Republicanism and Democracy

What is the source of political power and how it is executed? It is the question many people are asking today given the type of governance many are very dissatisfied with in the United States today. The answer to the question reveals much about how government treats citizens and how citizens respond to government; and how the constitution of the state is applied in society. Knowledge on the matter is crucial to the political student and observer of government and societal actions. Let us consider Enlightenment philosophy first, and then Hegel’s philosophy.

Enlightenment Philosophy

Charles Montesquieu goes into detail concerning the nature of States. He starts his Spirit of Laws by describing the types of government. “When the body of the people is possessed of the supreme power, it is called a democracy”, he says; “[t]here can be no exercise of sovereignty[1] but by their suffrage” (Charles Montesquieu,Spirit of Laws, Trnsl. Thomas Nugent, [Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952)] 4). Given the political power each individual holds in the exercise of the State’s sovereignty, “[a] free agent”, he says, “ought to be his own government; the legislative power should reside in the whole body of the people” (Spirit of Laws, 71). Thus, a pure democracy is a State where the people hold all sovereignty of the State and directly pass all the laws of that State. Each citizen is his own legislator.

In discussing the disadvantages of a pure democracy, Montesquieu observes, “since [direct participation in passing laws of the State] is impossible in large states, and in small ones is subject to many inconveniences, it is fit the people should transact by their representatives what they cannot transact by themselves…The great advantage of representatives is, their capacity of discussing public affairs. For this the people collectively are extremely unfit, which is one of the chief inconveniences of a democracy” (Ibid., 71). This disadvantage is observed as well by Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, who says, “[democracy] is too weak, leaves the people too much to themselves, and tends to confusion and licentiousness” (Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, The Principles of Politic Law, [Liberty Fund, Inc., Indianapolis, IN, 2006], 341). The solution to the Enlightenment philosopher is a republic, as explained by Burlamaqui:

“There are two ways of finding this temperament [between an absolute monarchy and popular democracy]: The first consists in lodging the sovereignty in a council so composed, both as to the number and choice of persons, that there shall be a moral certainty of their having no other interests than those of the community, and of their being always ready to give a faithful account of their conduct. This is what we see happily practised in most republics. The second is, to limit the sovereignty of the prince…by fundamental laws” (Ibid., 345).