If we want to understand the democracy gap that exists between the United States and other Western democracies, we need to go back to the founding of our country and the framing of our constitution. Ironically, for many Americans, the U.S. Constitution is seen as the foundation and epitome of democracy. For them, its adoption signaled the birth of democracy in the world. This makes it difficult to recognize that this very Constitution is actually one of the main impediments to our becoming a truly democratic nation. As Jedediah Purdy explained in his recent book, “Our mainstream political language still lacks ways of saying, with unapologetic conviction and even patriotically, that the Constitution may be the enemy of the democracy it supposedly sustains.”
As this website has demonstrated over and over, many of the failures of democracy that we suffer from in this country are built into the Constitution: an Electoral College that elects the losers of the popular vote, checks and balances that routinely produce crippling gridlock, Supreme Court Justices that are appointed for life, and a Senate that grossly under-represents most of our citizens. The constitutions of most other advanced democracies do not contain such undemocratic provisions. So what happened here? How did the framers of the Constitution, in all their wisdom, end up creating a government that often frustrates democracy and is so unresponsive to the common citizen? The answer: Because that is pretty much what they intended.
The Framers: Uncomfortable with Democracy
One persistent myth surrounding the framers of the Constitution is that they were strong champions of democracy. However, the fact is that many of the founding fathers were profoundly uncomfortable with what we today think of as democracy: government of, by, and for the people. Consider some of the typical anti-democratic sentiments expressed by many of the framers:
- Edmund Randolph argued that the evils from which the country suffered originated in “the turbulence and follies of democracy.”
- Elbridge Gerry spoke of democracy as “the worst of all political evils.”
- George Clymer argued that elected officials need not pay attention to what their constituents want: “a representative of the people is appointed to think for not with his constituents”
- Roger Sherman hoped that “the people have as little to do as may be about the government.”
- According to Charles Pickney, “the theoretical nonsense of an election of Congress by the people . . . is clearly and practically wrong, [and] it will in the end be the means of bringing our councils into contempt.”
- John Jay opined that “the people who own the country ought to govern it.”
The framers were the political and economic elites of their time.
If we are to understand this surprising hostility towards democracy, we must first understand who the framers were. They were not ordinary people. Most people in the U.S. were small farmers, tradesmen, artisans, laborers, servants or slaves. The framers were the political and economic elites of their time. Almost all were wealthy: twenty-four were bankers and investors, fourteen were land speculators, eleven were involved in trade and manufacturing, fifteen owned immense plantations with large numbers of slaves, and almost all of them owned large amounts of government bonds. George Washington had an estate valued at over $400 million in today’s dollars – which included not only Mount Vernon with its numerous cattle and slaves, but over 52,000 acres of land in New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia and the Ohio Valley. In addition, Washington was a major shareholder in the Potomac Company, the James River Company, the Bank of Columbia, and the Bank of Alexandria. Besides their wealth, the framers were also unusually well educated. In a day when hardly anyone went to college, over half of the fifty-five framers had a college education. And thirty-three were lawyers or had legal training.
In short, the framers were a part of the American aristocracy. It was not made up of men with inherited titles, as in Europe, but of men who had achieved a measure of wealth and social standing on their own. But like all aristocrats, the framers had a sense of their own superiority and this made them naturally skeptical about the ability of normal people to govern. They were elitists who saw the masses as uneducated, unintelligent and unruly – and therefore unqualified to govern. As one framer, William Livingston, concluded: “the people have ever been and ever will be unfit to retain the exercise of power in their own hands.” In the view of James Madison, writing in Federalist 10, it was best to leave government to well-off, educated elites: “men of intelligence, patriotism, property and independent circumstances” would be a “chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interests of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” In other words, leaving government in the hands of the elites would be in everyone’s best interests – a view held by all elitists down through the ages.
Madison, like many of the framers, had a distinctly negative view of human nature and believed that people were selfish, power hungry and prone to irrational conflicts. As he explained it in Federalist 10:
So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.
As Madison’s comments suggest, the other main reason why the framers did not trust the masses with power was their concern that this would undermine the interests of those with property – the upper class. As we’ve seen, virtually all the framers had a great deal of property in the form of land, businesses, ships, slaves, or banks. More importantly, at this point in our history, this upper class felt like they were under siege and that their property was at risk.
