Wednesday, July 4, 2012

America founded as a republic, not a democracy

The difference is important, as Bradley J. Birzer explains over at The Imaginative Conservative:  Americana Res Publica: No Revolution.  As Birzer writes:
[T]he Republic was neither purely a commercial nor libertarian one. Indeed, the American founders crafted not a commercial republic, but a virtuous republic, allowing for commerce and liberty to serve as a means by which man could use each of his gifts wisely and for the common good (the good thing; the res publica).   
While not all of the founders belonged to orthodox Christian denominations or even subscribed to Jewish or Christian orthodoxy, they each accepted most of what the Judeo-Christian context and heritage had bequeathed to them.   
Their understanding of liberty was not the collectivist or primivist liberty of Rousseau or the atheistic and abstract liberty of Locke, but the liberty of St. Paul as described in his letter to the Galatian Christian community, the freedom to do what one ought to do.  
For most patriots, one could find the best definition of liberty in the prophetic writings of Micah (4:4), as our own John Willson has reminded us many times. “But they shall sit every man under his vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid,” the Jewish prophet had written.
The distinction between a democracy and a republic has been lost on most of us in the modern period.  It would be salutary if we could recover the idea of republicanism (with a small "r") that motivated most of our Founders.


jimmiraybob said...

...they each accepted most of what the Judeo-Christian context and heritage had bequeathed to them.

It would be more accurate to say that (in order of appearance), "...they each accepted most of what the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian* context and heritage had bequeathed to them."

The understanding of Liberty was as grounded directly in Aristotle and Ciccero (to name only two pre-Christian or pre-Judeo-Christian sources of inspiration) as in Paul.

Also too.

The distinction between different types of republics seems to be lost in the article, or at least the passage that you post. The founders/framers chose a representative, democratic style of republic. Since then, we the people have chosen to expand the franchise and more evenly disburse participation among the citizenry.

Our government - the republic, under the Constitution, was not intended to be a pure democracy nor a republic controlled by monarchy, religious hierarchy, oligarchy, or hereditary aristocracy. Or to bear with state tyranny. That is why sovereignty was placed in the hands of the people and why they were given the ability and right to democratic participation.

*and not to forget the early Islamic state contribution of preserving, adding to, and spreading (to the west) classical political, scientific, and political thinking.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Since Aristotle and Roman Stoicism were "Christianized" by Aquinas via "natural law," they are subsumed under the "Christianity" umbrella.

jimmiraybob said...

"...they are subsumed under the "Christianity" umbrella."

I can understand why some would find this attractive, or even necessary.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, and I can see why it gives secular revisionism such a burr in the butt.

But it's a fact of philosophical history that Christianity subsumed the best of the Greek and Roman traditions---especially the Stoics---while rejecting the rest, that which could not be brought into harmony with the Bible, i.e., "Christianized."

One can argue from the Gregg Frazer-Karl Barth side of sole scriptura and fideism, that "natural law" and Christian "philsophical" ethics aren't "Christian" atall.

This may be a valid threological argument, but the socio-political reality is that they are, that the natural-law Christian ethical system is--or at least was--the foundation of America's political philosophy.

jimmiraybob said...


I assume that what you mean by subsume is that much of classical philosophy was taken up by and incorporated into Roman Catholic/Christian tradition, which is true. But many of the more intellectually informed founders derived their understanding of classical philosophy from semi-original sources and not through Aquinas - they actually read and referenced Ciccero, et alia - classical philosophers and statesmen.

Thomas' (and others such as Augustine's) Christianization of the philosophers carries weight within the Catholic, and I guess some Protestant tradition, but doesn't eradicate or inoculate from learning and understanding outside of that tradition.

There was nothing referenced in the DOI, relative to the Natural Law that can't be derived from classical non-Christian sources but that is also compatible with Thomist/Christian philosophy. Or vice versa. If only Jefferson had included a reference to Aquinas, or classical stoicism to clear the matter.

This is not to say that the Christian traditions had no place at the founding table - that's absurd, just that the table had more place settings. Isn't this your argument regarding Barton - that the legitimate kernels are that Christianity had an influence on the founding? Or do I have that wrong?

Oh yeah, happy 4th of July! Feliz el cuarto de julio!, Ceathrú sásta de Iúil!, 4 hapus o Gorffennaf!, and Quatrième heureux de juillet!, too!

Tom Van Dyke said...

