…And to the Republic for Which it Stands

Posted on January 1, 2011


Most everyone can recite the Pledge of Allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

But do you know the “republic for which it stands?”

What is a republic? Is it the same as a democracy? What kind of government do we live under?

In a wonderful took written a few years by William Everdell, The End of Kings, A History of Republics and Republicans, he wrote “a republic is, in essence, what a monarchy is not.”

That is simplicity at its best. Or, “a republic is a state that has many rulers, instead of one.”

This helps. We are not a monarchy. We don’t have a King or Queen. And we have many rulers.

Article IV of our Constitution guarantees that we will have a “Republican form of Government.”

But we also pride ourselves on being a “democracy.” What does that mean? Are they the same?

John Adams, one of the giants in the making of “the republic” at the dawn of our history as a nation, struggled with the issue.
Adams wrote in 1775 and 1776 that a republic is an “empire of laws and not of men.” That helps some. And he added, in 1789, that a republic is “a government whose sovereignty is vested in more than one person.”

So, we can pretty certain that if one man tries to govern for all, that is not a republic. In the history of republics, that’s usually labeled a tyranny.
Nor is it a republic if government is not governed by laws, but by men substituting their will for laws. That earns the label of dictatorship.

We’re pretty certain we wanted neither—tyranny or dictatorship—either by the King or Parliament in the making of the American Revolution. So we fought and established a republic. This was, by the way, pretty radical, since the nearly all Western people were ruled by monarchies, kings always being preferable to queens, but queens were acceptable if a man wasn’t in line. When Queens did come to power—Isabella of Castile, Catherine of Russia, and, later in the nineteenth century, Victoria of Great Britain, they proved formidable, perhaps a good male reason not to favor queens.

But, to answer the question of what is a republic properly, we have to return to antiquity, and ask why republics were invented in the first place. The answers come from the ancient Greeks and the ancient Hebrews, the progenitors of Western civilization, and to their successors the Romans, who actually invented the word “republic” from “res” and “publica,” or of “public things.”

Samuel of the Israelites and Solon of the Greeks both stand out for arguing in favor of rule by the many, rather than the rule by one, largely from observation that rule by kings usually degenerated into some form of tyranny, despotism, and, even worse, a form of anarchy if they were weak and pusillanimous.

So, at the core of the evolution of republics was the desire to avert rule by a tyrant, and, secondarily, to give voice and authority to the various constituents in those early civilizations to achieve some balance in governing the people.

Lest we jump the gun and think of these early republican forms of government as some form of democracy where all men were created equal, or had equal rights, this was not the case. The Israelites were governed by councils of tribal leaders, sometimes “judges,” a term loosely defining family and patriarchal leaders, and the Greek city states by free men of substance, and certainly not by women, slaves, and other lesser sorts.

But the principles of republics were emerging, along with a proto-democracy.

When the Israelites saw other people ruled by kings, they got to thinking like the proverbial Jones family. We want what they have. So they hectored Samuel, a prophet, into helping them pick and anoint a king to be like the more spiffy Philistines and other upscale neighbors who looked down on the Hebrews as hicks, herders and tribesmen.

They got what they wanted, their first king, Saul, who pretty much confirmed what Samuel predicted. He was a disaster. But providentially for the Hebrews, God had a covenant with them and the second king, David, gave them a life and legacy they still revere. David left his mark, and kings continued to rule Israel for centuries, good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones, wise ones.

In Greece, roughly in the same time period give or take a century here and there, Solon and his fellow Athenians also experimented with rule by the many, as opposed of rule by one. Eventually the Greek city states were absorbed by the rising Roman Empire which borrowed the concept of a republic from the Greeks who were inventing all sorts of things—philosophy, politics, history—that impressed the Romans.

Their Republic, like so many of the Greeks before them, however degenerated into tyranny and despotism (just like monarchies could and did) and republics left a bad taste as the Roman empire disintegrated. Monarchies and kings were much more in vogue for the almost 1500 years between the end of the Roman Empire and the American Revolution.

Our ancestors, when they declared independence, searched the classics (the era of the Greeks and Romans) for better models of rule than what King George III and Parliament represented. They read Plato, they studied Julius Caesar, they contemplated man’s weaknesses and decided that a republic was workable if designed correctly.

That design was incorporated into the Constitution and that’s how we became a “republic for which it stands.” It was a remarkable break with monarchical tradition, which was thought as inherently stable, and, just as important, ordained by God. How we turned a republic into a democracy is equally fascinating, but that’s another story.

Published as How a Republic Evolved in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, October 17, 2010

Posted in: History