Guarantee Clause

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Article IV, section 4, of the Constitution provides that "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government. …" Anticipated between 1781 and 1787 in various state and federal legislative requirements that territorrial governments be republican ideology in the Confederation era. At a minimum, it prohibited regression to monarchial and aristocratic government, but it also incorporated the principles of popular sovereignty, representative government, majority rule, separation of powers, and federal supremacy.

The guarantee clause was first invoked under circumstances james madison anticipated in the federalist #43: to suppress an insurrectionary challenge to the authority of one of the states (Dorr's Rebellion, Rhode Island, 1842). Then, and in the earlier whiskey rebellion (western Pennsylvania, 1794), it took on a repressive character as a bulwark of extant institutions, affirming george washington's insistence in his Farewell Address (1796) that "the constitution which at any time exists till changed by … the whole people is sacredly obligatory upon all."

In the first significant judicial interpretation of the clause, luther v. borden (1849), Chief Justice roger b. taney declined to overturn the Rhode Island government established in the aftermath of the Dorr Rebellion. Taney held that the determination of whether a state government was republican rested exclusively with Congress, whose action was binding on the courts. In this case, Taney invoked the political question doctrine, asserting that the issue presented "belonged to the political power and not to the judicial."

The guarantee clause figured prominently in debates on reconstruction of the Union during and after the Civil War. Democrats opposed to effective Reconstruction measures relied on a conservative interpretation of the clause as securing extant, nonmonarchical governments; they extolled self-government but limited it to whites. Republicans rejected the static, backward-looking, and racist implications of the Democratic view. Echoing earlier abolitionist contentions that slavery was incompatible with republican government, Republicans fashioned Reconstruction policies (including military Reconstruction, federal guarantees of blacks' civil rights, and enfranchisement) that were conceptually derived from Taney's assertion of the exclusive power of Congress to assure republican government in the states. Chief Justice salmon p. chase validated the Republican uses of the clause in texas v. white (1869).

The clause has played a less prominent role in public affairs during the twentieth century. The Supreme Court rejected a conservative interpretation of the clause that would have invalidated the initiative and referendum (PacificStates Telephone and Telegraph Co. v. Oregon, 1912). Together with the political question doctrine, the clause became linked with the concept of justiciability (a characteristic of cases requisite to their resolution by judicial tribunals). But the majority opinion of Justice william j. brennan in baker v. carr (1962) restricted the scope of the political question doctrine, thus creating the possibility of future judicial, as well as congressional, reliance on the clause to evaluate the republican character of state institutions.

William M. Wiecek


Wiecek, William M. 1972 The Guarantee Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.