There was nothing referenced in the DOI, relative to the Natural Law that can't be derived from classical non-Christian sources but that is also compatible with Thomist/Christian philosophy.

Oh, you can find germs and fragments in the Stoics, who were cool. Not in the rest of Greek-Roman thought, however, all men are created equal, endowed by their creator, the right to have rights. That's via Christianity. You don't get it yet and I doubt you ever will want to.

Gratian began his Decretum with a treatise on law and explored the meanings of the the words connected to the concept. He and the twelfth-century jurists confronted the Latin word "ius" and began to understand its equivocal meanings. Tierney has focused on the teachers of canon law, the canonists, as being to first to develop a language that would express the idea that an individual had a right and shows how these twelfth-century jurists conceived of "ius" as a "liberty," "power," and "faculty" of individuals. They spoke of the "rights" of election, marriage, establishing laws, freedom, and a whole array of other usages. They created, in other words, a language of rights.

Not all rights are natural rights. Tierney then looks at the origins of natural rights, "iura naturalia." Gratian began his Decretum by dividing all law into two categories, natural law and usages (custom). Consequently, the canonists who used the Decretum in their classrooms for the next four centuries were forced to consider the equivocal meanings of "ius naturale." Gratian himself still lived in a thought world that "ius" primarily was understood as an objective law; however, by the second half of the twelfth century canonists were commonly using "ius" to mean "right."

The canonist Rufinus (ca. 1160) was a key figure in developing the language of natural rights. While commenting on Gratian's "ius naturale," he observed that "Natural 'ius' is a certain force instilled in every human creature by nature to do good and avoid the opposite" [p. 62]. This definition of "ius naturale" became a commonplace. The greatest canonist of the century, Huguccio, clearly perceived the idea of "natural right" in Gratian's texts. As Tierney explains:

In his more lenient moods, Huguccio did acknowledge that ius naturale could mean a rule of conduct, a "judgment of reason"; but his was a secondary, derivative meaning. For Huguccio, ius naturale in its primary sense was always an attribute of individual persons, "a force of the soul," associated with human rationality [p. 65].

The historical significance of this jurisprudential development is that scholars who have discovered the language of natural rights only in the philosophical writings of fourteenth and fifteenth century philosophers, most frequently William Ockham and Jean Gerson, have overlooked the importance of twelfth-century jurisprudence in shaping Western thought.

JMS said...

Imaginative indeed! Another author (Birzer)who avoids any references to the pervasive late-18th century influences of the Enlightenment (or Anglo-American Deism as defined by Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury) or the English Civil War (and subsequent Republic) and the radical influence of the Levellers’ Agreement of the People.

As Gregg Frazer and others argue, there were many currents, streams, rivers (pick your metaphor) of political and religious thought that melded into a late-18th century "hybrid" (Frazer's term) or creative synthesis of all the intellectual influences mentioned.

But what gives away any author's bias is what they choose to select and deselect. In Birzer's case, he leaves out the pervasive rationalism that Frazer emphasizes, and which no honest scholar can ignore completely.

I've heard Mark's plaintive cry before: "The distinction between a democracy and a republic has been lost on most of us in the modern period. It would be salutary if we could recover the idea of republicanism (with a small "r") that motivated most of our Founders." Yes, I agree we should all know about the historical context of late-18th century "small r" republicanism is shaping our political foundations. But even the founders (J. Adams, Jefferson, Paine) could not agree on what republicanism was or meant.

In fact, the factionalism between Hamilton and Jefferson that erupted out of Washington's first cabinet led to our first two political parties. Both sides thought they represented true republicanism and civic virtue.

The major flaw in republicanism is that there is no singular "public" or "common" good or wealth everyone can agree on, whether it is 1800 or 2012.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As Gregg Frazer and others argue, there were many currents, streams, rivers (pick your metaphor) of political and religious thought that melded into a late-18th century "hybrid" (Frazer's term) or creative synthesis of all the intellectual influences mentioned.

Yes, like calling Calvinist resistance theory "non-Christian." But that's theology, not history or political philosophy.

John Adams wrote that the work of John Ponet [Ponyet] set forth “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke.”

Ponet wrote before there even WAS an "Enlightenment." But according to Gregg Frazer, such rejections of Romans 13 aren't Christian. But you need to accept his theology to accept his version of history.

Do you accept Gregg's theology, or are you just using him as a weapon here?

Michael Heath said...

