Last Updated on May 3, 2022 by Shaun Snapp
- The term democracy describes the US political system while ignoring what the founding fathers wrote about democracy.
The vast majority of the globe, including Americans, believes the US is a democracy. In this article, we will go through the Federalist Papers and cover every mention of the term democracy.
The New York Times Article on the Le Pen Victory
Before getting into the Federalist Papers, it is instructive to analyze a quote from the New York Times to see how the term democracy is constantly slathered like butter on bread to describe the US (and other political systems).
The following few quotes from an article in the billionaire controlled New York Times explain the different meanings of the term democracy or democratic when used by billionaires or those employed to write by billionaires. This article is about the French election Between Macron and Le Pen.
A Fair Election Shows a Fissure in Western Democracy?
WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are anxiously watching the French presidential election, aware that the outcome of the vote on Sunday could scramble President Biden’s relations with Europe and reveal dangerous fissures in Western democracy. – New York Times
This is a misuse of the term democracy, and a republic is a correct word for a system where representatives are voted for. However, the elites constantly use the term “democracy” to show that political systems are more controlled by the public than they are.
Secondly, the US is not a democracy; it is also categorized as a republic, and the term democracy does not appear anywhere in the constitution. Elites use enormous amounts of money to influence elections with high degrees of success. Therefore, the US questionably meets the standards of being a republic. A proper republican government would remove money from the equation and allow unadulterated voting for representatives.
The Term Democracy in The Federalist Papers
The question of “is the US a democracy” or “is the US a republic” is answered in the Federalist Papers. These provide the background thinking to what eventually became the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.
One of the Federalist Papers chapters where democracy is covered is the No 10, No 14, and No 48. All of these chapters were written by James Madison. Overall, the Federalist Papers were written by three named writers — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
Federalist No. 10 – The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued) Written by James Madison Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.
This is Madison declaring that democracy supporters are guilty of utopianism when democracy and are not familiar with how democracy was practiced in the Greek states.
How a Republic is Better than a Democracy
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union. The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.
Here Madison states that representatives will be more consonant with the public good that if stated by the people.
The Confusion of the Multitude
In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
This is a clear preference shown for a republic over a democracy.
Federalist No. 14 – Objections to the Proposed Constitution From Extent of Territory Answered Written by James Madison New York Packet, November 30, 1787
Democracy is discussed again in the Federalist book #14.
WE HAVE seen the necessity of the Union, as our bulwark against foreign danger, as the conservator of peace among ourselves, as the guardian of our commerce and other common interests, as the only substitute for those military establishments which have subverted the liberties of the Old World, and as the proper antidote for the diseases of faction, which have proved fatal to other popular governments, and of which alarming symptoms have been betrayed by our own. All that remains, within this branch of our inquiries, is to take notice of an objection that may be drawn from the great extent of country which the Union embraces. A few observations on this subject will be the more proper, as it is perceived that the adversaries of the new Constitution are availing themselves of the prevailing prejudice with regard to the practicable sphere of republican administration, in order to supply, by imaginary difficulties, the want of those solid objections which they endeavor in vain to find. The error which limits republican government to a narrow district has been unfolded and refuted in preceding papers. I remark here only that it seems to owe its rise and prevalence chiefly to the confounding of a republic with a democracy, applying to the former reasonings drawn from the nature of the latter. The true distinction between these forms was also adverted to on a former occasion.
It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region. To this accidental source of the error may be added the artifice of some celebrated authors, whose writings have had a great share in forming the modern standard of political opinions. Being subjects either of an absolute or limited monarchy, they have endeavored to heighten the advantages, or palliate the evils of those forms, by placing in comparison the vices and defects of the republican, and by citing as specimens of the latter the turbulent democracies of ancient Greece and modern Italy. Under the confusion of names, it has been an easy task to transfer to a republic observations applicable to a democracy only; and among others, the observation that it can never be established but among a small number of people, living within a small compass of territory.
Madison’s point is that democracies do not scale and are limited in geography. Naturally, this is before the development of computer technologies. However, there is a scaling issue with democracy. In Athens, the number of voters was roughly 30,000. And the other Greek states that instituted democracy were smaller than this.
This small size of the voting public tends to be left out of discussions of democracy.
