Guest Essayist: Will Morrisey

To secure the unalienable natural rights of the American people, the American Founders designed a republican regime. Republics had existed before: ancient Rome, modern Switzerland and Venice. By 1776, Great Britain itself could be described as a republic, with a strong legislature counterbalancing a strong monarchy—even if the rule of that legislature and that monarchy over the overseas colonies of the British Empire could hardly be considered republican. But the republicanism instituted after the War of Independence, especially as framed at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, featured a combination of elements never seen before, and seldom thereafter.

The American definition of republicanism was itself unique. ‘Republic’ or res publica means simply, ‘public thing’—a decidedly vague notion that might apply to any regime other than a monarchy. In the tenth Federalist, James Madison defined republicanism as representative government, that is, by a specific way of constructing the country’s ruling institutions. The Founders gave republicanism a recognizable form beyond ‘not-monarchy.’ From the design of the Virginia House of Burgesses to the Articles of Confederation and finally to the Constitution itself, representation provided Americans with real exercise of self-rule, while at the same time avoiding the turbulence and folly of pure democracies, which had so disgraced themselves in ancient Greece that popular sovereignty itself had been dismissed by political thinkers ever since. Later on, Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address shows how republicanism must defend the rule of law against mob violence; even the naming of Lincoln’s party as the Republican Party was intended to contrast it with the rule of slave-holding plantation oligarchs in the South.

The American republic had six additional characteristics, all of them clearly registered in this 90-Day Study. America was a natural-rights republic, limiting the legitimate exercise of popular rule to actions respecting the unalienable rights of its citizens; it was a democratic republic, with no formal ruling class of titled lords and ladies or hereditary monarchs; it was an extended republic, big enough to defend itself against the formidable empires that threatened it; it was a commercial republic, encouraging prosperity and innovation; it was a federal republic, leaving substantial political powers in the hands of state and local representatives; and it was a compound republic, dividing the powers of the national government into three branches, each with the means of defending itself against encroachments by the others.

Students of the American republic could consider each essay in this series as a reflection on one or more of these features of the American regime as designed by the Founders, or, in some cases, as deviations from that regime. Careful study of what the Declaration of Independence calls “the course of events” in America shows how profound and pervasive American republicanism has been, how it has shaped our lives throughout our history, and continues to do so today.

A Natural-Rights Republic

The Jamestown colony’s charter was written in part by the great English authority on the common law, Sir Edward Coke. Common law was an amalgam of natural law and English custom. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded shortly thereafter, was an attempt to establish the natural right of religious liberty. And of course the Declaration of Independence rests squarely on the foundation of the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God as the foundation of unalienable natural rights, several of which were given formal status in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. As the articles on Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831, the Dred Scott case in 1857, the Civil Rights amendments of the 1860s, and the attempt at replacing plantation oligarchy with republican regimes in the states after the Civil War all show, natural rights have been the pivot of struggles over the character of America. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the early civil rights leaders invoked the Declaration and natural rights to argue for civic equality, a century after the civil war. As a natural-rights republic, America rejects in principle race, class, and gender as bars to the protection of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In practice, Americans have often failed to live up to their principles—as human beings are wont to do—but the principles remain as their standard of right conduct.

A Democratic Republic

The Constitution itself begins with the phrase “We the People,” and the reason constitutional law governs all statutory laws is that the sovereign people ratified that Constitution. George Washington was elected as America’s first president, but he astonished the world by stepping down eight years later; he had no ambition to become another George III, or a Napoleon. The Democratic Party which began to be formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison when they went into opposition against the Adams administration named itself for this feature of the American regime. The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, providing for popular election of U. S. Senators, the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing voting rights for women, and the major civil rights laws of the 1960s all express the democratic theme in American public life.

An Extended Republic

Unlike the ancient democracies, which could only rule small territories, American republicanism gave citizens the chance of ruling themselves in a territory large enough to defend itself against the powerful states and empires that had arisen in modern times. All of this was contingent, however, on Jefferson’s idea that this extended republic would be an “empire of liberty,” by which he meant that new territories would be eligible to join the Union on an equal footing with the original thirteen states. Further, every state was to have a republican regime, as stipulated in the Constitution’s Article IV, section iv. In this series of Constituting America essays, the extension of the extended republic is very well documented, from the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Mexican War of 1848, to the purchase of Alaska and the Transcontinental Railroad of the 1960s, to the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. The construction of the Panama Canal, the two world wars, and the Cold War all followed from the need to defend this large republic from foreign regime enemies and to keep the sea lanes open for American commerce.

A Commercial Republic

Although it has proven itself eminently capable of defending itself militarily, America was not intended to be a military republic, like ancient Rome and the First Republic of France. The Constitution prohibits interstate tariffs, making the United States a vast free-trade zone—something Europe could not achieve for another two centuries. We have seen Alexander Hamilton’s brilliant plan to retire the national debt after the Revolutionary War and the founding of the New York Stock Exchange in 1792. Above all, we have seen how the spirit of commercial enterprise leads to innovation: Eli Morse’s telegraph; Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; Thomas Edison’s phonography and light bulb; the Wright Brothers’ flying machine; and Philo Farnworth’s television. And we have seen how commerce in a free market can go wrong if the legislation and federal policies governing it are misconceived, as they often were before, during, and sometimes after the Great Depression.

A Federal Republic

A republic might be ‘unitary’—ruled by a single, centralized government. The American Founders saw that this would lead to an overbearing national government, one that would eventually undermine republican self-government itself. They gave the federal government enumerated powers, leaving the remaining governmental powers “to the States, or the People.” The Civil War was fought over this issue, as well as slavery, the question of whether the American Union could defend itself against its internal enemies. The substantial centralization of federal government power seen in the New Deal of the 1930s, the Great Society legislation of the 1960s, and the Affordable Care Act of 2010 have renewed the question of how far such power is entitled to reach.

A Compound Republic

A simple republic would elect one branch of government to exercise all three powers: legislative, executive, and judicial. This was the way the Articles of Confederation worked. The Constitution ended that, providing instead for the separation and balance of those three powers. As the essays here have demonstrated, the compound character of the American republic has been eroded by such notions as ‘executive leadership’—a principle first enunciated by Woodrow Wilson but firmly established by Franklin Roosevelt and practiced by all of his successors—and ‘broad construction’ of the Constitution by the Supreme Court. The most dramatic struggle between the several branches of government in recent decades was the Watergate controversy, wherein Congress attempted to set limits on presidential claims of ‘executive privilege.’ Recent controversies over the use of ‘executive orders’ have reminded Americans of all political stripes that government by decree can gore anyone’s prized ox.

The classical political philosophers classified the forms of political rule, giving names to the several ‘regimes’ they saw around them. They emphasized the importance of regimes because regimes, they knew, designate who rules us, the institutions by which the rulers rule, the purposes of that rule, and finally the way of life of citizens or subjects. In choosing a republican regime on a democratic foundation, governing a large territory for commercial purposes with a carefully calibrated set of governmental powers, all intended to secure the natural rights of citizens according to the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, the Founders set the course of human events on a new and better direction. Each generation of Americans has needed to understand the American way of life and to defend it.

Will Morrisey is Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College, editor and publisher of Will Morrisey Reviews, an on-line book review publication.

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1 reply
  1. Cynthia Finucane
    Cynthia Finucane says:

    This is a fantastic article. It really does a great job of explaining our republic form of government. The only thing I would like to see corrected is the idea that slavery only took place in the south. It was practiced in all the states at that time. We all need to own this.


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