A pure democracy operates by the direct majority vote of the people. When an issue is to be decided, the entire population votes on it and the majority wins and rules.
A republic differs in that the general population elects representatives who then pass laws to govern the nation. A democracy is the rule by majority feeling (what the Founders described as a “mobocracy”). A republic is rule by law.
If the source of law for a democracy is the popular feeling of the people, then what is the source of law for the American republic? According to Founder Noah Webster: “
The transcendent values of biblical natural law were the foundation of the American republic. Consider the stability this provides: In our republic, murder will always be a crime, for it is always a crime according to the Word of God. However, in a democracy, if a majority of the people decide that murder is no longer a crime, murder will no longer be a crime.
America’s immutable principles of right and wrong were not based on the rapidly fluctuating feelings and emotions of the people but rather on what Montesquieu identified as the “principles that do not change.”
Benjamin Rush similarly observed: “[W]here there is no law, there is no liberty; and nothing deserves the name of law but that which is certain and universal in its operation upon all the members of the community.”
In the American republic, the “principles which did not change” and which were “certain and universal in their operation upon all the members of the community” were the principles of biblical natural law. In fact, so firmly were these principles secured in the American republic that early law books taught that government was free to set its own policy only if God had not ruled in an area. The Founders understood that biblical values formed the basis of the republic and that the republic would be destroyed if the people’s knowledge of those values should ever be lost.
A republic is the highest form of government devised by man, but it also requires the greatest amount of human care and maintenance. If neglected, it can deteriorate into a variety of lesser forms, including a democracy (a government conducted by popular feeling); anarchy (a system in which each person determines his own rules and standards); oligarchy (a government run by a small council or a group of elite individuals); or dictatorship (a government run by a single individual). As John Adams explained:[D]emocracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy; such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable [abominable] cruelty of one or a very few.
Understanding the foundation of the American republic is a vital key toward protecting it.
– David Barton