The Concentration of the Power in Government
The power in government, by the simple agency of which the will of the largest political body may be concentred, and its force directed to any object which the public good requires, America can claim the merit of making the discovery the basis of unmixed and extensive republics. It is only to be lamented that any of her citizens should wish to deprive her of the additional merit of displaying its full efficacy in the establishment of the comprehensive system now under her consideration. As the natural limit of a democracy is that distance from the central point which will just permit the most remote citizens to assemble as often as their public functions demand, and will include no greater number than can join in those functions; so the natural limit of a republic is that distance from the centre which will barely allow the representatives to meet as often as may be necessary for the administration of public affairs. Can it be said that the limits of the United States exceed this distance? It will not be said by those who recollect that the Atlantic coast is the longest side of the Union, that during the term of thirteen years, the representatives of the States have been almost continually assembled, and that the members from the most distant States are not chargeable with greater intermissions of attendance than those from the States in the neighborhood of Congress. That we may form a juster estimate with regard to this interesting subject, let us resort to the actual dimensions of the Union. The limits, as fixed by the treaty of peace, are: on the east the Atlantic, on the south the latitude of thirty-one degrees, on the west the Mississippi, and on the north an irregular line running in some instances beyond the forty-fifth degree, in others falling as low as the forty-second. The southern shore of Lake Erie lies below that latitude. Computing the distance between the thirty-first and forty-fifth degrees, it amounts to nine hundred and seventy-three common miles; computing it from thirty-one to forty-two degrees, to seven hundred and sixty-four miles and a half. Taking the mean for the distance, the amount will be eight hundred and sixty-eight miles and three-fourths. The mean distance from the Atlantic to the Mississippi does not probably exceed seven hundred and fifty miles. On a comparison of this extent with that of several countries in Europe, the practicability of rendering our system commensurate to it appears to be demonstrable. It is not a great deal larger than Germany, where a diet representing the whole empire is continually assembled; or than Poland before the late dismemberment, where another national diet was the depositary of the supreme power. Passing by France and Spain, we find that in Great Britain, inferior as it may be in size, the representatives of the northern extremity of the island have as far to travel to the national council as will be required of those of the most remote parts of the Union.
This is a rambling way of saying that the US was significant even at that time. And that distance matters and reduces the applicability of democracy. The following analysis reinforces his interpretation.
Madison’s reading convinced him that direct democracies—such as the assembly in Athens, where 6,000 citizens were required for a quorum—unleashed populist passions that overcame the cool, deliberative reason prized above all by Enlightenment thinkers. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,” he argued in The Federalist Papers, the essays he wrote (along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) to build support for the ratification of the Constitution.
According to classical theory, republics could exist only in relatively small territories, where citizens knew one another personally and could assemble face-to-face. Plato would have capped the number of citizens capable of self-government at 5,040. Madison, however, thought Plato’s small-republic thesis was wrong. He believed that the ease of communication in small republics was precisely what had allowed hastily formed majorities to oppress minorities. – The Atlantic
Federalist No. 48 – These Departments Should Not Be So Far Separated as to Have No Constitutional Control Over Each Other Written by James Madison New York Packet, Friday, February 1, 1788
The final book that discusses democracy is the 48 book of the Federalist Papers.
In a democracy, where a multitude of people exercise in person the legislative functions, and are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended, on some favorable emergency, to start up in the same quarter.
This is the argument that the people lack the regular deliberation that representatives possess.
Madison’s Argument of Intrepid Confidence of Representatives
But in a representative republic, where the executive magistracy is carefully limited; both in the extent and the duration of its power; and where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired, by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions, by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.
It isn’t easy to understand what Madison is saying here. It seems very flowery in that the representatives somehow have intrepid confidence.
But, it is not my objective to analyze Madison’s arguments for republics over democracies, only to represent what he proposed as a desirable system.
Other Editorials on Madison’s Arguments
In the Federalist Papers, I had access to an appendix that included some analysis of Madison’s arguments.
5. According to the Federalist Papers, what is wrong with direct democracy? In a direct democracy, citizens gather together in a public place and vote on public policy. They do not elect representatives to decide matters on their behalf, but make all political decisions themselves as one collective political entity. As Madison argues in paper 10, direct democracies are often swayed by temporary passions and frenzies. This leads to instability as the democratic society rapidly shifts policy one way or the other when a new idea becomes popular. It also leads to a violation of the rights of minorities since there is nothing to check the power of the majority. If even just 50.001% of the country, for example, supports going to war, the nation goes to war no matter how disastrous that decision might be.
