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Is the United States a Republic?

The United States of America is defined as a constitutional republic.

But what does this mean? Let’s break it down.

First, the “constitutional” part refers, of course, to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution functions as the supreme law of the land – by “supreme law,” we mean that no laws made by state governments or the federal government can contradict it. If a specific law is believed to go against the Constitution, the Supreme Court’s Justices will decide whether it does or not according to their individual interpretations of the Constitution.

But what’s a Republic?

A republic is a system in which common people are involved in the affairs of government. The word “republic” comes from the Latin phrase “res publica,” which literally means “the public thing.”

The ancient Romans had the original republic, which the Founding Fathers of the United States took a great deal of inspiration from. For the Romans, their republic was defined in contrast to what had existed earlier: monarchy or kings’ rule. Roman citizens, both rich and poor, were involved in how their government worked by voting for representatives, who would then rule on their behalf.

To sum it up, a republic could be thought of as a “representative democracy” – individual citizens are not directly exercising legislative authority by voting on laws themselves but delegating that task to the people who win elections.

Republican features put some distance between everyday citizens and their government’s functioning – they’re involved because they’re the ones putting legislators in power, but that’s more or less where their involvement ends.

Republican Features of the United States

The government of the United States has many features that highlight its status as a republic.

Article II of the Consitution, which describes how the legislative branch of the government functions, lays it out pretty well: citizens of states vote for members of the House of Representatives and Senate, who then vote on their behalf.

Representatives voting in place of citizens is classic republicanism – once again, we see “representative democracy.”

Another republican idea is the Electoral College. As mentioned above, republicanism puts some “distance” between everyday people and government functioning, and that’s what the Electoral College was originally intended to do.

While there’s always been a popular vote, wherein eligible U.S. citizens cast their votes for President of the United States, the Electoral College was originally meant to deliberate on that vote to ensure a populist or tyrant would not become President.

While the Electoral College quickly took on its current form (where all of a state’s electors adhere to that state’s popular vote), this idea of there needing to be an “elite” deliberative body is, again, classic republicanism – the people have power, but not too much power.

All this means that a presidential candidate can lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College – this is relatively rare but has occurred in 2016, 2000, 1888, 1876, and 1824.

Another republican feature is how Senators used to be elected. Each of the 50 states has two senators. Today, these are voted for directly by the citizens of a state. However, this wasn’t always the case: before the 17th Amendment (ratified in 1913), a state’s legislature decided who would be sent to the federal Senate.

So, say you lived in New York in 1890. You would vote for members of the New York State Legislature, just as you might today, but you wouldn’t vote for your two senators (today, Kirstin Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer). Rather, the New York State Legislature members who won the election would do this. Like the Electoral College, this original system entrusted voting power to representatives, removing things from the common person.

Is the United States a Democracy?

People often refer to the United States as a democracy and speak of concepts like “democratic” ideals. But is it a democracy?

This question can spark a lot of debate.

Once again, the United States is – officially – a constitutional republic. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not also a democracy.

As we’ve mentioned a couple of times above, a republic could be thought of as a “representative democracy.”

When people say that the United States is “not a democracy but a republic,” this is a half-truth: it’s not a direct democracy where each person casts their vote on specific legislation, but any system wherein people cast their votes for members of government is ultimately “democratic” in nature.

We can highlight the differences between a republic and a democracy with the modern United Kingdom example.

Since the head of state of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, has not been democratically elected, we can’t refer to the United Kingdom as a republic. In fact, it’s a constitutional monarchy. As citizens of the UK elect their representatives in Parliament, we can refer to the UK as a democracy. A bit confusing, we know! In the United States, however, people vote for the head of state, who is the President. There’s no aristocracy involved, which, for the Founding Fathers, was one of the most important differences between the fledgling Republic’s and Great Britain’s forms of government.

The Founding Fathers of the United States did fear “mob rule” or the “tyranny of the majority,” and in this case spoke of “democracy” negatively while promoting the virtues of a specifically republican form of government. This is where the argument “the United States is a republic, not a democracy” often stems from. However, in a sense, most people understand “democracy” today. The United States is indeed a democratic republic.

Summing Up

The answer to the question “Is the US a republic?” is a definite “yes.” Whereas saying the United States is a “democracy” may get controversial and requires some more diving into detail, saying the United States is a republic is 100 % correct – in fact, it was the first constitutional republic in the world, established at a time where monarchy was the default form of government. Whether certain republican features like the Electoral College will change or be abolished remains to be seen.

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6 Responses

  1. I’m going to court tomorrow
    Should I be telling them that I’m a citizen of the republic of the United States of America?
    And my name should not be in all caps as indicated on the paperwork?

  2. I am not so sure about your statement that the USA was the first constitutional republic. it could well be the Dutch. The “plakaat van Verlatinghe” from 1581 is considered the start of the Dutch republic. A lot of text from this document can be recognized in the US Declaration of Independence from 1776. It may have been Thomas Jefferson who had studied this document.

  3. This was a much more nuanced discussion of the matter than I had anticipated- it doesn’t resolve the ambiguity in the discussion of what a democracy or republic are, but that is because the ideas behind those labels are more complicated than I expected.

    In today’s “us versus them” political climate, I notice that there is a fight over identity that can be summed up as “Our party is more American than yours” – with the proof hinging on the official classification of our government. So its a good thing that neither party can gain the upper hand with such a dogmatic approach. Now if we can get over assigning the label of “Fascist” or “Nazi” to both the right and the left- we might even be able to start discussing the issues at hand. Also, I’d like a pony.

  4. While it does make sense Republican vs Democrat seems to key identifiers in this 2-party system, historical comments by statesmen declared this would lead to the end of the Republic. Since a Republic, as defined, is the system with which to experiment – what are the founding concepts of each protagonist/antagonist? As time has passes, have not both parties become extreme in terms of abolishing the “Center of the Aisle”, or mutual Constitutional agreement, as a means of self-justifying internal argument? Are we beyond the recourse of 2-party reconciliation of nearly every issue – I am not seeing any more options than over two centuries ago – it’s disheartening.

  5. There are 2 Constitutions: one written by Founding Fathers ‘The Constitution for The United States of America’ and which has been replaced with Federal Constitution written by federal corporation The Constitition of the United States’. They are not the same and that’s why majority of people are surprised why ‘country’ is not run by it anymore and there is tyranny, lies and deceit. Check that out for yourselves.

  6. Read section under David Mcoullughs john adams book. Look under back section, “Republic.” John Adams and Dr, Rush both agreed that at some point in the distant future, America would have to become a monarchy, due to sedition, civil war, etc.. and this was based on the current state of problems they were witnessing AFTER the constitution was ratified.. ie: power hunger people, government falling apart, etc.. When all three branches fail, then how does one govern a nation??? Hmmmmm… Interesting to note.. and one ought to look up President Trumps royal bloodline.. yep, that’s right.. ROYAL direct bloodline to England, Iceland and Scotland.. All in good time, all in good time. Is that why they named his son Barron? As in, “he is a baron?” Things that make you go hmmmm.

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