Democratic Republicanism in Early America

There was much debate and confusion around various terms, in early America.

The word ‘democracy’ wasn’t used on a regular basis at the time of the American Revolution, even as the ideal of it was very much in the air. Instead, the word ‘republic’ was used by most people back then to refer to democracy. But some of the founding fathers such as Thomas Paine avoided such confusion and made it clear beyond any doubt by speaking directly of ‘democracy’. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the first founding document and 3rd president, formed a political party with both ‘democratic’ and ‘republican’ in the name, demonstrating that no conflict was seen between the two terms.

The reason ‘democracy’ doesn’t come up in founding documents is that the word is too specific, although it gets alluded to when speaking of “the People” since democracy is literally “people power”. Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence, was particularly clever in avoiding most language that evoked meaning that was too ideologically singular and obvious (e.g., he effectively used rhetoric to avoid the divisive debates for and against belief in natural law). That is because the founding documents were meant to unite a diverse group of people with diverse opinions. Such a vague and ambiguous word as ‘republic’ could mean almost anything to anyone and so was an easy way to paper over disagreements and differing visions. If more specific language was used that made absolutely clear what they were actually talking about, it would have led to endless conflict, dooming the American experiment from the start.

Yet it was obvious from pamphlets and letters that many American founders and revolutionaries wanted democracy, in whole or part, to the degree they had any understanding of it. Some preferred a civic democracy with some basic social democratic elements and civil rights, while others (mostly Anti-Federalists) pushed for more directly democratic forms of self-governance. The first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was clearly a democratic document with self-governance greatly emphasized. Even among those who were wary of democracy and spoke out against it, they nonetheless regularly used democratic rhetoric (invoking democratic ideals, principles, and values) because democracy was a major reason why so many fought the revolution in the first place. If not for democracy, there was little justification for and relevance in starting a new country, beyond a self-serving power grab by a new ruling elite.

Without assuming that large number of those early Americans had democracy in mind, their speaking of a republic makes no sense. And that is a genuine possibility for at least some of them, as they weren’t always clear in their own minds about what they did and didn’t mean. To be technical (according to even the common understanding from the 1700s), a country either is a democratic republic or a non-democratic republic. The variety of non-democratic republics would include what today we’d call theocracy, fascism, communism, etc. It is a bit uncertain exactly what kind of republic various early Americans envisioned, but one thing is certain: There was immense overlap and conflation between democracy and republicanism in the early American mind. This was the battleground of the fight between Federalists and Anti-Federalists (or to be more accurate, between pseudo-Federalists and real Federalists).

As a label, stating something is a republic says nothing at all about what kind of government it is. All that it says is what a government isn’t, that is to say it isn’t a monarchy, although there were even those who argued for republican monarchy with an elective king which is even more confused and so the king theoretically would serve the citizenry that democratically elected him. Even some of the Federalists talked about this possibility of republic with elements of a monarchy, strange as it seems to modern Americans. This is what the Anti-Federalists worried about.

Projecting our modern ideological biases onto the past is the opposite of helpful. The earliest American democrats were, by definition, republicans. And most of the earliest American republicans were heavily influenced by democratic political philosophy, even when they denounced it while co-opting it. There was no way to avoid the democratic promise of the American Revolution and the founding documents. Without that promise, we Americans would still be British. That promise remains, yet unfulfilled. The seed of an ideal is hard to kill once planted.

Still, bright ideals cast dark shadows. And the reactionary authoritarianism of the counter-revolutionaries was a powerful force. It is an enemy we still fight. The revolution never ended.

* * *

Democracy Denied: The Untold Story
by Arthur D. Robbins
Kindle Locations 2862-2929

Fascism has been defined as “an authoritarian political ideology (generally tied to a mass movement) that considers individual and other societal interests inferior to the needs of the state, and seeks to forge a type of national unity, usually based on ethnic, religious, cultural, or racial attributes.”[ 130] If there is a significant difference between fascism thus defined and the society enunciated in Plato’s Republic,[ 131] in which the state is supreme and submission to a warrior class is the highest virtue, I fail to detect it. [132] What is noteworthy is that Plato’s Republic is probably the most widely known and widely read of political texts, certainly in the United States, and that the word “republic” has come to be associated with democracy and a wholesome and free way of life in which individual self-expression is a centerpiece.

To further appreciate the difficulty that exists in trying to attach specific meaning to the word “republic,” one need only consult the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.[ 133] There one will find a long list of republics divided by period and type. As of this writing, there are five listings by period (Antiquity, Middle Ages and Renaissance, Early Modern, 19th Century, and 20th Century and Later), encompassing 90 separate republics covered in Wikipedia. The list of republic types is broken down into eight categories (Unitary Republics, Federal Republics, Confederal Republics, Arab Republics, Islamic Republics, Democratic Republics, Socialist Republics, and People’s Republics), with a total of 226 entries. There is some overlap between the lists, but one is still left with roughly 300 republics— and roughly 300 ideas of what, exactly, constitutes a republic.

