If you are exposed to enough politics, sooner or later you’ll hear the old saw that the U.S. is “a republic and not a democracy.” Along with that saying goes the following claim: Allowing voter initiatives and referenda is unconstitutional: If a state lets voters enact laws or veto tax hikes, the state is too democratic to meet the Constitution’s mandate that it have a “republican form of government.”

A new Independence Institute Issue Paper, which I authored, examines those assertions in detail. The Paper shows that both are essentially myths.

The nation’s best-known measure requiring voter approval of most tax hikes is Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), adopted by the voters in 1992. This Issue Paper is published in response to a legal attack on TABOR: A group of government apologists has sued in federal court claiming that by limiting legislative control over fiscal measures, Colorado has violated the U.S. Constitution.

In a nutshell, the new Issue Paper finds:

* The American Founders did not firmly distinguish between a “republic” and a “democracy.” Some used the two words as if they were synonymous. Some adopted the view of Montesquieu that there were two kinds of republics: (1) Those controlled by a few (aristocracies) and (2) those controlled by the many (democracies).

* Dictionaries of the time defined “republic” as merely a popular government, as opposed to a monarchy. One encyclopedia-type dictionary included an article tracking Montesquieu’s definitions.

* In drafting and debating the Constitution, the Founders talked a lot about republics. In most of the governments they identified as republics (like the Athenian and Roman), citizens voted on all laws.

* Various Founders stated explicitly that in republics the people could make laws directly as well as through representatives.

* The only kind of democracy the Founders thought “unrepublican” was what Madison (following Aristotle) labeled “pure democracy.” This was a theoretical form of government without officials, and where the mob ran everything in defiance of the rule of law. Other terms for the same thing are “mob rule,” “mobocracy” and “ochlocracy.”

* The dominant purpose of the Constitution’s mandate that states have republican forms of government was not to prevent popular votes at the state and local level. (In fact, referenda already were being used in some states.) The dominant purpose was to prevent any state from becoming a monarchy.

* The twin myths—that the Founders drew a sharp line between “republics” and “democracies” and that citizen lawmaking is unrepublican—did not arise until the 1840s, when conservatives invented and promoted them in response to disturbances in Rhode Island. In fact, until about 40 years ago, it was mostly conservatives who made such arguments. Beginning in the 1970s, liberals adopted them while opposing measures that give the voters “a say in what they pay.”


Opponents of popular participation in government have long argued that when a state constitution or legislature permits the people to vote on revenue measures and other laws, this puts the state out of compliance with the U.S. Constitution’s Guarantee Clause: the requirement at all states have a “Republican Form of Government.”

The Original Constitution

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Traditionally, their argument has been that the Constitution draws a sharp distinction between a republic and a democracy, and that citizen initiatives and referenda are too democratic to be republican. Recently, a group of plaintiffs sued in federal court, challenging Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) relying on a variation of this theory.

In this Issue Paper, Professor Rob Natelson, Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence and the author of the most important scholarly article on the Guarantee Clause, sets the record straight.

Marshaling evidence from Founding-Era sources and from the words of the Founders themselves, he shows that the phrase “Republican Form of Government” permits citizen lawmaking—and that, in fact, most of the governments on the Founders’ list of republics included far more citizen lawmaking than is permitted in Colorado or any other American state. He further shows that the principal purpose of the Guarantee Clause was not to restrict popular government, but to protect popular government by forestalling monarchy


Rob Natelson