Monday, January 19, 2009

Democracy V. Republic

We often hear certain figures (mostly from the extreme political right) claim America was founded to be a republic not a democracy. That statement is a half truth. Some of the folks who utter it understand what they are talking about; many don't. And unfortunately, I see David Barton as one of the chief perpetrators of the "ignorant" understanding of the phrase.

The United States was founded to be a small l liberal small d democracy. All small d democracy means is voting (i.e., consent of the governed). And small l liberal means certain rights are antecedent to majority rule. The Declaration of Independence is the quintessential "liberal democratic" document. The US Constitution established the United States as a constitutional republic. And a constitutional republic is simply a form of "liberal democracy."

You do see quotations from the Founding Fathers criticizing the concept of "democracy" in favor of "republicanism"; but what they are really criticizing is direct democracy or mob rule. There are certain "republican" checks that must be built in to the democratic rule of the people. Chiefly, it's representatives not "the people" who make the laws. Another republican check is that certain individual rights are prior to majority rule. Ultimately, all of the following terms correctly describe the American system of government: "liberal democracy," "representative democracy," "representative republic" or "democratic republic." The following term does NOT: "direct democracy." And that's what the Founders criticized when they noted our form of government was a "republic" not a "democracy."

Now, on to David Barton's distortions of this dynamic. This should help explain why so many Christian Nationalists repeat "we are a republic, not a democracy" as a mindless mantra:

If you study the history of "republicanism", you see it was invented by Western Culture's noble pagan Greco-Roman heritage. The Greeks tried direct democracy, saw that it didn't work. And the Romans pioneered "republicanism." Indeed, the Founding Fathers looked back at noble pagan republican Rome with a great affinity. Indeed, when they wrote with surnames they picked ones from republican Rome, not the Bible. The Founders thought of themselves as new versions of Cato, Cincinnatus, Brutus, Novanglus, and of course Publius. Yet, what they were arguing for wasn't exactly what ancient Rome had, but rather something more modern. 18th Century republicanism was more of an Enlightenment construct.

The Bible spoke little to ideals of 18th Century republicanism. The authors of the Federalist Papers never quoted the Bible in support of the provisions in the US Constitution. But outside of the Federalist Papers, some Enlightenment thinkers and ministers did "read in" republicanism to the Biblical record. As rationalists, America's Founders and the ministers who worked with them picked and chose from all sources of world history, including the biblical record, what they thought "rational" and ignored or discarded the rest. And along the way they did a lot of "reading in" to those sources what they wanted to see to fit their "Whig" ideology.

When framing the Constitution, Noah Webster perfectly captured this Enlightenment zeitgeist that undergirded the US Constitution:

Of all the memorable eras that have marked the progress of men from the savage state to the refinements of luxury, that which has combined them into society, under a wise system of government, and given form to a nation, has ever been recorded and celebrated as the most important. Legislators have ever been deemed the greatest benefactors of mankind—respected when living, and often deified after their death. Hence the fame of Fohi and Confucius—of Moses, Solon and Lycurgus—of Romulus and Numa—of Alfred, Peter the Great, and Mango Capac; whose names will be celebrated through all ages, for framing and improving constitutions of government, which introduced order into society and secured the benefits of law to millions of the human race.

This western world now beholds an era important beyond conception, and which posterity will number with the age of Czar of Muscovy, and with the promulgation of the Jewish laws at Mount Sinai. The names of those men who have digested a system of constitutions for the American empire, will be enrolled with those of Zamolxis and Odin, and celebrated by posterity with the honors which less enlightened nations have paid to the fabled demi-gods of antiquity.

But the origin of the AMERICAN REPUBLIC is distinguished by peculiar circumstances. Other nations have been driven together by fear and necessity—the governments have generally been the result of a single man’s observations; or the offspring of particular interests. IN the formation of our constitution, the wisdom of all ages is collected—the legislators of antiquity are consulted—as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. In short, in it an empire of reason.


Now, Webster wrote these words in 1787; later when the French revolted and tried to construct their "empire" on "reason," it didn't work so well and Webster, apparently, rethought his confidence in "reason" as the rock that undergirds the American republic. In the 19th Century Webster began talking like a Christian Nationalist, and consequently, offers Barton et al. many quotations. Here is the offending article from Wallbuilders.

The quotations criticizing democracy from the other Founders are apt; but, as we have seen, what they criticize is direct democracy. But what Barton quotes from Webster for how a republic defines is an extremely self-serving and distortionist definition. Here is what he reproduces from Webster:

[O]ur citizens should early understand that the genuine source of correct republican principles is the Bible, particularly the New Testament, or the Christian religion.13


The other quotations are from Founders explaining how they believed "law" ultimately traced to the divine. The Founders did believe in an immutable God given "natural law" discovered by reason. But they disagreed on the proper relationship between reason and revelation. The most notable "republicans" like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin and Madison were rationalists who believed man's reason penultimate for discovering that "higher law," in both private and public life. But I'm sure many other FFs disagreed. Because they disagreed on the Bible's proper role in politics (how to properly understand the Bible led to sectarian arguments which they were trying to avoid), they formed a consensus that, in politics, we would look to "reason" to determine God given natural law.

