Back in 1966, the conservative activist and F.B.I. operative Dan Smoot produced a short film, A Constitutional Republic, Not a Democracy.  Anybody who calls the United States a democracy, he said, is trying to subvert the Constitution of the United States — we’re not a democracy; we’re a republic.

Probably because there are supposed to be two political parties here, the Democrat and the Republican, people still figure that the two terms refer to polar opposites.  But it should be obvious that both sides strive to control the same institutions, that neither ever repeals anything that the other does or even disagrees with it, and that the names that they’ve adopted don’t indicate any real difference in their policies any more than in their aims.  The larger problem is that nobody anywhere on our political spectrum seems to know what the words “democracy” and “republic” mean any more.  The terms are not opposites.  They aren’t even parallel.

Our word “democracy” comes from the Greek:  demos, meaning the people, and kratos, meaning power.  A democracy is a society in which the ultimate political power resides in the people.  All of the citizens together have the supreme power to decide how things are to be run.

A democracy is parallel to, and distinct from, other arrangements with names that end in “-cracy,” such as “autocracy”, in which that supreme power resides in a single individual person, or “aristocracy”, in which the ultimate power resides in the “best” people, however you define “best.”  “Meritocracy,” a system in which power accrues to persons who merit having it, would be nice, but try figuring that one out.  But in a democracy ultimate power resides in the people.  America is a democracy.

Of course those who muddle these terms always follow “America is not a democracy” with “America is a republic.”  Well, no state, no federation of states, is a republic.  A republic isn’t what a government is, but what a government does.  Any government.

That word “republic” is more abstract.  It comes from the Latin res, meaning things, and publica, meaning public, obviously:  public things, public matters.  We’re so confused on this point that even a lot of Latinists say that the phrase is obscure and very difficult to translate, but its plain and simple meaning is “public things.”  When we speak of the republic we’re talking about public business — the registration of deeds and dog licenses, the punishment of crimes, the collection of taxes, adjudication in courts, all of those public things that people in any community need to have administered.

Strictly speaking, as we should speak, our “republic” is simply the registering and filing and shuffling of necessary permits and records and such.

One point of confusion is that by extension the term also refers to whatever mechanisms we set up to do all of that filing and shuffling for us.  So you have to read carefully to see if “republic” refers to the res publica or to the particular institutions that some particular community has set up to manage its res publica.

In our modern confusion of tongues we may think that “republic” simply means a state without a monarch, but it doesn’t.  The form of the administration is simply mechanical.  The agents who actually administer the res publica can be selected by any means and organized into institutions of any form.  A democracy, an aristocracy — even an autocrat has to adminster the republic, in the proper sense of the term.  That’s what he’s put there for.

In 1516 St. Thomas More described Utopia as an ideal state governed by a prince, so its structure of government was a monarchy, from the Greek monos, one.  But More subtitled his book “de optimo rei publicae.”  That’s usually translated as “of the best republic”, which makes the point all right, but as you see it’s literally “of the best of public business” — a monarchic republic, we might say, with the public business administered by a single ruler chosen for life.

That was exactly the case with the Republic of Venice, the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, which for more than a thousand years was governed by a monarch, in that case the Duke — the Doge, in the local dialect.  That’s from the Latin Dux, meaning “leader”, the commander of the troops marshalled to defend the town, the most important job in maintaining the right working of the res publica.  The Republic of Genoa on the other side of Italy, Res Publica Ianuensis in Latin, was an oligarchy (from the Greek oligos, a few) that elected a Doge of their own, from among their own families.  So it was, too, with the Respublica Anconitana of Ancona, the Respublica Ragusina of Ragusa, the Repubblica di Pisa, the Repubblica di Noli, and a number of others.

These designations reflect the fact that Italian city-states got started when citizens simply began organizing public business for themselves as the civil competence of Rome ebbed away.  The governing authority was referred to simply as the Public Business of This Town.  That’s where you went to get any public business done; but sovereign power to run public business resided variously with a group, with a single individual, or with the people as a whole % democracy, in that last case.

