The framers of the Constitution were especially concerned about preventing tyranny of the majority. Although completely eliminating this threat is not possible, the framers believed that a Republican form of government would come closer to doing so than a pure Democracy. It was for this reason that the framers established a Republican form of government when drafting the Constitution. Both terms—Republic and Democracy—loosely refer to a form of self-government in which those who govern—elected representatives of the people—are chosen by the people in open and free elections. Consequently, the terms Democracy and Republic are often used interchangeably. However, there are important differences in the two concepts that every American should understand.
With a Democracy, the majority rules completely and its power is unlimited. What is right is what the majority says is right. What is done is what the majority says is to be done. With a Democracy, the majority is able to rule tyrannically if it so chooses which, in turn, means it may trample on the rights of the minority. Doing so is actually legal. With a Republic, the majority still rules but the rights of the minority are protected. The constitutional limits on government power and provisions for the protection of individual rights that are built into the Constitution ensure that a Republic is characterized by majority rule tempered by minority rights. The fundamental purpose of a Republican form of government is to limit the power of the majority without impeding the concept of self-government.
The framers were almost unanimous in distrusting the Democratic form of government and in preferring the Republican form. Providing safeguards for the rights of the minority was a high priority of the framers. In fact, the Bill of Rights was eventually added to the Constitution for the purpose of mitigating opposition from those who opposed it because they believed that the rights of individuals were not sufficiently protected in the original document.
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Because they were so intent on preventing tyranny of the majority, the framers believed that elected officials had to be honest men who were guided by a strong internal compass of integrity and ethics. They believed that the Achilles Heel of Republican government was the nature of man. Theoretically, elected representatives were to be virtuous men who would follow the will of the people only so long as they believed it to be right and in the interest of the greater good. Nefarious self-interest on the part of representative on one hand and mob rule on the other were the great fears of the framers.
History now shows that the framers were successful in protecting against mob, but less so in protecting against the election of representatives who lack integrity. The first could be achieved by the form of government adopted (Republic versus Democracy), but the latter is a function of human nature—something even a well-written constitution cannot overcome. In contemporary America, members of Congress who fit the Edmund Burke model of the ideal elected official—a virtuous public trustee—often seem to be a rarity. This problem was the underlying theme of Jimmy Stewart’s classic movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a virtuous young member of Congress fights an epic battle against cynical tyrants who are abusing the public trust in favor of enhancing their own wealth and power to the detriment of those they were elected to serve. The framers would be sad indeed to see what has become of the Republican form of government they envisioned.