The question "What is a Republic?" has been half-asked more than once on this website (see this question, this one and last but not least this other one). However, it seems it has never been answered completely. I think it is because it has never been asked so directly. It came to my mind after a discussion in comment of this question.

What I'd like to see is not a straightforward answer that I can get in any dictionary, and that must mean something as "elected head of state" or "antonym of monarchy". What I'd like to see is an answer that gives historical background and explains how it is possible that Republic has so much meaning:

  • Something opposite to a democracy, like in "US is a Republic, not a democracy"

  • an english translation for the greek "peri politeias" (in Plato's book title).

  • the name of the state in Bodin's book (The six book of the Republic) where Bodin argues in favor of monarchy

  • a synonym of conservative, as in "Republican".

  • Antonym of monarchy.

I'm not interested on separate explanations of those points, but on the links between those. More precisely, is there any political theory where the word Republic has all of those meanings?

EDIT: The first answer are saying more or less "it is due to the evolution of language". But it seems to me that the founding fathers first said "US is a Republic, not a democracy". They had probably read Plato's book. They could not ignore they were echoing it. Later, some people decided to call one party "the democratic party". It seems incredible they never heard about "US is a Republic, not a Democracy". So they give this name on purpose.

Now, assume I'm wrong, and "US is a Republic, not a democracy" came after the Democratic party. Then it makes even more sense to assume that there is a link between this citation and the names of the parties. It's just a different one.

So I will rephrase my question : Is this the result of a precise political theory?

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    This is 4 questions, not one. The last 3 do not pertain to defining what a Republic is, but could be asked as separate questions. I'd narrow this down, or change them into a "Here's what I think it could be" piece. Otherwise, this looks like an essay writing assignment, not Q&A
    – Machavity
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 15:13
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    if you wanna boil your head even more, the original party was "Democratic-Republican Party" (whose sworn nemesis was "Federalist" party)
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 15:23
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    It's a good question but., as @Machavity said, too broad. I recommend splitting into independent questions
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 15:24
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    I'm sorry, but IMHO, your latest edit just made the question appreciably more off-topic, as it's now more about linguistics and history of language than politics per se.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 15:29
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    Keep in mind that like most words, "Republic" does not have a single meaning. For example, one sense of the word means "not a monarchy", while another sense of the word means "not a direct democracy." The meaning or sense of a word that applies in particular instance depends upon the context and is sometimes deliberately ambiguous.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 22:38

7 Answers 7


OK, I'll take a swing at it, but in all honesty the real TL;DR answer to your question is "because it has little to do with politics, and is a reality of how language works and evolves, and a downside of English being a vague language".

Something opposite to a democracy, like in "US is a Republic, not a democracy"

That's actually not quite correct. More specifically, using incorrect terms.

What the opposition is, specifically, is of a Representative Republic ; vs "Direct democracy - in actuality, most sources would acknowledge that a Republic can be considered a form of democracy, not its opposite.

This Washington Post article gives a great overview with tons of citations to Founding Fathers, which I won't copy/paste here just to avoid clutter. But I strongly recommend reading it.

a synonym of conservative, as in "Republican"

That is simply a historical accident, in that, a large fraction of people who are following the ideology of conservatism (both in general, as an opposition to revolutionary change, and US-specific brand, which is strongly associated with Mills) happen to be in a Republican party for the last century; due to the fact that the Democratic party became a hotbed of "progressive" ideology (the original one, of Woodrow Wilson, and FDR), which clearly opposes conservativism.

For an extra dose of irony/confusion, Democrats and Republicans in USA were, once, the same exact party, "Democratic-Republican Party", which opposed Federalists.

Antonym of monarchy.

This concept goes as far back as Founding Fathers (at least. I'm not certain if the concept is far older than that), with James Wilson:

Then let us examine, Mr. President, the three species of simple governments, which, as I have already mentioned, are the monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical. In a monarchy, the supreme power is vested in a single person; in an aristocracy, it is possessed by a body, not formed upon the principle of representation, but enjoying their station by descent, by election among themselves, or in right of some personal or territorial qualification; and, lastly, in a democracy, it is inherent in the
people, and is either exercised by themselves or by their representatives.