Now, that there is an immutable "higher law" that trumps majority rule (indeed it's the source of "unalienable rights") was one republican check on democratic rule. However, it's arguably not the sine qua non of "republicanism." If anything the central feature of republicanism v. direct democracy is representatives make the law, not "the people."

But to David Barton and those who follow him, the difference between "republicanism" and "democracy" is democracy is majority rule, republicanism is "God's law." And of course "God's law" simply reduces to the Bible to be used as a "proof-texting" trump as today's evangelicals currently do. So when Ben Franklin said America was given “A Republic, if you can keep it,” he apparently meant, according to Barton, that we must act like evangelical proof texters believing the Bible the infallible Word of God. And, by the way, Ben Franklin believed "that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration,..."

Barton's theory ignores the fact that the Founders turned chiefly to "reason" and avoided proof texting the Bible to determine the content of the God given natural law. As John Adams put it:

To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason.

– John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson’s, “The Founders on Religion,” p. 132.

7 comments:

Our Founding Truth said...

It seems this post is a re-hash of earlier points noted. Maybe some new blood can respond.

And unfortunately, I see David Barton as one of the chief perpetrators of the "ignorant" understanding of the phrase.>

Our corrupt school system teaches our children we are a democracy, they have no clue the specifics, they only know what they're taught. This is Barton's point, and I agree with it completely; it isn't ignorance at all.

The Declaration of Independence is the quintessential "liberal democratic" document.>

Where did the framers specifically use this term?

Indeed, the Founding Fathers looked back at noble pagan republican Rome with a great affinity.

If you study the history of "republicanism", you see it was invented by Western Culture's noble pagan Greco-Roman heritage.

Republicanism was started by Moses in the Torah, proven by framers such as Paine, and Webster referring to it.

The only affinity the framers had for the pagan nations is expressed in the quote before this one, "And the Romans pioneered "republicanism." This is the only reason they admired the pagan nations, even Hitler and his helping the economy is admired by economists. Other than pagans pioneering "republicanism" they detested it:

"Sparta, Rome, and Carthage...These examples, though as unfit for the imitation, as they are repugnant to the genius, of America, are, notwithstanding, when compared with the fugitive and turbulent existence of other ancient republics, very instructive proofs of the necessity of some institution that will blend stability with liberty. I am not unaware of the circumstances which distinguish the American from other popular governments, as well ancient as modern; and which render extreme circumspection necessary, in reasoning from the one case to the other."

James Madison, Federalist #63
http://www.llpoh.org/federalist/63.html

The Bible spoke little to ideals of 18th Century republicanism.

The Bible is laden with republicanism (consent of the governed)

As rationalists, America's Founders and the ministers who worked with them picked and chose from all sources of world history, including the biblical record, what they thought "rational" and ignored or discarded the rest

Only two or three framers were rationalists, including a minor player Ethan Allen:

"His [Paine's] billingsgate, stolen from Blount's Oracles of Reason, from Bolingbroke., Voltaire, Berenger, &c.,"
John Adams

Blount, Bolingbroke, and Voltaire, in their works, all, exalted reason as supreme, and Adams is attacking it.

Now, Webster wrote these words in 1787; later when the French revolted and tried to construct their "empire" on "reason," it didn't work so well and Webster, apparently, rethought his confidence in "reason" as the rock that undergirds the American republic.>

The reason why your quotes are all confusing, is you're trying to separate reason from revelation, which cannot be done. The framers knew that; and reason is God's all powerful will. You just keep forgetting revelation's place in the law of nature. Reason is God's all powerful will, just not supreme, because it can't govern anything.

If reason cannot govern man, how could it govern a nation?

The most notable "republicans" like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin and Madison were rationalists who believed man's reason penultimate for discovering that "higher law," in both private and public life.>

Adams, as from the above quote, and Madison were not rationalists:

To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.

~Memorial and Remonstrance 20 June 1785

The miracles Madison is referring to is the miracles in the Book of Acts, for the beginning of the church. Madison was not a rationalist.

So when Ben Franklin said America was given “A Republic, if you can keep it,” he apparently meant, according to Barton, that we must act like evangelical proof texters believing the Bible the infallible Word of God.

Franklin's republicanism is first and foremost, God's law [Hooker's law and the Gospel do contain] then majority rule.

To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason.

This quote is out of context as reason cannot be supreme, which Adams believed:

"His [Paine's] billingsgate, stolen from Blount's Oracles of Reason, from Bolingbroke., Voltaire, Berenger, &c.,"
John Adams

Adams understood reason could not be the supreme authority, because reason cannot fulfill to man the ultimate truth:

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked [Jeremiah 17:9] . . . [for] it must be remembered, that although reason ought always to govern individuals, it certainly never did since the Fall, and never will till the Millennium.”
Diggins, ibid., 84–85, 94. He is citing Adams, Defence, 3:289, 479.
1787

Adams believed "the heart" [everyones heart] is deceitful above all things. Adams says reason cannot govern anything without assistence, it needs the other part of the law of nature to succeed, therefore, it could never govern the people of the U.S.A.