One might reasonably wonder what useful meaning the word “republic” can possibly have when applied in such diverse political contexts. The word— from “res publica,” an expression of Roman (i.e., Latin) origin— might indeed apply to the Roman Republic, but how can it have any meaning when applied to ancient Athens, which had a radically different form of government existing in roughly the same time frame, and where res publica would have no meaning whatsoever?

Let us recall what was going on in Rome in the time of the Republic. Defined as the period from the expulsion of the Etruscan kings (509 B.C.) until Julius Caesar’s elevation to dictator for life (44 B.C.),[ 134] the Roman Republic covered a span of close to five hundred years in which Rome was free of despotism. The title rex was forbidden. Anyone taking on kingly airs might be killed on sight. The state of affairs that prevailed during this period reflects the essence of the word “republic”: a condition— freedom from the tyranny of one-man rule— and not a form of government. In fact, The American Heritage College Dictionary offers the following as its first definition for republic: “A political order not headed by a monarch.”

[…] John Adams (1735– 1826), second President of the United States and one of the prime movers behind the U.S. Constitution, wrote a three-volume study of government entitled Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (published in 1787), in which he relies on the writings of Cicero as his guide in applying Roman principles to American government.[ 136] From Cicero he learned the importance of mixed governments,”[ 137] that is, governments formed from a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. According to this line of reasoning, a republic is a non-monarchy in which there are monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements. For me, this is confusing. Why, if one had just shed blood in unburdening oneself of monarchy, with a full understanding of just how pernicious such a form of government can be, would one then think it wise or desirable to voluntarily incorporate some form of monarchy into one’s new “republican” government? If the word “republic” has any meaning at all, it means freedom from monarchy.

The problem with establishing a republic in the United States was that the word had no fixed meaning to the very people who were attempting to apply it. In Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton says, “Sparta, Athens, Rome and Carthage were all republics”( F.P., No. 6, 57). Of the four mentioned, Rome is probably the only one that even partially qualifies according to Madison’s definition from Federalist No. 10 (noted earlier): “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place,” in which government is delegated “to a small number of citizens elected by the rest” (ibid, No. 10, 81-82).

Madison himself acknowledges that there is a “confounding of a republic with a democracy” and that people apply “to the former reasons drawn from the nature of the latter ”( ibid., No. 14, 100). He later points out that were one trying to define “republic” based on existing examples, one would be at a loss to determine the common elements. He then goes on to contrast the governments of Holland, Venice, Poland, and England, all allegedly republics, concluding, “These examples … are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic” and show “the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.”( ibid., No. 39, 241).

Thomas Paine offers a different viewpoint: “What is now called a republic, is not any particular form of government. It is wholly characteristical [sic] of the purport, matter, or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, res-publica, the public affairs or the public good” (Paine, 369) (italics in the original). In other words, as Paine sees it, “res-publica” describes the subject matter of government, not its form.

Given all the confusion about the most basic issues relating to the meaning of “republic,” what is one to do? Perhaps the wisest course would be to abandon the term altogether in discussions of government. Let us grant the word has important historical meaning and some rhetorical appeal. “Vive la Republique!” can certainly mean thank God we are free of the tyranny of one-man, hereditary rule. That surely is the sense the word had in early Rome, in the early days of the United States, and in some if not all of the French and Italian republics. Thus understood, “republic” refers to a condition— freedom from monarchy— not a form of government.

* * *

Roger Williams and American Democracy
US: Republic & Democracy
 (part two and three)
Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality
Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed
The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation
The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution
Wickedness of Civilization & the Role of Government
Spirit of ’76
A Truly Free People
Nature’s God and American Radicalism
What and who is America?
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
About The American Crisis No. III
Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus
Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood
Revolutionary Class War: Paine & Washington
Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost
Betrayal of Democracy by Counterrevolution
Revolutions: American and French (part two)
Failed Revolutions All Around
The Haunted Moral Imagination
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”
“…from every part of Europe.”

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence
A Vast Experiment
America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest
When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

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2 thoughts on “Democratic Republicanism in Early America

  1. This post was written in response to some comments at a previous post. The comments are by someone going by the name Beau. Here is one of the comments:

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/14/us-republic-democracy/comment-page-1/#comment-25207

    “I would much rather keep my God given rights and power than hand over my power to a majority (Democracy) to rule the life I live. Look at the history of Republicans (Federalists-not federalism). Do your research of the history of Race and Sex between democrats and republicans. Check your sources. We ARE a republic with democratic influences. Nowhere in the constitution does it say anything about a democracy, though it does of a republic. Article 4 Section 4 of the U.S. Constiution. Read more books, not blogs.”

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