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    This answer tells us a lot about what a Republic is not (not a direct democracy, not the opposite of a democracy, not necessarily a conservative government, not a monarchy). That's all useful information. But all it says about what a Republic actually is, is "It can be considered a form of democracy". This is a bit thin, IMO. This answer could be improved a lot by going into more details about what defines a republic and how it differs from other forms of democracy.
    – Philipp
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 15:58
  • Actually, your James Wilson's citation 1. does not contain the word "Republic" at all 2. is more or less Aristotle distinction between regimes so I do not expect it to be very informative on this matter.
    – Distic
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 16:02
  • @Distic - as noted earlier in the answer, a Republic is (usually) just a subset of Democracy.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 16:10
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    @Distic If you're looking for clear, explainable and consistent meanings for political terms you're likely to be disappointed. Just look at the mess there is between the English usage of state, country and nation.
    – origimbo
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 16:39
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    Republic as an antonym of monarchy is conceptually as old as the Res Publica Romana (509-27BCE) which overthrew the monarchy.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 13:30

The five bullet points you list are not related to each other, outside of coincidence. For instance, a Republican is not a pro-Republic person in the same manner that a Republican isn't a person who wants everyone to read Plato's The Republic. Of your questions, only one is somewhat answerable in that a Republic and a Democracy do differ, but this has no meaning with political party names, which you seem to be confusing.

Although people confuse the two - (Bush calling the United States a democracy, when we're officially a constitutional republic), if you want to separate the two:

  • A democracy is direct rule by the people. The people vote on the laws directly and the majority wins. Ancient Greece under Socrates followed the democratic model (the book provides some interesting details of how it functioned, so The Republic is a great source for information) and inspired the book The Republic, as you can tell from reading it that Plato views a democracy as inherently unstable. In a true democracy, a large city may have the power to rule an entire region, as they could outnumber the region and have the entire region serve there interests, even if other populace in the region didn't like the laws by the majority.
  • A republic is a representative system where people vote on representatives (ie: leaders like a senator, parliament, representative, etc) to represent their interests. Rather than people voting on the laws directly, they vote for people who then create and maintain the laws. The best example of a republic is not the United States - the Roman Republic existed for about 400-500 years and is an example of one. They seemed to have followed a model that Plato advised. In a true republic, due to representation, a large city has some authority, but it's balanced with other regions through representation.

Historically, 100% of the time, both systems don't last, but neither do other systems. Every system eventually fails. Also, some will debate whether the US is really a true democracy, true republic, or true constitutional republic, which is why I use Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic; people tend to be less biased about systems that don't exist (myself included).

Political parties by contrast generally have different views about how much authority the government or individual should have in various areas of life, work, etc. As you can see, this has nothing to do with either of the above, though how a person gets the government or individual to have freedoms or authority will vary by how laws are passed in the system. A related example of why names don't relate is the donkey versus the elephant; there's a history, but elephants aren't republicans anymore or less than donkeys are democrats.

  • If I take your words, those who created the Democratic party to be the adversary of the Republican party didn't know about the citation "US is a Republic, it is not a democracy" ? They didn't know about the difference between Republic and Democracy and just chose the name randomly. Or perhaps they knew and just ignored it because "Democratic" was catchy? I do not think so. Just like those same people who said "US is a Republic, it is not a Democracy" has probably read Plato's Republic. It may be true that some US political leaders are politically illiterate now, but it wasn't always.
    – Distic
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 16:11
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    @Distic It actually used to be the Federalists vs the Republicans and for a time there was a Whig party. The Democrats came later. However, in the beginning, no political parties existed - these came later. Also, a president and vice president were voted separated and have very different political ideals, unlike our current system (VP is chosen by candidate). Wiki has a fairly good overview of how these came about.
    – FalseHooHa
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 16:18
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    And actually, the Roman never followed a model that Plato advised. Plato's thesis was translated to latin only at the end of the Roman Republic.
    – Distic
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 16:36
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    @Distic good point, especially since the Res Publica Romana supposedly started in 509BCE and Plato wrote his work around 380BCE. It would be amazing if the Romans had decided to follow the principles of a work would be written almost 130 years in the future...
    – oerkelens
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 13:36
  • @Distic Some would call the form of government in the US a democratic republic, and even if the US is just a "republic", it's widely agreed that a republic is a form of democracy. Which is all to say that the names of the two most prominent parties in the US are both equally reasonable in terms of reflecting the values of the form of government. But in the end they are just names. The Democratic Party does not necessarily advocate for more direct democracy and the Republican Party does not prefer less direct democracy. Actually the opposite in many cases. Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 15:59

Republic (Res Publica) is a form of government where the government is considered a public matter as opposed to a system where the government is the private concern or owned by a ruler (Res Privata). Typically it is organized in some form of Democracy (usually Representative, but Switzerland has Semi-Direct Democracy (or just direct... they do not have "Pure Democracy") and all 50 states in the United States has some form of Semi-Direct Democracy at the State Level (varies from state to state). Direct Democracy means the ability to participate in the voting on of legislation (achieved in the aforementioned systems by referendums) while Representative Democracies do not (you vote on the person who votes on the legislation).

