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A Constitutional Republic

Only two people signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, John Hancock and Charles Thomson. Most of the rest signed on August 2, but the last signature wasn't added until 5 years later.

Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., USA
As a nation, Americans have grown accustomed to hearing that we are a democracy. But did you know that such was never the intent of our Founding Fathers? The form of government entrusted to us by our Founders was a republic, not a democracy. Our Founders had an opportunity to establish a democracy in America and chose not to. In fact, the Founders made it clear that we were not, and were never to become, a democracy.

Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
— James Madison


Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
— John Adams


A democracy is a volcano which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption and carry desolation in their way.4 The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness [excessive license] which the ambitious call, and ignorant believe to be liberty.
— Fisher Ames,
Author of the House Language for the First Amendment


We have seen the tumult of democracy terminate ... as [it has] everywhere terminated, in despotism. ... Democracy! savage and wild. Thou who wouldst bring down the virtuous and wise to thy level of folly and guilt.
— Gouverneur Morris,
Signer and Penman of the Constitution


The experience of all former ages had shown that of all human governments, democracy was the most unstable, fluctuating and short-lived.
— John Quincy Adams


A simple democracy ... is one of the greatest of evils.
— Benjamin Rush,
Signer of the Declaration


In democracy ... there are commonly tumults and disorders. ... Therefore a pure democracy is generally a very bad government. It is often the most tyrannical government on earth.
— Noah Webster


Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state, it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.
— John Witherspoon,
Signer of the Declaration


It may generally be remarked that the more a government resembles a pure democracy the more they abound with disorder and confusion.
— Zephaniah Swift,
Author of America's First Legal Text


Many Americans today seem to be unable to define the difference between the two, but there is a difference — a big difference. That difference rests in the source of authority.

A pure democracy operates by the direct majority vote of the people. When an issue is to be decided, the entire population votes on it and the majority wins and rules.

A republic differs in that the general population elects representatives who then pass laws to govern the nation. A democracy is the rule by majority feeling (what the Founders described as a "mobocracy"). A republic is rule by law.

If the source of law for a democracy is the popular feeling of the people, then what is the source of law for the American republic? According to Founder Noah Webster: "Our citizens should early understand that the genuine source of correct republican principles is the Bible, particularly the New Testament, or the Christian religion.

The transcendent values of Biblical natural law were the foundation of the American republic. Consider the stability this provides: in our republic, murder will always be a crime, for it is always a crime according to the Word of God. However, in a democracy, if majority of the people decide that murder is no longer a crime, murder will no longer be a crime.

America's immutable principles of right and wrong were not based on the rapidly fluctuating feelings and emotions of the people but rather on what Montesquieu identified as the "principles that do not change."

Benjamin Rush similarly observed: "Where there is no law, there is no liberty; and nothing deserves the name of law but that which is certain and universal in its operation upon all the members of the community."

In the American republic, the "principles which did not change" and which were "certain and universal in their operation upon all the members of the community" were the principles of Biblical natural law. In fact, so firmly were these principles ensconced in the American republic that early law books taught that government was free to set its own policy only if God had not ruled in an area. For example, Blackstone's Commentaries explained: To instance in the case of murder: this is expressly forbidden by the Divine. ... If any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it we are bound to transgress that human law. ... But, with regard to matters that are ... not commanded or forbidden by those superior laws such, for instance, as exporting of wool into foreign countries; here the ... legislature has scope and opportunity to interpose.

All laws, however, may be arranged in two different classes. 1) Divine. 2) Human. ... But it should always be remembered that this law, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same Divine source: it is the law of God. ... Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is Divine.
— James Wilson,
Signer of the Constitution; U. S. Supreme Court Justice


The law ... dictated by God Himself is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity if contrary to this.
— Alexander Hamilton,
Signer of the Constitution


The ... law established by the Creator ... extends over the whole globe, is everywhere and at all times binding upon mankind. ... This is the law of God by which he makes his way known to man and is paramount to all human control.
— Rufus King,
Signer of the Constitution


The Founders understood that Biblical values formed the basis of the republic and that the republic would be destroyed if the people's knowledge of those values should ever be lost.

A republic is the highest form of government devised by man, but it also requires the greatest amount of human care and maintenance. If neglected, it can deteriorate into a variety of lesser forms, including a democracy (a government conducted by popular feeling); anarchy (a system in which each person determines his own rules and standards); oligarchy (a government run by a small council or a group of elite individuals): or dictatorship (a government run by a single individual). As John Adams explained: Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy; such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man's life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable [abominable] cruelty of one or a very few.

Understanding the foundation of the American republic is a vital key toward protecting it.

