Republic No More – And Why It Matters

Benjamin Franklin

“A republic, if you can keep it,” said Benjamin Franklin when asked what type of government the founders had established.

They have surrendered to faction what belonged to the country. Patronage and party, the triumph of a leader, and the discontents of a day, have outweighed all solid principles and institutions of government. Such are the melancholy lessons of the past history of republics, down to our own. – Joseph Story, Supreme Court Justice

Justice Story’s comment is taken from his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833), and is especially pertinent in the current chaos that passes for government in this nation.  To comprehend his meaning properly, however, it’s necessary that we understand what he meant when he referred to “republics.”

A classical republic is a “mixed constitutional government,” made up of a mixture of elements from three other types of government: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.  The Greeks defined these different types of government by their dominant factor; for example, where a government has a king, it’s a monarchy; where only a few nobles rule, it’s an aristocracy; and where the people are the dominant factor of government is called a democracy.  A republic is actually a fourth type of government, one that does not have a dominant factor, but is a mixture of all three.  Thus a republic typically has an executive position (e.g., president) and a bicameral legislative body (the upper house being aristocratic, the lower house being democratic), with a written constitution that defines the duties and responsibilities of the different bodies.

Aristotle, Plato, et al, subscribed to this “mixed constitutional government” concept.  Lycurgus, inspired by the Cretans, is credited with the creation of the first such constitution, in Sparta, where he created a government that combined an hereditary king with a body of advisors from the aristocracy and another body of advisors that represented the rest of the people (democracy), all being checks and balances on each other.

Plutarch records that among the many achievements of Lycurgas, “…the first and of greatest importance was the establishment of the senate (aristocracy), which …gave steadiness and safety to the commonwealth,” with the senate siding with the kings to resist pure democracy and siding with the people to resist absolute monarchy, serving “like ballast in a ship, which always kept things in a just equilibrium.”

Polybius praised the system “…for securing unity among the citizens, for safeguarding [their] territory and preserving the liberty of Sparta inviolate…”  Polybius’ writings had a great influence upon Cicero, whose own writings influenced the Founding Fathers.  Cicero wrote: “When…the people gain the supremacy and the whole government is conducted according to their wishes, [this] is hailed as liberty but is, in fact, chaos.”  But when neither side has the power to dominate the other, “a kind of bargain is struck between the ordinary people and the men who are powerful.”

Woodrow Wilcox


Government in the northeast U.S. colonies were predominantly aristocratic, probably due to the experience of the Plymouth Colony in the early 1600s, where a communal approach resulted in their near starvation until virtue and work ethic were restored by the adoption of private property and ownership of the land.  Puritan preachers believed the Bible only approved monarch and aristocracy, adding to the widespread distrust of pure democracy.  President Woodrow Wilson later wrote in Division and Reunion: “The Federal government was not, by intention, a democratic government.  In plan and in structure it had been meant to check the sweep and power of popular majorities…”  James Madison wrote in Federalist N. 10, “The common philosophy accepted by most of the delegates was that of balanced government.  They wanted to construct a national government in which no single interest would dominate the others.” [italics mine]

So, the U.S. government established by the Founding Fathers included a presidency (i.e., representing the monarchical element), a Congress comprised of the Senate (representing the aristocracy) and the House of Representatives (representing the people, or democracy), and an independent judiciary.   The Senate was originally intended to be the representative body of the aristocracy and the landed gentry, as well as a representation of states’ interests against that of the national government.  As Madison wrote, “The Senate…will derive its power from the States,” and originally Senators were appointed by their respective state legislatures.  That maintained the Senate’s role as “ballast” to keep things in equilibrium, and to check both the House of Representatives and the Presidential office, while serving as the “guardian of the Constitution.”


However, that all changed in 1913 with the 17th Amendment, which states that Senators “from each State…shall be…elected by the people thereof….”  This Amendment demolished the fundamental “checks and balances’ that mark a republican form of government.  Since both houses of Congress are now elected by the people, the U.S. government was perverted from a republic into a democracy, where “the people” are the dominant factor (remember, in a republic there is no dominant factor).

So what does all that mean?

It means that instead of a Senate that serves to temper the impetuousness of the House and the designs on authoritarian control of the presidency, we now have both houses of Congress beholden to the mob for the maintenance of their individual positions of power and prestige.  So Obama could reign like an emperor with almost zero opposition from the Senate…even when it was a Republican majority!

It means the states’ interests are defended by nobody, resulting in the rampant, unchecked growth in power and control by the federal government.  It means the president can violate the Constitutional limits of that office with impunity, knowing the Senators won’t jeopardize their positions by going against the “will of the people.”  It means that every member of Congress, in both houses, feel they have to respond to every item in the news, to every individual or group that has been “offended,” rightly or wrongly, that on every miniscule issue of the day (as reported by the news media) they feel they have “to do something” to ensure their positions.  (The 114th Congress, from January 2015 to January 2017, acted on 10,334 pieces of legislation…that’s 14 more possible government rules every single day!)

It means a Congress that appropriates over a TRILLION dollars just to run the government (for only one year!), yet never seriously considers cutting any of the enormous, shamelessly wasteful programs that contribute to a national debt greater than all of Western Europe combined!

It means that the Congress, both houses, are willingly destroying the economic foundation of this nation in order to keep their offices, their petty little seats of power and prestige and inflated egos, by “playing to the audience,” telling us what we want to hear instead of the truth.  And we continue to allow it.  There is no balance in the federal government today, for there is no check on the democratic impulses of the mob; nor, as we’ve seen for eight years, on the monarchical tendencies of those who reside in the Oval Office.

The Founders wrote at length against pure democracy, which as one wag noted, “is two wolves and a sheep deciding on what’s for dinner.”  That may be fine for the wolves today, but when three hunters enter the equation tomorrow, not so much.  And when five PETA members enter the fray the day after…?  And ten cattle ranchers the day after that…?

Ultimately, it means that the American experiment, based on limited government, free markets, individual liberty and a Constitution which provided a foundation for the rule of law…is finished.  We have become a democracy in fact, instead of the republic that was established, and the federal government is but a tool of the mob’s obsession with “the discontents of the day.”  Justice Story knew, 180 years ago, that this could happen –

The structure [of our nation] has been erected by architects of consummate skill and fidelity; its foundations are solid. . .and its defences are impregnable from without. . .It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, THE PEOPLE. Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens. They fall, when the wise are banished from the public councils, because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded, because they flatter the people…in order to betray them.

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Formerly a liberal and an atheist, Paul E. Scates served as a Marine in Vietnam and is a lifelong student of American history, politics and culture. A former contributor to national website, he writes his staunchly independent Conservative and informed Christian commentary for his fellow ordinary, working Americans, the “we, the people” who are ultimately responsible for preserving our Constitutional liberties.
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