The businesslike Romans themselves had always maintained the distinction between public affairs and the forms of their administration pretty clearly.  For instance Cicero, who wrote a book called De re publica himself, raised the alarm that Julius Caesar would destroy the republic.  That sounds to us as if he was warning against a monarchy, in distinction from Rome’s noble and traditional democracy.  But Rome was never a democracy.

In Cicero’s day the republic of Rome was run by the Senate, a small group who held ultimate power:  another oligarchy.  Among the ruins of yet another civil war the Senate’s handling of the res publica was corrupt, wasteful, incompetent, and ineffective — there really wasn’t much of a government left, but those few wanted to hold their power, even if they had to assassinate the opposition to keep it.  Cicero was trying to justify the means by asserting that Caesar would unleash anarchy — no rule at all — and reduce administration of the public business to chaos, like what we have now.

Cicero’s writing about the res publica at that point in time still confuses even some professional historians, baffled because after Caesar was assassinated Cicero enthusiastically supported Caesar’s heir Octavian Augustus, who became Emperor and stayed that way.  But whenever we read any analysis or anxiety about the res publica, it’s not about some form of administration over some other form.  It’s about a concern for good public order, a desire for somebody, whoever, however, to keep public business running along smoothly and fairly.

Cicero supported the Augustus who rightly claimed in his Acts that he’d raised an army with his own money per quem rem publicam in libertatem vindicavi — by which I set public business free — res publica ne quid detrimenti caperet — so that public business would suffer no harm.  The people elected him to high office, Augustus said, rei publicae constituendae — for having restored the res publica, obviously.

Obviously, too, Cicero knew the difference between public business and the offices that manage it.  He wasn’t opposed to a monarchy, not as long as the monarch maintained the republic.

So “republic”, res publica, doesn’t indicate a form of government at all, and it says nothing about the locus of power in a society.  It’s just the public business that any community needs to have administered.

Our own statesmen used to keep the distinction between the proper meanings of “democracy” and “republic” clear, too.  Fathers and Framers knew their Cicero practically verbatim, and their More and their history as well.  In 1816 Thomas Jefferson wrote to Isaac H. Tiffany to say that the Greeks of Aristotle’s day rightly considered a “democracy … the only pure republic” — direct management of the public business by the whole people.  It seems not to have occurred to the ancients, he said, “that where the citizens can not meet to transact their business in person, they alone have the right to choose the agents who shall transact it; and that in this way a republican, or popular government, of the second grade of purity, may be exercised.”  So, just as Rome, Utopia, and the Italian city-states had autocratic republics, we have democratic republics.

America, then, is a democracy because We the People have the ultimate power to determine how our public business, our republic, is to be administered.  No king, no dictator, no party, no aristocracy:  We the People.  The very fact that we elect officials to administer our res publica shows that the ultimate power is still ours.  We put those officials there, and we can take them out; and whenever any American Form of Government becomes destructive of its ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government to administer our public business, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to us shall seem most likely to effect our Safety and Happiness.

Well, you can see where the ultimate power resides here in the facts that each of our states was constituted by concurrence of the people, and that the federation of those states was explicitly constituted by Us the People.

There’s another bit of confusion, though, because our Founders and Framers and good honest public servants used to refer to Americans’ “republican virtue”.  That’s a wonderful phrase, if we understand it correctly.  It doesn’t refer to any party affiliation, certainly, nor does it refer to our opposition to a monarchy or an aristocracy, not directly.  It means that we like governmental simplicity and efficiency, no nonsense, no partisanship, and no pomp under any circumstances — what President Van Buren characterized as “plain, simple, and cheap government.”  Even his most vehement opponent Rep. Charles Ogle spoke of this ideal as reflective of “the frugal, plain, unostentatious, and republican character of our people.”

But the point of it all is that, empowered in our democracy, we Americans run our republic, our res publica, our public business, in a businesslike manner, and then we get on with our lives.

Now, think about what those politicians are saying when they tell us that “America is not a democracy.”  If they’ve denied that ultimate power resides in the people, then where does it reside?  Who’s in charge of our republic?  They don’t say.  Who has the ultimate power to constitute our institutions and agencies, to alter or abolish them?  They don’t say.

