the constitution was designed to curb democracy -- 1/13/22

Today's encore selection -- from Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon Wood. After declaring its independence in 1776, the predominant form of government in the United States was not the Articles of Confederation but the thirteen state governments. And some of those state governments were aggressive experiments in democracy, with the governors and legislators elected directly by the people, unicameral rather than bi-cameral legislatures, and yearly elections of legislators, all of which made those state governments highly responsive to the immediate mood of the people. Some considered the results dangerous -- too much paper money was being printed, and logrolling, horse-trading, and pork-barreling had become commonplace. By the time our founding fathers met in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, there was a belief that this trend toward democracy needed to be curbed, and thus a document was crafted in which neither the president nor senators were elected by the people, only members of the House of Representatives:

"The deficiencies of the [Articles of] Confederation themselves cannot account for the unprecedented nature of the Constitution created in 1787. By establishing a strong national government that operated directly on indi­viduals, the Constitution went far beyond what the weaknesses of the Articles demanded. Granting Congress the authority to raise revenue, to regulate trade, to pay off its debts, and to deal effectively in international affairs did not require the total scrapping of the Articles and the creation of an extraordinarily powerful and distant national government, the likes of which were virtually inconceivable a decade earlier. To James Madi­son, the putative father of the Constitution, the document of 1787 became the solution for the 'multiplicity,' 'mutability,' and 'injustice' of state legislation over the previous decade, what were often referred to as the 'excesses of democracy.' It was the popular behavior of the state legisla­tures in the decade following the Declaration of Independence that lay behind the elite's sense of crisis.

"The abuses of the state legislatures, said Madison, were 'so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most stedfast friends of Republicanism'; and these abuses, he told Jefferson in the fall of 1787, 'contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention, and prepared the public mind for a general reform than those which accrued to our national character and inter­est from the inadequacy of the Confederation to its immediate objects.'

"The Revolution had greatly democratized the state legislatures, both by increasing the number of their members and by broadening their elec­torates. Many ordinary men of more humble and rural origins and less education than had sat in the colonial assemblies had been elected as representatives. ...

"By the 1780s it was obvious to many, including Madison, that 'a spirit of locality' was destroying 'the aggregate interests of the community.' Everywhere the gentry leaders complained of popular legislative practices that today are taken for granted -- logrolling, horse-trading, and pork-barreling that benefited special and local interest groups. Each representative, grumbled Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, was concerned only with the particular interests of his electors. Whenever a bill was read in the legisla­ture, 'every one instantly thinks how it will affect his constituents.' Instead of electing men to office 'for their abilities, integrity and patriotism,' the people, said Stiles, were much more likely to vote for someone 'from some mean, interested, or capricious motive.' ...

"Many leaders had come to realize that the Revolution had unleashed social and political forces that they had not anticipated and that the 'excesses of democracy' threatened the very essence of their republican revolution. The behavior of the state legislatures, in the despairing words of Madison, had called 'into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such governments are the safest Guardians both of Public Good and private rights.' This was the issue that made the 1780s so critical to large num­bers of American leaders. ... By 1787 many of the Revolutionary leaders had retreated from the republican idealism of 1775-1776. People were not going to be selfless and keep their private interests out of the public arena after all. ...

"The Federal Constitution of 1787 was designed in part to solve the problems created by the presence in the state legislatures of these [middle-class] men. In addition to correcting the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was intended to restrain the excesses of democracy and protect minority rights from overbearing majorities in the state legislatures."



Gordon Wood


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


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