A Republic, not a Democracy: James Madison

James_Madison

I have been researching James Madison for a little project that I am not yet entirely at liberty to disclose. And my research is reminding me to be extremely impressed–so impressed that he may just be my favorite founding father. He certainly belongs into my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers.

Madison, of course, was not only the fourth president but also, and more importantly, the “father” of the US Constitution. He was the one who took the official notes in the sweltering summer heat of Philadelphia in 1787, and the one whose “Virginia Plan” (which was delivered by the other Virginian delegate but conceived by Madison) formed the basis of the subsequent compromises that led to our constitution. He was 36 years old at the time, and as physically short as he was intellectually giant. Wouldst that America had a man of his ilk today.

I am about to sketch out his vision of freedom as succinctly as I can, but let me just say that if you have been reading the Hannibal Blog for a while, you won’t be at all surprised that I admire the man. Madison fits perfectly my tastes for:

Since it is that last point that is most likely to be misunderstood, let me drill into that part of Madison’s thinking. Here is how I understand his views on the matter:

Madison originally preferred to use the word republic to describe the new America they were building, as opposed to the word democracy.

“Republic”

Republic comes from the Latin res publica, which means ‘public thing’–in other words a country ‘owned’ by its people rather than by a monarch. Deriving from Latin, the word reminded educated men such as Madison of republican Rome (ie, Rome before its civil wars), which was so remarkably stable and moderate, and which so impressed Polybius.

Being a public thing, a republic implicitly contains the element that we would call democracy, but it is understood that this is a representative democracy, in which the people choose representatives who in turn decide the issues of the day in competition with other branches of the government. Governance, in other words, has a basis in the people but is removed from the mob.

Most importantly for Madison, minorities in this republic are protected from majorities. He recognized that the tyranny of majorities is perhaps the greatest threat to freedom (which liberal thinking is all about, after all).

Put differently and in modern lingo, Madison was the opposite of a ‘populist‘. If he were around today, certain ‘real-America’ Alaskans would attack him with demagogic effect for being elitist.

“Democracy”

Democracy, by contrast, comes from the Greek and means ‘rule of the people‘. The connotation to educated men such as Madison was therefore ancient Athens, during the Periclean era of the Peloponnesian War, which had a direct democracy as opposed to the balanced representative one.

As part of another project that I’m not totally at liberty to disclose yet, I am also looking into that Athenian democracy right now. And allow me to state clearly that it ended in chaos and failure, in pre-emptive wars (Sicily) that should never have happened and mob-mad injustices such as the trial of Socrates.

Direct democracy is of course alive and well today in western states including California. In a mindlessly populist culture, it is a popular idea. (Stuck in a debate? Just say “let the people decide!”) What that leads to I have described in The Economist.

A modern polis that is increasingly close to the republican ideal of Madison, by the way, is Hong Kong.

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29 thoughts on “A Republic, not a Democracy: James Madison

  1. Sorry, I don’t buy the Republic-Democracy distinction.

    Any system where government decision is determined by the masses will ultimately be as bad as the lowest common denominator. In a republican system, you will sometimes get an aberration with an outstanding leader appealing to the nobler side of the masses, but more often than not, you will get one who caters to their basest of instincts.

    The only solution other than dictatorship (which as history teaches us ALWAYS goes bad) is strong public education combined with a powerful constitution and supreme court to guard the gates from populist politicians.

    • “…strong public education combined with a powerful constitution and supreme court to guard the gates from populist politicians….” Amen. Madison, and I, would agree.

      But I don’t get how you don’t get the distinction between Republic and Democracy (as defined in this, ie Madison’s, context):

      The Republic has more checks and balances, more filters, between “the people” and the decisions to be taken. Yes, the people can periodically reassess whether they want to keep Senator A or Congressman B, but for several years in between, Senator A must then decide based on his own expertise and conscience. Senator A, moreover, faces other Senators and a Supreme Court and an executive, etc, so the decision to be taken is slowed down, examined, etc. By contrast, in a direct democracy, as in ancient Athens or modern California (name any Prop, eg Prop 8), the mob, mostly uninformed and often confused about the very wording of the initiative or the complexity of the issue, gets to decide. That is not always a disaster but often it is.

