‘A Republic, If You Can Keep It’

When Benjamin Franklin was asked, following the Constitutional Convention, what kind of government our new nation would have, he is reported to have replied, “a Republic, if you can keep it!” If you asked the average citizen today, most believe we are a democracy. Few people understand the significant difference between a democracy and a republic, and yet this is one of the most fundamental principles that we must embrace today in protecting freedom.

A democracy is a government of the people with rule of the majority. A republic is a government of citizens with elected representatives accountable to them to vote and govern according to law. A democracy has unlimited power of the majority, or a Majority over Man.

Many democracies have suffered under the excesses of ruling elites.

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A republic uses the rule of law with a clear intent to protect the minority while limiting big government.

There are many types of law and examining all of them is beyond the scope of this piece, but a few need consideration. The Founding Fathers clearly established the laws that they believed were most important. They expressed early in the Declaration of Independence that all men had a duty “to assume the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them.” They believed their rights, “endowed by their Creator,” to live as free people could not be revoked!

Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution says “the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”

RepublicThe Founders warned of the risks of a pure democracy and unlimited government. Article I, Section 8 requires the federal government to be limited in what it can do, and the 10th Amendment requires that all other functions are assigned to the States or the people. What a significant and compelling departure from the unrestrained reach of the federal government today!

Frederick Bastiat, writing in his book The Law, recognized that “the law is force, and its proper function cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.” It must be used as a defensive safeguard for the citizen’s right to his personality, liberty and property. The purpose of the law therefore goes beyond providing justice to preventing injustice from reigning!

Different types of law exist, but each must be consistent beginning with nature’s law as the highest authority. The law established by the Constitution intentionally was written recognizing the higher authority of nature’s law.

Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), signer of the Constitution, argued: “The law of nature, ‘which, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God Himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original.”1

All other laws, i.e. common law, administrative law, etc. must also recognize a higher authority for law. If they are not consistent, they become, by their very conflict, unjust and therefore invalid. Compliance with the law must be applied to all citizens. Optional use of the law for convenience of special interest is simply unjust.

  1. Alexander Hamilton, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: 1768–1778, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 1:87. From The Farmer Refuted: or A More Impartial and Comprehensive View of the Dispute between Great-Britain and the Colonies (New York: James Rivington, 1775). []
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