During the 1780’s, when the Constitution was written, class tensions were growing rapidly in the country, with a great deal of public animosity aimed at economic and political elites. The post-revolutionary war period was a very hard time economically for ordinary Americans as the weakened country fell into an economic depression. While farmers were away fighting the war, many of them had their farms foreclosed upon by banks. In Vermont alone, over half the farms were seized by the banks. Soldiers had been paid in Continental dollars, but that currency proved to be almost worthless. After the war, foreclosures on farms and houses continued and many farmers were thrown in prison if they could not pay their debts. Making matters worse, taxes were being raised in order to pay back the domestic and foreign creditors who financed the war. There were public calls for states to cancel soldiers’ debts, issue more paper money, allow debts to be paid with crops, and abolish debtors’ prisons. These requests fell on deaf ears in most state legislatures where bankers wielded considerable influence.
Finally, things boiled over. In 1786, the Paper Money Riot took place in Exeter, New Hampshire. Farmers, frustrated by inaction by the state, took up arms and marched on the state capital demanding the immediate issuance of more paper money. This rebellion was quickly quelled, but a more serious insurrection took place around the same time in Massachusetts, Shay’s Rebellion. Farmers in Western Massachusetts held local meetings and organized protests about debts and taxes – but the political elites in the state legislature in Boston paid little attention to them. Under the leadership of a former captain in the Continental Army, Daniel Shay, armed groups eventually marched on state court houses to shut them down and prevent more foreclosures and imprisonment of debtors. They also broke into jails to release debtors. Many in the local state militias were reluctant to confront these rebels who were often their relatives, friends, and neighbors. The state government threatened to execute any militiaman that refused to act against Shay’s forces. When this threat had little effect, the governor, with money from Eastern Massachusetts merchants, organized a mercenary force of 4,400 men to confront the local rebels. In a few months, the rebellion was crushed. Eventually, four thousand people, in exchange for amnesty, signed confessions admitting their participation in the rebellion. Shay and seventeen others were not so lucky: they were convicted and sentenced to death. (Most, including Shay, were later pardoned.)
But popular discontent over the debt problem continued, with similar protests taking place in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania. In one state, Rhode Island, pro-debtor voters were actually able to gain control of that state’s legislature and it passed some measures to ease the financial burdens on farmers. But public dissatisfaction continued to fester and this was very much on the mind of many of the founding fathers. General Henry Knox wrote to George Washington in late 1886 to warn of the dangerous goals of Shay’s Rebellion. In his view, the rebels were jealous of the property of the upper class and wanted to use force to get some of it for themselves:
[T]hey feel at once their own poverty compared with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter in order to remedy the former. Their creed is that the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all.
The framers were very aware of these recent public insurrections as they met in the summer of 1787.
The framers were very aware of these recent public insurrections as they met in the summer of 1787 to create a new constitution. For many, the lesson they learned from Shay’s Rebellion and its demands for economic justice was that the common man was untrustworthy, violent, and a direct threat to the economic and political interests of society’s elites. A democracy that would put power in the hands of such people did not seem like a wise idea. One of them, James Madison, warned alarmingly in Federalist 10 of the “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property” which he described as “improper or wicked projects.”
Even Alexander Hamilton – portrayed in a much-lauded Broadway musical as the “liberal” founding father – came down firmly on the side of the wealthy and against giving too much power to the public:
All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and wellborn, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.
All of this is not to suggest that the framers were entirely anti-democratic. Most did believe that a government’s legitimacy should ultimately be rooted in the people. Indeed, the country had just fought a war based largely on the complaint that Americans had no direct say in the British laws that were governing them – “No Taxation with Representation!” The framers were certainly opposed to a government based on monarchy or a hereditary nobility as was common in Europe. But this meant that the only real alternative left was to base the government on the people themselves. And indeed, the Constitution begins “We the people…”.
But as we’ve seen, the framers were also deeply suspicious of giving too much power to “the people.” As the American historian Richard Hofstadter observed, the framers found themselves in the difficult position of “a man who has no faith in the people but insists that government be based upon them.” “There was no better expression of this dilemma … than that of Jeremy Belknap, a New England clergyman, who wrote to a friend: ‘Let it stand as a principle that government originates from the people; but let the people be taught … that they are not able to govern themselves.’”
