a republican government. Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy."
Samuel Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence, stated, "Democracies never last long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself."
The Founders had good reason to look upon democracy with contempt because they knew that the democracies in the early Greek city states produced some of the wildest excesses of government imaginable. In every case, they ended up with mob rule, then anarchy, and finally tyranny under an oligarchy.
During that period in Greece there was a man named Solon who urged creation of a fixed body of law not subject to majority whims. While the Greeks never adopted Solon’s wise council, the Romans did. Based on what they knew of Solon’s laws they created the twelve tables of the Roman law and in effect built a republic that limited government power and left the people alone. Since government was limited the people were free to produce with the understanding they could keep the fruits of their labor. In time, Rome became wealthy and the envy of the world.
In the mist of plenty, however, the Roman people forgot what freedom entailed. They forgot that the essence of freedom is the proper limitation of government. When government power grows, people's freedom recedes.
Once the Romans dropped their guard, power-seeking politicians began to exceed the powers granted them in the Roman Constitution. Some learned that they could elect politicians who would use government power to take property from some and give it to others. Housing and welfare programs followed the introduction of agriculture subsidies. Inevitably, taxes rose and controls over the private sector were imposed.
Soon, a number of Rome’s producers could no longer make ends meet and they went on the dole. Productivity declined, shortages developed and mobs began roaming the streets demanding bread and circuses from the government. Many traded freedom for security. Evidentially the whole system came crashing down. They went from a republic to a democracy and ended up with an oligarchy under a progression of the Caesars.
Thus, democracy itself is not a stable form of government. Instead, it is the gradual transition from limited government to the unlimited rule of an oligarchy.
Knowing this, Americans ultimately have only two choices. We can keep our republic as Franklin put it or we will inevitably end up with an oligarchy, a tyranny of the elite.