What Is a Republic?

Paul R. DeHart

Summer 2023

By the middle of June 1787, the convention in Philadelphia called to deliberate over a new plan of government for the United States had reached an impasse in their debate over the Virginia Plan. On June 18, after initial debate on an alternative plan recommended by William Paterson of New Jersey, Alexander Hamilton — who, according to James Madison's notes, "had hitherto been silent on the business before the Convention" — introduced his own plan for national government.

Hamilton's plan included a bicameral national legislature with comprehensive (indeed, plenary) legislative power. Members of the body's lower house (the Assembly) would be elected directly by the people for a term of three years, and those of the upper house would be appointed indirectly by the people (via electors) from distrincts, to serve "during good behaviour" — i.e., for life. He proposed that the "supreme Executive" be appointed by electors chosen by the people, in their districts, "to serve during good behaviour" as well. Judges would also be appointed for life or good behavior. All officers appointed to serve during good behavior could also be impeached for bad and corrupt conduct and, "upon conviction," be both "removed from office, and disqualified" from holding any future office under the United States.

This national government was to be completely supreme to the states. Hamilton proposed the following: "All laws of the particular States contrary to the Constitution or laws of the United States [would] be utterly void." But "to prevent such laws" from being passed in the first place, he suggested "the Governour or president of each State shall be appointed by the General [i.e., national] Government and shall have a negative upon [i.e., a veto over] the laws about to be passed in the State of which he is Governour or President." Hamilton's proposed dependency of state governors on the national executive went hand in hand with his rejection of imperium in imperio: "Two sovereignties cannot co-exist within the same limits," Hamilton contended. "The general power whatever be its form if it preserves itself, must swallow up the State powers. Otherwise it will be swallowed up by them."

Aware that critics would challenge his plan as un-republican, Hamilton sought to preempt them: "But is this a Republican Government, it will be asked?" "Yes," he insisted, "if all the Magistrates are appointed, and vacancies are filled, by the people, or a process of election originating with the people."

Yet it seems the convention rejected his claim that the plan of government he proposed was truly republican in form — containing, as it did, elements of what can only be described as elective monarchy and elective aristocracy. Moreover, while Hamilton defended his plan as consonant with republican form, he also heaped praise on the British constitution, from which the states had recently declared independence. Madison's notes from the convention debates recount Hamilton saying that in "his private opinion he had no scruple in declaring, supported as he was by the opinions of so many of the wise and good, that the British [government] was the best in the world: and that he doubted much whether anything short of it would do in America." Hamilton joined French finance minister Jacques Necker's praise of the British constitution as "the only Government in the world 'which unites public strength with individual security.'" Hamilton added, "Their house of Lords is a most noble institution." By Hamilton's own reckoning, his plan adapted the British constitution — including elective monarchy and elective aristocracy — to American circumstances.

Little wonder, then, that the convention did not take seriously Hamilton's initial claim that his plan was republican in form. And by June 26th, Hamilton "acknowledged himself not to think favorably of Republican Government," though he "addressed his remarks to those who did think favorably of it."

Hamilton thus admitted he was no friend of republican form, a remark that seems equally applicable to his plan for national government. In his essay "Democracy and the Constitution," Gordon Wood describes the Federalists in terms that very much capture Hamilton's argument on behalf of his plan: "[T]he Federalists in their public statements were not able to say candidly what at least some had said within the secrecy of the Philadelphia Convention: that the source of their difficulties came from too much local democracy, and that the solution was to limit this local democracy by erecting a more aristocratic structure over it." Yet this "solution" could be construed as the replacement of republican form with something else.

That an opponent of republican government like Hamilton felt compelled to justify his proposal as consonant with republican form, even in the secrecy of the Philadelphia convention, indicates the degree to which republicanism had become the normative basis for constitutional design in the Revolutionary era. Yet those who invoked republicanism as the basis of their various proposals often disagreed as to the right plan of government, including appropriate limits on majority rule and the extent to which local control should be checked by the national government. This poses the question: What is a republic? Does the American order present us with an instance of republican form?


In Federalist Nos. 10 and 14, Madison defined republican form so as to distinguish it from the democracies of antiquity. His definition in those essays is idiosyncratic, but we might frame Madison's position this way: He identified a genus without denominating it — we might call it "popular rule" or "popular government" — and then differentiated two species within it: democracy and republican form.

