Noah Webster was one of the many Founders who became directly involved in education. He served not only as a soldier during the Revolution but also as a legislator and a judge afterwards. He was one of the first to call for a Constitutional Convention and was personally responsible for language in Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. He helped establish Amherst College, became one of America’s most prolific textbook writers, and was titled “Schoolmaster to America” for his profound contributions to education.
One of his famous texts used in public school classrooms for generations was his History of the United States. In it, he told students: When you become entitled to exercise the right of voting for public officers, let it be impressed on your mind that God commands you to choose for rulers, “just men who will rule in the fear of God.” The preservation of [our] government depends on the faithful discharge of this duty; if the citizens neglect their duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made, not for the public good so much as for selfish or local purposes; corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute the laws; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of the citizens will be violated or disregarded.
While Webster’s description of the ills of government sounds like a contemporary news account, what he described was not a widespread problem in his day; he was simply pointing out what would occur if unprincipled, unGodly rulers were placed into office. Webster then concluded:
If [our] government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the divine commands and elect bad men to make and administer the laws.
Although Webster warned that our form of government would not endure unless we kept God-fearing people of faith and character in office, doesn’t the security of our government really depend more upon the people rather than their leaders? After all, aren’t the people the most important element in a democracy?
This is part of our problem today: we think we are a democracy, but we are not. As evidence of this fact, recall that when we pledge allegiance to the American flag, we pledge allegiance to the republic – not the democracy – of the United States. America was founded as a republic, not a democracy; and while few today can define the difference between the two, there is a difference – a big difference.
A democracy is a form of government that has existed for millennia, and it was a form of government well known at the American Founding. Our Founding Fathers had an opportunity to establish a democracy and deliberately chose not to. They intentionally established America and each of the states as republican – not democratic – governments. In their minds, we were not, and were never to become a democracy. Confirming this, Bill of Rights framer Fisher Ames observed:
A democracy is a volcano which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption, and carry desolation in their way.
Declaration signer Benjamin Rush similarly noted:
A simple democracy is the devil’s own government. And John Adams also cautioned:
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
Numerous other Founders issued similar declarations condemning democracies and praising republics. In fact, they so strongly opposed democracy as a form of government that when they created the federal Constitution, they included language in Article 4, Section 4 requiring that “each state maintain a republican form of government.”
The primary difference between a democracy and a republic is the fundamental source of its authority. In a democracy, the people are the highest source of authority; in America, however, there was a source of authority higher than the people, and it was that higher source which formed the basis of our government. As Noah Webster explained to students in a famous textbook: [O]ur citizens should early understand that the genuine source of correct republican principles is the Bible, particularly the New Testament, or the Christian religion.
In a democracy, whatever the people desire is what becomes policy. Therefore, if a majority of the people decide that murder is no longer a crime, in a democracy, murder will no longer be a crime. However, not so in the American republic: in our republic, murder will always be a crime, for murder is always a crime in the Word of God. It is this immutable foundation that has given our republic such enduring stability, for since man at his core does not change, he continues to need the same restraints today that he needed when the Bible was written thousands of years ago. It is the rights and wrongs revealed in the Bible that have provided the moral and institutional standards for our republic.
Numerous early law books affirmed this, including Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws. Blackstone’s principles formed the basis of American law from 1766 until 1920, and for decades, it was the final authority in the U. S. Supreme and lower courts. Blackstone’s Commentaries (highly recommended by numerous famous Americans, including James Madison, James Wilson, John Marshall, Charles Finney, Abraham Lincoln, etc.), taught that human laws could not contradict God’s direct decrees, and that only if God had not ruled in an area were men then free to set their own legislative policy. It explained: To instance in the case of murder: this is expressly forbidden by the divine. . . . If any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it, we are bound to transgress that human law. . . .
But with regard to matters that are . . . not commanded or forbidden by [the Scriptures] – such, for instance, as exporting of wool into foreign countries – here the . . . legislature has scope and opportunity to interpose.
God’s Word also provided the basis for what are termed inalienable rights (rights bestowed by God on every individual, regardless of race, gender, or social station). Among man’s inalienable rights were those of life, liberty, property, religious freedom, self-protection, due process, sanctity of the home, as well as others listed throughout the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Significantly, our founding documents directly acknowledge:
(1) that God gave these rights to men (“all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”), and (2) that it is the purpose of government to protect these rights (“to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”). So crucial to the maintenance of America’s republican government was the knowledge of God’s standards and God-given rights, that Thomas Jefferson queried: [C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have removed their only firm basis – a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God, that they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just – that His justice cannot sleep forever.
Since the basis of our American republic rests on God’s standards, the only way to preserve the nation’s foundation is for citizens to have a knowledge of those standards and place into office individuals who both understand those standards and will protect America’s foundation
– that is, for citizens to choose leaders who recognize inalienable rights and will prevent government encroachment upon them. It is for this reason that a republic is a much more difficult form of government to maintain than a democracy, for a republic requires more effort from the voters – not only must they understand their own government but they must also diligently investigate the beliefs of candidates before placing them into office. As John Adams explained:
We electors have an important constitutional power placed in our hands: we have a check upon two branches of the legislature. . . . It becomes necessary to every [citizen] then, to be in some degree a statesman: and to examine and judge for himself . . . [the] political principles and measures. Let us examine them with a sober . . . Christian spirit.
A democracy is the deterioration of a republic – it is a lazy man’s form of government. It requires no effort and no research of candidates or long-term issues; it is simply based on what a majority of the people feel at a given time and is primarily motivated by emotions and selfishness – by what is best for “me” rather than what is best for others and for the country.
An excellent illustration of the inherent deficiencies of a democracy is seen in what transpired around Jesus during the final week of his life here on earth. As he entered Jerusalem, a great crowd ushered him in, seeking to make him their king; the next week, however, the same crowd shouted, “Kill the bum! Give us the thief Barabbas instead!” What a change – make Him king one week and kill Him the next! That is a democracy – it fluctuates in direct response to the variable feelings of the people, and its policies are based on what they want at any given instant. A democracy is what Founding Father Benjamin Rush aptly called a “mobocracy.”