Over the past few years, there has been a heightened, often very heated debate about whether the US is a Republic or a Democracy. This again has become a social issue with the upcoming US presidential election less than a month away.
Those on the left (Democrats) state with whole vigorous intent that the US is a Democracy, while those on the right (Republicans) insist that the US is a Republic and has always been.
To try to understand all of this, it is, of course worth reviewing history, as almost all lessons come from the teachings of history.
The US is a republic, not a democracy. This is one of those often repeated expressions that one hears in civil discourse whose meaning nevertheless remains somewhat fuzzy.
I often hear people argue that the US is a Republic, not a Democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of “Republic” is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them.” We are that. A common definition of “Democracy” is, “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.” Again, we are that too.
These ideas surely have some overlap with the notion of Democracy, which is perhaps evident on a quick comparison of the US and the British system of government. The sovereignty of Great Britain’s House of Commons seems much more democratic than our complicated array of competing power centers, yet at the same time, the English have a hereditary monarch who has the prestige to influence public opinion in ways that no citizen of our nation can. So, really, who is more republican? Who is more democratic? Is there truly a difference?
Now that you are wondering – as the title of the article suggest, what is it? – how confusing is this going to be. Can’t it just be one or the other without all of the complications? Unfortunately, no. It is not going to be an easy answer and that of which can only be answered by looking back at the founding of the US by the fifty-six men that gathered to sign the declaration of independence.
As most know, colonization efforts began in the 16th century with failed attempts by England to establish permanent colonies in North America. The first permanent British colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.
The signing of the US Declaration of Independence occurred primarily on August 2, 1776 at the Pennsylvania State House, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The fifty-six delegates to the Second Continental Congress represented the thirteen former colonies which had declared themselves the “United States of America,” and they endorsed the Declaration of Independence which the Congress had approved on July 4, 1776. The Declaration proclaimed that the former Thirteen Colonies then at war with Great Britain were now a sovereign, independent nation and thus no longer a part of the British Empire. The signers’ names are grouped by state, with the exception of President of the Continental Congress John Hancock; the states are arranged geographically from south to north, with Button Gwinnett from Georgia first, and Matthew Thornton from New Hampshire last.
The final draft of the Declaration was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, although the date of its signing has long been disputed. Most historians have concluded that it was signed on August 2, 1776, nearly a month after its adoption, and not on July 4 as is commonly believed.
Eight delegates never signed the Declaration, out of fifty who are thought to have been present in Congress during the voting on independence in early July 1776. John Alsop, George Clinton, John Dickinson, Charles Humphreys, Robert R. Livingston, John Rogers, Thomas Willing, and Henry Wisner. Clinton, Livingston, and Wisner were attending to duties away from Congress when the signing took place. Willing and Humphreys voted against the resolution of independence and were replaced in the Pennsylvania delegation before the August 2 signing. Rogers had voted for the resolution of independence but was no longer a delegate on August 2. Alsop favored reconciliation with Great Britain and so resigned rather than add his name to the document. Dickinson refused to sign, believing the Declaration premature, but he remained in Congress. George Read had voted against the resolution of independence, and Robert Morris had abstained, yet they both signed the Declaration.
The most famous signature on the engrossed copy is that of John Hancock, who presumably signed first as President of Congress. Hancock’s large, flamboyant signature became iconic, and John Hancock emerged in the United States as an informal synonym for “signature.”
Future presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were among the signatories. Edward Rutledge – age 26 – was the youngest signer and Benjamin Franklin – age 70 – the oldest.
Some delegates were away on business when the Declaration was debated, including William Hooper and Samuel Chase, but they were back in Congress to sign on August 2. Other delegates were present when the Declaration was debated but added their names after August 2, including Lewis Morris, Oliver Wolcott, Thomas McKean, and possibly Elbridge Gerry. Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe were in Virginia during July and August, but returned to Congress and signed the Declaration probably in September and October, respectively.
New delegates joining the Congress were also allowed to sign. Eight men signed the Declaration who did not take seats in Congress until after July 4. Matthew Thornton, William Williams, Benjamin Rush, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, George Ross, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Matthew Thornton did not take a seat in Congress until November. By the time he signed it, there wasn’t any space for his name next to the other New Hampshire delegates, so he placed his signature at the end of the document.
The first published version of the Declaration was the Dunlap broadside. The only names on that version were Congress President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson, and those names were printed rather than signatures. The public did not learn who had signed the engrossed copy until January 18, 1777, when the Congress ordered that an authenticated copy be sent to each of the thirteen states, including the names of the signers. This copy is called the Goddard Broadside. It was the first to list all the signers except for Thomas McKean, who may not have signed the Declaration until after the Goddard Broadside was published. Congress Secretary Charles Thomson did not sign the engrossed copy of the Declaration, and his name doesn’t appear on the Goddard Broadside, even though it does appear on the Dunlap broadside.
Now that we have that history lesson out of the way, lets make it a little more confusing by throwing in the US Constitution. Yes, they are separate.
Though connected in spirit, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are separate, distinct documents. The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. It was a list of grievances against the king of England intended to justify separation from British rule.
The Constitution was written and signed in 1787. It was a charter of government that came to be ratified by the states, and it continues to be the supreme law of the land. Both documents have played an important role in American history and the spread of democratic ideals around the world. They were both signed at Independence Hall, steps from where the National Constitution Center now stands.
In 1787, Congress authorized delegates to gather in Philadelphia and recommend changes to the existing charter of government for the thirteen states, the “Articles of Confederation,” which many Americans believed had created a weak, ineffective central government. From the start of the convention, however, it became clear that the delegates were forming an entirely new form of government.
The Preamble of this history changing document makes it clear why it was written: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
So what makes the constitution so formidable? Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor, former associate justice of the Supreme Court, put it this way:
“What makes the Constitution worthy of our commitment? First and foremost, the answer is our freedom. It is, quite simply, the most powerful vision of freedom ever expressed. It’s also the world’s shortest and oldest national constitution, neither so rigid as to be stifling, nor so malleable as to be devoid of meaning. Our Constitution has been an inspiration that changed the trajectory of world history for the perpetual benefit of mankind. In 1787, no country in the world had ever allowed its citizens to select their own form of government, much less to select a government. What was revolutionary when it was written, and what continues to inspire the world today, is that the Constitution put governance in the hands of the people.”
So? What is it!? After all, the word “republic,” deriving from the Latin phrase res publica, or “the people’s concern,” suggests a measure of popular involvement in government. And the authors of the Constitution were radically republican, at least for their age, believing that the only legitimate form of government was one in which public authority derived entirely from the people.
Our system is republican in that the Founders understood that the public is the only legitimate sovereign of government. But it is not wholly democratic, in that they feared the abuse of that authority by the people and designed an instrument of government intended to keep temporary, imprudent, and intemperate outbursts of public opinion from dominating the body politic.