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Democracy vs. Republic vs. Democratic republic?

December 10, 2010

In high school my history teacher informed the class on some truly shocking news: the United States is not exactly a democracy. Obviously I knew that to some degree because there was not an equal distribution of power, but I was still quite curious at this new prospective. She explained to the class that we live in a “democratic republic.” Her “soft definition” of each term was the following: a democracy is when everyone’s individual right matters, compared to a republic which is when individuals elect for one specific person to represent them. While reading the “Federalist” I was reminded by this anecdotal classroom memory and was curious about the evolution of the term, “democratic republic.”

James Madison is often called the “Father of the constitution” considering that he was the primary author of the United States’ constitution. In fact, he also wrote the first ten amendments – the Bill of Rights – where he specified individual’s rights as a citizen. However, part of his belief was also that this new government should have a set of checks and balances so that individual rights were protecting, but also so that tasks could be carried out.

While recalling Madison’s history, his work in the “Federalist,” as well as his writing in the Bill of Rights, I found some of his thoughts to be juxtaposed. How could the many who wrote the Bill of Rights also think that a republic is superior to a democracy?


A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.


The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

Madison then continues to explain why he prefers a republic to a democracy. He states that:

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves…The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations.

Is Madison Hypocritical? Or on-par?


One Comment
  1. December 10, 2010 8:25 PM

    I don’t think he is being hypocritical. He is stating the difference between a democracy and a republic. In Madison’s opinion the views of the public will be will better represented in a republic. It is the elected representatives that will lead the country and make the top decisions. What may be questionable, if in fact the founders believed the citizens could not be trusted with making all the decisions in government, is whether they should even be trusted to elect representatives who can? I know that the general opinion would not create laws that would voice my opinion, for example Prop 9 in California. I don’t think there is any perfect way of fixing this situation and that the founding fathers created the best possible form of governement that could have softened these probles

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