Democracy, in Madison's account, refers to direct rule by the people assembled. ("Direct democracy" would have been redundant to citizens of such regimes in antiquity.) A democracy is necessarily confined to a small extent of territory, since the citizens must be able to assemble regularly in order to make law and to decide all other important matters of government. As Madison put it in Federalist No. 10, the term republic refers to a regime "in which a scheme of representation takes place" — in which the people do not themselves assemble for the purpose of making law but instead make law by means of chosen (i.e., elected) agents or representatives. A republic, therefore, can be extended over a much greater span of territory than a democracy.

Madison's famous definition seems to make representation — in contrast to rule by the citizens assembled — the desideratum or necessary condition of republican form. Thus, insofar as a regime does not rely on representation, although it may still be a species of popular rule (if the people administer the government in person), it is not a republic.According to Madison, where previous writers thought republics had to be small — because they conflated democracy and republican form and because pure democracies necessarily are confined to a small extent of territory — in fact, the small size of democracies was the source of the problem. Together with the fact that a popular assembly in a democracy simply recapitulated the citizenry, the small size of ancient democracies made them vulnerable to majority factions, which subsequently roiled those regimes. Indeed, the democracies of antiquity — sometimes improperly denominated republics — almost all exhibited the following pattern: They were short lived; while alive they oscillated between the extremes of anarchy and tyranny; and they died sudden and violent deaths.

Madison understood that the small number of people needed for a majority in an ancient democracy rendered the regime and the instruments of power easily captured by a majority faction — indeed, easily captured by one iteration of majority faction after another. A large republic, by way of contrast, would take in so many factions that a majority faction would be unlikely to exist. If a majority faction nevertheless did exist, a large republic makes it unlikely that it would discover itself (i.e. that it exists as a majority faction), given the distribution of its members across a large expanse of territory. But if one both existed and discovered its existence as a majority faction, a large republic renders it unlikely that a majority faction could successfully coordinate its actions and carry its plans into effect.

Moreover, given relatively large electoral districts, representation meant that the factional alignments of the public need not be recapitulated in the legislative body. Thus the laws passed by the legislative body might be more consonant with the public good than if the people themselves had assembled in order to make law. At the same time, because members of the legislative branch are themselves members of and advocates for various factions — that is, members of competing interests the regulation of which is the principal task of modern legislation — Madison refused to rely on representation alone in order to achieve this goal.

A large republic with large electoral districts for representatives in the legislature's most populous branch (or the lower house) creates a certain amount of distance between the people and their chosen agents. According to a number of scholars today, that was precisely the point: to mitigate the pernicious effects of local (or state and local) democracy. Wood writes: "The Revolution had democratized the state assemblies by increasing the number of representatives and by altering their social character. Men of more humble, more rural origins, less educated, and with more parochial interests than those in the colonial legislatures became state representatives after 1776." Legislative blocs composed of these men "took consistently localist positions on many issues that their cosmopolitan elite opponents criticized as 'illiberal,' 'interested,' and 'unprincipled,'" and enacted "what the Federalists described as the confused, unjust, and narrowly based legislation of the 1780s."

The Federalists, says Wood, desired "a structure of government that would inhibit such localist kinds of men from gaining power." According to Wood,  in Federalist No. 10 Madison sought to keep "[m]en of factious tempers" and "localist prejudices" out of government by "enlarging the arena of politics" and "[r]aising important governmental decision making to the national level." This "would expand the electorate and at the same time would reduce the number of those elected. This expanded electorate and elevated government would then act as a kind of filter, refining the kind of men who would become national leaders." Wood thus frames Madisonian republicanism as "cosmopolitan" rather than localist — indeed, as anti-localist.


If we look beyond Federalist No. 10, Madison proffered at least two additional accounts of republican form: one in "Vices of the Political System of the United States" and one in Federalist No. 39.

In "Vices of the Political System of the United States" (a document written prior to the Philadelphia convention and that informed his arguments there), in speeches delivered at the convention, and in a letter to Thomas Jefferson (dated October 24, 1787), Madison claimed that the republican principle is rule by the majority. In "Vices," he contended that the worst vice of the entire political system of the United States was the injustice of state laws. More than any other vice, the injustice of state laws called into question whether republican government can be justified. This injustice resulted from two main causes.

