• Martin Duffy

Is the United States a Constitutional Republic?

The Origins of the Democratic System


The creation of democracy dates back to 6th century BCE Athens and it has since become one of the primary forms of government throughout the modern world, at least in a sense since no major government has adopted direct democracy as its primary way of governing the populace. What many now call democracy is actually a subsect of the democratic system known as indirect democracy where the populace elects individuals to vote for them and, as such, do not directly participate in government. The ancient philosopher Plato, who had severe objections to the direct democratic government of Ancient Athens, would surely agree that this form of democracy is indeed more beneficial to the people and to the state. He argued in his work The Republic that any democracy is doomed to fail as the state would be subject to the wills of uneducated and uninformed peoples. Plato stated that direct democracy can often devolve into tyranny as a result of this problematic nature.


The Roman Republic rectified the erroneous nature of the direct democratic system and established the first ever representative government. This government allowed for people to have a direct say in Roman assemblies but separated the Senate and Cursus Honorum from the people. Most modern governments which utilise the democratic system cite this Roman governmental system as the inspiration for their own Constitutions.


The American Founding Fathers


James Madison, oftentimes called the Father of the Constitution, helped to draft and establish the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He determined that after the failure of the Articles of Confederation, the United States could only function with a strong federal government. This led delegates from all 13 colonies to meet and begin to draft what would become the Constitution, establishing the three fundamental branches of the United States government.


Madison realised the problems that plagued direct democracies and instead sought to establish a Constitutional Republic. In a Constitutional Republic, rather than the legal power of the government stemming from the people, it is instead derived from the Constitution itself. The term Constitutional Republic can be clearly understood when analysing each word separately. The “Constitutional” aspect of the Republic means that the Constitution is the supreme law of the United States while the term “Republic” means that the power of the government is held by the people but is exercised by elected representatives. This differentiation in power helps to protect the Republic from being subject to “mob rule”, as originally described by Plato. This difference makes it so that, although by definition the United States is a democracy, every vote is not always equal. In Presidential elections, this inequality is addressed in the Electoral College where states gain a specified number of votes based on their census. The Electoral College allows for votes throughout the country to matter, rather than being reliant upon a small number of urban centers.


Madison and other Founding Fathers realised the complex nature of democracy and sought to separate the Executive and Judicial branches of power from the people. The Heritage Foundation states that the Founding Fathers saw that, “because ancient democracies lacked any social or institutional forces that could check, refine, or moderate the will of the majority, they were prone to great instability”. This instability left democracy vulnerable to tyranny and abuse.


Although citizens of the United States have the ability to elect Senators and Congressmen, they do not participate in the election of Presidents for a very important reason. A majority of the United States population is in a relatively small number of urban centers. If the President of the United States was elected directly by the people, the only votes that would matter would be those in urban areas, singling out the rural population. This would make it so that states such as New York and California have more of a say over what happens in the Midwest than the people living in the Midwest themselves. Although the Electoral College may seem antiquated to many, it serves a purpose to an equal footing to every state in the election of the next President. This is one of the clearest examples which separates the United States from being a democracy as it relies on a representative Electoral College originally created by the United States Constitution.


Modern Criticisms of the Term "Constitutional Republic"


I would be remiss not to adequately describe both sides of the argument whether the United States is better classified as a democracy or as a Constitutional Republic. An article in The Atlantic mentions how President Abraham Lincoln attempted to unite both terms into one form of government. He did so in the Gettysburg Address where he stated that the United States is a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. This seems to argue that although the United States is, by definition, a Constitutional Republic, it could be considered a democracy that serves the people. This article, however, seems to move away from their original argument and side-step into a discussion about hypocrisy of the modern Republican Party. One of the major arguments they mention is the disparity in senatorial representation compared to each state’s population. This argument demonstrates one of the most important details of the Constitution: that all states are equally represented. This senatorial equality is a key fundamental necessity for the United States government as it allows for all states to have a say in how the government is run. The author is remiss in not mentioning how the number of representatives in the House is reliant on each state’s census and that, as a result, there are significantly more Californian representatives than Delawareans.


By refusing to accurately assess what is meant by the term “Constitutional Republic”, many authors misrepresent the idea to mean that the people have no true say in the government. This could not be further from the truth, as it allows for the government to help separate the true will of the majority of the country from a type of mob rule. This idea is furthered through the Constitution which begins with "We the People", clearly defining that the power of the Federal government derives from its populace.


Conclusions


The United States Constitution is one of the most important legal documents in modern history. It has allowed each state to remain equal when discussing matters on the floor of Congress and has allowed for people throughout these United States to be heard in the matters of government. The US falls under governmental classifications for both Indirect Democracy and Constitutional Republic, but could be more accurately classified as the latter. The true power of the United States Federal Government derives from the populace that it protects and governs but ultimately its rule of law comes from the Constitution. Therefore, since the US government is representative in nature and derives its laws from the Constitution, it should be classified as a Constitutional Republic rather than a Democracy. When Benjamin Franklin was asked about what form of government he had helped to create, he responded, “a Republic, if you can keep it”.