Whose Democracy Is It, Anyway?

Is America under the Constitution a democracy?

The Constitution was written over the course of a summer in 1787 (in Philadelphia: the Constitutional Convention). The 55 or so men who wrote the Constitution did not have mandated authority from the 13 states to alter the then present government (the Articles of Confederation) much less to write a new plan of government. Of the men who wrote the Constitution, about a third owned slaves. The only race represented at the Constitutional Convention was Caucasian. The models for the Constitution were the democracy of ancient Greece, the republic of ancient Rome, and the constitutional monarchy of England.

The Framers of the Constitution modeled the Constitution more upon the Roman Republic than the
Democracy of Greece, since republicanism, representative government, allows for control by the best people. The Framers of the Constitution believed that there was a natural aristocracy of talent, merit, and wealth more than an aristocracy based on birth. These men mistrusted Democracy because they mistrusted the common people: hence protections against the unbridled power of the people became a part of the Constitution.

One protection against the power of the people was that members of the powerful upper house of the legislature, the Senate (each state of which has two), were elected not by the people, rather by state legislatures (the 17th Amendment in 1913 changed this to allow the direct election of Senators by the people). Another protection against the power of the people is the Electoral College, which ensures that a direct vote of the people (the popular vote) for President can be overturned by a few people, the members of the Electoral College, who ultimately elect the President about a month after the popular vote (the Constitution has never been amended to change the Electoral College). To allow for future contingencies, the Framers of the Constitution made the list of powers of the three branches of government (legislative, executive, judicial) intentionally vague, which has led to the expansion of federal power.

The Framers of the Constitution decided to create a very powerful executive (the President of the United States–even though most Americans distrusted giving so much power to one individual), partly because the first person that they assumed would be President, George Washington, was a man they could trust.

In the space of 226 years, the Constitution has only been amended 27 times, and 10 of those times occurred in one year, 1791—the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments of the Constitution, which were brought about by the opponents of the ratification of the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists only agreed to support the adoption of the Constitution if it would be immediately amended with a clear list of the rights of the people.

The Constitution grants sovereignty to “the people,” but “We the People,” the first three words, appears to mean “citizens,” which at the time the Constitution was written included only adult white males of property, at the most 20% of the population. White paupers, Indians, Blacks, Women and Youth were disenfranchised (no votes, no power) by the Constitution. For the first fifty years, poor Whites were not given the right to vote. Slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment (1865), given civil rights by the 14th Amendment (in 1868), and given the right to vote (free adult black males) by the 15th Amendment (in 1870). In 1920, adult Women were given the right to vote (19th Amendment). American Indians are only mentioned once in the Constitution, and were not made citizens until 1924; since then, Indians have often been denied the right to vote by states and localities.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured that all citizens can vote irregardless of racial and ethnic background. The right to vote was extended to young people between age 18 and 21 in 1971 (the 26th Amendment). Today, Children under the age of 18 cannot vote, yet this group is the most defenseless and the poorest in America, especially if Black, Hispanic, or Indian children.

Even if many people have been disenfranchised in America over time, a majority of citizens today typically do not care to vote, disenfranchising themselves.

Democracy is a word that comes from the Greek, meaning rule (cratia) of the people (demos). Democracy involves the people, citizens, who have certain rights and responsibilities: the right to speak, believe, meet, and move; the responsibility to vote, participate, legitimize the government, and protect one-another.

Democracy involves debate and disagreement by people who are involved in a common pursuit of what is right and good. Democracy thrives on different points of view. But it also thrives on the respect people have for different points of view, and allowing those who disagree to disagree without feeling threatened.

The Framers of the Constitution feared mob rule, feared the common people, feared that the people would be captivated by a demagogue, feared that most Americans would not have the sense to think, to participate, to discuss intelligently, to disagree respectfully. They feared violence, disorder, intimidation, silencing the other.

So, whose democracy is it, anyway?

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
This entry was posted in History and Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Whose Democracy Is It, Anyway?

  1. Larry Moniz says:

    Granted, the Republic that is the United States has changed greatly since the Constitution was first drafted but the one thing that has remained clear since the 13 Colonies ratified the Constitution is that it was NEVER meant to be a religious state, but one in which the citizenry were granted the right to embrace any religion, or none, as their consciences dictated.

    Although it pains me to acknowledge it, voters who disenfranchise themselves do so as one of the absolute rights granted to them under the constitution.

    While your piece does a nice job of reviewing the steps leading to our form of government, to me at least, it reaches no conclusion. The question: Whose Democracy is it anyway, is moot. It is OUR democracy! Unfortunately there’s no time travel or we could return and ask the likes of Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Hamilton, Madison, Washington and the many colonists who died to build this nation. Perhaps Franklin said it most succinctly when he observed theyust all hang together or,most assuredly, they would all hang separately.

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