It’s Constitution Day ― Why is the U.S. a Republic?
How do you feel about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?
by Countable | 9.17.19
As Dr. Benjamin Franklin departed the Constitutional Convention, a story holds that a concerned citizen by the name of Mrs. Eliza Powell asked the Pennsylvania delegate whether the new American government would be a republic or a monarchy. Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” To mark the anniversary of the signing of the oldest working national governing document on September 17, 1787, here’s a look at why the Framers structured the U.S. as a republic.
Why a republic?
The political philosophy that inspired the Founding Fathers and spurred the American Revolution came to be known as republicanism, which was born out of ideas from Ancient Greece & Rome, the Renaissance, and English natural rights theories. American republicanism emphasized personal liberty, the protection of individual rights, equal protection under the law, and virtuous citizenship. It opposed monarchy and corruption, and gave sovereignty to the people through the popular elections of representatives.
The Founders were also fearful of pure democracy, which could allow a faction to attain a majority and tyrannically infringe on the rights of the minority. James Madison argued for a large republic to control factions in Federalist No. 10 - The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection under the name “Publius”:
“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.”
He added that “the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government” would make it “less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens”.
Madison wrote Federalist No. 10 to argue for ratification of the Constitution after he served as a delegate from Virginia at the convention, and the Framers’ work reflected those republican principles through the checks-and-balances included in the document.
How does the Constitution work?
- Article I establishes a bicameral Congress whose members are regularly elected: a House of Representatives with seats based on population and members serving two-year terms, and a Senate in which each state would have two senators who’d serve six-year terms. It requires bills related to taxes or spending to originate in the House, gives the Senate power to confirm presidential appointments, and vests Congress with the power to declare war.
- Article II establishes the executive branch under the leadership of the president and vice president who are chosen by the Electoral College and serve four-year terms. It gives the president the power to make appointments and enter into treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate, the ability to veto congressional legislation (subject to legislative override), and outlines the impeachment process Congress can use to remove the president.
- Article III establishes the judicial branch to resolve legal cases and constitutional controversies, with the Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of law and lower federal courts established beneath it by Congress. It also requires juries for criminal trials, defines treason, and gives Congress the power to punish it.
- Article IV extends full faith & credit to each state and gives citizens of each state the same privileges & immunities. It also creates a process for admitting new states to the Union, and requires each state to have a republican form of government.
- Article V creates two processes for amending the Constitution: through ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures, or a constitutional convention called by the legislatures of two-thirds of the states.
- Article VI contains language making the Constitution the supreme law of the land, requires members of Congress to take an oath to support it, and prohibits a religious test from being required for any public office or trust.
- Article VII outlines the process for ratifying the Constitution.
The Constitution as it was initially ratified included ten amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, which serve as specific guarantees of personal freedoms and restraints on the government’s power:
- Amendment I prohibits Congress from establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of a religion; guarantees the freedom of speech and the press; and gives the people the right to assemble and petition their government over their grievances.
- Amendment II protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms from infringement.
- Amendment III prohibits the quartering of troops in civilians’ homes without the owners’ request except in time of war and in a manner prescribed by law.
- Amendment IV protects the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires the government to show probable cause and obtain warrants for searches and seizures.
- Amendment V guarantees the right to due process and protects the rights of the accused from self-incrimination and double jeopardy, while requiring the government to provide just compensation for taking private property.
- Amendment VI guarantees the right of the accused to a speedy and public trial before an impartial jury, in addition to the right to be informed of charges, confront witnesses, compel witnesses, and have the assistance of legal counsel.
- Amendment VII extends the right to a jury trial for civil cases.
- Amendment VIII prohibits excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel & unusual punishments.
- Amendment IX enumerates that the people have other rights beyond those listed in the Constitution, and that the document shouldn’t be construed as extending federal power over them.
- Amendment X reserves powers for the states which aren’t granted to the federal government or prohibited by the Constitution.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia )
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