The Constitution: Why a Republic?

Winning the War of Independence brought a new challenge to the American people: what sort of government should they choose for their new nation? Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, explores the problems the founders faced at this pivotal moment in history.

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 Against all odds, the Americans won their War of Independence. 

But their success brought a new challenge—no less daunting. What sort of government should they choose for themselves? 

How could they ensure that the tyranny of the English king George III would not be replaced by a homegrown tyranny? 

One possibility was to establish an American monarchy with a better king. That was tempting for some, especially because they had a superb person for the job—General George Washington. 

To his legion of admirers, the fact that he did not want to be king made him an even more attractive candidate.

The other possibility was to establish a republic, a government of and by the people and their representatives. 

But this solution came with a big problem. Historically, republics like those in ancient Greece and Rome had always failed. And, when they failed, they were usually replaced by the very worst—most oppressive—forms of tyranny.

Might there be a way to make republicanism work—and last? To structure a constitution that would protect the new American republic from the social and political pathologies that had destroyed republics throughout history?

America’s Founding Fathers—men like Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison—believed they had answers. 

They had risked everything when they declared their independence from England; they were willing to risk everything again to create a new, different, and better type of republic. 

The key, they all agreed, was to establish structural limits on power—the power of anyone, and any institution, exercising governmental authority.

In the summer of 1787, in one of the most creative acts in human history, these men (minus Jefferson and Adams who were serving the country abroad) fashioned a national government divided into three separate parts or branches—the legislative (Congress), the executive (the president), and the judicial (the courts). Congress would make laws, the executive would execute the laws and the courts would settle disputes arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Dividing power would prevent power being concentrated in any one branch—the concept of checks and balances. Moreover, the central government would be limited to the powers specifically delegated to it, having no powers beyond those enumerated.

Where then would most of the powers of government reside? The answer was with the states. 

This was not, as some wrongly suppose, done to protect slavery. Rather, it was done out of the commonsense belief that those public officials nearer to the people would naturally be more responsive and accountable to the people.  

Just to make sure nobody missed the point, after attaching a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, the Founders enshrined this principle in the Tenth Amendment. 

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

In short, whatever the Constitution does not specifically delegate to the national government belongs to the states and the people.

But the power of the states was also limited by constitutional prohibitions in certain areas, either because power in those areas had been delegated exclusively to the national government—such as the power to enter into treaties with other nations—or because the Framers did not want government at any level to have certain powers—such as the power to confer titles of nobility, something incompatible with republicanism. 

Still, as much care as The Framers took to constrain government power—federal and state—they knew their efforts would fail unless one more component was present: 

Citizens imbued with the spirit of republicanism! People who understood the principles of their Constitution, who valued self-government, and who would be willing to do the work necessary for its maintenance. Citizens who would not yield to demagogues who promised prosperity, security, or anything else at the price of liberty. 

James Madison had this in mind when he said that only “a well-instructed people could be permanently a free people.” 

By “a well-instructed people,” Madison meant above all a people well-educated about our constitutional liberties and responsibilities.

When at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government he and the others had proposed for the Nation, he famously responded, “a republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

The wise old Philadelphia polymath had history in mind in giving that answer. He knew that he and his colleagues at the convention had supplied only the mechanics of what was needed for a republic to long endure—the rest could only be supplied by “We the People,” understanding and fulfilling our duties as citizens.

That’s why studying the Constitution is essential. How can we fulfill our duties as citizens, if we don’t understand the document on which that citizenship is based?

I’m Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University, for Prager University.

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