A Republic or a Democracy — Let’s Get This Straight


Founding father Ben Franklin said of the United States system of government: "A republic, madam, if you can keep it"
Founding father Ben Franklin said of the United States system of government: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it”

Following my recent column about racial tensions in America, I got an email from Gary L. Hoe, of Albuquerque, which made me re-think what our founding fathers had in mind when they established this country.

Hoe reminded me of a quote from Benjamin Franklin, attributed to the statesman as he left the secret confab that hammered out the U.S. Constitution. Asked by a woman what kind of government had been decided upon — a republic or a monarchy — Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Somewhere in the 227 years since then, many Americans have adopted the idea that we are a democracy — not a republic. Nothing could be further from the intent expressed at that Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Have today’s history teachers been remiss in their lessons or has some sinister power oozed into our consciousness to make us believe we are something we were never destined to be?

James Madison, often called “the father of the Constitution” wrote, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths.”

Other writings from the time are full of warnings about how dire a democracy can be on the population, how democracies will, ultimately, cause a nation to crumble.

In the early 1800s, John Marshall, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”

You won’t find the word “democracy” in either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. The United States of America was established as a Republic — period.

So, what’s the difference between a republic and a democracy? I’m glad you asked because it is so important to today’s debate about social equality and government involvement in our lives.

A republic is guided by an overarching set of laws — a charter or constitution — which, in our country’s case, explicitly guarantees the individual’s rights against the desires of the majority. Each of us has the undisputable right to think, worship and vote anyway we want.

A true democracy, on the other hand, (stay with me on this) allows the majority to rule and to disregard the desires of any individual who doesn’t agree with them. Think of a democracy like this: If the majority of your neighbors voted to paint all houses bright purple, you would be forced to follow suit. OK with you?

While today’s school kids are often being taught that “majority rule” is the fairest form of government, I think it’s quite the opposite. It destroys individualism and can foster a pack-thought mentality.

It seems that today, many citizens operate under the mistaken idea that if they and a majority of their peers want something, it should automatically be accepted by all. A government handout, a guilty verdict in spite of a jury’s decision or unfettered citizenship.

Is anyone truly surprised that we have come to a place of such fractiousness and intolerance in this country? Has anyone failed to notice the pervasive and dangerous trend afloat that declares: If others don’t think as we do, they must be stupid or, even worse, eliminated?

When we left behind the idea that this country is a republic, we somehow embraced the idea that cookie-cutter thought trumps all. If Ben Franklin were still with us, I think he would step forward to remind us that America was ordained to live as a united, law-abiding country, tolerant of each other’s differences and content to change laws via an orderly and legal process — not mob rule.

Back to my reader, Mr. Hoe, who believes there is danger in ignoring the destructiveness of all this divisiveness. He interprets Franklin’s long-ago comment this way: “He was saying … our form of government works only if those being governed behave themselves as though they don’t need a government to keep them in line.”

From Washington to the heartland, we are not behaving well. We’ve become a selfish and myopic melting pot on many levels, working against each other toward narrow goals and not the common good.

I wonder if in 2015 there will be a leader who can get us back to the idea of pledging allegiance to “The United States of America and to the republic for which it stands.”

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net

You must be logged in to post a comment Login