The United States of America, also known as the United States, the U.S., the U.S.A., the USA, the U.S. of A., the States, and America, is a country in North America that extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and shares land borders with Canada and Mexico. The United States is a federal constitutional republic, with its capital in Washington, D.C.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention faced a difficult challenge. They wanted to ensure a strong, cohesive central government, yet they also wanted to ensure that no individual or small group in the government would become too powerful. Because of the colonies' experience under the British monarchy, the delegates wanted to avoid giving any one person or group absolute control in government. Under the Articles of Confederation, the government had lacked centralization, and the delegates didn't want to have that problem again. To solve these problems, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention created a government with three separate branches, each with its own distinct powers. This system would establish a strong central government, while insuring a balance of power.

Governmental power and functions in the United States rest in three branches of government: the legislative, judicial, and executive. Article I of the Constitution defines the legislative branch and vests power to legislate in the Congress of the United States. The executive powers of the President are defined in Article 2. Article 3 places judicial power in the hands of one Supreme Court and inferior courts as Congress sees necessary to establish.

Though in this system of a "separation of powers" each branch operates independently of the others. However, there are built in "checks and balances" to prevent tyrannous concentration of power in any one branch and to protect the rights and liberties of citizens. For example, the President can veto bills approved by Congress and the President nominates individuals to serve in the Federal judiciary; the Supreme Court can declare a law enacted by Congress or an action by the President unconstitutional; and Congress can impeach the President and Federal court justices and judges.

When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention created the executive branch of government, they gave the president a limited term of office to lead the government. This was very different from any form of government in Europe and caused much debate. The delegates were afraid of what too much power in the hands of one person might lead to. In the end, with a system of checks and balances included in the Constitution, a single president to manage the executive branch of government was adopted.

The executive branch of the Government is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land. When George Washington was president, people recognized that one person could not carry out the duties of the President without advice and assistance. The Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies assist in this capacity. Unlike the powers of the President, their responsibilities are not defined in the Constitution but each has special powers and functions.

  • President: Leader of the country and Commander in Chief of the military.
  • Vice President: President of the Senate and becomes President if the President is unable to serve.
  • Departments: Department heads advise the President on policy issues and help execute those policies.
  • Independent Agencies: Help execute policy or provide special services.

Article III of the Constitution established the judicial branch of government with the creation of the Supreme Court. This court is the highest court in the country and vested with the judicial powers of the government. There are lower Federal courts but they were not created by the Constitution. Rather, Congress deemed them necessary and established them using power granted from the Constitution.

Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws, how they are applied, and whether they violate the Constitution. The latter power is known as judicial review and it is this process that the judiciary uses to provide checks and balances on the legislative and executive branches. Judicial review is not an explicit power given to the courts but it is an implied power. In a landmark Supreme Court decision, Marbury v. Madison (1803), the courts' power of judicial review was clearly articulated.

Article I of the Constitution establishes the legislative or law making branch of government with the formation of a bicameral Congress. This system provides checks and balances within the legislative branch.

Only after much debate did the Founding Fathers agree on the creation of the House of Representatives and the Senate. A major issue was how representation in the legislative body would be determined. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention from larger and more populated states argued for the Virginia Plan that called for congressional representation should be based on a state's population. Fearing domination, delegates from smaller states were just as adamant for equal representation and supported the New Jersey Plan. Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut, proposed the bicameral legislature. The Great Compromise, among other provisions, resulted in the creation of two houses, with representation based on population in one and with equal representation in the other.

Members of Congress are now elected by a direct vote of the people of the state they represent. It has not always been this way for the Senate. Prior to 1913 and the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, Senators were chosen by their state legislatures because the Senate was viewed as representative of state governments, not of the people. It was the responsibility of Senators to ensure that their state was treated equally in legislation.

Agencies that provide support services for the Congress are also part of the legislative branch. These include the Government Printing Office (GPO), the Library of Congress (LC), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the General Accounting Office (GAO), and the Architect of the Capitol.

The first type of government in America was based primarily on state government. Prior to the signing of the Constitution, America had been made up of thirteen colonies, which had been ruled by England. Following the Revolutionary War, these colonies, although they had formed a league of friendship under the Articles of Confederation, basically governed themselves. They feared a strong central government like the one they lived with under England's rule. However, it was soon discovered that this weak form of state government could not survive and so the Constitution was drafted. The Constitution:

  • defines and limits the power of the national government,
  • defines the relationship between the national government and individual state governments, and
  • guarantees the rights of the citizens of the United States.

This time, it was decided that a government system based on federalism would be established. In other words, power is shared between the national and state (local) governments. The opposite of this system of government is a centralized government, such as in France and Great Britain, where the national government maintains all power.

Sharing power between the national government and state governments allows us to enjoy the benefits of diversity and unity. For example, the national government may set a uniform currency system. Could you imagine having 50 different types of coins, each with a different value? You would need to take along a calculator to go shopping in another state. By setting up a national policy, the system is fair to everyone and the states do not have to bear the heavy burden of regulating their currency.

On the other hand, issues such as the death penalty have been left up to the individual states. The decision whether or not to have a death penalty, depends on that state's history, needs, and philosophies.

David Barton. Republic v. Democracy. WallBuilders | American historical events. Mar 26, 2004.


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