Victor Nuovo: America’s unique republic
16th in a series
The United States of America is not a Democracy, it is a Democratic Republic, or simply, “a Republic.” On this point, all the founders of this nation were agreed: Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, notwithstanding their partisan differences. They were united in the single purpose to fashion the United States of America as a republic in perpetuity. And their efforts have been successful so far, more or less.
I hasten to add, that this designation includes the names of the two major parties in American politics, but it is of no pertinence; what is pertinent is the very idea that the founders envisioned and worked to bring to reality, and if Democrats and Republicans were diligently to adhere to it, this nation might become more civil.
A democratic republic is a sovereign state whose sovereignty resides in the whole people, who are free political agents, existing under the rule of a supreme law, established by them, whose government officials are chosen by them, or by their representatives, according to procedures established by law, and who serve either for a fixed term or on good behavior until voluntary retirement or death (e.g., in the case of Supreme Court justices).
Now in order to function, a government must be empowered. The Constitution accomplishes this, but it does so in such a way that this power is not put all in one place. It is never absolute in any one place or person in government. There is a separation of powers, and they are defined and arranged so that they can serve as checks and balances upon each other. The framers anticipated the truth so well expressed by the British politician Lord Acton (1834–1902): “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” The founders of this nation were well aware that that they were flirting with greatness.
All of the above was well expressed by James Madison (1751–1836) in No. 39 of “The Federalist Papers.” He wrote that a Republic is “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons … for a limited period, or during good behavior.” And in No. 51, he elaborates on the idea of separation of powers and its utility: Each department of government will have a will of its own, and within each department filling different positions are human agents, with reason and will, which they employ to carry out their duties, but also to protect their respective domains, or foster their own interests and ambitions, good or bad, noble or ignoble. And it is just this mixed quality in human nature that demonstrates the necessity of government. “If men (sic) were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls of government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the greatest difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Madison was not a sentimental moral idealist, but a skeptical moral realist. And I believe that this sober moral outlook was commonplace among the founders. They all prized virtue, but none of them supposed that they possessed it unambiguously. Reading Madison reminded me of my revered teacher Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), but that must be the subject of a future essay.
Madison, like Washington and Jefferson, was a Virginian, and like them he thought of himself as a farmer, and like them, he owned slaves and grew wealthy through their enforced labor. Perhaps most difficult to read are Madison’s remarks about proportional representation. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, prescribes that representation in the House of Representatives shall be based on the number of free persons in each state, including indentured servants and 3/5 of others (i.e. slaves). Madison explained this in “Federalist Paper” No. 54. He refers to the dispute whether slaves are persons or property, and acknowledges that currently they are a mixture of both suggesting that the so called “three-fifths clause” was reached in recognition of this dual nature. He gives no consideration to the thought that if slaves are persons then they should be free, and that owning slaves is cruel and unjust. Nor did he, like Washington, prescribe in his will that his slaves be freed upon his death. In any case, the notorious three-fifths clause is evidence of the moral flaw in our Constitution that was only rectified in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and by civil war. And the founders of the nation and framers of the Constitution were party to it. And the injustice has not yet been rectified or repaid. This is one of the great ironies of American history, indeed of world history.
To return to the theme sounded at the beginning of this essay, Democracy vs. Republic: Madison was skeptical of pure democracy, in which public assemblies of the whole legislate, and establish government policy and practice. He observed that democratic assemblies have a mind of their own that often contradicts the moral scruples of their individual members. He captured the thought in this sentence: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” A Republic having a separation of powers, and a system of checks and balances, relying on the conflicting wills of the people as a means to achieve this, is protection against this unhappy outcome. Hence, Article IV, section 4 of the Constitution: “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
Postscript: In preparing this essay, I have benefited from reading Colleen Sheehan’s “The Mind of James Madison.” It is short, insightful, and includes a large body of Madison’s unpublished writings. Consult your local bookstore.
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