Did the Framers Establish A Democracy?
Many Americans believe that the Framers favored democracy and the constitutional system they established is a democracy. While this point of view is widely taught and often repeated, it is quite misleading. It is true that there are certain elements in the American constitutional system that resemble a democracy, but the fact is that the Framers were solidly opposed to democracy and the system they set up is not a democracy.
Before considering why the Framers were opposed to democracy, it may be well to define democracy. As used by the Framers, the word referred to a government controlled by the direct and unrestricted will of a majority of the people.
The Framers frequently expressed a preference for a republic as distinguished from a democracy. By a republic they meant a system under which the people elected the best men from among themselves and let those men administer the affairs of government, under the watchful eyes of the people. The essential difference between a democracy and a republic is in the question of who makes the decisions pertaining to the operation of the government. In a democracy those decisions are made by the people themselves. In a republic the decisions are made by the elected representatives, although it is expected that the people will keep in close contact with their elected representatives [p. 44] both to be sure that they function honorably and that they know the people's thinking.
For example, if under its present government structure America functions as a democracy, the elected representatives do not use independent judgment but simply do what a majority of their constituents tell them to do. On the other hand if this country functions as a republic, Americans must be much more careful whom they elect because the function of the elected representative is not merely to carry out the wishes of their constituents but is rather to exercise wise and honorable independent judgment.
Framers Considered Democracy An Unsound Form of Government
The Framers were well aware of the point of view that democracy is the most desirable form of government and that its adoption would solve human problems. However, they did not share that point of view. James Madison had this to say concerning the attitude expressed by some that a complete democracy is a desirable form of government:
Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.(1)
However, Madison disagreed with those "theoretic politicians" who favored complete democracy. The attitude he expressed in The Federalist toward a complete democracy was that: [p. 45]
Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.(2)
It is sometimes said that the Framers' objection to democracy was based on the fact that the country was so spread out that it was not practical for the people to come together to pass their own laws, and that this problem was solved by establishing a representative democracy in which the people chose their representatives to meet and pass laws for them. However, the real reason the Framers were opposed to democracy was not the impracticality of the people coming together and passing their own laws. Instead, their opposition to democracy was based on human nature itself. They felt that the people would be too easily swayed by passion, prejudice, and self interest, and too easily deceived by demagogues.
In other words, the Framers felt that in a democracy public decisions would tend to be mass emotional decisions of an uninformed or misinformed populace. On the other hand, the Framers believed that in a republic the will of the people would be refined and enlarged as outstanding men chosen from among the people thoughtfully make those decisions after careful study.
The attitude of the Framers that the very principle or philosophy of democracy is unsound may seem strange to those who have been conditioned to regard democracy as a panacea for human ills. But the fact is that the Framers were much concerned about the human nature evils of democracy and particularly that in a democracy the majority could unite in one faction and sacrifice to its passion or personal interest both the public good and the rights of the minority. This danger was expressed by James Madison in these words:
When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government . . . enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion [p. 46] or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.(3)
The Framers believed that because democracy is so subject to the passion and self interest of the majority, it is an unstable form of government leading to turbulence, contention, sacrifice of personal and property rights, and ultimately to tyranny.(4)
Avoiding Evils of Democracy
There were two principal devices the Framers adopted to avoid the evils of democracy. The first of these devices was to establish a republican form of government. Under the system adopted, the people were to elect a limited number of wise and good men from among themselves, and these men were to administer certain government functions, including the selection of certain other officials to administer other government functions. The only federal officials to be elected directly by the people were to be members of the House of Representatives and presidential electors.
The basic advantage of a republic over a democracy was expressed by James Madison in these words:
To refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.(5)
The second principal device the Framers adopted to avoid the evils of democracy was to build into the Constitution restrictions on the power of the majority. Such [p. 47] restrictions extend all the way from conferring only limited powers upon the federal government, to providing specific limitations such as that "no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."(6)
Democracy In Republican Garb
In recent years the Framers' distinction between a democracy and a republic has become blurred. This blurring has arisen out of an increasing acceptance of a democratic philosophy of government under which the balanced perspective of the Framers has been distorted. Such distortion takes place when excessive weight is given to carrying out the will of the majority and insufficient weight is given to constitutional restrictions on majority control. An aspect of this change in attitude is the fact that the United States is now popularly referred to as a democracy instead of a republic. Through this change in attitude, the American system has been moving away from a republic and toward a democracy without changing the outward structure.
Democracy and Religion
The political system of democracy, in the sense of unrestricted control by the will of the majority, militates against the fundamental requirement of a religious citizenry. This is because the underlying philosophy of democracy has deeply anti-religious overtones, since it implies that right or wrong can be determined by the will of the majority.
On the other hand, the American constitutional system is based on recognition of God as the source of correct eternal principles of government, and as the source of unalienable rights. Under this system an individual's unalienable rights to his life, his liberty, and his private property do not derive from the consent of the majority, but rather from the fact that those rights are God given and [p. 48] hence even an overwhelming majority does not have the right to take them away.
Therefore, the basic underlying principle of democracy that the will of the majority controls is the opposite of the basic underlying principle of the American constitutional system of ascertaining and implementing the eternal laws of God. The closer America moves toward the democratic philosophy of complete control by the will of the majority, the weaker become the concepts of God as the source of correct eternal principles of government, and as the source of God given rights superior to even the will of the majority. [p. 49]