America’s Founders and Constitution Framers who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, 235 years ago this May, did not arrive without examples of what worked and what did not work in past empires or republics. In Essay #12, we examined the Constitution’s wisdom in light of the Roman Empire and how certain provisions helped ensure against regime failure. In this essay, we explore further some of the Constitution’s wisdom in preventing such failures.
The Republic of Venice
While the Republic of Venice officially lasted eleven hundred years, the five hundred years referred to here is the constitutional period, from 1297 until the fall of Venice in 1797. In 1297, an ordinance was passed providing for the Council of Forty. Venice was ruled by the doge, elected by the Council, and ruled for life. The Founding Fathers would consider the form of government of Venice and provide protections against regime failure, including the Republican Guarantee Clause.
The Guarantee Clause
Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution provides:
“The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.”
This was an important provision included by the drafters to ensure a process of governance through elections. The drafters had examples of the Republic of Venice and Rome and other regimes in collapse, with concerns about other forms of government, even those labeled republics, at its core.
In Federalist No. 57, the reality of various forms of republican government is acknowledged:
“The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government. The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various. The most effectual one, is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people.”
In 1787, ahead of the Constitutional Convention and back from a trip to the Netherlands, John Adams published the first of his three-volume set, “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.” In it, his goal was to defend the tripartite form of federal government. He examined other republics, including Venice. As to Venice, he wrote:
“It was at first democratical…. the people…determined that one magistrate should be chosen, as the center of all authority…. He was to be for life…he was to have the nomination of all magistrates, and the power of peace and war.”
Adams then discusses the evolution of the system in Venice, with power being in a few and not in the populace. Adams proposed the form of republican government that would find its way into the Constitution.
Adams concluded Volume I:
“All nations, under all governments, must have parties; the great secret is to controul them: there are but two ways, either by a monarchy and standing army, or by a balance in the constitution. Where the people have a voice, and there is no balance, there will be everlasting fluctuations, revolutions, and horrors, until a standing army, with a general at its head, commands the peace, or the necessity of an equilibrium is made appear to all, and is adopted by all.”
In Federalist No. 39, James Madison refers to Venice and how the republican form of government, as the Founding Fathers envisioned it, was to be different. Madison wrote:
“The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican. It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government. If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.
“What, then, are the distinctive characters of the republican form? Were an answer to this question to be sought, not by recurring to principles, but in the application of the term by political writers, to the constitution of different States, no satisfactory one would ever be found. Holland…has passed almost universally under the denomination of a republic. The same title has been bestowed on Venice, where absolute power over the great body of the people is exercised, in the most absolute manner, by a small body of hereditary nobles…These examples, which are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic, show the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.
“If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.”
With the Guarantee Clause, majority rule is the way, and each state must have an electoral process in place, to prevent the usurpation of power by a monarchial actor such as the doge. It is an important safeguard put in the Constitution by the founders.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the Guarantee Clause cannot be challenged in federal court, as it is nonjusticiable.
The Constitution’s wisdom is shown in many ways, including with the Guarantee Clause of the Constitution. The careful drafting in 1787 has helped to ensure American Exceptionalism once again.
Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.