Benjamin Franklin, a true renaissance man of his era, left the 1787 Constitutional Convention where he was asked what kind of government the Founders would propose. Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin had been cautiously optimistic about the republic, writing that the Constitution “seems to promise it will be durable,” although “nothing is certain except death and taxes.” But what exactly is a republican form of government? Is the United States the only nation that practices the principles of a republic? Let’s explore the concept that pre-dates the Land of the Free.
The Republic: A Primer
A republic is a government being ruled by representatives voted for and elected by the citizens. Although the people do not govern the nation themselves, they exercise their power by choosing elected officials to represent their needs and decisions in the state or nation’s capital. Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution declares, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
Types of Republics
There are many different types of republics and how governments function. The U.S. functions as a federal and presidential republic. The country has states that possess some autonomy from the federal government and maintains a president who leads the nation. Argentina, Brazil, Austria, Russia, and Venezuela are other examples of federal-presidential republics.
The other kinds of republics from across the globe:
- Unitary: Divisions, like states or provinces, are governed as a single unit with one legislature (Ireland or France).
- Parliamentary: The government operates by a parliamentary system with a prime minister as head of state (Greece and Israel).
- Islamic: A country that is ruled by theocracy and a constitution that is based on Islamic law (Iran and Pakistan).
But what about a banana republic? This term is thrown around a lot, but this is not an official form of government. Instead, it a disparaging way to describe a government seen as being problematic or tyrannical.
Republics – Ancient and Modern
While the term was not used in antiquity or Middle Ages to describe countries, the principles and concepts surrounding what constitutes a state organization are employed to determine ancient republics.
For example, in the ancient era, from 3000 B.C. to the fifth century, the most well-known republics were the Roman Republic, Classical Athens, and Ancient Carthage. In the Middle Ages, lasting from the fifth to the 15th or 16th century, there were hundreds of republics in Europe, including the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, the Republic of Florence, the Old Swiss Confederacy, and the dozens of free imperial cities that were autonomous municipal members of the Holy Roman Empire.
In the 21st century, several republics have formed, including the State of Anjouan, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, the Republic of Kosovo, and the Catalan Republic.
What the Founders Envisioned
The Founding Fathers envisioned a nation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They understood the dangers of a monarch, but they wanted to refrain from applying the aspects of democracy over concerns of “tyranny of the majority” as Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French theorist, wrote. The country’s founders embraced the ideas of republicanism to establish the republic, and it is evident in everything during the American Revolution, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution.
The Founders never used “republic” and “democracy” interchangeably. Alexander Hamilton wrote on the Term of Office for Members of the Second Branch of the Legislature in June 1787:
“We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. … But if we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy. The difference of property is already great amongst us.”
Some of the core principles of republicanism that the Founders wanted to apply to the republic were natural rights, sovereign people, power should be given by the people and not inherited, and corruption has no place in a republic. They also wanted limited powers, routine checks and balances, and for change in the nation’s fabric to occur slowly. The purpose was concern that a majority of voters would ditch their rights and freedoms.
As former President John Adams said, “You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make a good use of it.”
A Republic – If You Can Keep It
Is the republic on the precipice of destruction? In recent years, it seems that America’s character is being diminished, and the principles of the planet’s greatest experiment are being tossed into the trash. In addition to the abandonment of the Constitution, the toxic political divide is eroding the American spirit and fostering enormous disdain between Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps everything unfolding today is what Franklin was warned about when he uttered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Will the republic fall, or will it withstand the bombardment of unconstitutional acts?