In an election season as chaotic as this one, when less than a third of Americans believe the presidential campaign process is working as it should according to a recent Gallup poll, looking back at how the Founding Fathers envisioned the course of our nation can be a helpful exercise in reasserting our values as a democracy.
But when it comes to the idea of democracy, the Founding Fathers had mixed feelings, with some outright opposing the very use of the word.
"Democracy was an epithet," said Joseph Ellis, author of the Pulitzer-winning book, "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation," in a 2012 interview. "Democracy meant mob rule. Democracy meant conceding the issue to people who don't understand it."
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Many of the Founding Fathers were instead more apt to describe the nascent government as a republic. The word "democracy" never once appears in the Declaration of Independence of the Constitution.
The Federalist Papers, specifically Federalist No. 10, written by James Madison, who would later become the fourth president of the United States, expounded on the differences between a pure democracy, defined as "a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person," which only offers no remedy for the "mischiefs of faction", and a democratic republic, which "promises the cure for which we are seeking."
Alexander Hamilton, one of the most influential voices in the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, was particularly skeptical of a pure democracy. In a speech given on June 21, 1788 at the New York convention to ratify the Constitution, Hamilton explained:
It has been observed by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this.The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity: When they assembled, the field of debate presented an ungovernable mob, not only incapable of deliberation, but prepared for every enormity. In these assemblies, the enemies of the people brought forward their plans of ambition systematically. They were opposed by their enemies of another party; and it became a matter of contingency, whether the people subjected themselves to be led blindly by one tyrant or by another.
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If some of the nation's founders like Hamilton found flaws with direct democracy, as practiced in ancient Greece, they almost certainly would have taken issue with a number of features of the modern political landscape, such as ballot measure and presidential primaries.
In fact, many of the nation's fathers opposed the creation of political parties at all. They had seen how wrangling by political interests in Europe affected nations across the Atlantic. In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned:
However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
Americans might not have much confidence in the election process - and the Founding Fathers likely wouldn't have liked it much either.
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