Our Nation is a Federal, Representative Republic…If You Can Keep It

Many people use the word ‘democracy‘ to describe the United States. The confusion is understandable, since so many people of apparent authority use the term, including teachers and even Presidents. The problem is, of course, that the US is no democracy. The founders wouldn’t have it. They understood that a democracy, dominated by the will of the majority, suffered from an eventual decay that results from the oppression of a minority by a majority. They were students of history, and knew that no democracy would long stand against the tide of history. While a democracy references the will of the majority for its power, a republic references a charter of laws laid down in establishing it. A quick examination of our founding documents reveals that the United States was established as a federal, representative republic. There are elements that have a democratic flavor, but in all ways, this nation is a republic. On Independence Day, we would do well to remember this and be able to offer evidence to those who are confused.

A republic references a charter of laws. This is important because it sets the law above all men. No person, nor any number of them, even a majority, is above the law. The majority cannot arbitrarily make whatever may be the trend of the moment into law. In our republic, a simple majority cannot even amend the constitution itself. That requires the amendment to be adopted by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, and ratification by three-fourths of the states. The architects of the US Constitution intentionally made it difficult to accomplish this because they wanted to be sure the country’s body of law would have a stable foundation. Frequent and easy changes of the foundation would make for chaos. No person would be certain, from one day or one year to the next where they stood before the law.

Contrary to the revisionists at Time, who hate the Constitution precisely for its limits on easy change, the authorities granted to this new federal government were to be limited and narrow. Remembering that we had thirteen independent states, and representatives from those thirteen states who wrote our constitution, it is important to remember that the federal government was not intended to be all things to all men in all places. It was to be the supreme law of the land, but only with respect to its appointed duties. Those duties were severely limited to defending the nation as a whole, and providing for the resolution of disputes between the states or the citizens of their respective states. It was intended as a safeguard to the rights of individuals against the states. It was to wield the power only with the consent of those states. In point of fact, one could consider the federal aspects of our constitution much like a contract in partnership among the several states. Much like any partnership, this one too could be dissolved. Abraham Lincoln, the great tyrant of the 19th century, throttled this notion, but even he was careful to conceal his treachery by qualifying the civil war under a different name: “Insurrection.” The simple fact is, for those who care to know it, that the power of the US federal government does not rest directly with the people, but with the States. They created the federal government and its charter, the constitution, and they can dissolve it, thoroughly revised historical tyrants notwithstanding. This was done so as to limit the power of the federal government so as to prevent it from becoming too large and powerful and ultimately becoming an oppressor.

Our federal institutions are representative, which means rather than referencing some nationwide vote, the federal government acts upon diluted, representative power. The members of the House of Representatives are chosen by a majority of votes in their respective geographical districts within states, but these representatives are not bound by law or construct to do unfailingly that which their constituents may from time to time demand. In this way, the flaring passions of the moment in most issues before the house are dampened, and time is given for cooler heads to prevail. One shudders to imagine the silly, stupid and dangerous laws we would have, worse than those already on the books, if members of the House were an instantaneous reflector of the will of the majority in their districts. As bad as things now are, it would be many times worse. Still, the House is the voice of the people in the federal government, and this explains why it is generally considered the place of momentary passions. Many bills arise that thankfully never see the light of day.

The US Senate is a different creature, and while dangerous things have been done to it to destroy its independence, it’s important to know how it was established before reviewing how it’s been changed. The Senate was intended to be the voice of the will of the states. This is why in the ‘Great Compromise’, we adopted a bicameral Congress. One house was to be the voice of the people, by population, and the other to be the voice of states, by equal vote. Each state was apportioned two seats in the Senate. This meant that tiny Delaware would have a voice in the Senate as great as New York’s. This meant, as founded, that the states which created the constitution would have a perpetual and equal voice in the governing of the republic. The early 20th century was filled with many terrible and otherwise nefarious ideas, and none were worse than some of the Amendments to the constitution then introduced and adopted. It is true that the period did, but it is also true that we also got prohibition, the income tax, and the seventeenth amendment that essentially stole the United States Senate from the states, and gave it to the people directly. The founders would have indignantly considered this an abomination. Prior to the seventeenth amendment, the members of the Senate were chosen by the legislatures and assemblies of their respective states. This severely limited the influence and power of the federal government. It meant that rather than responding to the will of the people directly, the Senate responded instead to the legislatures of their home states. In this way, states were able to place a check on federal growth. Once removed, we can easily see how the federal government has grown out of all bounds ever since without this vital check in place to restrain it. Senators no longer need to pay the slightest attention to the governors or the legislatures of the state they are intended to represent. It has turned the Senate into a house of super-congressmen representing the will of the people. Few senators consider, even briefly, the wishes of their state governments in a given issue. The seventeenth amendment can be shown in this way to be a failure, unless you happen to like unrestricted federal power. More than any other damage that has been done to our constitution, this amendment has served to wreck the notion of federalism that had preserved our republic.

Even our Presidency is representative in nature. The people go out to an election, but in truth, their determination is only a recommendation made to the electors selected by their respective states. It is the members of the electoral college who select the President. This was done for a number of reasons, but most important was the notion that it would prevent the people from electing a tyrant or a demagogue of other description. The electoral college is empowered to ignore the results of the election, and simply choose anybody they please, though by tradition and in due deference to the people, the electors have not ignored the people yet. It was a safety valve placed to prevent momentary passions of a democratic character from causing detriment to the long-term interests of the republic. Many people these days seek to disband the electoral college, or make it moot, but this idea is every bit as dangerous to the future of our republic as has been the seventeenth amendment. Like so many of the checks put in place by the founders, the electoral college is a manner by which the people might be protected from themselves. The founders understood that passions can lead to ill-considered decisions, and any parent of a young, freshly-minted adult will understand this thoroughly. Passion in the decision-making process merely leads to terrible results.

Our federal court judges and justices are not chosen by election. They are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. This is another way in which the seventeenth amendment has worked to ruin our republic. Since federal judges and courts frequently decide issues arising from citizens against their respective states, what happens when you change the power base of those who confirm the judges? Quite obviously, those judges will be of a completely different mindset and character. Nevertheless, the federal judiciary was to be accessible only to issues arising between the states, or between the states and the federal government. Day to day legal issues, including most crimes and ordinary lawsuits were to be left to the courts of the several states.

As you can see, in no manner does the US Constitution establish a ‘democracy.’ It lays out a charter of a federal, representative republic. Measures have been undertaken to destroy the republican character of the United States, but still it remains a republic, as Mr. Franklin admonished us, “…if you can keep it.” Let us all, on this Independence Day, and every day hereafter, remember these differences and work to restore what has been tarnished by years of political manipulation and abuse. What the founders established, while imperfect, remains the oldest continuous system of government in existence anywhere on earth.

“In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults; if they are such; because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.”
– Benjamin Franklin, at the Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, 1787

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