Even when the delegates of the United States Constitutional Convention debated the question in 1787, the exact meanings of the terms ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’ remained unsettled. At the time, there was no term for a representative form of government created “by the people” rather than by a king. American colonists used the terms democracy and republic more or less interchangeably, as remains common today. In both a republic and a democracy, citizens are empowered to participate in a representational political system. They elect people to represent and protect their interests in how the government functions.
Founding Father James Madison may have best described the difference between a democracy and a republic:
“It [the difference] is that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person: in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”
The Founders intent that the United States should function as a representative democracy, rather than a pure democracy is illustrated in Alexander Hamilton’s letter of May 19, 1777, to Gouverneur Morris.
“But a representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated & the exercise of the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities, is vested in select persons, chosen really and not nominally by the people, will in my opinion be most likely to be happy, regular and durable.”
In a republic, the people elect representatives to make the laws and an executive to enforce those laws. While the majority still rules in the selection of representatives, an official charter lists and protects certain inalienable rights, thus protecting the minority from the arbitrary political whims of the majority. In this sense, republics like the United States function as “representative democracies.”
The United States is neither a pure republic nor a pure democracy. Instead, it is a hybrid democratic republic. U.S. senators and representatives are the elected lawmakers with specific legislative powers assigned to each. Some U.S. states empower their citizens to make state laws through a form of direct democracy known as the ballot initiative. The president is the elected executive, and the Constitution is the official charter.
 The historical perspective herein about the debate, intent and final resolution of differences among the founders about our form of government and constitution is largely excerpted from an essay by Robert Longley. An author and scholar of the work of our nation’s founding fathers, he has covered U.S. government, citizenship and American history for ThoughtCo since 1997
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