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  • A Democracy, If You Can Keep It
  • Danielle Allen (bio)

The question of whether the United States counts as a democracy has become a theme that introduces partisan bickering. Although the United States is in common parlance now called a "democracy," some insist that the only proper label for its political form is that of "republic." Take as an example the education system of the state of Utah. The 1895 Utah constitution guarantees a free public education to all, and the state code (amended as of 2003) requires the state's public education system to "offer a world-class core curriculum that enables students to successfully compete in a global society, and to succeed as citizens of a constitutional republic."1 Utah's US Government and Citizenship Core, voted into effect in August 2010 by the Utah State Board of Education,2 establishes as the first objective of the first standard that students "investigate the ideas and events that significantly influenced the creation of the United States Constitution and the United States' form of government, a compound constitutional republic." The third standard sets the expectation that "students will understand the distribution of power among the national, state, and local governments in the United States federal system, or compound constitutional republic." And the sixth standard, which requires that students understand the links between the United States and international systems, tasks students with comparing "different political systems with that of the United States; e.g., dictatorship, democracy, theocracy, monarchy, totalitarianism."3 Students in Utah are bound to learn that the United States is not and was never intended to be a democracy. Will they have learned the right lesson?

The question of whether the United States is best understood as a republic or a democracy is, in my view, a nonquestion. In fact, it can seem a real question only if the compromises that secured the early American [End Page 368] polity are obscured. In 1776, plenty of founders invoked the idea of democracy as the goal of their pursuit. Take Samuel Adams as an example, in this letter written to Benjamin Kent, dated July 27, 1776:

New Govts are now erecting in the several American States under the Authority of the people. Monarchy seems to be generally exploded–and it is not a little surprising to me, that the Aristocratick Spirit which appeared to have taken deep Root in some of them, now gives place to that of Democracy. You justly observe that "the Soul or Spirit of Democracy is Virtue." No State can long preserve its liberty "where Virtue is not supremely honored." I flatter my self you are mistaken in thinking ours is so very deficient, and I do assure you, I find relief in supposing your Colouring is too high.4

During the heady days of the Revolution, both before and after the passage of the Declaration of Independence, political matters were debated not in terms of whether to pursue a democracy or a republic but with regard to the question of how "popular" new political institutions ought to be. The question, in other words, was the degree to which popular sovereignty, rather than an aristocratic principle, ought to be the basis for the newly forming polities. This was the controversy that John Adams worried would block reception of his April 1776 pamphlet Some Thoughts on Government. "In New England, the 'Thoughts on Government' will be disdained," Adams wrote on May 12, 1776, to James Warren, " because they are not popular enough. In the Southern Colonies, they will be despised and detested, because too popular."5 New England's politics were dominated by the structure of democratic town meetings; the Southern plantation economy tended toward more aristocratic political forms.

The first period of founding saw extensive experimentation with the possible forms of political institutions. The Pennsylvania constitution chose a maximally popular structure, establishing a single unicameral legislature based in the franchise of all the freemen of the commonwealth. In other words, it eschewed a structure with an upper, "aristocratic" house to counterbalance a lower house. Thomas Paine was among the ardent supporters of this constitution. In contrast, the Articles of Confederation rested not on a principle of popular...


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