Republic

A republic is a form of government based on the consent of the people and operated by representatives elected by the people. Hereditary rule by a monarchy or an aristocratic class is prohibited.

Most democracies in the world today style themselves as republics or democratic republics. For example, Article 1 of the 1988 constitution of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) declares, “The Republic of Korea shall be a democratic republic. The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people.” And the 1948 constitution of the Republic of Italy says in Article 1, “Italy is a democratic republic founded on labor. The sovereignty belongs to the people who exercise it in accordance with the procedures and within the limits laid down by the constitution.”

However, not all democracies are republics, and not all republics are democracies. For example, the United Kingdom, one of the leading democracies of the world, is not a republic but a constitutional monarchy. Other prominent constitutional monarchies that are authentic democracies include Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. The defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the Soviet Union) consisted of 15 constituent socialist republics of which the Soviet Socialist Republic of Russia was most prominent. However, the Soviet Union did not fulfill the criteria by which democracy is defined among the countries of our world. Likewise, the current communist states of China, Cuba, and North Korea are non-democratic republics because they neither conduct democratic elections nor justly protect the rights of particular minorities.

Prominent among the nondemocratic republics of the world today are such authoritarian or despotic countries as Algeria, Angola, Burma (Myanmar), Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. In some nondemocratic republics, such as Iran, there are periodic elections of representatives to a parliament that makes laws by a majority vote of the members. However, because there is majority rule without adequate protection of minority rights, elections are not sufficiently inclusive, and all groups in the country do not possess citizenship on equal terms.

The founders of the United States proclaimed their country to be a republic. And Article 4, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution promised that every state within the country would be a republic. It says, “The United States [federal government] shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” Article 1, Section 9 emphatically disassociates the United States of America from any form of aristocracy or hereditary nobility. It says, “No title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

In the 39th paper of The Federalist, written in 1788, James Madison explained the idea of a republic or republican form of government that is embodied in the U.S. Constitution. He wrote,

What, then, are the distinctive characters of the republican form? . . . If we resort for a criterion . . . we may define a republic to be . . . a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class of it . . . It is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed either directly or indirectly by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified.

In the world of the 1770s and 1780s, such a republican form of government was rare; hereditary monarchies and aristocracies prevailed. These non-republican forms of government functioned without representation of or participation by the common people. Unlike most peoples of the world in the late 18th century, Americans were committed to a representative, popular, and free government based on the consent of the governed. They established a constitutional and representative government in their republic, the United States of America, which is the foundation of democracy in that country today.

SEE ALSO Authority; Democracy, Representative and Constitutional; Popular Sovereignty; Republicanism