We moderns and post-moderns love to distort and corrupt our words. We take the most innocent of words—such as gay, love, and myth—and overburden them with grotesque unmeaning. Other terms, however—such as republic—we merely forget, conveniently.
How often has one read or watched the news, only to be told that America, as the leading democratic power, must do this or that because it is in the interest of all free peoples to promote democracy? Democracy has become so overused as to become a synonym for all that is good in the world, especially identified as rainbow-headed unicorns with the wings of a Pegasus, flying unhesitatingly from imagined world to imagined world, the latest one progressing ever more and more toward all that is holy. Democracy, it seems, is freedom, goodness, truth, dignity, and beauty.
This is the absurdity that now surrounds us. Honestly, the unicorns would be preferable. One only has to watch the tumultuous and tenebrous storms of emotion that brew and blow on Twitter to see how well the democratic impulse tends toward goodness.
In his magisterial two-volume Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville knew exactly how corrupting and corrupted the word democratic might become. Rather than the description of a mere mechanism for governing, it would become synonymous with equality, and, once synonymous with equality, it would reach apotheosis.
Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more vividly than the equality of conditions. I discovered without difficulty the prodigious influence that this primary fact exercises on the march of society; it gives a certain direction to the public mind, a certain turn to the laws; to those governing, new maxims, and particular habits to the governed. Soon I recognized that this same fact extends its influence far beyond political mores and laws, and that it has no less dominion over civil society, than over government: it creates opinions, gives birth to sentiments, suggests customs and modifies all that it does not produce.
As such, Tocqueville realized, democracy could only do what traditional religion had once done, fundamentally shaping a culture, a people, and a way of life.
Criticize “democracy” in 2019 in public at your own peril. And, you can predict what almost every single person in the English-speaking world will say when you do criticize it. “It’s the worst form of government, except for all the others.” An automatic and knee-jerk reaction that most believe but only few have considered or understood.
The word “democracy” did not gain currency in America until the 1820s, but, when it arose, it arose with a fierceness in form and substance, taking much from the so-called Second Great Awakening, the rise of evangelical individualism in the United States and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom. Prior to the 1820s, most Americans still thought of democracy as the greats of western civilization from Plato onward had thought of it—as a critical but deeply flawed form of governance. The founders of the American republic knew that one must properly include some form of it, allowing the popular will to rant and sway moodily and mercurially but with more air than steam. Several members of the Constitutional Convention stated this explicitly in late May and early June of 1787 in Philadelphia.
Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry lamented that the American problems of the post-Revolutionary War stemmed from the democratic elements of the early republic. “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy,” he stated without hesitation. “The people do not want virtue; but are the dupes of pretended patriots.” His counterpart from Virginia, Edmund Randolph, claimed something similar. He “observed that the general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the U.S. laboured; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.” Though not at the convention, John Adams offered the purist Platonic critique of democracy that same year, 1787: “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.”
Accordingly, the founders wrote a constitution that incorporated all three proper elements of governance—monarchic; aristocratic; and democratic—but limited the sphere of each and, especially, limited the overall sphere of politics. To the democratic, as outlined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, the founders gave the citizens the right to vote for one representative of the House of Representatives. The people as a democratic aggregate would have no say in the Senate, the presidency, or the Supreme Court. Properly understood and employed, though, the democratic element would control taxation and hold the power to declare war or not. These were not small powers, by any means.
Again, it is worth looking at the founding generation and their immediate successors. Out of New England, Fisher Ames warned in 1806: “Our disease is democracy. It is not the skin that festers—our very bones are carious, and their marrow blackens with gangrene. Which rogues shall be first, is of no moment—our republicanism must die, and I am sorry for it. But why should we care what sexton happens to be in office at our funeral? Nevertheless, though I indulge no hopes, I derive much entertainment from the squabbles in Madam Liberty’s family. After so many liberties have been taken with her, I presume she is no longer a miss and a virgin, though she may still be a goddess.” Perhaps.
Out of Virginia, John Randolph of Roanoke feared democracy as well, which he called “King Numbers.” He declared: “I would not live under King Numbers. I would not be his steward, nor make him my taskmaster. I would obey the principle of self-preservation, a principle we find even in the brute creation, in flying from this mischief.”
Even Andrew Jackson, who is so often identified as a “Democrat” never called himself as such, preferring, instead, to label himself a republican.
To this day, America remains a republic, though a rather broken one.
To claim that democracy and republic are synonymous terms, as some have done, is the coward’s way out of the debate. A democracy, properly understood, is a part of any good republic, and any republic without the democratic element is deeply and perhaps irredeemably flawed.
But, to claim that democracy is the whole is akin to claiming the stomach or the procreative region is the whole of the human person. These are essential parts of the human person, but they are not the whole. After all, the stomach and procreative regions will someday dissolve into nothingness, but the soul remains for eternity.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses” (1851) by Peter F. Rothermel (1817-1895), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.