More on the Republic vs. Democracy Debate

Several Georgia legislators have introduced this resolution (link added):


Informing Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein that Georgia is a republic, not a democracy; recognizing the great differences between these two forms of government; and for other purposes.

WHEREAS, on March 16, 2010, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein appeared before the Georgia General Assembly for the State of the Judiciary address, and in her speech Chief Justice Hunstein mistakenly called the State of Georgia a democracy; and

WHEREAS, the State of Georgia is, in fact, a republic and it is important that all Georgians know the difference between a republic and a democracy -– especially the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court; and

WHEREAS, the word “republic” comes from the Latin res publica, which means “the public thing” or “the law,” while the word “democracy” comes from the Greek words demos and kratein, which translates to “the people to rule”; and

WHEREAS, most synonymous with majority rule, democracy was condemned by the Founding Fathers of the United States, who closely studied the history of both democracies and republics before drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; and

WHEREAS, the Founding Fathers recognized that the rights given to man by God should not be violated by an unrestrained majority any more than they should be restrained by a king or monarch; and

WHEREAS, it is common knowledge that the Pledge of Allegiance contains the phrase “and to the Republic”; and

WHEREAS, as he exited the deliberations of the so-called Constitutional Convention of 1787, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin told the awaiting crowd they have “A republic, if you can keep it”; and

WHEREAS, a republic is a government of law, not of man, which is why the United States Constitution does not contain the word democracy and mandates that “the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government”; and

WHEREAS, in 1928, the War Department of the United States defined democracy in Training Manual No. 2000-25 as a “government of the masses” which “[r]esults in mobocracy,” communistic attitudes to property rights, “demagogism, … agitation, discontent, [and] anarchy”; …

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES that the members of this body recognize the difference between a democracy and a republic and inform Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein that the State of Georgia is a republic and not a democracy….

Now maybe this is just a deep inside joke, but if it’s meant to be serious then it strikes me as the worst sort of pedantry. (I distinguish this from my pedantry, which is the best sort of pedantry.)

Whatever government Georgia has, and whatever government the English language has, it is not government by ancient Romans, ancient Greeks, the War Department Training Manual, or even the Pledge of Allegiance. “Democracy” today includes, among other meanings, “Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In mod. use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege.” That’s from the Oxford English Dictionary, but if you prefer the American Heritage Dictionary, try “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.” Government by the people’s representatives is included within democracy, as is government by the people directly.

It may well be that in Madison’s time, “democracy” and “republic” were more sharply delineated by some; see, for instance, The Federalist (No. 10), though even that first draws the distinction between “pure democracy” and a “republic,” only later just saying “democracy.” But even then, “representative democracy” was understood as a form of democracy, alongside “pure democracy”; John Adams used the term “representative democracy” in 1794; so did Noah Webster in 1785; so did St. George Tucker in his 1803 edition of Blackstone; so did Thomas Jefferson in 1815. Tucker’s Blackstone likewise uses “democracy” to describe a representative democracy, even when the qualifier “representative” is omitted. More importantly, the dictionaries report that in standard English today — the time in which Chief Justice Hunstein was actually speaking — “democracy” includes direct democracies as well as democratic republics.

Naturally, the supposed logical arguments in favor of favoring “republic” over “democracy” are as weak as the historical arguments. That “the rights given to man by God should not be violated by an unrestrained majority any more than they should be restrained by a king or monarch” shouldn’t lead us to favor “republic” over “democracy” — after all, rights shouldn’t be violated by an unrestrained desire to serve “the public thing,” either. That “the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government” doesn’t help, either. Indeed, in the early years of the Constitution, many states were republican but not democratic, in the sense that they were governed by only a subset of the adult citizenry (even setting aside the fact that blacks and women were generally excluded). But today all the states, including Georgia, have pretty much universal adult citizen suffrage, and thus are both republican and democratic.

Thanks to Bill Raftery (Gavel to Gavel) for the pointer.