One last point about this last of Adams. Adams is only referring to the law of nature, not the Laws of Nature's God, or precisely Laws of God. The Laws of God are only in the Bible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not sure this republican-democracy thing sheds any light.

We can say for sure that Madison in Federalist 63 argues against the Sparta-Rome model of republicanism, where the senators were elected for life. The Roman republic was also an oligarchy.

Madison wants his senate democratically elected, and periodically up for re-election.

"...a senate appointed not immediately by the people, and for the term of six years, must gradually acquire a dangerous preeminence in the government, and finally transform it into a tyrannical aristocracy."

As to what gets religion-minded Americans miffed, it's unaccountable activist courts using their power to substitute their ethos for the prevailing ethos and thereby alter society to their will.

Unaccountable, irreversible, contra the consent of the governed---neither democratic nor republican. That too might fairly fit a definition of tyranny.

Our Founding Truth said...

We can say for sure that Madison in Federalist 63 argues against the Sparta-Rome model of republicanism, where the senators were elected for life. The Roman republic was also an oligarchy.

Madison wants his senate democratically elected, and periodically up for re-election.>

I agree with this. No evidence can be mentioned to support any practical application of Rome or Greece, etc. to our republicanism. Theologically speaking, the framers treated paganism even worse.

Any attack on Paine, Voltaire, etc. is an attack on reason being the source of ultimate truth.

Tom Van Dyke said...


Any attack on Paine, Voltaire, etc. is an attack on reason being the source of ultimate truth.


This seems to me to be a largely valid argument...

Jonathan Rowe said...

Sorry OFT, but I don't make sense of your post. I see it as a pastiche of arguments based on special pleading, logical fallacies.

You can try to make your arguments the best you can, but don't be surprised if the rest of us aren't convinced or don't make sense of what you write.

Our Founding Truth said...

When framing the Constitution, Noah Webster perfectly captured this Enlightenment zeitgeist that undergirded the US Constitution

Appealing to the Lord [Jesus Christ] as the authority is not an enlightenment zeitgeist; it is Christian to the core:

That state which commands the heaviest purse and longest sword, may at any moment, lay its weaker neighbor under tribute; and there is no superior power now existing, that can regularly oppose the invasion or redress the injury. From such liberty, O Lord, deliver us!...Their constituents have the same, and if every objection must be removed, before we have a national government, the Lord have mercy on us.

roastedcoffee said...

These succinct definitions of what is Democracy and what is a Republic was produced by the US Army in 1928,

Democracy:
A government of the masses.
Authority derived through mass meeting or any other form of "direct" expression.
Results in mobocracy.
Attitude toward property is comunistic-negating property rights.
Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate. whether it be based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice, and impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences.
Results in demagogism license, agitation, discontent, anarchy.
Democracy is the "direct" rule of the people and has been repeatedly tried without success.

A certain Professor Alexander Fraser Tytler, nearly two centuries ago, had this to say about Democracy:
" A Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of Government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that Democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a Dictatorship."

A democracy is majority rule and is destructive of liberty because there is no law to prevent the majority from trampling on individual rights. Whatever the majority says goes! A lynch mob is an example of pure democracy in action. There is only one dissenting vote, and that is cast by the person at the end of the rope.

Republic:
Authority is derived through the election by the people of public officials best fitted to represent them.
Attitude toward property is respect for laws and individual rights, and a sensible economic procedure.
Attitude toward law is the administration of justice in accord with fixed principles and established evidence, with a strict regard to consequences.
A greater number of citizens and extent of territory may be brought within its compass.
Avoids the dangerous extreme of either tyranny or mobocracy. Results in statesmanship, liberty, reason, justice, contentment, and progress.
Is the "standard form" of government throughout the world.
A republic is a form of government under a constitution which provides for the election of:
an executive and
a legislative body, who working together in a representative capacity, have all the power of appointment, all power of legislation all power to raise revenue and appropriate expenditures, and are required to create
a judiciary to pass upon the justice and legality of their governmental acts and to recognize
certain inherent individual rights.
Take away any one or more of those four elements and you are drifting into autocracy. Add one or more to those four elements and you are drifting into democracy.
Our Constitutional fathers, familiar with the strength and weakness of both autocracy and democracy, with fixed principles definitely in mind, defined a representative republican form of government. They "made a very marked distinction between a republic and a democracy and said repeatedly and emphatically that they had founded a republic."
A republic is a government of law under a Constitution. The Constitution holds the government in check and prevents the majority (acting through their government) from violating the rights of the individual. Under this system of government a lynch mob is illegal. The suspected criminal cannot be denied his right to a fair trial even if a majority of the citizenry demands otherwise.

Democracy and Republic are often taken as one of the same thing, but there is a fundamental difference.
Whilst in both cases the government is elected by the people, in Democracy the majority rules according to their whims,
whilst in the Republic the Government rule according to law. This law is framed in the Constitution to limit the power of Government and ensuring some rights and protection to Minorities and individuals.