Harlan: Proposed charter is no 'constitution'

September 15, 2012|By Jeffrey Harlan

Sept. 17 marks the 225th anniversary of the adoption of the United States Constitution by the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. As Costa Mesans consider adopting a new city constitution, we should look at our nation's seminal governing document and its history for some valuable lessons.

When Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall after the document's signing, a woman approached him and asked, "What have we got — a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin replied, "A republic, if you can keep it."

Students of American history know that one of the central debates among the Founding Fathers was choosing the form of government — between a republic and a democracy. A republic is representative government ruled by law; a democracy is direct government ruled by the majority.


A republic government derives its powers from the people. Franklin knew that a republic is not founded merely upon the consent of the people; its health is absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the republic's citizens.

James Madison, an ardent proponent of a republic, advised, "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 oppression by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans and claim for their government the honorable title of republic."

The Constitution's framers were wary of how majority rule in a democracy could compromise individual liberties. Franklin colorfully described democracy as "two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote."

Notably, the word "democracy" is not mentioned once in the Constitution (or the Declaration of Independence, for that matter).

Does Measure V, the proposed Costa Mesa charter scheme, measure up to the republican principles espoused in our nation's constitution?

Nope, and here's why.

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