Think of the twinned assertion that “America is a republic.”  If a republic is a certain form of government that’s the opposite of democracy, then what, exactly, is that form?  Is it some arrangement of government offices?  If so, then who controls those offices?  If that array of offices is supposed to just run along on its own, disconnected from the people, and — if “republic” is the opposite of “democracy” — if it’s opposed to the people, then government officials have the ultimate power in our society.  That’s a bureaucracy, from the French bureau, meaning office, and the familiar “-cracy.”

That sounds like the Deep State that you hear so much about these days.  And at that point, those jumblers of terms have at last got it right.  Administering the res publica that way has nothing to do with democracy.

Kevin Orlin Johnson

Kevin Orlin Johnson holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the History of Architecture, a Master’s degree in Art History, and a Bachelor’s degree in Art History; he has also fulfilled the requirements for a Bachelor’s degree in History. His publications in his principal field, on topics as varied as Louis XIV’s first designs for Versailles or the design of the Chapel of the Most Holy Shroud in Turin, are considered definitive by many scholars here and abroad. He is the author of The Lincolns in the White House (Pangaeus Press, 2022)


  • Billy P says:

    “And to the republic for which it stands”….. It’s no wonder all the confusion! A good topic, well presented, and very relevant as the “democracy” is thrown around like a football.
    I don’t know what we actually are anymore as we are arguably ruled by a self-serving cabal directed, funded and paid for by corporate and foreign money. Oh, we’ll still vote and go through the “democratic” motions, but confidence in that process is clearly low.
    But, I digress.

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    Aristotle’s three forms of government and each’s corrupt form:
    1. Monarchy—Tyranny
    2. Republic –Oligarchy
    3. Democracy—Ochlocracy or mob rule
    A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine. Thomas Jefferson

    • CODY D says:

      a simple democracy as in the people vote on every bill/law, etc. yes. We are in a representative democracy where the people are supposed to “keep it” as Franklin told the lady.

  • R R Schoettker says:

    “Cicero was trying to justify the means by asserting that Caesar would unleash anarchy — no rule at all — and reduce administration of the public business to chaos, like what we have now.”

    The author in this essay erroneously equates anarchy with chaos but then correctly describes the current state of affairs in this country as chaotic. Is it not evident that we have rulers in the 21st century USA and therefore that we do not have ‘an archos’, no rulers? It has long been evident to me as an observer of society during my own life and a student of past history that the rulership resulting from the political organization of human society is essentially concomitant with a state of societal chaos. As I matured and learned, this increasingly failed to be a surprise to me, as the reality clearly is that no person can accurately or justly know how to competently direct the actions of other individuals better than each individual can do for themselves and that this is the true meaning of ‘anarchy’, not the ‘chaos’ that is inevitable from rulership. Anarchy is not a society without ‘rules’ but just one without rulers.

  • Sam McGowan says:

    What a confusing article! It reminds me of a military saying, “If you can’t impress them with your knowledge, then baffle them with your BS.” It’s really for simple – a republic is government by ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES while a democracy is a government allegedly by the people, but it’s usually by a small cadre who dictate, i.e. communism. There’s a reason why all the communist countries refer to themselves as “the democratic republic of.”

    • Keith Redmon says:

      Agreed. Very confusing. I don’t buy that the US is a democracy because “we the people” have the power. That doesn’t make the US a democracy.

      James Madison gave us the difference between a democracy and a republic. I’m going with his definitions.

      “The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic, are first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. ” Madison, Federalist #10

      “… in a democracy, the people meet and exercise government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by representatives and agents. A democracy consequently must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region. ” Madison, Federalist #14

  • scott Thompson says:

    jefferson had read all of this, knew of swiss cantons and representative size as being optimal….13 sovereign states formed a small , weak general govt with very limited and delegated powers….and those smaller, weird and different sovereigns could leave if they wished, they floated around as sovereigns (small people-oriented republics) for several years until they made a compact that they could still leave from in the form of the us constitution. neat article I guess?

  • Richard Scott Farris says:

    Largely thanks to our Sovereign Southern States, the United States of America was–from 1789 to 1861–a Constitutional Democratic Republic of Republics [Sovereign States]. For further details read the classic definitive book “The South Was Right!” [1994, Ron & Don Kennedy]

  • C W says:

    A more in depth take on all of this from an EOC perspective:

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