Political Terminology:  Democracy and Republic

Updated on March 1, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

History, politics, and spirituality supply writing topics that help me keep my essay writing strong, supporting claims and reporting facts.

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Origin of the Term "Democracy"

The term democracy comes from the Greek “demokratia” with “demos” meaning “people,” and “-kratia” meaning “rule.” Political terms are highly charged and often volatile because they change over time; they may change drastically as events change.

Because the United States was born out of a monarchy, the terminology related to politics and government is gauged against the forms inherent in and against the monarchical form of government.

John Adams on "Democracy"

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

--from The Letters of John and Abigail Adams

Practical Application of the Term "Democracy"

In a monarchy, all power is vested with the ruling family, particularly the king. The king rules the nation’s citizens, who are his subjects, and he does not share power, unless he chooses to do so. The king rules; the subjects obey. Contrary to a “monarchy” is a “democracy” wherein the citizens rule themselves.

Therefore, a pure democracy would mean that each citizen of a nation would share equal power with all other citizens, and they would come together to vote on procedures that require cooperation.

Such an unwieldy situation is obviously impossible; therefore, no true pure democracy has ever existed for any extended period of time. An explanation that clearly demonstrates the unworkability of a pure democracy is the claim that 51% of the people could vote to kill the other 49%.

Where democracy has been attempted, it has quickly turned into a “republic.”

Origin of the Term "Republic"

The term "republic" is traditionally considered to originate from the Latin, often explained as "res" meaning thing or affair plus "publica" meaning people. Therefore a republic is a people's business.

However, because the term indicates a reflexive action, that is, the laws refer or revert back to the public from a representative government, it is likely that the meaning of republic may also be traced back to the Latin "re" meaning again plus "publica" meaning people.

Whichever origin one chooses, it is likely that the term comes into the English language through the French, "république." But again, because the term lacks the "s" in "res," it seems more likely that the French use of the term would indicate a combination of the "re" and "publica" rather than "res" and "publica."

James Madison on a "Republic"

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

--Federalist No. 55,

Practical Application of the Term "Republic"

Under a pure democracy, all citizens would be constantly voting on issues. They would have time for little else, and therefore the idea arises to choose individuals to represent a group of voters. Thus arises the “republic.” Instead of constantly taking time out for traveling and discussing the issues to vote about, the citizens vote locally for a “representative” to vote in their place.

The United States government functions as a republic, but why is it also called a democracy?

Remembering the fluidity of political terminology, we understand that the term “democracy” is a general term meaning that “the people rule”—not a king, not a dictator, thus, not a totalitarian tyrant, but the people. In order to facilitate the will of the people, they make a slight adjustment to a representative form of government.

The people are still ruling because the people elect their representatives; the representatives are not chosen by a totalitarian leader or appointed by a king. Therefore, a republic is a democratic form of government because the citizens of the nation are the ones who elect their leaders.

Final Comment

It is unfortunate that the conflation of the two terms allows nitpickers and busybodies to deflect from the important issues to engage the definition of the difference between the terms "democracy" and "republic." But that is the sad state of affairs regarding political engagement in late 20th and early 21st century America.

Government of the People


Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


    Submit a Comment
    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Do you plan to write Hubs influenced by your reading? Sounds like an interesting and provocative wavelength you're on.

      Are you a student? Why are you here at HubPages?

      Anyway, thanks for commenting. Have a great day!

    • profile image

      Setank Setunk 

      2 years ago

      I am currently in a series of works regarding the power and influence of Queens in European Monarchies. I began with Urraca and I am trying to follow the timeline through Isabella and onto Elizabeth One. I have read through most of Durant's work and am reading credible modern works by Women authors; an important new perspective. (props to Ethyl Durant) No room for new studies.

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thanks for the comment, Stank Stunk.

      May I suggest that you pick a point, research it, and then elaborate on it in a Hub of your own. For example, I'd be interested in reading an expansion on the notion that "Jefferson idealized the French Republique and this may have influenced his interpretation of what defined a Republic" or the Founding Fathers "defined themselves as Republicans but had different views on the nature and structure of a Republic" or "can the difference in the term Republic and the corresponding differences in definition create divergent views if the term Republic and it's [sic its] ideals are adopted along different points in the time line."

      Regarding this claim, "I believe Adams and the other moderates may have adopted their interpretations directly from Latin sources." The French language is a Latin-based language, so the terms "république" and "republic" are basically identical in meaning; although, differences in practice would, of course, have occurred among the various nations that actually formed what each might call a republican government.

      For example, is anyone fooled by North Korea calling itself, "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" or Iran claiming to be the "Islamic Republic of Iran"?

      France has, in fact, been through five republics:

      French First Republic (1792–1804)

      French Second Republic (1848–1852)

      French Third Republic (1870–1940)

      French Fourth Republic (1946–1958)

      French Fifth Republic (1958–Present)

      You might take these individually and describe the nature of each, showing how they differ, if they do. I'm sure those Hubs would offer useful and valuable historical analyses.

    • profile image

      Setank Setunk 

      2 years ago

      Excellent article. Sadly, good articles get few responses because the information contained in them is too detailed or complex. But your references regarding the possible roots of the word Republic ( I cannot figure out how to use Italics) has a unique potential to define the nature of our early Republic.

      What has always puzzled me is the divergent political views shared by the Founding Fathers. They all defined themselves as Republicans but had different views on the nature and structure of a Republic. A further complication is they often acted in contrast to the views they espoused. Jefferson rigidly supported the constitutional construct that all powers not specifically granted to the Federal Government were reserved for the States, yet as President he usurped more control for the Federal Government than his predecessors combined. Then there was Hamilton and Adams who were extreme and moderate centrists respectively.

      Ignoring the simple distinction of placing more or less power with the respective States, the initial debate of supreme authority is the catalyst for these early divisions. It is here that your examination of the nature of a Republic seems applicable.

      Jefferson idealized the French Republique and this may have influenced his interpretation of what defined a Republic. I believe Adams and the other moderates may have adopted their interpretations directly from Latin sources. The Founding Fathers all had classical educations and dismissed Democracy as foolish, but they seldom if ever quoted their sources on this or on the nature of Republics. However I must qualify the latter by admitting my limited study in the works of some of these men.

      Put simply, can the difference in the term Republic and the corresponding differences in definition create divergent views if the term Republic and it's ideals are adopted along different points in the time line.


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