Tag Archives: Constitutional republic

Thoughts on Governance

Writing for What Would The Founders Think?

In this post, Michael Newton tries to restore precision to our language. The American experiment was conceived as a republic, not a democracy. Present day efforts to conflate the terms not withstanding, the Founders were wary of democracies and they had good reason.

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The Balance of Power in the Roman Republic, the US Constitution, and Today

Americans think politicians are corrupt. That’s why the Founders gave us a constitutional republic.

In a recent poll, Americans said they blame politicians and not the system:

Optimism about the American system of government is at a 36-year low, yet most Americans blame the people in office — not the system itself — for all that’s going wrong, according to a new ABC News/Yahoo! News poll.

While I agree that politicians are corrupt, I don’t agree that this is the problem we are now facing. The real problem is the system of government we have. We have left our the republican roots of our Constitution and become too democratic.

If you study the history of free society and its descent, you will see one corrupt politician after another. You will discover the demagogues of ancient Greece, the tyrants of Rome, the totalitarians of the twentieth century, and the many corrupt politicians in our own history.

Our Founding Fathers knew that we too would have our fair share of corrupt politicians, just as all societies do. Not trusting government to corrupt, power-hungry men, the Founders established a constitutional republic for us in which “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” [Madison. Federalist #51.]

In ancient Rome, there were three power centers: the people, the aristocracy, and the monarchy. Rome balanced these three powers with the people, often called the mob, the Senate representing the aristocracy, and the magistrates acting similar to monarchs.

Our Founders created a similar balance between the three. The House of Representatives are the people. The Senate is the aristocracy as they were originally chosen by the states, not directly elected. And the President acts like a monarch, especially in war time when he is very similar to the temporary dictators of ancient Rome.

The Founders also established a balance of powers between the federal government and the states, designed to prevent either one from becoming too powerful:

This balance between the National and State governments ought to be dwelt on with peculiar attention, as it is of the utmost importance. It forms a double security to the people. If one encroaches on their rights they will find a powerful protection in the other. Indeed, they will  both be prevented from overpassing their constitutional limits by a certain rivalship, which will ever subsist between them. [Hamilton speech to New York Ratifying Convention]

Few today would argue that the states act as a check on the power of the federal government. With the power of the military, federal court system, and printing press (enabling federal government to spend nearly unlimited amounts of money whereas states can’t print money to pay off debts), states are powerless to stop any federal tyranny.

Additionally, in 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment provided for direct election of Senators. Prior to that, Senators were elected by their state legislatures. Not only did this direct election reduce the power of the states even further, it also removed the Senate’s aristocratic nature and made it democratic, little different from the House of Representatives.

Thus, the balance of powers has been severely weakened as the states can no longer check the federal government and the Senate has become another tool of the power. In effect, we have become a federal 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. [Madison. Federalist #10.]

It should be no surprise then that we are now living in such turbulent times.