6. According to the Federalist papers, what is the difference between a democracy and a republic? In a democracy, all members of society gather together and administer the government in person. In a republic, citizens elect representatives to decide public matters on their behalf. According to Madison in paper 10, republican government is far superior to democracy for two reasons. First, by delegating authority to representatives, republican government ensures that “the public views” are reined and enlarged. It was thought that the elected representatives would be wiser and more virtuous than the great body of citizens and thus capable of making better decisions. Second, a republic allows for the government to extend over a large swath of territory. In a democracy, all citizens need to gather in one place to make decisions. It would clearly be impossible for all the citizens of the US to meet in Washington, D.C., and vote on public policy. However, it is very practical for a few representatives from each state to meet and make decisions. Having a larger republic means that the representatives will be chosen from a larger number of people, thus increasing the likelihood that the elected representatives will be good, virtuous people. Also, having many representatives in government helps guard against, as Madison writes, “the cabals of a few.”
The Founders Used Rome, Not Athens (from the 6th to 4th century BC) As a Model
The following components of the Roman government model should be familiar to any American.
The Founding Fathers preferred to fashion the United States on the Roman model, which eschewed monarchy but allowed for indirect popular influence through elected representatives.
The Roman model of government had three branches:
The legislative branch was made up of two bodies. The first was the Senate which was aristocratic and made up of former leaders of Rome. The second was the Assembly made up of the populous which voted by tribe. These are similar to the present US Senate and the House of Representatives.
The executive branch consisted of two Consuls who shared power and acted as heads of state in a manner similar to current presidents.
Lastly, a judicial branch existed made up of eight judges that the US Supreme Court was modeled on. – Itching Ear
This fact is also found in Article Four Section Four of the US Constitution.
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. – US Constitution
If the founders wanted a democracy, there would have been no Senate or House of Representatives. And there are more similarities.
When the US Constitution was finally drafted in 1787, it was non-democratic according to the Greek definition and based on the Roman Republic model. It had checks and balances, limited representation by the people, and gave government various freedoms while restricting others. – Itching Ear
The constant growth in voting rights can be seen at the following link.
Obverse that the founders only allowed and only expected a small fraction of the population to vote. This is explained in the following quotation.
First, as we’ve noted before, the right to vote has been among the most ill-defined of all the rights enumerated in the United States Constitution. According to Jill Lepore, perhaps 6% of the entire American population was eligible to vote in the first presidential election. Excluded were those younger than 21, all women, all slaves and other blacks and a large number of white men who didn’t have sufficient property, although Donald Ratcliff argues that many more white men were able to vote than is often asserted.
Nevertheless, the franchise was quite limited, and it took the better part of two centuries to expand it to all adults over the age of 18. – Itching Ear
In the first US presidential election, it is estimated that 1% of the population cast a vote. Secondly, no citizen cast votes for the Senate until that was changed in 1913, as is explained in the following quotation.
Senators were not directly elected by the people until the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. – Wikipedia
The Reality of the Republic Created by the Founding Fathers
The founding fathers not only designed a republic and not a democracy, but they significantly restricted voting even within the republican context. That is, the founders only want a small fraction of the citizens of the US to be able to vote for representatives. This makes statements about the founders creating a democracy even less accurate, as only a small fraction of US citizens were supposed to be able to vote. This is curious when considering “voter disenfranchisement,” as the founders wanted most US citizens to be disenfranchised. Specific restrictions were put in place to restrict or disenfranchise the vast majority of the population. The founders did not wish blacks, women, or men to vote below a sufficient property threshold. Much is made of the “racist” and “sexist” restrictions on voting, but what is left out is that the founders did not want the vast majority of white men to vote either. Focusing on non-whites and women, not voting, makes it sound like the system was entirely set up for white men when it also was not. This is yet another example of projecting onto history rather than reading history.
