A republic -- if we can remember that
Will Butts is the author of “This Republic: Illuminating Republican Government,” a book drawing upon the writings of the American Founders, in general, and John Adams, in particular, to explain the nature of republican governments. He spoke to the Trib on that topic:
Q: Your book contends that the United States really isn't a democracy, which probably comes as a surprise to a lot of people. Can you explain what you mean by that?
A: Well basically, a democracy is where all the people gather in one location and basically make laws for themselves. A republic is a government of law whereby the people delegate their legislative authority to a smaller group of people called a legislature. Any government with a legislature is a republic, it's not a democracy.
Q: How did people come to confuse the two?
A: I think what happened is democracy, for most people, came to mean a government without a king or a government without a dictator. It's been that way especially since World War I, when President (Woodrow) Wilson said the world must be made safe for democracy, and it became a very popular term after that. Up until that point, the words “republican” and “republican government” were well known to people.
Unfortunately that's not the case today, which is the reason I wrote the book. It's a little bit of a semantics issue but the word “democracy” does not describe our government and the word “republic” does.
Q: Do you believe we're losing a certain historical component as to how the country originated in not recognizing that it's a republic?
A: Yes, I think so. If you read the works of the revolutionary period or the works of historians, you'll run across the word “republican” because, in general, historians understand what the meaning of the word is — whereas an ordinary person reading those books, they're not familiar with the word. They know “democracy” but they don't know “republican,” so they'll automatically think of a political party when there were no political parties at that point.
So when people read those books, they don't understand what exactly they're reading. They see that this person or that person was a republican, but that had nothing to do with political party at the time; (republicans) were (proponents) for a certain form of government.
Q: Is that a situation that should or can be rectified, or do you think “democracy” is so culturally ingrained a description of American government that it's here to stay?
A: If people use that word just to signify a government without a king or a dictator, I really don't have a problem with that. But if they really want to understand what type of government the United States actually has, the only thing that can resolve that is to educate them. And that's one of the reasons I wrote my book. Republican government goes back to ancient times, where democracies really have never succeeded. They're doomed to fail, because there are no checks and balances, and they're rife with corruption.
Q: Do you think it's incumbent upon history teachers, even at the elementary level, to begin accurately describing our government as a republic?
A: I think they should, yes. But a lot of the teachers might not be aware of it.
Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or firstname.lastname@example.org.