A constitutional republic is a state where the head of state and other officials are elected as representatives of the people, and must govern according to existing constitutional law that limits the government’s power over citizens. In a constitutional republic, executive, legislative, and judicial powers are separated into distinct branches and the will of the majority of the population is tempered by protections for individual rights so that no individual or group has absolute power. The fact that a constitution exists that limits the government’s power makes the state constitutional. That the head(s) of state and other officials are chosen by election, rather than inheriting their positions, and that their decisions are subject to judicial review makes a state republican; should the judicial review be maximized.
Purpose and scope
John Adams defined a constitutional republic as “a government of laws, and not of men.” Constitutional republics are a deliberate attempt to diminish the perceived threat of majoritarianism, thereby protecting dissenting individuals and minority groups from the “tyranny of the majority” by placing checks on the power of the majority of the population. The power of the majority of the people is checked by limiting that power to electing representatives who are required to legislate with limits of overarching constitutional law which a simple majority cannot modify.
Also, the power of government officials is checked by allowing no single individual to hold executive, legislative and judicial powers. Instead these powers are separated into distinct branches that serve as a check and balance on each other. A constitutional republic is designed so that “no person or group [can] rise to absolute power.”
The notion of the constitutional republic originates with Aristotle’s Politics and his notion of a possible fifth type of government called the polity. He contrasts the polity of republican government with democracy and oligarchy in book 3, chapter 6 of Politics. Polity, in the general descriptive sense, can refer to the political organizational system that is being used by a particular group, be it a tribe, a city-state, an empire, a corporation, etc. In Aristotle’s second, more specific sense of the word, he envisioned a polity to be a combination of what he thought were the best characteristics of oligarchy (rule by the wealthy) and democracy (rule by the poor). The polity government would be ruled by the many in the best interests of the country.
Oligarchies favored the wealthy members of society and featured elected leadership positions. Democracies favored the poor and middle-class members, of which there are usually greater numbers, and had features such as legislative assemblies open to citizens of voting age. When taken to heart, so to speak, and used correctly, the polity form of government would be the most ideal government possible, thought Aristotle, because it could take input from community members of all levels and rule fairly in the interests of the whole community and not just the majority.
The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, a tiny country entirely surrounded by Italy, is the oldest constitutional republic in the world, having been founded on 3 September 301 by Marinus of Rab, a Christian stonemason fleeing the religious persecution of Roman Emperor Diocletian. San Marino’s constitution, dating back to 1600, is the world’s oldest written constitution still in effect.
Constitutional republics were first advocated in the 18th and 19th centuries by classical liberals, who were engaged at the time in a political and ideological conflict against conservative supporters of traditional monarchy. Since the beginning of the 20th century, constitutional republics have entered the political mainstream and have gathered the support of many other ideologies in addition to liberalism. Political debate on the issue of constitutional republicanism has largely subsided.
The United States of America is one of the oldest constitutional republics in the world. According to James Woodburn, in The American Republic and Its Government, “the constitutional republic with its limitations on popular government is clearly involved in the United States Constitution, as seen in the election of the President, the election of the Senate and the appointment of the Supreme Court.” That is, the ability of the people to choose officials in government is checked by not allowing them to elect Supreme Court justices– however in reality, such justices are appointed by the popularly elected president, and approved by the popularly-elected Senate.
Woodburn says that in a republic, as distinguished from a democracy, the people are not only checked in choosing officials but also in making laws. A Bill of Rights exists in the U.S. Constitution which protects certain individual rights. The individual rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights cannot be voted away by the majority of citizens if they wished to oppress a minority who does not agree with the restrictions on liberty that they wish to impose. To eliminate these rights would require government officials overcoming constitutional checks as well as a two-thirds majority vote of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the States in order to amend the Constitution.
However, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and others, held that the federal government was not the sole or final judge of its own authority, holding that this would “make it, and not the Constitution, the judge of its powers.” Rather, in the Virginia Resolutions, the Kentucky Resolutions and elsewhere, various individuals stipulated that the people of the individual states were the final check on federal power to ensure compliance with the Constitution, holding that the people of any given state had the final power to “interpose” for the purpose of maintaining the Constitution against federal abuses thereof.
Though a constitutional republic is not a pure democracy it necessarily has some democratic elements, such as ability of the people to elect a president (in the U.S. the majority of the population is checked here too, as popular vote of the people does not necessarily decide the winner). Nations where the head of state is not elected, as in a monarchy, as not elected but has a parliament with elected representatives that govern according to constitutional law protecting individual rights are called constitutional democratic monarchy). Both are considered liberal democracies because they have protect individual liberty from majority and minority forces, while retaining some democratic elements. Also, a representative democracy may or may not be a constitutional republic. For example, “the United States relies on representative democracy, but [its] system of government is much more complex than that. [It is] not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered by minority rights protected by law.”