Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.


Judy Leithe, Contributing Editor 

A Republic, If We Can Keep it - Part II
by Ann Streit

Anxious citizens gathered outside Independence Hall at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention and a woman asked Ben Franklin whether the nation had been given a monarchy or a republic; he famously replied “A republic, if you can keep it.” 

Democracy is like two wolves and a lamb, deciding what is for dinner.”  This quotation, often attributed to Ben Franklin, perfectly illustrates the inherent dangers of a democracy and the reason our Founding Fathers had the wisdom to design a constitution that created, not a democracy, but a constitutional republic.

For more than a century, Americans understood the difference between the two forms of government.  A 1928 U.S. government document, from the War Department, correctly defined democracy as: 

  “A government of the masses: Authority derived through mass meeting or any other form of "direct expression,” results in mobocracy.  Attitude toward property is communistic — negating property rights.  Attitude of the law is that the will of the majority shall regulate, whether based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice, and impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences.  Results in demagogism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy.’’

By contrast, a republic, while still a representational system (like democracy), has a constitution or charter which protects certain inalienable rights from both government and from majority rule.  It is in a constitutional republic that minorities have rights, property rights are protected, religious freedom is enshrined and rule of law prevails.  Nowhere in our founding documents, can the word “democracy” be found.

It was during the 20th century that the very foundation of our nation began to be redefined.  Coincidentally, that was also when the Progressive Movement took shape….  Within our constitutional republic, the inherent separation of powers, checks and balances and an independent judiciary proved to be obstacles to the goals of the Progressives. They believed that mankind had evolved and no longer needed constraints - that it was time to give the people direct control over their government.  Progressives such as Herbert Croley and Theodore Roosevelt wanted the legal and constitutional restraints on government cleared out of the way and thus the assault on our republic began. 

A century later, textbooks, at best, use the terms democracy and republic interchangeably.  At worst, our children are not being exposed to the concept of a constitutional republic, and the protections it offers, at all.  Definitions matter.  We are fundamentally changed when we define the murder of unborn children as “choice,” science as “consensus,” and feelings as “truth.”  It is imperative that we understand, and teach our children, the difference between “democracy” and our form of government, constitutional republic. 

John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1801-1835) explained Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”  Our Founding Fathers put their “lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” on the line for us and chose order.  It is now our responsibility to keep it.