Representative Government--a Chief Characteristic of a Republic

One of the chief characteristics of a government which constitutes a Republic is the representative feature, as noted earlier. America made an important contribution to the science of government with regard to development of this feature. Several of The Founders commented upon this great, forward step brought about in their day. Madison, for instance, observed in The Federalist number 14 that:

". . . even in modern Europe, to which we owe the great principle of representation, no example is seen of a government wholly popular, and founded at the same time wholly on that principle. If Europe has the merit of discovering this great mechanical power in government, by the simple agency of which, the will of the largest political body may be concentred, and its force directed to any object, which the public good requires: America can claim the merit of making the discovery the basis of unmixed and extensive republics."

Another member of the Framing Convention, James Wilson, commented on this topic while he was a member of the United States Supreme Courte in one of a series of lectures in 1790-1791, as follows:

"The extension of the theory and practice of representation through all the different departments of the state is another very important acquisition made, by the Americans, in the science of jurisprudence and government. To the ancients, this theory and practice seem to have been altogether unknown. To this moment, the representation of the people is not the sole principle of any government in Europe . . . The American States enjoy the glory and the happiness of diffusing this vital principle [of representation] throughout all the different divisions and departments of the government."

In The Federalist number 56, Madison commented on the inadequacy of Great Britain's application of the principle of representation; and he discussed the general topic of representation in numbers 57 and 58 with particular reference to the prospective operation of the principle under the Constitution.

The role of the people's representatives--all sworn to support the Constitution faithfully--in relation to public opinion concerning particular issues to be voted upon, or decided, was the subject of comment by Madison and Hamilton which merits mention here. Speaking in the First Congress on August 15, 1789, Madison stated in part (as summarized in the report of his remarks):

"The right of freedom of speech is secured; the liberty of the press is expressly declared to be beyond the reach of this Government; the people may therefore publicly address their representatives, may privately advise them, or declare their sentiments by petition to the whole body; in all these ways they may communicate their will. If gentlemen mean to go further, and to say that the people have a right to instruct their representatives in such a sense as that the delegates are obliged to conform to those instructions, the declaration is not true. Suppose they instruct a representative, by his vote, to violate the Constitution; is he at liberty to obey such instructions? Suppose he is instructed to patronise certain measures, and from circumstances known to him, but not to his constituents, he is convinced that they will endanger the public good; is he obliged to sacrifice his own judgment to them?"

Madison's answer was unequivocally in the negative, as he had made clear in The Federalist (No. 63). Hamilton also made some observations to like effect in The Federalist (No. 71), stating in part with regard to the principles of a Republic, or republican principles:

"The republican principle demands, that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests. It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator, who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. They know from experience, that they sometimes err; and the wonder is, that they so seldom err as they do; beset as they continually are by the wiles of parasites and sycophants by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate; by the artifices of men, who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess, rather than to deserve it. When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited, in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men, who had had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure." (Emphasis per original.)

Hamilton made a further, pertinent comment in number 78, in connection with the duty of public servants to avoid any violation of the Constitution and not to yield to any popular opinion of the moment which would involve such violation--instead, adhering to the Constitution as it exists at the time until the people properly amend it to suit their purposes: ". . . and no presumption, or even knowledge of their sentiments, can warrant their representatives in a departure from it, prior to such an act." An exceptionally enlightening statement of the governing principle involved--especially as to the limited authority of the courts under the constitutional system, chief of all the Supreme Court as the highest judicial authority--was made by the Supreme Court in the 1905 South Carolina case, quoting the 1857 Dred Scott case. Its statement is presented in a special section of the Appendix and it is believed that the reader will find it most interesting and instructive, meriting careful study. (See pages 291-293, post.)

Such unvarying fidelity by all public servants, as public trustees, to the Constitution--construed according to the original intent with which it was framed and adopted (as to the initial instrument and each amendment)--is required by the oath of office and is the prime requisite for the successful and enduring functioning of constitutionally limited government and, therefore, for the security of the people's liberties and the Republic.