Ignorance can be problematic for a society that depends upon its citizenry, and depending on citizens is just what the structure of government in the United States does.
However, there’s a large asterisk when it comes to understanding our governance, says history scholar Will Butts.
“The United States is not now, and never has been a democracy,” he says. “From its very beginnings, the United States has had a republican form of government. But the words republic and republican, in their governmental context, have become unfamiliar, where they were once commonly used and well understood.”
Butts is author of “This Republic: Illuminating Republican Government” (ThisRepublic.net), which addresses the differences between a democracy and a republic. He explores the subject via the extensive writings of founding father and second president of the United States, John Adams.
“If everyone made decisions about everything, and if mob rule held sway in our policies, then we would have a democracy, but that is not our system,” Butts says. “The law is the ultimate authority in our country, not mob rule. And laws are made by bodies called legislatures, whose members are elected by the people. This is republican government, not democracy.”
Butts reviews the facets of our republic and why it’s important to understand the true character of our system.
- John Adams wrote: “The preservation of liberty depends on the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved.” “Founding fathers like Adams thought for us all, and thought well into the future, using the collected experience of the past,” Butts says. “The principles enshrined in our constitution ought to be better understood by the people.”
- What is a republic? James Madison, Roger Sherman and Adams each had their definitions. The law, the authority of the people, representative government, the balance of powers and a written constitution: these are principles that characterize a government to be a republic.
- Res publica translates literally from Latin as the public riches, the common wealth or the property of the people. It translates more loosely as the public matter or the public thing. The idea of the res publica, or republic is that the law is supreme, for the law is the “public thing” created to secure and protect the people, their property and their liberty.
- Governments have come and gone throughout history, and have been constituted and organized in numerous ways, in an attempt to control power and the passions of man. The founders of the American republic chose a governmental design that utilized the features of the best of governments – those past systems that best rejected corruption, controlled power, and endured for the longest periods. We are the beneficiaries of that mixed and balanced republican design, that our liberties may be preserved for the longest period of time.