In American political debate, the Founding Fathers are often evoked as the guardians of democracy and human rights. But is this completely wrong? Did these well-heeled gentlemen who framed the US Constitution really want a political system where ordinary people had a say?
The answer is an emphatic no.
A few years ago, I visited the stately home of Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville, Virginia – a beautiful estate called Monticello. I was attending a conference on democracy where Jefferson had been lauded repeatedly as a father of freedom and rights enshrined in a written constitution. So, you can imagine how faces dropped when our guide sheepishly informed us that Monticello was in fact a slave plantation – and Jefferson not only owned about 100 slaves at any one time but had a slave mistress.
It is true that in 1776, Jefferson denounced the “execrable commerce” in slaves and was instrumental in having the words “all men are created equal” inserted into the Constitution. Early on, some southern states amended that to all “freemen”. And Jefferson himself fell silent on the issue over time. Abolitionists became exasperated at the great man’s silence leading a 19th century Abolitionist, Moncure Conway, to sneer: “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do”.
But it wasn’t just slaves who would find no freedom in the new utopia of the United States. The poor and women could forget any prospect of the vote or having their opinions taken on board.
Founding Fathers – no poor or women in our democracy
John Adams was appalled at the idea of those without property having the vote. “Few men, who have no property, have any judgement of their own,” he wrote. Instead, the propertyless will always be manipulated by those with property – so best they don’t get the vote!
As for women:
“…Why exclude women? Because their delicacy renders them unfit for practice and experience, in the great business of life, and the hardy enterprises of war, as well as the arduous cares of state. Besides their attention is so much engaged with the necessary nurture of their children that nature has made them fittest for domestic cares.”
Not that his attitude towards women being involved in politics was much different to any other privileged male of the time. And in fairness, female suffrage was still in the far distance in Europe as well as the United States.
The very idea of a Republic was a rejection of rule by the mob. Foreign Policy magazine has just published an interesting opinion piece on this. James Madison, for example, despised the notion of a hereditary monarch and rule by an aristocratic dynasty. But he sure has hell didn’t want to see it replaced with rule by the masses. Individual liberty was as much to do with wealthy individuals being protected from the rabble as it was to do with freedom of expression.
Which is why many of those who think they are acting in the spirit of Founding Fathers are doing completely the opposite. The 2021 Capitol Hill rioters may have cited the Founding Fathers in defence of their action but what they did is everything the Founding Fathers feared. In fact, the US Constitution was framed exactly in anticipation of such direct intervention by the mob in political affairs.
Madison believed direct rule by the people – such as existed in ancient Greece – unleashed populism over rationalism. He wrote in The Federalist Papers:
“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason.”
He hoped that America’s sheer size, even in his day, would prevent the people from being able to organise effectively to put pressure or even threaten the government. Of course, there were media outlets back then – newspapers – but they were run by the same class of people as sat in the Senate. Little could Madison have anticipated the democratic and anarchic horror of social media – with its power to organise over vast areas.
President-for-life – yes, this was actually proposed!
Alexander Hamilton was lionised in a recent musical production that mocked the supposed tyranny of King George III of England. But Hamilton rather undemocratically thought that both the President and the Senate should be elected for life. Once in power, they would never have to face the people again. He thought this would lead to a better quality of decision making.
George Washington recognised the need to give the people a voice in the system. He didn’t mind the House of Representatives letting off steam on behalf of the electorate because, as he put it, things would cool off in the “Senatorial saucer”.
The Senate would be key to stopping the people running things. It would be an august assembly of the finest citizens (for which read white slave owning men). And similar types of people would sit in the electoral college and choose the President after the masses had going through the charade of making a choice.
Before 1913 and the passing of the 17th amendment, the Senate strictly speaking wasn’t even directly elected. State legislatures chose their two senators and sent them to Washington DC. Two of the Founding Fathers, Roger Sherman and Elbridge Gerry, thought the House of Representatives shouldn’t be directly elected either.
People power and democracy as we understand it was about as far from the Founding Fathers’ vision as you could get. They viewed themselves as an educated and rationally minded elite making the best decisions for an unruly nation. What they would make of the United States today is anybody’s guess.