      So you might say that the Republic lengthens the distance between the decision and the mob, relative to a Democracy. (By contrast, in a dictatorship, there is no distance at all: the mob is completely cut out from the decision, which is terrible.)

  2. Back on April 11, I made a comment “Well, America is a Republic, not a Democracy.” You said you didn’t get it. I guess you got it. (I didn’t really get it before, either.) Thanks.

    • Yes, you did, Mr Crotchety, and thank you for it. Here is your comment (which I was trying to find but couldn’t until you supplied the date).

      This is a regular occurrence for me, and a great benefit of this blog: I get to put things out there, stumble over the questions and comments, then let them bubble under in my brain until I see an opportunity–months later–to revisit them.

    • To say our republic is not a democracy is a completely asinine statement, and Madison never said anything that would suggest that to be true. To avoid misquoting Madison, you could say something like ‘A Republic, not a DIRECT-democracy’. Put it to you this way; a liberal making the argument that the US is supposed to be a direct-democracy is just as crazy, misinformed, and stupid, as a conservative trying to convince me a republic is not a democracy. A republic IS a democracy. As you mentioned, Madison himself described our republic as a ‘representative democracy’. Those words he actually USED. We vote (democracy) for people who represent or reflect our values and beliefs (representative).

      “The effect of [a representative democracy is] to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the nation….”
      -James Madison

      “If there have been those who doubted whether a confederated representative democracy were a government competent to the wise and orderly management of the common concerns of a mighty nation, those doubts have been dispelled.”
      -John Quincy Adams

      “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”
      -Thomas Jefferson

      Just because something is not a direct-democracy (by the way, no one’s making that argument) doesn’t mean that same thing is not a democracy. Think of it this way, even though we’re not a Roman Republic, we’re still a republic- which is good because people like you and me couldn’t vote in a Roman Republic.

    • I think it is, largely due to the incredible robustness of Madison & co’s document. Admittedly, the trend has been toward direct democracy–for instance, the original electoral college was meant as a genuine filter between voters and the president whereas now it is a passive amplifier. And the media are different in a way that Madison could not have imagined. But his basic framework stands.

      At the state level that is a different matter. See California.

  3. I agree with Madison 100%…

    I feel the word “liberal” in modern usage is incorrectly being clubbed with “Left” politics/economics.

    A pure Democracy without the framework of a Republic with a Liberal Constitution guaranteeing the natural rights of Man as well as protecting property, minorities etc can lead to Mob Rule (as you correctly pointed out).

    India for example is a case of (mostly) illiberal democracy where some state governments routinely shift to mob rule (with mass murder of minorities)…and are dragged back into normalcy by the central government ONLY because it is a Republic with a somewhat liberal constitution & a strong independent Supreme Court, which creates public pressure to act.

    Education & enlightenment of masses is key for a democracy to succeed as without it, countries will become like India, which despite being a Republican democracy for more than 60 years, still has huge pockets of illiberal mob rule in many backward states and districts.

    • Interesting perspective from India, Reem.

      Incidentally, did you know (as I just happened to learn during my research) that India has the world’s LONGEST (in terms of word count) constitution? The second and third longest are Alabama and California.

      I am tempted to opine that simplicity and minimalism (Madison) are other necessary ingredients of a good constitution, and that length and convolutedness are signs of flaws.

    • Agree with this… India is lucky to have a strong (liberal some would say) Supreme Court…else the longest Constitution on earth would also easily end up being the most abused one!