Pretending That All White Men Had the Vote From The Beginning
Observe that when Andrew Jackson pushed for universal white male suffrage, it is barely known today, and in fact, I had difficulty finding much written about this. Even the details for when what percentage of white men got the right to vote are a bit hazy, as you can read in the following link. This is partly because the majority of the population wants to believe that all white men obtained suffrage at the beginning of the US republic. This fits with the false understanding but the desired knowledge that the US was a very inclusive political system from its origin and that only racism and sexism prevented the right of every citizen to vote. What has occurred is that desired history has come to replace actual history. We don’t have to adjust ourselves to history in the modern era, but we can write the history that we want to be true.
Anyone can debate whether the founders’ system was unfair or otherwise undesirable. However, there is no disputing what system they set up. People with a low consideration for accuracy and who want the founders to have created a system they desire have projected their views onto the founders rather than reading the documents they left behind. Reading takes time, but projection is much faster, saves so much effort, and is so satisfying.
This video does an excellent job of explaining why the US is a republic and that this was the agreed-upon design of the founders.
National Geographic on Why The US is a Democracy
No matter what the Federalist Papers say, most media still say the US was set up as a democracy. An excellent example of this is found in the quotes from an article in National Geographic.
The United States has a complex government system. One important tenet of this system is democracy, in which the ultimate power rests with the people. In the case of the United States, that power is exercised indirectly, through elected representatives. Although the U.S. has been a strong proponent of democracy, it did not invent democracy.
Yes, this is called a republic. To co-opt the term democracy, the elites needed to change the definition of Greek democracy roughly 2500 years after the term had been agreed to. Greek democracy was no longer democracy but was “direct democracy.” Another trick has been to call republics “representative democracies.” That is a democracy, where votes are cast for representatives and not the actual issue, a republic.
The last part of the paragraph proposes the US has been a strong proponent of something it never has and then states that it seeks to educate the reader by stating something the US is not is something it strongly proposes.
This was a momentous task, and for guidance they looked to what they deemed the best philosophies and examples of government throughout world history. Along with the Roman model, the democratic model of ancient Greece’s system of self-government greatly influenced how the founding fathers set out to construct the new United States government.
The Roman model is a republic. It is a bit curious how NG mentions that the US drew inspiration from the Roman model but then leaves out Rome’s political design.
The contradictions in the Federalist Papers against the democratic system have already been discussed in this article, something NG keeps from its readers.
Another important ancient Greek concept that influenced the formation of the United States government was the written constitution.
All governments, particularly modern governments, have a constitution, and Saudi Arabia has a constitution, which you can read here.
Here is the intro.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet, God’s prayers and peace be upon him, are its constitution, Arabic is its language and Riyadh is its capital.
The state’s public holidays are Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha. Its calendar is the Hegira calendar.
The state’s flag shall be as follows:
(a) It shall be green.
(b) Its width shall be equal to two-thirds of it’s length.
(c) The words “There is but one God and Mohammed is His Prophet” shall be inscribed in the center with a drawn sword under it. The statute shall define the rules pertaining to it.
The state’s emblem shall consist of two crossed swords with a palm tree in the upper space between them. The statute shall define the state’s anthem and its medals.
Chapter 2 [Monarchy]
(a) The system of government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is that of a monarchy.
(b) Rule passes to the sons of the founding King, Abd al-Aziz Bin Abd al-Rahman al-Faysal Al Sa’ud, and to their children’s children. The most upright among them is to receive allegiance in accordance with the principles of the Holy Koran and the Tradition of the Venerable Prophet.
NG seems to be proposing that having a written constitution makes a country a democracy, but Saudi Arabia has a written constitution but is an Absolute Monarchy.
Did Saudi Arabia also draw inspiration from Athens?
Aristotle, or possibly one of his students, compiled and recorded The Constitution of the Athenians and the laws of many other Greek city-states. Having a written constitution creates a common standard as to how people should behave and what rules they must follow. It also establishes clear processes by which people who break the law are judged and those who are harmed as a result can be compensated or given justice.
Interesting. Is National Geographic also aware that Aristotle did not think democracy was the best form of government, and that he preferred monarchy over democracy?
For Aristotle, democracy is not the best form of government. As is also true of oligarchy and monarchy, rule in a democracy is for and by the people named in the government type. In a democracy, rule is by and for the needy. In contrast, rule of law or aristocracy (literally, power [rule] of the best) or even monarchy, where the ruler has the interest of his country at heart, are better types of government. Government, Aristotle says, should be by those people with enough time on their hands to pursue virtue. This is a far cry from the current U.S. drive towards campaign financing laws designed to make the political life available even to those without well-endowed fathers. It is also very different from the modern career politician who derives his wealth at the expense of the citizenry. Aristotle thinks rulers should be propertied and leisured, so, without other worries, they can invest their time in producing virtue. Laborers are too busy. – Thought Co.
