REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT has historically denoted a system in which people elect their lawmakers (representatives), who are then held accountable to them for their activity within government. Representative government, or the "republican form," as it is also known, has been widely accepted as the only practicable form of democracy.
In America, the acceptance of representative government as a legitimate democratic form has long-standing roots. The argument can be traced back to the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), whose Second Treatise of Government (1690) was widely read by the founders. Locke called for consent to government rather than direct consent to the laws. Thomas Jefferson reflected this in the Declaration of Independence (1776), writing that governments, rather than laws, derived their "just powers from the consent of the governed."
Most American colonial governments were representative in the sense of being ruled by elected lawmakers, though some, notably Pennsylvania's, were not. American federal and state governments have been representative since the founding in 1789 (or their admission into the union). Federal lawmakers are all regularly elected and must stand for reelection every two, four, or six years. All state governments are required and constitutionally guaranteed to be representative forms (U.S. Constitution, Article 3, section 4).
The fact that the size of the United States required representation did not sit well with a generation that had fought for the right to self-rule. Nor does it sit well with contemporary advocates of greater civic participation today. The central conceptual tension of representative government throughout American history may thus be posed as the question that animated the founding of its institutions: How close must the people be to the laws that govern them?
Problems of Size
The first answer to this question is practical necessity: there must be a considerable distance given the size of the nation. By the close of the seventeenth century, the colonies were simply too large to govern themselves directly. As Thomas Paine observed in Common Sense (1776), representative government was the only form of democracy practicable for 3 to 4 million people spread across such a large geographical space. It was simply impossible for such a large community to meet beneath one tree.
There were two other prudential reasons for preferring representative government. First, even if all the people could meet in one place, people had other things to do; representative government allowed division of labor. The English radical Algernon Sidney (1623–1683) presented a second reason in his Discourses Concerning Government (1698). Direct democracy would concentrate all the citizens of a nation in one place and leave it unprotected from foreign invaders. Representative government thus allowed the people a role in government commensurate with national security.
Closing the Gap
After the War of Independence, some Americans argued against a large national government on the grounds that representative government would be unstable and too far removed from the people. This position would later become the basis for the opposition to the U.S. Constitution among a group of writers now known as the antifederalists. The argument against a large national government derived from the French political philosopher Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws (1748). Montesquieu argued that democracy, even in the form of representative government, would be inherently unstable and thus unsuited for a nation much larger than the ancient city-states and the Italian republics where it had historically been successful.
The first government of the United States, embodied in the Articles of Confederation (1781–1789), reflected this teaching. First, the government under the articles was severely limited, requiring unanimity and taking state governments rather than the people as its objects. Representatives to the federal government were elected by state legislatures and not by the people directly. During this period, the people were governed by their states, and thus the distance between them and their laws was not as large as it would later be under the U.S. Constitution. Second, the practice of "instructions" was instituted in some states during this period. Instructions were binding commands from constituents to their representatives to vote in a manner the constituents prescribed. They were never widely adopted but did receive limited support, particularly in Maryland and New England.
Favoring Representative Government
The English politician and political theorist Edmund Burke articulated the alternative position in England. Burke argued that a representative had only the nation's best interest to guide him and should take the interests of his constituents only under advisement. While Burke's position was the extreme on this issue, by the time of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution (1789), the tide was turning toward representational independence.
As part of this turning, James Madison presented an argument refuting Montesquieu and establishing representative government as a preferable form. Madison's argument, presented in "Federalist No. 10," defended representative government precisely because of the buffer it created between the people and the laws that governed them. The grave threat to government was "factions," groups of citizens, whether a "majority or a minority of the whole," animated and organized against the "permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Direct democracies ensured that these factions would dominate, but representative government, however, especially over a large territory and population, would remove such a threat.
A larger nation meant extremely large constituencies for each representative, reducing the likelihood that constituents would be able to coordinate around a factional plan. Absent this coordination representatives would be more likely to pursue the common good, even if it went against some subgroup within their constituency. Madison thought that candidates themselves were more likely to succeed by appearing to be concerned with the public good than by trying to please a disparate group of partial interests. Men were not angels, Madison argued, but institutions might encourage them to act as if they were in order to be elected, and that would be an improvement.
The Continuing Tension
The subsequent emergence of political parties undercut much of Madison's argument, especially in the electoral dynamics of the congressional district. But by the time of the founding, the fact that people would be separated from their law was either grudgingly accepted as a necessary evil or warmly embraced as a beneficial consequence. Once representative government was established, the debate about representation, who should be granted the right to vote and how districts should be defined, became highly contentious.
But the central tension of representativ egovernment, striking a balance between the sovereignty of the people and the authority of their laws, has remained a prominent feature of the debate. Nowhere has this tension been more evident than in the case of the courts and the federal bureaucracy. These institutions are very far removed from the will of the people, yet both purportedly have the ability to craft legislation of a sort in the form of court orders and constitutional review (in the courts) and of regulations and statutes (in the federal bureaucracy). Representative government will always involve a distance between the people and the laws that govern them, even if the appropriate distance will remain a debated topic for some time.
Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
Storing, Herbert J. What the AntiFederalists Were for: The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.