The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History


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Guided Readings: The Constitution

Republicanism

When asked what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had created, Benjamin Franklin replied: "A republic, if you can keep it." Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution contains an unamendable provision that begins: "The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government."

Today the word "republican" refers to one of the United States' two major political parties. In the late 18th century, the word referred to the principles and practices appropriate to a government in which ultimate authority resides in the people and in which elected officials and representatives are responsible to the people and must govern according to the law.

But republicanism involved more than eliminating a king and instituting a representative government. It also involved a critique of monarchical society: A republican society was to be a society free of the corruptions, pretensions, and rigid class stratification found in Europe. Monarchical societies maintained their authority through hereditary privilege, patronage, standing armies, and a religious establishment. A truly republican society, in contrast, depended on the independence and the moral virtue of its citizens.

At the time of the American Revolution, the only republics in the world were tiny: the city-states of Italy and Switzerland and the Netherlands. Larger republics, like England during the mid-17th century, had collapsed into dictatorship. One of the James Madison's goals in devising the U.S. Constitution was to create a republic that would endure despite its large size and that would not have to depend entirely on the virtue of the country's leaders. In the Federalist Papers, he argued that in a large republic, diverse and conflicting interests would balance and neutralize each other.

The objective of the Constitution was to create a system of government that would control men's lust for power and safeguard individual liberty. To prevent concentrations of power, the framers established a system of checks and balances. Authority was divided between the federal and state governments and was further divided among the three branches of the federal government.

The framers of the Constitution hoped to weaken the basis of monarchical society. They wanted to eliminate the forms of corruption, such as nepotism and the holding of multiple public offices, that characterized the British government.



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