From “Pure Democracy” to ‘Pure Republic’: Publius on the Unique Character of the American Polity

Philosophy Research Archives 13:1-62 (1987)
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Abstract

In key numbers of The Federalist Publius argues that the only good form of popular government is republican popular government and that the only good form of republican popular government is federal republican popular government. Essential to both arguments is the distinction between “democracy” and “republic”; By the former Publius means a form of popular government in which the citizens assemble in person and administer the affairs of government directly, so that such a society must be confined to a small number of citizens and a little spot; by the latter he means a form of popular government in which the administration of the affairs of government is delegated to a certain number of citizens elected by the rest, that is, in which the scheme of representation takes place, so that such a society can be extended over a large number of citizens and a big country. Despite the great quantity of material which has been written on The Federalist, no one has ever doubted the validity of this distinction. But the present study shows, first, that--contrary to that which one universally supposes to be the case--the distinction which Publius tries to make is not a logically valid one; then, it proves that--again, contrary to that which one universally believes to be so--the really decisive distinction is not the one between “democracy” and “republic”, but rather the one between ‘bad republics’ and ‘good republics’; next, it demonstrates that--once again, contrary to that which one universally presupposes to be--it is Publius himself in The Federalist itself who says that that is how it is; and finally, it shows what consequences this original and therefore unique, but nonetheless correct understanding of The Federalist entails for Publius’ teaching on republicanism and, by implication, on federalism. Therefore, ‘the standard interpretation’ of The Federalist will never be the same again

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George Heffernan
Merrimack College

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