  4. Sorry to be the nay sayer, but there is a fundamental flaw in the notion that any buffer between the people and policy is inherently good. The “mob” as you like to call it is likely to elect representatives that are as bad as it. Moreover, the “buffer” tends to attract career politicians who know how to work the system, which in my book is never good.

    Case and point – Prop 8. This abomination passed in direct ballot about a year ago in California stating – “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

    Why? Because most of the people do not feel gay lifestyle should be publicly accepted. Can anyone here honestly claim that this would be different in the state senate? US congress? US senate?

    • Well, there are a lot of points here. First, regarding Prop 8:

      It IS an abomination, and an excellent example of Madison’s fear about majorities tyrannizing a minority. Prop 8, however, was an act of direct democracy and so seems to illustrate Madison’s case for a republic.

      I happen to think that the same measure would not have passed the senate and assembly, and if it had, that the Supreme Court would have found it unconstitutional. My understanding is that the Supreme Court upheld Prop 8 only because it had to defer to the California Constitution and its direct democracy–ie the right of “the people” to oppress any minority.

      In the real world, I admit all these lines are blurry. But your concern about “career politicians who know how to work the system”, which is a very big concern, is balanced by the opposite nightmare: term limits (passed by direct democracy in California) which mean greenhorn legislators that are termed out as soon as they know how the system works.

      I don’t mind good career politicians. And the bad ones, we CAN vote out.

    • OK. I guess I wasn’t coherent enough on my previous post and ended up contradicting myself. My point is that the same people who voted Prop 8 also elect the congress and senate that did nothing to firmly and clearly legalize gay marriage at the federal level.

      The republic failed as miserably as the democracy because they were both voted by people who would rather deny marriage from 10% of the population than have to modify the way they explain marriage to their children.

  5. Nice article. Good to know the original definitions of those terms.

    I think one instinctively recognises the sense of a ‘republic’ in that sense.

  6. sorry my grammar wasn’t very good in that last sentence; I meant that a republic seems to be a better way of doing things on that definition!

  7. I totally agree with reem. Different democratic republic. that’s remembering me about government system in my country. I’ve been thinking about this. So clearly, Without the enlightening education to its people democracy will never happen.

    The main requirements of democracy, government policy decisions must be in the hands of the people. all the people. Not the result of a select handful of parliamentary seats.

    We all know that the Council reached consensus is the absolute requirement. Not voting results of the election. because too many bad games in a general election.

    Democracy has one feature, not in a hurry. we can see, now more and more people like something that all instant. if you remember, that democracy is an evolutionary process, to create a revolution. :)

    final word, in my mind. Democracy is all the people, not independent of age, economic status, social, cultural, religious. All come to learn, think, work, and move together to build the country. Not thinking of the few educated people, or someone who was elected in parliament. What we do know they are only powerful in a few years. Really thinking clearly still childish and very scary. Once again, All people come to learn, think, work, and move together.

  8. To say our republic is not a democracy is a completely asinine statement, and Madison never said anything that would suggest that to be true. To avoid misquoting Madison, you could say something like ‘A Republic, not a DIRECT-democracy’. Put it to you this way; a liberal making the argument that the US is supposed to be a direct-democracy is just as crazy, misinformed, and stupid, as a conservative trying to convince me a republic is not a democracy. A republic IS a democracy. As you mentioned, Madison himself described our republic as a ‘representative democracy’. Those words he actually USED. We vote (democracy) for people who represent or reflect our values and beliefs (representative).

    “The effect of [a representative democracy is] to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the nation….”
    -James Madison

    “If there have been those who doubted whether a confederated representative democracy were a government competent to the wise and orderly management of the common concerns of a mighty nation, those doubts have been dispelled.”
    -John Quincy Adams

    “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”
    -Thomas Jefferson

    Just because something is not a direct-democracy (by the way, no one’s making that argument) doesn’t mean that same thing is not a democracy. Think of it this way, even though we’re not a Roman Republic, we’re still a republic- which is good because people like you and me couldn’t vote in a Roman Republic.

