A Republic, not a Democracy: 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:
- classical liberal thinking, where the word liberal is used properly to mean ‘concerned with freedom‘;
- classical thinking full stop, in which Madison was well versed and which includes the original ‘histories’ by Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius;
- the lessons from Polybius in particular about the need for balance in the governance of countries; and
- the republican, as opposed to democratic, vision of liberal government, where both ‘republican’ and’democratic’ are properly defined.
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 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, 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.