No, National Geographic decided to leave that out. As in many cases, while it is prestigious to mention Aristotle’s name, it is less important to explain what Aristotle thought.
The quote from National Geographic continues.
Like The Constitution of the Athenians, the U.S. Constitution is a vital document. It lays out the government’s structure and how the checks and balances of power within it relate to one another. The U.S. Constitution acts as the supreme law of the country and establishes individual citizens’ rights, such as the right to free speech or the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. Today, the U.S. Constitution is still regularly referenced in law as the supreme law of the land and is enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court, the country’s highest court. – National Geographic
None of that, and the fact the US Constitution, like all constitutions, is a “vital document,” says anything about whether the US is a democracy.
It is straightforward to catch where this National Geographic author excludes essential information that they must be aware of to convince the reader of something false.
What is just as interesting is to read National Geographic’s explanation of the Roman political system.
The Roman Republic describes the period in which the city-state of Rome existed as a republican government, from 509 B.C. to 27 B.C. Rome’s republican government is one of the earliest examples of representative democracy in the world. – National Geographic
So was Rome a republic or a representative democracy? The answer is both because representative democracy is a modern term for a republic.
Promoters of the idea that all republics would be called representative democracies point to the fact that there are some referendums where there is direct voting on an issue. This is explained in the following quotation.
The constitution may also provide for some deliberative democracy (e.g., Royal Commissions) or direct popular measures (e.g., initiative, referendum, recall elections). However, these are not always binding and usually require some legislative action—legal power usually remains firmly with representatives. – Wikipedia
Anyone living in one of these republics…oh, excuse me, “representative democracies” should ask themselves the question — over what percentage of the total local, state, and national legislation do they vote on by referendum? Furthermore, even the Roman Republic, sorry Roman Representative Democracy, had some direct voting, as is explained in the following quotation.
The Roman Republic was the first known state in the western world to have a representative government, despite taking the form of a direct government in the Roman assemblies. The Roman model of governance would inspire many political thinkers over the centuries, and today’s modern representative democracies imitate more the Roman than the Greek model, because it was a state in which supreme power was held by the people and their elected representatives, and which had an elected or nominated leader. – Wikipedia
Yes, the modern democracies imitate the Roman and the Greek model because they are republics and not democracies.
The Roman Republican system is well explained in this video.
The term democracy is not used anywhere in the US Constitution and the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers, where one looks to see what the founders thought when they created these documents, show that they intended to set up a republic. Furthermore, the founders were well aware of democracies, their promise, and their reality and were far better educated on the history of democracy than the modern US public. The founders stated very clearly and on many occasions in the documents they left behind that they did not want a democratic form of government for the US.
Even if 100% of the adult age citizenry had been sufferage from the beginning of the country, this would still not have changed the political system of the US, as suffrage was to elect representatives, not to vote on referendums. Expanded suffrage within a republican form of government does not convert that political system into a democracy. Votes are cast in both democracies and republics, and the question is what is being voted for. However, the founders did not create a republic with broad based suffrage, they created a republic that dictated that only a small fraction of the society would be able to vote for representatives.
What is humorous about this is that a group of men created a system where perhaps 6% of the population had a right to vote for president, and 0% voted for members of the senate. They are often referred to as the “fathers of democracy.”
When Historical Reality is Just Not Good Enough
This is because this system does not comport with modern sensibilities, and therefore this history has been suppressed in favor of more appealing historying. The general public cannot fathom or accept how little the founding fathers wanted voting participation from the public. Therefore this issue has also been cast as only a matter of sexism and racism, with the fact that the majority of white men also did not have suffrage erased from the public’s understanding. The white male suffrage obtained in the 1920s to the 1850s (led by Andrew Jackson) was eliminated from the collective experience and not celebrated as female suffrage or black suffrage.
This conversion of reality both allows us to say that countries that have republican forms of government are actually democracies, by changing the definitions of words. And that this also allows us to claim that the US founding fathers always intended to create a democracy, even though they said and wrote repeatedly that they created a republic.