Designing a Government Insulated from the People
So how did the framers of the Constitution try to resolve this dilemma? By fashioning a government that allowed some input by the people, but one that also severely limited their power to influence most government decisions. It was a government that would be insulated in numerous ways from the power of the masses and leave most of the governing to the upper classes.
The only really democratic institution –where the public had direct control – was to be the House of Representatives. Representatives would be directly elected by the people. And House elections would be frequent – every two years – so that citizens could hold their representatives strictly accountable on a regular basis. This would be the “House of the People.” But the other three major institutions of the federal government – the Senate, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court – were carefully designed to ensure they would be controlled by upper-class elites, not the public. Let’s see how that was done.
The Senate. Senators were not popularly elected but chosen by the state legislatures – so this body would represent the views of local political elites, not the public itself. And many of the framers took it for granted that the Senate should represent the interests of the rich. Madison, for instance, argued during the Constitutional convention that the Senate “ought to come from and represent the wealth of the nation,” and thus be in a position to block any legislation from the House that would be hostile to the upper class. And Senators would stay in office six years instead of two – giving the public fewer opportunities to hold them accountable. (It could have been worse: Hamilton proposed having Senators elected for life!) Further, Senate elections would be staggered, with only a third of them coming up for election every two years. This means that if there were a mass movement to change the make-up of Congress, it would take three different elections over six years to do that in the Senate.
The Presidency. Presidents would also be insulated from the power of the public. Presidents would not be chosen by popular vote, but by an Electoral College. And originally electors were chosen again by state legislatures, not the public. The framers seemed particularly fearful of the election of a demagogue who could rally the public around popular, but disastrous, ideas like the abolition of debts and the equal division of property. In Federalist 68, Hamilton argued that the “election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of the reason and inducement which were proper to govern their choice.” In short, wise and prudent electors could make sure the “right” president is elected and, if necessary, save the country from the uneducated and overly-passionate public.
The framers wanted three of the four major governing bodies to NOT be elected by the public.
The Supreme Court. This was to be the most elitist of federal institutions. Justices were appointed for life – making them effectively accountable to no one – and had the power to override acts of Congress and the president. The public was explicitly excluded from having any say in choosing justices. They would be appointed by the President (who was not accountable to the public) and approved by the Senate (also not accountable to the public). The only institution that was directly accountable to ordinary citizens – the House of Representatives – was not given any role in these appointments. The framers assumed that the justices would be well-educated white men from socially prominent upper-class families (which was true until late in the twentieth century) and that they would serve as the last defenders of the rights of property if the mass movement of “levelers” was to somehow take over Congress and the presidency.
In the end, there is probably no better evidence of the elitism of the framers and their suspicion of democracy than their insistence that the public be excluded from controlling three-quarters of the federal government.
However, if we do need any more evidence of the framers’ embrace of elitism, we need only look at their commitment to limiting the vote. Many of the framers viewed voter restrictions as another essential way to reduce public influence on the government. John Dickinson was typical in his view that restricting voting to those who owned property was “a necessary defense against the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property and without principle, with which our country like all others, will in time abound.” It was thought best that only property-owning white males should be able to cast ballots. (Benjamin Franklin was one of the only framers who dissented from this view.)
During the debate in Philadelphia, James Madison made it clear that he thought allowing everyone to vote would not be in the interests of the upper class. He noted that the agrarian lower class far outnumbers men of wealth, and that giving them the right to vote would inevitably put the property of the “opulent” at risk. He cited potential developments in England as a warning of the dangers of universal suffrage.
In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.
Interestingly, no voter restrictions made it into the Constitution. But this was not because the framers thought them unimportant. They appointed a committee to develop restrictions, but it could not come to an agreement about what exactly they should be. It was finally agreed to leave this issue to the states, all of which already had their own restrictions in place. Most limited voting to people who owned property or paid taxes– thus reducing any democratic threats to the propertied interests. And of course, women and African Americans were excluded. This meant that the majority of “the people” would have no vote and no say in government at all – even in the House of Representatives, the so-called “House of the People.”
