Do we live in a “compound Constitutional Republic” or something else?

There are no uses of the phrase “compound constitutional republic” in any American English book from 1800 through 2000.

Last March, the Utah legislature passed a bill (HB 220) requiring Utah’s public schools to teach that the United States is a “compound Constitutional republic.” This past week, the Tribune ran two dueling op-eds about this bill.

The first, by Payson High School psychology teacher David Rockwood, makes a strong claim: “The term constitutional compound republic, as in HB 220, is a garbage term that does not exist in the academic discourse on government.” The reply, by Utah Representative Ken Ivory,  defends the bill by quoting several founders who characterized our country as a “republic.” (Ivory says little about the specific term “compound Constitutional republic.”)

I can’t say anything that will resolve this dispute to everybody’s satisfaction. Let’s face it: For some, this is just a matter of partisan cheerleading. Some (not all) Republicans want to call this a republic just because that sounds like “Republican,” and some (not all) Democrats want to call this a democracy just because that sounds like “Democrat.” Alas. But let’s see if we can look at any data that shed light on this dispute.

A “compound Constitutional Republic” or not?

First, let’s look at whether the term “compound Constitutional Republic” existed before HB 220. This is a factual question that is easy to test. The answer: No. The legislature pretty much made this one up.

I recall Googling this term back in February when folks were first discussing this bill. I found fewer than 60 hits at the time, and all of them were to websites that were talking about this bill. Now that people have been talking about this bill for several months, there are over 2000 hits, and I’m not going to take the time to sift through all of them. But if you run a “timeline” search in Google, the results are telling. Here’s a screenshot (below, click to enlarge) of a timeline search I ran today. The bargraph at the top is the most important part. It shows no hits for this term between January 2010 and February 2011. Suddenly, there are a ton of hits in March 2011, with a few new results in subsequent months. (The graph shows new websites using the term each month, not the total number of sites using the term in any given month, hence the decline after March.)

Google search results (click to enlarge)

It’s true that James Madison used the term “compound Republic” once in Federalist 51, as Rep. Ivory notes. Madison also used the term “compound Republic” once in Federalist 62. However, it seems that Madison used this term for rhetorical purposes, not to give a name to our Constitutional structure. Likewise, the Federalist papers occasionally put other qualifiers in front of “republic,” such as “extended republic” (Federalist 14), “confederate republic” (Federalist 9), “commercial republic” (Federalist 6), “representative republic” (Federalist 48 and 83), and so on.

The fact that Madison used the term “compound republic” twice does not mean that the official name for our political system is “compound constitutional republic.” By that logic, perhaps HB 220 should have required schools to teach that we live in a “confederate republic” or a “representative republic.” Or maybe we live in an “extended compound confederate commercial representative republic.”

Regardless of whether the term “compound Constitutional republic” is an accurate description of our political system, let’s at least acknowledge that it is not a term that was used historically.

Do we live in a republic or in a democracy?

Of course, the real question underlying this whole debate is whether we live in a republic or a democracy. In Federalist 14, James Madison takes great lengths to argue that “democracy” refers to a system where the people themselves make every policy decision, whereas “republic” refers to a system where representatives make the decisions on behalf of the people.

These days, we would usually use the term “direct democracy” to mean what Madison meant by “democracy,” and we would use the term “representative democracy” to mean what Madison meant by “republic.” There’s a reason we don’t just say “republic” much–it’s vague. By itself, the term “republic” doesn’t tell us much about where the representatives come from. Are they elected through a democratic process (like the U.S. House), elected through an indirect process (like the original electoral college), or appointed through some other process (like the Supreme Court)?

Hence, the terms “representative democracy” and “democratic republic” are often used to characterize our political system rather than the somewhat vague “republic.” If HB 220 had mandated the use of one of these terms, I doubt it would have attracted any criticism.

What do we usually call ourselves?

To see what Americans call our system of government, take a look at the Google Ngram below (click to enlarge). To produce an Ngram, Google searches through thousands of books for each search term, then it sorts the results by each book’s publication date. These charts give a sense for how often Americans have used certain terms over time. The blue and red lines show usage of the terms “representative democracy” and “democratic republic” respectively. It’s clear that these two terms are widely used. The green line shows that “constitutional republic” also receives regular usage, albeit much less often. The yellow line tracks the term “compound republic,” picking up a few hits over the years. The teal line tracks the Utah legislature’s preferred term, “compound constitutional republic.” You’ll note that it’s completely flat. There are no uses of the phrase “compound constitutional republic” in any American English book from 1800 through 2000. You can tweak the NGram by clicking here if you want.

Google Ngram (click to enlarge)

Now, let’s zoom in on books published in the first 20 years after the Constitutional convention. The ngram below (click to enlarge) is identical to the one above, except I’ve restricted the date range to 1787 through 1807. “Democratic republic” was the favored term during this period, followed by “representative democracy.” There were a few references to “constitutional republic,” with fewer still to “compound republic.” There were no references at all to “compound constitutional republic.”

Google Ngram (click to enlarge)

Wrapping up

It’s clear that “compound constitutional republic” is not a historical term. The simpler term “compound republic” was used occasionally during the founding period, but not nearly as often as “representative democracy” and “democratic republic,” two terms that are still in wide use today.

It’s not clear to me that Utah’s legislators are correcting anything by mandating use of a confusing neologism, “compound constitutional republic.” America’s founding generation used other terms to refer to our new political system.

And even if this were a term that the founders used regularly, language evolves. Up until around a couple hundred years ago, “wherefore” was widely used to mean “why.” Juliet wondered aloud, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” She wasn’t asking where Romeo was. She was wondering why he had to be named “Romeo Montague” as opposed to “Romeo Somethingelse.” It would be silly for the legislature to mandate that all public school teachers stop using the word “why” and start using the word “wherefore” exclusively. Yes, they would be correct that people once spoke that way. But our language has evolved, and we don’t speak that way anymore.

So even if it is true that we once called our country a republic, that doesn’t mean we need to require our teachers to use an older term. Other widely used terms, like “representative democracy” and “democratic republic,” were widely used during the founding period and continue to be used today.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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9 Responses to Do we live in a “compound Constitutional Republic” or something else?

  1. Daniel B says:

    Interesting analysis. I like it.

    However, I do think it noteworthy that a slight adjustment of the Ngram to include the words “democracy” and “republic” indicate how much the meme has shifted since the early years of our republic…er, democracy, or whatever it is.

  2. Adam Brown says:

    Yes, I wrote an entire post on that “democracy” vs “republic” ngram back here.

    But a caution is in order. Once you plug in those simple terms, “republic” and “democracy,” you can’t really compare with more precise terms like “constitutional republic” or “representative democracy,” because every occurrence of “constitutional republic” will also count as a reference to “republic,” and every occurrence of “people’s republic of china” will also count as a reference to “republic.”

    By contrast, the more focused terms that I use are unlikely pick up references to the “democratic people’s republic of korea.”

  3. glibgirl says:

    Thank you for the interesting read. I think one point that has not been addressed here is that Madison and Ivory both use the term “compound constitutional republic” in reference to a balance between state and federal powers. The name “representational democracy” does not tell us that the states were once considered republics and that they were meant to be stronger collectively than the federal government. Perhaps the verbiage is new to google, but it is an idea from the past whose time has come.

    • Adam Brown says:

      I’m aware of the meaning of the term. I just find it odd to make up such a complicated term when far simpler, more common terms exist. If we want to stress the representational aspect, call it “representative democracy.” If we want to stress the federal aspect, call it a “federal republic” or “federal system.” Those are terms that people actually use.

    • massmanute says:

      Actually, Madison never used the term “compound constitutional republic.”

  4. David Rockwood says:

    Insightful analysis. Thank you.

  5. Ross Collier says:

    Thank you for your analysis, Adam. Nice work.
    Dictionaries are the arbiters of word meaning. From the modern dictionaries I’ve consulted, both “democracy” and “republic” contain the concepts of elected representation and popular sovereignty. They are interchangeable in that regard. That modern dictionaries give these meaning elements equally to both words is likely related to the linguistic history you uncovered.
    The “compound” movement may simply be part of an effort to legitimize the assertion of state authority against federal authority. (See “On the Constitution of a Compound Republic” by William A. Niskanen in Cato’s Letters. And Ken Ivory’s “Where’s the Line? An Investigation into the Rights, Powers and Duties of State Legislatures.” Sorry I don’t have web addresses for these.)
    But, it is the simultaneous push to discredit the word democracy as an appropriate descriptor of our system of government that has me wondering. Is it really just to associate our nation with the name of one political party more strongly than the name of another? Or is there more to it? What do you think?

  6. Ross Collier says:

    I may have stumbled upon a clue to an answer to my own question in a review of a book by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson: “Winner-Takes-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.”

    David Runciman notes that “[s]ince 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 percent of the total.”

    Beginning in 1978, Runciman writes, “lobbyists and other organised groups who were pushing hard to relax the burden of tax and regulation on wealthy individuals and corporate interests discovered that no one was pushing back all that hard….[so] the politicians followed the path of least resistance–as elected politicians invariably do.”

    If, as Runciman writes, “[d]emocracies are meant to favour the interests of the many over those of the few.” And, as Hacker and Pierson point out: “‘Americans are no less egalitarian when it comes to their vision of an ideal world. But they are much less accurate when it comes to their vision of the real world.’” Then, might the push to popularize the rejection of “democracy” as a proper definition of our form of government be linked to a desire to discredit and suppress an egalitarian impulse on the part of Americans?

  7. Rodney Hurd says:

    As a Utah high school teacher, one of the first lessons in my Magruder’s American Government book is the classification of governments. Though no two governments are alike, we try to classify them to better understand them and communicate with others the ideas that propel them. One accepted classification among political scientist is based on where the power physically rests. Is it unitary, federal or confederation? Another classification is who participates. Is it a dictatorship, a direct democracy or something along the spectrum like a representative democracy (republic)? Using what seems to be a popular and universal text, the United States is often classified as a federal republic. That the state legislature for political, philosophical, or reasons of ignorance would create a new classification of “compound Constitutional Republic” leaves me stupefied. Though the legislature can pass a law that requires all teachers, books, and doctors to classify all human limbs as legs, the rest of the world will still call the torso appendages arms and laugh at the foolishness. We would consider it a disservice if our children were the only ones unable to get into medical school because they seemed to confuse arms with legs. Why then do we put them at a disadvantage by teaching them “compound Constitutional Republic” when federal republic is more common and accepted?

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