I don't see any defining attributes of a republic and democracy laid-out and then parsed accordingly. I do see another futile attempt to claim a legacy which is not ours, especially the avoidance of Greek, Roman, and enlightenment influence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Do you have an argument, Mr. Heath? Which part of John Adams' assertion that Bishop Ponet's work contains “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke” do you find objectionable?

I'm trying to work with you here. 1556, before there even was an "Enlightenment."

As for democracy, the Greek version was pretty scary. There were parts of the Roman republic we kept, but where does the Enlightenment get any credit for that? Christianity, Aquinas, the Calvinists like Peter Martyr Vermigli, were steeped in Roman concepts of law. As Brian Tierney and others show, it was under medieval canon law that "ius" became "rights" as we know them, not merely "law."

If not "Christianized," ius is not the same as what it meant to the Romans.

As for how many senators we should have and the like, the Founders came up with their own version. Six-year terms for senators is quite different than the Roman appointments for life.

secular square said...

It seems to me that there are many more things to get worked up about than trying to make fine distinctions between republics and democracies. I like JRB's opening comment about the different kinds of republics. I seem to recall a quote by John Adams that a democracy is to a republic as an oak is to a tree. And I believe Hamilton called our government a "representative democracy." As to to quotes about "an excess of democracy" does anyone know what they meant, since none of the state governments at that time were pure democracies. Did they mean the people in general had too much influence? Did they mean that the less afluent voted for their class interests rather than for the commmon good?(--Recalling Aristotle's distinction between a democracy, a deviated constitution in which the many (the poor) vote for their own interest, and a politeia, a correct constitution in which the many (the poor) vote for the common good.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exc question, Mr. Square, so I looked it up.

The Framers thought the state legislatures were fiscally irresponsible, too in thrall to popular sentiment to do the right thing: pay war debts, levy and collect proper levels of taxes.

"Excess of democracy."

In fact, the Article 1 Section 8 "taxation authority" that figured into Justice Roberts' Obamacare decision was put in the Constitution precisely to give the federal gov't power to tax---before then, the states were responsible for collecting taxes and turning them over to the central gov't---but they often failed.

Interesting paper here, sorry, access limited

that basically holds that some town councils of MA and NH were so angry at their state legislatures that they stopped sending representatives. [Also a mention of the irony of "taxation without representation," that taxes in the newly independent states were higher than under the British!]

So when the legislatures weren't irresponsible, they were dysfunctional!

Now I understand Washington's plaintive letter to John Jay, that they had placed too much faith in human nature---that is, that the state legislators would do their duty, to do the right thing. This was typical of the Framers' [the Constitutional Convention] attitude toward their state legislatures, hence instead of amending the Articles of Confederation as they were sent to Philadelphia to do, they pitched the whole thing and started over.

secularsquare said...

Thanks for doing my homework, Tom. (where were you in high school when I really needed you?)I have wondered if the founders used the term democracy in the same narrow sense as Aristotle. Ill have to reread by Federalist Paper with that in mind.

In a related topic on which you have put in some footwork, er, fingerwork (on the keyboard), are you familiar with the work of Quentin Skinner on liberty? In his work, Liberty Before Liberalism, he examines that concept before the Enlightenment. He argues that the idea of liberty in early republics had less to do with specific individual rights and more to do with liberty from arbitrary rule, i.e., laws that citizens had no say in making. That seems to be what "taxation w/o representation boils down to. As alway, find it at Amazon Dot Com.


jimmiraybob said...

My take on the term "excess of democracy" is that the founders felt that extending democracy too far beyond the privileged, educated and owners of real property could produce problems such as being susceptible to demagoguery by those more focused on building individual power bases than pursuing good policy.

An interesting exchange can be found here:

Mr. GERRY. "The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massts. it had been fully confirmed by experience that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute (jrb - an apparent reference to Shay's Rebellion). One principal evil arises from the want of due provision for those employed in the administration of Governmt. It would seem to be a maxim of democracy to starve the public servants. He mentioned the popular clamour in Massts. for the reduction of salaries and the attack made on that of the Govr. though secured by the spirit of the Constitution itself. He had he said been too republican heretofore: he was still however republican, but had been taught by experience the danger of the levilling spirit."

jimmiraybob said...

William Hogeland has an article in Bloomberg that somewhat touches on the issue (How Radical Economics Led to U.S. Independence):

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Lee. I've run across Quentin Skinner and have a positive yet dim recollection of his work. This looks good:

I'll keep my eye out for him some more.