The first cause lay in the character of the representatives. According to Madison, people seek representative office (and perhaps political power more generally) for three reasons: ambition (the love of power and dominion over others), personal interest (i.e., for personal gain), and to advance the public good. The vast majority of those who seek and ultimately win elective office are motivated by ambition and personal interest rather than the public good. Moreover, those most likely to succeed in getting policy enacted into law are likewise the interested and the ambitious.

The second cause lay in popular majority factions (that is, majority factions in the society) that in turn drove unjust legislative majorities. Madison viewed this second cause as more worrisome because it subverted the justification for republican form over and above other regimes: namely, that the people (i.e., the majority) who govern in such republics are the safest guardians of both private rights and the public good. But in the states, popular majorities frequently trampled these underfoot in pursuit of their own gain. "In republican government, the majority however composed ultimately give the law," wrote Madison. Thus, within the compass of a small republic (like states or local communities at the time), there is no restraint to prevent an unjust majority pursuing its own power or gain from oppressing the minority in that society.

In a letter to George Washington prior to the convention (dated April 16, 1787) and in speeches there on June 8, Madison argued that a national veto on state legislatures was "absolutely necessary" to a perfect system. The Virginia Plan lodged this veto (as Madison intended) in the national legislature (which could in turn be vetoed by a national Council of Revision, though it could, in turn, override a Council veto simply by repassing the original veto on state legislation).

The national veto on state laws would allow the large national republic — itself protected from majority faction by virtue of its large extent of territory and comprised of large electoral districts that favored the election of wiser and more virtuous candidates for office and that included a system of checks designed to frustrate majority factions at the national level should they exist, discover their existence, and attempt to coordinate their actions — to provide a check on unjust state laws, whether those laws resulted from the character of the representatives in the state legislature or unjust majority factions driving unjust legislative factions within a state. The point of Madison's large, national republic was to hold state legislative and popular majorities in check.

Madison provided yet another account of republican form in Federalist No. 39. Here, Madison wrote, "we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior." He proceeded to stipulate a necessary condition of republican form:

It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.

On Madison's definition, a republic qua republic traces all governmental authority back to the whole of society, not just some part.

Hamilton's argument for his plan of national government at the convention seems to treat what Madison called necessary for a republic (that government be derived from the great body of society and not from some part) as sufficient instead. But Hamilton also rather clearly conflated the nature of the regime with its authorization.

Madison's sufficient condition, at first glance, seems to eliminate the necessity of the people participating in the exercise of political authority for republican form:

It is SUFFICIENT for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified; otherwise every government in the United States, as well as every other popular government that has been or can be well organized or well executed, would be degraded from the republican character.

If Madison meant that republican form does not require the people's participation in the exercise of political authority, in the exercise of government, and that the role of the people can, consonant with republican form, be reduced to electing rulers or officials, then Madison misapprehended republican form. But Madison need not be understood this way.

If we focus our attention on Madison's position on the relations of the nation and the states — recalling that in "Vices" he claimed the injustice of the laws of the states was the worst vice of the political system of the United States and unjust popular majorities the most "fatal" cause of this vice — we must also note that he called for the states to be checked, but not for them to be abolished or displaced. In Federalist No. 14, he wrote:

In the first place it is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws. Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any. The subordinate governments, which can extend their care to all those other subjects which can be separately provided for, will retain their due authority and activity. Were it proposed by the plan of the convention to abolish the governments of the particular States, its adversaries would have some ground for their objection; though it would not be difficult to show that if they were abolished the general government would be compelled, by the principle of self-preservation, to reinstate them in their proper jurisdiction.

Madison was clearly concerned about the biases and prejudices that animated too much state legislation. He maintained that the states should be held in check. But he also insisted that the states would not be abolished or absorbed by the proposed Constitution, and that they ought not be — if the public good were to be adequately provided for. Put another way, Madison rejected as misguided the notion of entrusting the whole power of providing for the common good to a fully consolidated or wholly centralized, national government. Rather, the national government exists to supply or help supply those goods that state and local communities cannot provide by themselves.

What Madison said about the proper relation between the nation and the states applies also to state and local government. At first glance, it might seem that Madison sought to displace local governments or to effectively abolish their role in the exercise of political authority. But as with the states, Madisonian constitutionalism is better interpreted as seeking to hold them in check — that is, to check the excesses of popular sovereignty or community rule at the local level rather than to dissolve or replace local self-government.