It's important to know that these terms are used to describe nations whether they meet these things or not. For example, North Korea is officially the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" but no one participating in this forum is likely to argue that it is any of these things.

To the purposes of your question, the United States is both a Democracy and a Republic, but the general gist of the "The United States is a Republic, not a Democracy" is better stated "The United States is a Representative Democracy, not a Direct-Democracy".

Historically, American politics was found with the idea that government is a necessary evil and served to empower the majority to oppress the minority. Democracy was no different to them than an majority tyranny. Keep in mind, that while King George III was the demon king of the Revolutionary War, it was Parliament, which was creators of the supreme law of the British Empire that was actually oppressing the American colonies through their over representation in the elected government. The solution was Republicanism, where the government was limited in what it could do to the people and these gaps were designed to protect against the tyrant majority. The Founders didn't trust governments... but they also didn't trust mob rule...

Shortly after the American government was set up, two schools of thinking were formed: Jeffersonian Democracy, which held that the lower tiers of government should have more power to govern the people (thus local had more rights of government than state and state had more rights than Federal). Jacksonian Democracy believed that the people should have more say in the government and supported more elective controls to the people (such as judicial elections and eventually state senators). Democracy and being a Democrat was seen as a dirty word around the time of Lincoln.

Licoln's party was called Republicans because they felt that Republicanism was the balance of all participants in government against majority tyranny and tended towards Jeffersonian Democracy. The Democrats were formed from Jacksonian Democracy supporters, who felt that Republicanism as envisioned by Jeffersonian Democracy was a good idea, but as implemented was too restrictive on the common people and that Jacksonian Democracy fixed that problem. Thus they were called the Democratic party because, well, they supported more democratic principles than the Whig party.

The Whig party were efectively split between two factions, the Conscious Whigs and the Cotton Whigs. The former was a strong abolitionsist faction while the later supported softer steps on the slavery issue. The lack of conviction tore the Whigs apart and they effectively died in 1852. Concious Whigs would go on to found various anti-slavery parties that the Republican party emerged from.

The 1860 election saw a three-way split in the Democrats (President James Buchanan was nearly impeached and the reports on the findings were widely distributed, making reelection untenable) between the Northern Steven Douglas supporters, who believed that the states should determine their choice in the slavery issue, the Southern Democrats, backing John Breckenridge, who wanted the federal government to uphold property (i.e. Slavery) ownership rights. Mixed between three, was the Constitution Union party, which wished to preserve the Union above all else: Slavery and Democracy be damned. Naturally, this split gave power to a coalition of abolitionists, which backed Republican Abraham Lincoln, who was able to gather voting blocks of anti-slavery, pro-democracy, and pro-nationalist and the Free Soil party vote.

It is important to note that Jeffersonian Democracy and Jacksonian Democracy are not incompatible, as the former deals with the structuring of government while the later deals with the participation of the voters. The Modern Democrat Party traditionally sees both men as early party leadership.

  • I like the historical insight you give, but are you sure Switzerland calls itself a Republic ?
    – Distic
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 18:50
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    @Distic: They are a Federation and officially called The Swiss Confederation. Wikipedia lists their government as "Federal semi-direct democracy under multi-party parliamentary directorial republic". I merely listed them as an example of Direct Democracy, because they are the only nation with national government level direct-democracy (where as the U.S. has divisional level).
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 21:06

The word has been many meanings over ages and across various political regimes. So I tried to find a "wide" definition which encompass as much regimes which claimed to be republics as possible.

According to the 3rd definition of French version of Wiktionary, a republic is

Régime politique non héréditaire. Antonymes : monarchie, empire.

Roughly translating to English:

"Non-hereditary Political regime, as opposed to monarchy or empire."

I like this definition better than the ones given in the English version because it's more precise. It does not matter whether the elections are democratic or not, and whether the head of state is called a monarch or not. It does not matter who the electorate is.

Systems which are or used to be called republics includes:

  • Systems where a president is democratically elected. Example: France
  • Systems where a dictator is elected by a parody of democratic elections, in which people are de-facto obliged to vote for the ruling party. Example: Bielorussia
  • Systems where a monarch is elected by other nobles. This does not exist anymore, but used to exist. Example: Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

Systems which are not called republics includes :

  • Hereditary monarchies with a functioning, democratically elected civil democratic government. Example: Denmark
  • Hereditary monarchies which are autocratic. Example : Saudi Arabia
  • Controversially, systems in which nobody is head of state. Example : Swizerland.

