In a political landscape dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties, Americans know little of the origins and meanings behind these party titles.
The roots of the word democracy are found in the Greek words demos (meaning “people”) and kratos (meaning “power”). Democracy referred to governments which were representative, wherein citizens had a say in affairs of state, as opposed to a dictatorship in which the people were merely subjects.
Republic derives from the Latin phrase res publica, meaning “public affair.” When used to specify a type of government, it has tended to describe one which is representative, as with democracy. Indeed, both words were flexible enough in early times to embrace a plethora of meanings, and most classical “democracies” and “republics” were oligarchies in which power was unequally divided.
Changing Usage of Democracy and Republic
Over time, democracy came to signify governments in which all or most men were empowered and represented, while republic continued its indeterminate usage as any government wherein at least some of the citizenry was represented. Thus came the distinction between “democratic republics” and “aristocratic republics.” In the eighteenth century, republic was generally used to signify all governments which were not hereditary monarchies, but even Britain, with its mixed government of monarch, nobles, and commons, was often referred to as a republic. Democratic republicans of that era tended to use the two words synonymously, and considered a democracy to be the only pure republic. Thomas Jefferson, the democratic leader of the original Republican Party, wrote, “we may say with truth and meaning that republican governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election or control in their composition.”
Modern Interpretations of Democracy and Republic
In modern times a theory has gained currency in which republic implies a lack of democracy, and despite its historical basis it has come to shape how many people use and interpret the two terms. But in truth, republic may still denote any type of representative government, while democracy refers more specifically to one whose representation is broadly based and egalitarian. The Democratic Party originally grew out of Jefferson’s Republican Party, which was often called the Democratic-Republican Party, as in its foremost organ, the Philadelphia Aurora. Both modern parties tend to espouse democracy, so their names do not differentiate them in any marked way.
Of the two words, republic is the least understood, and therefore is subject to the most misconceptions. But there are also those who say that democracy describes only those polities in which all citizens rule directly, and cannot include governments in which power is delegated to representatives. Perhaps such revisions will multiply before they decrease, but one needs only to look to the historical records to grasp both the continuity and changes in the meaning of these two words, so vital to the American political system.
- Resenfeld, Richard N.. American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican returns: The suppressed history of our nation’s beginnings and the heroic newspaper that tried to report it. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997