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt famously lamented the Constitution's failure to protect local communities the way that it did the states. She wrote of the "failure" of the Constitution "to incorporate the townships and the town-hall meetings, the original springs of all political activity in the country." She called this failure to protect local governments "a death sentence for them." Arendt's claim concerning the demise of local communities is empirically unsound. Moreover, most of the framers of the Constitution almost certainly took for granted the design of state legislatures in the first state constitutions, according to which the chambers or houses of a state assembly were chosen by local communities (which chose a greater or lesser number of representatives depending on their size), often by the very town-hall meetings to which Arendt refers. But for the sake of argument, suppose Wood rightly construes Madison as hostile to local government because local rule does little more than give expression to local prejudices. In that case, Madison would then have to be understood as subverting — not  preserving — republican form.

Modern statist regimes construe political order and authority from the top down. Republics, by contrast, must be built from the ground up. Moreover, restricting the definition of a republic to representation — even to representation in which all appointments and authority trace back, whether directly or indirectly, to society as a whole and not to some part — is clearly insufficient for republican form. As Aristotle knew, election (or selection) is the characteristic means by which oligarchies choose their rulers. If oligarchies employ elections as their characteristic means for choosing officials, then elections (and, by implication, voting and representation) cannot be sufficient for republican form; something more is required.

To be sure, one way Aristotle suggested for constituting a middle regime (a polity or politeia) included conjoining the oligarchic mechanism of electing or selecting officials with the democratic policy of having no property qualification for holding office. Thus, Aristotle seems to hold that election of officials — or even elections and representation — can be an element in a regime we in our day or Madison in his might denominate a republic. That is, elections and representation are compatible with, or can be part of, republican form. But again, elections are clearly not sufficient for a republic, since election (or selection) of officials derives from oligarchy rather than democracy (i.e., electing officials is for Aristotle the oligarchic component in a mixed regime). After all, democracy in the proper sense for Aristotle, as for Madison, referred to political rule exercised by the citizens assembled (though the constitution of Athens obviously involved more than rule by the Assembly).

Moreover, while Aristotle in places seems to reject the natural equality of all human beings, he nevertheless held that insofar as individuals are equal (i.e., with respect to individuals "who are alike by nature"), "Justice demands that no one should do more ruling than being ruled, but that all should have their turn." When individuals are equal, they should take turns "ruling and being ruled."Yet, simply electing officials does not amount to participating in political rule. Ruling and being ruled in turn requires sometimes participating in the exercise of political authority and consequently not just being involved in the appointment of officials who exercise it.

If we take republican form to mean self-government, and self-government to mean a community that governs itself, and if we take human beings to be constituted essentially (though not exhaustively) by the relations in which they stand to others, then it follows that a republic must be built from the bottom up and not imposed from the top down. For only in local communities can individuals participate (or take turns participating) in the exercise of political rule or government and not just in the selection of officials who exercise authority over them. We might call the necessity of building republican order from the bottom up the grassroots basis of society or political order.


In Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition, J. Wayne Baker and Charles McCoy maintain that the term "federalism," at its origin, meant building more comprehensive levels of political society (for instance a commonwealth) from smaller, less comprehensive communities, where these communities — and individuals only as members of various communities and not individuals as such — serve as the building blocks of anything more extensive. Federalism so understood — whether as a matter of historical development or simply as a description of the structure of a political society, especially when construed along the lines of Madison's description of the national-state relation in Federalist No. 39 — instantiates the principle of subsidiarity.

Like federalism, subsidiarity requires ordering society from the bottom up. In his encyclical Quadragresimo Anno, on the proper construction of social order, Pope Pius XI wrote:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help [subsidium] to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them [emphasis added].

Subsidiarity recognizes that human beings are not only social by nature, but members of various kinds of both local and more comprehensive communities. The purpose of more comprehensive communities — like provinces and nations — is to help more concrete local communities and associations, closer to the real lives of individuals, fulfill their proper function. Like federalism, subsidiarity thus requires ordering society from the bottom up. In both cases, things like families, professional associations, religious congregations, neighborhoods, and various clubs serve as the building blocks for local political association, and local political association for more comprehensive or "higher" levels of political order.