The definition on english Wikitionary only says

A state where sovereignty rests with the people or their representatives, rather than with a monarch or emperor; a country with no monarchy.

which excludes the Polish-Lituanian comonwealth from this, so this is why I personally prefer the definition given in French.

Note : Some countries have parties called "Republicans", such as the US or since a couple of years, France. However this is merely a political slang and really does not mean anything, since all other parties in those countries are also "republican" in the sense they support the status quo of a republic and do not support overthrowing it with a monarchy or anything else.

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    -1. Can you back up this answer with authoritative sources? Who says that a republic is defined by having an elected head of state (and not by any other factor) ? Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 5:18

While not a complete answer, an important correction to existing (and, probably, future) answers: Republic can exist without any voting (or democracy in the modern meaning) at all! A number of city-states in the Medieval and Renaissance Italy, including Florence and Venice, were, at times, choosing government officials purely by a lottery (also known as sortition). I'm saying "at times" because rules for the choosing itself would change often, sometimes a few times in one decade (and sometimes violently).

Ironically, Athenians themselves believed sortition to be democratic, while actual voting was considered undemocratic: it ensured that, on average, "common" people would be ruling, rather than someone using bribes (or media) to trick people into voting for him.

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    Please don't post incomplete answers. We expect every answer to fully answer the question by its own. Also, who says that a government formed by lot is a republic? Which definitions by which political scholars allow this?
    – Philipp
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 16:21

Given that the question has been tagged "United States," let it be assumed that you're asking "what is a republic?" in how the word refers to these United States.

To properly determine the rhetorical foundation of "republic" in these United States, reference the definition and explanation given at the time the Constitution was being written, influencing Article IV, Section 4:

The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.

In explaining and justifying the description, Federalist James Madison established his definition of republic in Federalist 39.

If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic. It is SUFFICIENT for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified; otherwise every government in the United States, as well as every other popular government that has been or can be well organized or well executed, would be degraded from the republican character. According to the constitution of every State in the Union, some or other of the officers of government are appointed indirectly only by the people. According to most of them, the chief magistrate himself is so appointed. And according to one, this mode of appointment is extended to one of the co-ordinate branches of the legislature. According to all the constitutions, also, the tenure of the highest offices is extended to a definite period, and in many instances, both within the legislative and executive departments, to a period of years. According to the provisions of most of the constitutions, again, as well as according to the most respectable and received opinions on the subject, the members of the judiciary department are to retain their offices by the firm tenure of good behavior


  • What is the foundation of its establishment? Only the people of the nation and no one else would make the decision of who rules the government.
  • What are the sources of its power? The person who is chosen by the people shouldn’t break any rules nor abuse the power that they have.
  • Who has the authority to make future changes? When someone is chosen to rule the country, they should only be in that position for a certain amount of time unless the people of the nation feel that it’s best to impeach them.

With the design of this countries foundation, this country was built as a Constitutional, Democratically Elected, Federal Republic.

Addressing your points

•Something opposite to a democracy, like in "US is a Republic, not a democracy"

Not quite. In the massive venn diagram of political frame works, republic as defined by Madison could be considered a subset of democracy. This is in part because of how the representatives are selected by the body politic, via democratic, majority speaks, elections.

•an english translation for the greek "peri politeias" (in Plato's book title).
The Republic, as set by Plato, speaks to a very specific government formation, with an idolized operation.

•the name of the state in Bodin's book (The six book of the Republic) where Bodin argues in favor of monarchy


•a synonym of conservative, as in "Republican".

While at its foundation, the Republican party embraced the sentiments of Madison, there has been significant departure from that ideal.

•Antonym of monarchy.


  • I really like your answer. Basically, you are saying no more than those who argue that a "republic" means "representative democracy", but you do so with proof that it was true at least for Madison. It lacks an explanation on some points I mentionned, but as it is true for every other answer, I will accept it.
    – Distic
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 8:52

As practiced in contemporary times, a republic is a democracy with declarations of rights for all people that cannot be transcended by laws, so that the minorities are not overrun by the majority. This avoids situations like three wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

Any democracy that has a constitution as the final word on laws, and that constitution safeguards the rights of all citizens regardless of what the majority votes, can be considered a republic.


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