Democracies, Republics and Mistaken Pedantry
You may have noticed that I have referred to “popular governments” in Greece, Rome, and Italy. To designate their popular governments, the Greeks, as we saw, invented the term democracy. The Romans drew on their native Latin and called their government a “republic,” and later the Italians gave that name to the popular governments of some of their city-states. You might well wonder whether democracy and republic refer to fundamentally different types of constitutional systems. Or instead do the two words just reflect differences in the languages from which they originally came?
The correct answer was obfuscated by James Madison in 1787 in an influential paper he wrote to win support for the newly proposed American constitution. One of the principal architects of that constitution and a statesman exceptionally well informed in the political science of his time, Madison distinguished between “a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person,” and a “republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.”
This distinction had no basis in prior history: neither in Rome nor, for example, in Venice was there “a scheme of representation.” Indeed, the earlier republics all pretty much fit into Madison’s definition of a “democracy.” What is more, the two terms were used interchangeably in the United States during the eighteenth century. Nor is Madison’s distinction found in a work by the well-known French political philosopher Montesquieu, whom Madison greatly admired and frequently praised. Madison himself would have known that his proposed distinction had no firm historical basis, and so we must conclude that he made it to discredit critics who contended that the proposed constitution was not sufficiently “democratic.”
However that may be (the matter is unclear), the plain fact is that the words democracy and republic did not (despite Madison) designate differences in types of popular government. What they reflected, at the cost of later confusion, was a difference between Greek and Latin, the languages from which they came.
Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy