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Your Democracy is a Republic—and Vice-Versa

A photo of the preamble and part of Article I of the U.S. Constitution
Yes, but which people? Partial photo of the first page of the U.S. Constitution from the National Archives of the United States, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/downloads

Did the framers of the U.S. Constitution set up the country’s government to be a republic or a democracy? Some folks have surprisingly strong opinions on this question, often with good reason. Yet the words republic and democracy have very similar meanings, so what’s the big deal? The answer has to do with the ways that the historic founders of the USA thought about history—specifically the histories of the democracies and republics that came before them. To make things even more confusing, the Constitution’s authors got some of their history secondhand, through one of their favorite political philosophers, Charles Montesquieu (1689–1755), who had some very specific—and surprising—things to say about republics and democracies. Check out this episode to learn why many people of the past would find many of our present-day political debates on this topic to be especially odd.asdf

Select Sources

Founding Fathers & Framers of the Constitution

  • Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Early Career”, 6 Jan., 1821–29 Jul., 1821, at https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-17-02-0324-0002.
  • Find more original, primary documentation on this issue and many of your most pressing founding father-related questions by searching Founders Online at the U.S. National Archives: https://founders.archives.gov/
  • John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, The Federalist Papers, Clinton Rossiter, Editor (New York: Signet Classic, 2003).
  • Ralph Ketcham, editor, The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates: The Clashes and the Compromises that Gave Birth To Our Form of Government (New York: Signet Classic, 2003).

Athenian Democracy & the Roman Republic

  • General information on both Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism may be found with any solid college-level Western Civilization textbook from the past couple of decades. For this episode I relied heavily on the following two textbooks:
    • Joshua Cole and Carol Symes, Western Civilizations (New York: W.W. Norton, 2023).
    • Dennis Sherman & Joyce Salisbury, The West in the World, Vol I. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2015).
  • Anthony Everitt, Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (New York: Random House, 2001).
  • On the role of women in the Roman Republic, see Aude Chatelard and Anne Stevens, “Women as Legal Minors and Their Citizenship in Republican Rome,” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 43 (2016): 24–47. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26242541.

Montesquieu

Sound Files (not created by Doug)

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