Under the principle of subsidiarity, then, local political communities should be allowed to govern themselves to the extent that they are able to provide for the common good of their members. More comprehensive levels of government exist to help local communities and local governments in instances where they cannot perform this function on their own (for instance, providing protection from external dangers) and to address spillover problems or externalities that impose costs on other communities.

It is also compatible with this view to affirm that a more comprehensive community might hold a smaller community in check when it comes to injustice in policy or ordinance. Thus, in a compound republic constructed in accord with subsidiarity, a more comprehensive government might rightly have the power to veto the unjust policies (for instance, slavery or excluding individuals from voting based on the color of their skin) of local communities. That is, a more comprehensive community (like the nation or the state) could and arguably should have the authority to check policies born of parochial prejudice rather than the requirements of the common good.

What subsidiarity debars is more comprehensive communities like the nation or the state abolishing or absorbing local (or regional) communities — that is, subsidiarity forbids the nation to abolish or absorb the states (as Hamilton proposed at the convention) and forbids the states to abolish or absorb local communities and governments.

The principle of subsidiarity is very much in line with Madison's account of federalism in Federalist No. 14 and, in his treatment of the extent of national power under the Constitution, in Federalist No. 39.


In a simple, large, national republic — one in which local or regional governments have been abolished as governments in their own right and have become only outposts of the national regime — individuals equal by nature do not and cannot take turns ruling and being ruled. They cannot do so, at any rate, insofar as ruling and being ruled means taking turns exercising authority. In a nation of any size, the vast majority of people can only participate in exercising rule at the local level — in concrete, local communities. Thus, a simple, large, national "republic" (in contrast to Madison's partly national and partly federal, compound republic) is not really a republic at all.

To be a republic, a regime must be constituted by local communities that are self-governing except with respect to goods that local communities cannot provide by themselves; to externalities that spill over the boundaries of local communities, negatively affecting other communities; and to checking local injustices (where power to provide such a check has been delegated to the relevant comprehensive level).

If Madison had meant to define republican form entirely in terms of representation, and if he also aimed the displacement of self-government by local communities, then he would have completely abdicated republican form, replacing it with a regime oligarchic in nature. Just as representation and an extended republic are necessary to address the problem of majority faction — a problem that, if unaddressed, results in republican failure and capitulation to tyranny or anarchy — so also self-governing local communities are necessary to have a republic at all.

A large national regime — mass national democracy, for instance — is not really republican or democratic. In such a regime people choose their leaders, but they do not themselves rule. After all, we can think of aristocracies or monarchies in which offices are filled by election. Election of officials, even with very broad suffrage, does not by itself alter the character of such regimes — at least if we distinguish between choosing rulers who exercise authority on the one hand, and the people, the community, exercising it on the other.

Fixed terms or procedures to remove officials for bad behavior are likewise insufficient to render a regime republican rather than monarchic, aristocratic, or a mixed regime in the classical sense (as in the Spartan or British constitutions. In a republic, the people themselves take turns exercising the instruments of power, even if they are also helped and held in check by more comprehensive levels of political association.

Even if a regime is not republican in form, subsidiarity, which is a basic principle of human flourishing, rules out a purely simple national regime and, in fact, requires a compound and layered political order in a regime of any size. This is not to claim that the principle of subsidiarity entails republican form. Rather, republican form requires subsidiarity and federalism precisely because these are necessary to a regime in which the people actually exercise authority instead of merely choosing those who do. Thus, republican form, a community that governs itself, requires viewing local associations and communities as the building blocks of anything more comprehensive. The question for us, then, is not whether republican form can be defined away from the people actually exercising political power, as Hamilton sought to redefine it. Republican form cannot be redefined without abdicating it completely. Rather, the question for us is whether we are partisans of republican form, or whether we would prefer an elective regime in which the people play some role in the selection of some officials but do not meaningfully participate in the exercise of authority and so do not really govern themselves.

If we judge republicanism — self-government or popular rule — to be the form of political order we wish to pursue, then preservation of local communities, rather than their absorption or abolishment, is incumbent upon us. We must seek a way of life in which the people do not merely choose their leaders but actually exercise political rule. Reclaiming American republicanism would therefore require substantial decentralization and a significantly more engaged citizenry. In the absence of these, the phrase "government by the people" becomes an empty phrase, or what St. Paul called "a resounding gong."

Paul R. DeHart is professor of political science at Texas State University.


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