Constitutional republic

Constitutional republic

A constitutional republic is a state in which the head of state and other officials are representatives of the people and must govern according to existing constitutional law that limits the government's power over all of its citizens. Because the head of the state is elected, it is a republic and not a monarchy.

In a constitutional republic, executive, legislative, and judicial powers are separated into distinct branches.[1]

The fact that a constitution exists that limits the government's power makes the state constitutional. That the head(s) of state and other officials are chosen by election, rather than inheriting their positions, and that their decisions are subject to judicial review makes the state a republic.


Purpose and scope

John Adams defined a republic as "a government of laws, and not of men."[2] Constitutional republics attempt to weaken the threat of majoritarianism and protect dissenting individuals and minority groups from the "tyranny of the majority" by placing checks on the power of the majority of the population.[3] The power of the majority of the people is limited to electing representatives who legislate within the limits of an overarching constitutional law that a simple majority cannot modify.

No single individual is allowed to exercise executive, legislative and judicial powers. Instead, these powers are separated into distinct branches that serve as a check and balance on each other. In a constitutional republic, "no person or group [can] rise to absolute power."[4]

The notion of the constitutional republic originates with Aristotle's Politics and his theory of a fifth type of government called the polity. He contrasts the polity of republican government with democracy and oligarchy in book 3, chapter 6 of Politics. Polity can refer to the political organizational system that is being used by a group, be it a tribe, a city-state, an empire, a corporation, etc. Aristotle also envisioned a polity to be a combination of what he thought were the best characteristics of oligarchy (rule by the wealthy) and democracy (rule by the poor). The polity government would be ruled by the many in the best interests of the country.

Oligarchies favored the wealthy members of society and featured elected leadership positions. Democracies favored the poor and middle-class members, of which there are generally greater numbers, and had features such as legislative assemblies open to citizens of voting age. Aristotle believed that, when used correctly, the polity would be the most ideal government possible because it could take input from community members of all levels and rule fairly in the interests of the whole community and not just the majority.

Constitutional republics were first advocated in the 18th and 19th centuries by classical liberals, who were engaged at the time in a political and ideological conflict against conservative supporters of traditional monarchy. An early experiment was the Corsican Republic, founded in 1755 by Pasquale Paoli but annexed by France in 1769. Since the beginning of the 20th century, constitutional republics have entered the political mainstream and have gathered the support of many other ideologies in addition to liberalism.

According to James Woodburn, in The American Republic and Its Government, "the constitutional republic with its limitations on popular government is clearly involved in the United States Constitution, as seen in the election of the President, the election of the Senate and the appointment of the Supreme Court." That is, the ability of the people to choose officials in government is checked by not allowing them to elect Supreme Court justices. Such justices are appointed by the popularly elected president, and approved by the popularly-elected Senate. Woodburn says that in a republic, as distinguished from a democracy, the people are not only checked in choosing officials but also in making laws.[5]

A Bill of Rights exists in the U.S. Constitution which protects certain individual rights. The rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights cannot be infringed upon by the majority of citizens. Removing the protection of these rights from the Constitution would require the proposal of a Constitutional amendment by a two-thirds majority of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states.

However, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and others, held that the federal government was not the sole or final judge of its own authority, holding that this would "make it, and not the Constitution, the judge of its powers."[citation needed] Rather, in the Virginia Resolutions, the Kentucky Resolutions and elsewhere, various individuals stipulated that the people of the individual states were the final check on federal power to ensure compliance with the Constitution, holding that the people of any given state had the final power to "interpose" for the purpose of maintaining the Constitution against federal abuses thereof.

Though a constitutional republic is not a pure democracy it necessarily has some democratic elements, such as the ability of the people to elect a president (in the U.S. the majority of the population is checked here too, as the popular vote of the people does not necessarily decide the winner). Nations where the head of state is not elected, as in a monarchy, as not elected but has a parliament with elected representatives that govern according to constitutional law protecting individual rights are called constitutional, democratic monarchies). Both are considered liberal democracies because they protect individual liberty from majority and minority forces, while retaining some democratic elements.

Also, a representative democracy may or may not be a constitutional republic. For example, "the United States relies on representative democracy, but [its] system of government is much more complex than that. [It is] not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered by minority rights protected by law."[6]

Support and Criticism

Alexander Tsesis, in The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History says, to him, a constitutional republic means "a representative polity established on fundamental law, each person has the right to pursue and fulfill his or her unobtrusive vision of the good life. In such a society, the common good is the cumulative product of free and equal individuals who pursue meaningful aims."[7]

Karl Marx claimed that a constitutional republic is a protective legal framework for what he considered to be "capitalist exploitation." In "Outline of the Critique of Political Economy," Marx's stated that "All the bourgeois economists are aware of is that production can be carried on better under the modern police than e.g. on the principle of might makes right. They forget only that this principle is also a legal relation, and that the right of the stronger prevails in their 'constitutional republics' as well, only in another form."


See also


  1. ^ "Three Branches of Government". Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. National Archives and Records Adminstration. Retrieved 12:03, 10 January 2011. 
  2. ^ Levinson, Sanford. Constitutional Faith. Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 60
  3. ^ House, Wayne H. Christian and American Law. Kregel Publications. p. 101 & Honohan, Iseult. Republicanism in Theory and Practice. Routledge UK 2006. p. 115
  4. ^ Delattre, Edwin. Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing, American Enterprise Institute, 2002, p. 16.
  5. ^ Woodburn, James Albert. The American Republic and Its Government: An Analysis of the Government of the United States, G. P. Putnam, 1903, pp. 58-59
  6. ^ Scheb, John M. An Introduction to the American Legal System. Thomson Delmar Learning 2001. p. 6
  7. ^ Tsesis, Alexander. The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History, New York University Press, 2004, p. 5

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