Other Democracies Do It Better
We alone remain trapped in a political world created by our 18th century ancestors.
Most constitutions in other advanced democracies are not afflicted with the same kind of elitist and undemocratic arrangements that we have in the U.S. – they don’t have Electoral Colleges or legislative bodies that grossly misrepresent the public. In some ways this was because they were lucky enough to adopt their constitutions much later. Many current European constitutions were created in the 20th century when Western political cultures were more committed to democratic norms than in the 18th century. Some countries did start out with some elitist institutions – like the House of Lords in Great Britain which was made up of the nobility – but later reformed them. The House of Lords no longer wields any effective power in the policymaking process. So in these other democracies, it matters little what their 18th century political leaders thought or how mistaken their ideas might have been about democracy. We alone remain trapped in the political world created by our distant ancestors.
The process of constitution-making has also changed, making it much less of an elitist exercise than it was in the U.S. The framers, the elites of their time, met in secret. No one knew that they had quickly abandoned their instructions to revise the Articles of Confederation and had moved on to creating an entirely new constitution. This helped to forestall the building of potential opposition to the new document. And the ratification procedure approved by the framers actually violated what was then the law of the land. The Articles of Confederation required that any changes made to the Constitution be approved by all states. The framers knew this was unlikely, given that the Rhode Island legislature was in the hands of small farmers. So they required that only nine states ratify the new constitution.
These kinds of undemocratic political strategies would hardly be acceptable today. In the modern era, constitution-making is a much more open and participatory process. As one report on recent constitution-making processes noted:
Constitution-making is no longer the prerogative of a few experts or a select group of political representatives. Whether through consultation, direct submissions, or a referendum vote, citizens are invited to take part in constitution-making that was rarely, if ever, practiced before. The task of developing constitutional proposals, therefore, has changed a lot from the days when the fifty-five Founding Fathers designed and adopted the United States constitution.
The States Did It Better
Most states at that time had governments that were more democratic and gave more power to their citizens than the federal government the framers chose to create.
Some have argued that the framers should be forgiven for their undemocratic product. After all, they were rich, white men of their times and so it is not so surprising that they were prone to elitism. Perhaps. But it’s not like they didn’t have models for a better way to organize a government. Most states at that time had governments that were more democratic and gave more power to their citizens than the federal government the framers chose to create.
Pennsylvania was probably the most interesting example of how much faith some of the states put in the political abilities of common people. Once free of England, it quickly expanded the franchise by eliminating any property requirements for voting. Their new constitution eliminated the office of governor because it was thought to resemble too much a small-scale king, and it also rejected the idea of an upper house that would represent wealthy aristocrats (like England’s House of Lords). Legislative power was located in a single legislative body that was popularly elected – thus creating a government very responsive to the public. John Adams took one look at the Pennsylvania constitution, turned apoplectic, and declared that it was “so democratical that it must produce confusion and every evil work.”
Solutions for the U.S.
So what’s to do about this problem? Given that we have no time machines, it is difficult to go back to the framing of the Constitution and try to make sure it is based on more modern democratic principles. The only real option is to change the Constitution to get rid of its more elitist and undemocratic features – like an unrepresentative Senate, Supreme Court Justices appointed for life, the Electoral College, etc. There are only two ways to do this: through amendments or a constitutional convention. Other articles on this site on the Supreme Court, the Electoral College, and so on, describe possible amendments in these areas. A constitutional convention raises the possibility of more wholesale changes in the Constitution. The idea would be to bring our 18th century Constitution into the 21st century, or at least the 20th century, when most of the more democratic constitutions in other major democracies were formulated and adopted.
Chances for Reform: Not Good
As seen on articles on this website, there is no shortage of reform groups who would like to change the Constitution to make it more democratic. And some of their proposed changes, like term-limits for Supreme Court Justices – are quite popular among Americans. But any attempt to modernize the Constitution runs into one obvious road block: it can’t be changed. Well, it can be – but the process is extremely difficult. In fact we have the hardest constitution to change in the world – but that is another story, one that is addressed in a different article on this website: Our Frozen Constitution.
read the next issue: 15. Falling Behind in Human Rights