We’re not a democracy; we’re a constitutional republic.

Former Senator Gary Hart today has a blog post at the The Huffington Post entitled “Restoring Democracy.” His point is that the fillibuster in the Senate must be done away with so that “the Senate must once again become a democratic institution.” Yet, I was most irked when reading his opening sentence: “Few principles are as central to democracy and the ideals of the American Republic as majority rule. ” Really?

We are not a democracy. We were formed as a constitutional republic. The distinction is absolutely significant. When Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan to the constitutional convention he noted that none of the state legislatures “have not provided sufficient checks against democracy.” The entire idea of a Senate in particular was as a means to restrain the majority rule of the people, when the idea first comes up in the ratifying conventions Randolph also notes “that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy: that some check therefore was to be sought for agst. this tendency of our Governments: and that a good Senate seemed most likely to answer the purpose.”

One of the most criticized state constitutions by Madison during the time of the ratifying conventions was that of Pennsylvania, which had a one-year elected unicameral legislature that elected a President. The Pennsylvanian constitution of 1776 allowed the government to actively seize private property to such an extent that John Adams and James Madison began to fear the tyranny of the legislature. While Pennsylvania’s constitution became a model for France, and later  other parliamentary democracies, it was an example that the founders purposefully tried to avoid when crafting the constitution. Instead of an “elective dictatorship” — as the former Lord Chancellor of the UK called the British government — our country is a constitutional and limited republic where majorities must and should be thwarted even by devices like the fillibuster.

Why not democracy? — some may ask. The idea of popular majority rule has been so ingrained in American consciousness lately that few can understand the wisdom of limiting the popular will. Yet, just as a tyranny of one can violate individual rights and liberties, so can the tyranny of the majority. If our life, liberty, and property are simply at the will of the majority in the legislature then our rights aren’t natural after all but granted by the government. The novelty of the American Constitution was not only curbing minority tyranny through a popularly elected House of Representatives reflecting the will of the majority, but also by limiting encroachments on liberty by majorities with institutions such as the Senate.

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