  9. One more thing, if California is a mindless populist culture that suffers from a direct democracy, so to does every state in this nation that accepts a yes or no vote for propositions on the ballet. I’m not saying I agree with voting on issues but it is interesting how you single out California… I’ll pretend a political bias has nothing to do with that.

  10. Read Akil Ahmar’s “the Constitution, a biography.” He explains how the “republic” and the “democracy” are the same thing. Most people get it wrong. In Madison’s day the term “republic” was meant to be the opposite of a monarchy, not the opposite of a democracy.

    And Madison was a “populist” of the highest order. Historians have got it wrong for over two centuries but scholarship in this century have finally realized that he was for a liberal democracy in which the People are sovereign. He said so himself in many of his writings. The clearest one of these is one of his essays entitled “Concerning Public Opinion.” Madison believed that public opinion, informed, and considered, but nevertheless public opinion, should rule, the government should obey public opinion. It is very clear. You can google it.

  11. Aaron – not to tear you down personally, but to clarify, Madison never stated “Representative Democracy” in any of his writings–especially in Federalist Paper #10, being his finest piece against direct, indirect, and pure democracy, and where the supposed quote originates.

    Here’s the quote in question that you used: “The effect of [a representative democracy is] to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the nation….”

    The real text as found in #10: The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.

    Isn’t that interesting? Thus, we learn that politicians, historians, and academics have purposefully twisted, perverted, and implied many things that just are not true! A little research goes a long way to understand the truth behind the argument of republic vs democracy.

    To strengthen my point further, Madison states directly before the supposed quote about representative democracy: “The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended”.

    Madison clearly saw a difference in this and other writings concerning the two forms of government in question–that cannot be debated!

    Moreover, and to solidify my point, this from Federalist Paper #48. Madison states: “[ In a democracy ], where a multitude of people exercise in person the legislative functions, and are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended, on some favorable emergency, to start up in the same quarter. But [ in a representative republic ], where the executive magistracy is carefully limited; both in the extent and the duration of its power; and where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired, by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions, by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.”

    So, I think it’s clear that Madison differentiates between a republic and a democracy. He also points out the differences in his view and they are very clear. Not sure why the argument exists when the founders made themselves clear at every turn. Lastly, to be “democratic”, or to use democratic systems, is not to mean democracy as a whole. Too many people imply -

  12. Good summation.

    I’m surprised you haven’t expanded this topic with a survey of the events that led to the slow demise of the Roman Republic/Constitution (which even with its flaws was still an astonishing breakthrough in human thinking in that it acknowledges that tyrants can come in the form of an individual OR a group of persons). Starting with the popular appeal of the [panem et circenses] politics of the Gracchus brothers in 2nd century BC.

    James Madison was well read enough to the know the difference between a Republic and a Democracy. As someone whose family fled a country that was destroyed by the ‘democracy’ of a violent proletariat, I am always astonished by how little Americans appreciate the virtue and inherent danger between a Republic and a system that executed Socrates…democratically.

    • Thank you Perseus Wong.

      You’re (implicitly) inviting us to guess whence your family fled: from “a country that was destroyed by the ‘democracy’ of a violent proletariat….”

      Last name + “violent proletariat” = … From mainland China to Hong Kong?

    • Very perceptive.

      Except we fled further south to another little island country that’s known for its hawker food and peculiar blend of capitalism, Confucianism and token socialism. Token because self-reliance and meritocracy are still highly prized…as is the unquestioning respect for authority.

    • Lucky shot.

      I’m half Cantonese and half a dialect group which is obscure even by Chinese standard.

      But since you’re on a winning streak, here’s your Jeopardy answer.

      This group branched south from the coastal province of Fujian during the Song Dynasty. It’s the only designated Special Economic Zone in China that hasn’t developed due to rampant corruption. It’s best export is still its seafood cuisine and signature ‘prime ribs and oolong tea’

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