We all know the terms Democracy and Republic, but may not know their history and the context of their definitions. Let’s take a look at them in more detail -- you may be surprised by what we discover.
The original usage as defined by the Romans and Greeks are not the same as those in use today, so it is instructive to follow the history. Once we understand the words, we’ll relate them to the political system of the United States which isn’t a Democracy or a Republic.
Democracy comes from the Greek (dēmokratía) or “the power to the people”. It began to be used after Clisthenes re-organized the Athenian tribes into Demes in 508 B.C. The original definition of democracy, then, is the political system of Athens in the late six and fifth centuries B.C. Beyond this practical definition, we have the theoretical, which defines the characteristics of a democracy as a political system which provides equality and freedom. Furthermore, in a typical democracy, an individual’s rights are protected by a constitution which lays out the governmental structure to support the its laws. Citizens participate in elections where they cast ballots and choose magistrates who will govern. In the case of Athens, the Constitution had been written by Solon and the laws and balance between the branches of government was fine-tuned up to the time of Pericles.
A long time passed between the Athenian Polis and the the rise of modern democracies. Those few examples in between are hardly more than anecdotes. In the western world, monarchies dominated from the fall of Rome until the time of the American Revolution.
The word Republic comes from the Latin res publica or “thing of the people”, implying the participation of the people in their political system. In antiquity, a Republic was defined simply as a political system with no monarch -- the Roman Republic being the most well known example. In Rome, there were three branches of government: Consuls (chief executive magistrate), Senate (wise experienced leaders), and the Assemblies (the people). The Roman Republic was in actuality an oligarchy, because Senators had the power and wealth to influence the way the Republic was administered. The Senate made foreign policy and introduced new laws to be voted on by the assembly. Citizens could only vote if they were landowners: woman, slaves, and the landless were out of luck.
Republics live in fear of tyranny so they create a structure to lower the risk of revolution. In Rome, two consuls were elected for one year terms and had veto control over each other. Other magistrates, such as tribunes, were also elected for a single year. Proconsuls were administrators of foreign territories and as military leaders were not allowed to bring their army onto the Italian peninsula – a rule broken by Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon.
Republics were only marginally more successful than Democracies in the period between antiquity and the modern age. One could cite Switzerland in the middle ages and Florence during the renaissance as examples. Again, innovative political models with equality and freedom were stifled by the medieval monarchical view.
So now we come to colonial America and its path to independence. The colonies, in the pre-revolution days, were Republics just like Rome. Each legislature had an aristocratic upper chamber and a lower chamber of ordinary citizens. The one difference was the governor who was either a toady to the British government or a company chartered by the British government.
As we all know, the American Revolution was an emotional event inspired by the oppressive laws the British government created to exploit the colonies. The colonies had not given much thought to the kind of political system they would need after independence was achieved, so there was a period of weak governance in the period before the Constitutional Convention. The Articles of Confederation had created a loose governmental model but it had too many flaws (no executive) to be effective. That’s why a convention was called in 1787 to amend the articles. Fifty-five men attended the convention as representatives of the colonies, and endured a hot summer in Philadelphia with the windows closed so no one could overhear their debate.
Political philosophies ran the gamut from those who felt no central government was necessary to those who wanted to eliminate the states. Many who liked the Articles of Confederation felt they had been tricked when the discussion of a new political system commenced. Most delegates were literate in Latin and well versed in the Roman and Greek political systems. They looked to antiquity to guide them past the monarchical model that had dominated the western world.
Many feared Democracy as “mob rule” citing the need to have controls against the lower classes, a problem faced by both the Romans and Greeks. The resulting Constitution created a Federation of states with a central government that was essentially an oligarchy. The president was to be selected by state legislatures (electors), the Senate by state legislatures, and only the representatives were to be directly elected by the people. The initial group of Senators included some of the richest men in the colonies, who were able to exert their individual influence over the business of the nation.
Washington was essentially a figurehead. The battle over the philosophy of the new government was waged between Hamilton and Jefferson, the former wanting a centralized government and the latter embracing the principles of Democracy. This was the Romans versus the Greeks redux. Jefferson eventually won the battle when he was able to build his Republican (his term for the opposite of Federalist) party through grass roots efforts in the states. The Federalists never won an election after 1796 and the government became more Democratic. Still, the vestiges of the Oligarchic Republic remained for a long time. The property ownership requirement for voting lasted until 1850 and Senators continued to be selected by the states until 1910.
Today, the American model sits somewhere between the Greek and Roman – maybe more on the side of Rome. Nowhere in America are officials nominated or elected by lot as the Greeks did. Broad public participation in government has been replaced by lobbyists who influence legislation by acting for large corporations or groups - the new oligarchy. The people have been removed from the process and even though Americans take pride in the voting franchise, they have less and less ability to control the way government operates.