Article IV, Section 4
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.
Here the Framers speak the heart of their intentions for America.
In the Declaration of Independence, they had objected to George III’s actions because he had violated the laws of nature and of nature’s God. One might suppose that the Americans’ complaints amounted to no more than an accusation that this king had turned tyrant—that some other, more just, monarch (a Queen Anne, a Henry IV) might have appeased them. Indeed she, or he, might have done—for a time.
But a more careful reading of the Declaration shows that not only the king but also Parliament had angered the colonists. Americans judged that the whole British regime, and the structure of the British empire, deserved to be overthrown—replaced with a new regime and a new imperial structure. The new regime was republican—republicanism as they, not the Europeans, understood it—and federal—a federalism informed but not simply as defined by the great French political philosopher, Montesquieu.
What danger did this clause address? The highly respected Massachusetts delegate, Nathaniel Gorham, joined John Randolph and George Mason of Virginia and James Wilson of Pennsylvania in issuing the warning: “an enterprising Citizen might erect the standard of Monarchy in a particular State, might gather together partisans from all quarters, might extend his views from State to State, and threaten to establish a tyranny over the whole and the General Government be compelled to remain an inactive witness of its own destruction.” That is, these Framers anticipated the kind of career undertaken by Napoleon in France a decade before the fact, and they moved decisively to prevent it from happening here.
As usual, James Madison (writing in the forty-third Federalist) provides the clearest overview. “In a confederacy founded on republican principles and composed of republican members, the superintending government ought clearly to possess authority to defend the system against aristocratic or monarchical innovations.” Why so? Because the United States is not only a republic but a federal union: “The more intimate the nature of such a Union may be, the greater interest have the members in the political institutions of each other; and the greater right to insist that the forms of government under which the compact was entered into, should be substantially maintained” (emphasis in original). What is more, “Governments of dissimilar principles and forms have been found less adapted to a federal coalition of any sort, than those of a kindred nature,” he writes, citing Montesquieu’s research as proof. Not only the federal government but the constituent states of the federal union must be republican. Only this can stand as what Jefferson called “an empire of liberty.”
“But a right implies a remedy,” Madison continues. What power within the United States can safely prevent an anti-republican faction from seizing control of a state? “What better umpires could be desired by two violent factions, flying to arms and tearing a State to pieces, than the representatives of confederate States not heated by the local flame? To the impartiality of Judges they would unite the affection of friends.” And even more ambitiously: “Happy would it be if such a remedy for its infirmities could be enjoyed by all free governments; if a project equally effectual could be established for the universal peace of all mankind.” This would require that republican regimes achieve a sort of `critical mass’ throughout the world; in 1787, they had achieved such a critical mass only in the United States. If republicanism failed here, when and where would it revive? When and where would a general civil peace obtain—the condition for securing unalienable human rights?
Protection against invasion includes not only invasion by foreigners—the United States was bordered by the non-republican empires of Spain and Great Britain, as well as by the non-republican (and still formidable) Amerindian nations to the west—but also by other states of the Union. Although (as Montesquieu had remarked) commercial-republican regimes had not fought one another in the past, the Framers were taking no chances.
The Constitution guarantees federal intervention in times of anti-republican rebellion and of invasion foreign or domestic. Intra-state violence that is not anti-republican raised another problem. Massachusetts had suppressed Shays’ Rebellion only a few months before the Convention convened. Daniel Shays and his men had rebelled out of desperate indebtedness; far from being anti-republican, many had served in the war on the Patriot side. Convention delegates Elbridge Gerry and Luther Martin objected that intervention in such cases could be dangerous and unnecessary unless the afflicted state consented to it. At the same time, whatever Jefferson may have thought about a little rebellion now and then, armed rebellion does tend to throw cold water on the rule of law, and republics normally operate according to the rule of law. The delegates therefore agreed to require the federal government to obtain consent from the state government before intervening in such disputes. On balance, the local authorities will judge best when a republican rebellion requires the heavy hand of federal intervention.
In his Federalist essay, Madison did not hesitate to notice a force that might intervene in any disorder, whether anti-republican or republican, foreign or interstate or domestic. An “unhappy species of population abound[s] in some of the States, who during the calm of regular government are sunk below the level of men; but who in the tempestuous scenes of civil violence may emerge into the human character, and give a superiority of strength to any party with which they may associate themselves.” The presence of slaves in the United States raised the harshest questions about both the American regime and the American federal union. By nature, the slaves were men; by law, they were a self-contradictory mixture of personhood and property. Civil disorder of any kind might induce them to rise up and claim their natural rights, perhaps at the expense of the natural rights of their masters; slave revolts had occurred in New York during the colonial period, and of course the freeman Toussaint Louverture would lead a (temporarily) successful insurrection in Haiti beginning in 1791. “We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man,” Madison declared. Would a slave revolt be an attack on republicanism or a vindication of it? Madison and the other founders sought some way to avoid such a revolt, which might overturn republicanism in the name of republicanism or perhaps install some other regime as a remedy for evils of slaveholding republicanism.
Put in a somewhat different way, the dilemma was as simple as it was stark. As Madison wrote in Federalist 43, the republican guarantee clause “supposes a pre-existing government of the form which is to be guaranteed.” That is, the basis of the federal union—the new empire of liberty replacing the old empire of tyranny—is the republican regime of each constituent state. Each state entered the union acknowledged as a republic by all of the others. But how `republican’ were those states in which slaves “abounded”? Madison knew the answer, which he would write down in an unpublished note a few years later: “In proportion as slavery prevails in a State, the Government, however democratic in name, must be aristocratic in fact. The power lies in the part instead of the whole, in property instead of numbers. All the ancient popular governments were, for this reason, aristocracies. The majority were slaves…. The Southern States of America, are on the same principle aristocracies.” In his own Virginia, he observed, the population of non-freeholding whites and black slaves amounted to three-quarters of the population (Papers of James Madison, vol. xiii, p. 163).
Such regimes were republics in Montesquieu’s sense—“aristocratic” rather than “democratic” republics. For Montesquieu, “republic” meant simply that the regime did not amount to the `private’ possession of one person—a despotism. This definition derived from the Latin root of the word: res publica or “public thing.” But to Madison and rest of the founders “republic” meant the “democratic” republic, only; in the words of Federalist 39, “it is essential” to republican government “that it be derived from the great body of society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or favored class of it.” And “it is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people—i. e., the representative principle. Representatives represent the people at large, not some “favored class.” In his 1787 critique of the Articles of Confederation, “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” Madison went so far as to publish the sentence: “Where slavery exists the republican theory [namely, that right and power are co-extensive because the majority rules] becomes still more fallacious” than it does under conditions whereby there is a large number of disenfranchised paupers.
All of this being so, the republican regime and the federal union—the unity of the United States—began its life on a knife edge. The Framers hoped that their new Constitution would provide a framework for the peaceful resolution of the problem of popular self-government under conditions in some ways favorable—remoteness from Europe, commercial interdependence of the states, and all the other features described in the first Federalist—and in some ways ominous—the existence of anti-republican regimes on the borders and of anti-republican “domestic institutions” within the states themselves. They inserted the republican guarantee clause as one way of strengthening that framework. In a way, it did—but its enforcement came at horrible cost, decades later.
Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.