Avoiding the Tyranny of Democracy: The Republican Ideal of a 'Mixed' Constitution

By Jessica C. Tselepy
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 2/2 |

Examining the United States as a leading example of a modern republic will elucidate whether the republican ideals of avoiding the tyranny of democracy through a mixed constitution have been realized. The foundations of the American republic can be traced back to the works of John Adams, the author of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who formulated “the checks and balances of republican government” (Flower 2014: 405).

America followed the model of the Republic of Rome in that its institutions have been “intentionally constructed with the aim of dispersing authority” (Lipson 1970: 263). The expansion of the republican model in America is seen most notably in its establishment of a new constitutional tension, that between federal and state powers (Sunstein 1988: 1581). This brought with it repeated concerns of the tyranny of the majority. As Madison notes, “repeated violations of those federal parchment barriers have been committed by overbearing majorities in every state” (Leibiger 1993: 444). He noted, as did Jefferson, the “excesses of democracy” taken by the Virginia Legislature in the years following the Declaration of Independence, stressing that “an elective despotism was not the government we fought for” (Long 1976).

It was the introduction of the constitution in 1787 that was “framed by the Federal Convention for the people’s consideration and then ratified by the people of the several States through a Ratifying Convention,” that sought to address the contention (Ibid). This designed constitution making in such a way as to “establish effective constitutionally limited government” that still retained the capacity to influence states into concord with the federal constitution (Meese 1985: 455). The constitution acts to balance the interrelationship between the three branches of government, represented in the United States as executive, legislative, and judicial. In the modern American republic, government is therefore “dictated by the constitutional grant of powers to them and by the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers” (Bassiouni 2014: 69).

The uniqueness of the American republican model is found in its addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. This was seen to encourage a greater sense of protection within society from the tyranny capable in the absence of “equality before the law” (Abbott 1999: 303). The ability of the Bill of Rights to be amended ‘by the people, for the people,' additionally encourages the ‘checks’ required for the legally binding system to function (Weller 2013: 78). For instance, a modern concern of the American people revolves around health care provisions.

According to the additional amendment made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, that of the “Second Bill of Rights,” the right to “adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” would be included (Roosevelt 1941: 5). Further, Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr. introduced a more recent amendment to the US constitution ensuring the right to health care on February 14, 2011. This bill stipulated that, “all persons shall enjoy the right to health care of equal high quality” and further that “ the Congress shall have power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation” (Swendiman 2012: 2).

As such, while the United States works to represent the interests of the people, they are grounded in the republican ideal to pursue the ‘common good,' practically constrained by their expansion of ‘checks’ to the constitution and the ‘balances’ of the separation of powers in governmental structure.

In conclusion, both historical and modern republics that are grounded in a constitutionally bound mixed government have been essentially successful in safeguarding democracy against tyranny. This has been demonstrated through an examination of both the Roman Republic and the United States which implement institutional ‘checks and balances’ against dominance of both the majority and the government. The central features of the republican model that achieve this have been analyzed as the shaping of institutions to accommodate natural class inequality and the construction of a constitution that promotes the civic duty of the citizenry to uphold law.

Maintaining these features has historically balanced power in such a way as to avoid majority domination. The model must remain consistent with its ultimate goal of combining liberty with the common good of the citizenship to ensure that the government is just. Therefore, republicanism exists as arguably the best model to counteract tyranny, if the whole citizenry upholds it.


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