Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Origins of American Democracy

I wrote this, but it is not new. It's actually about four years old.

Sic Semper Republicus:

The Emergence of Democracy in the Early 19th Century

When the Constitution established the current form government in the United States, its authors deliberately conceived it as a bulwark erected to forestall the impending advent of democracy and the correlating rise of the common man. It was not a safeguard for democracy; it was a safeguard against democracy. Yet, by the 1830’s the United States had evolved into a functional, though not purely, democratic society. This change was not accomplished through revolution. There was no upheaval of the masses, for there was no entrenched aristocracy against which to rebel. Instead, the forces behind change had been at work in America since the first grumblings against British tyranny. America’s republican ideology, while not essentially or even necessarily democratic in nature, was infused with certain elements which, once let out of the metaphorical box, slowly but surely began to develop into an American democratic ideology.

Before proceeding, an elementary analysis of the two contrasting words—republic and democracy, and their adjective forms: republican and democratic—is necessary. “Republic” is formed from two Latin words: Res (works) and Publica (the public). Roughly translated into a working definition, then, a republic is a socio-political system—in many ways even a culture—in which all men are dedicated to working not merely for themselves but for the public at large. “Democracy,” on the other hand, is rooted in two ancient Greek words: Demos (the people) and Kratia (to be strong; to rule).[1]

A republic’s citizens participate in politics under the principle of disinterest: they act for the well being of society (this idea is the root of the Constitution’s references to “the common good” and “the general welfare”). Conversely, a democratic government operates upon the will of the majority. While a republic might utilize elections and thus adhere to the will of the majority, the majority in a republic do not vote with their wallets. A republican votes with an eye toward the greater good.

Democracies are slightly different. Since people (demos) have the power (kratos), the will of the most people prevails. It is, in essence, a selfish utilitarianism. Thus, a republic seeks “to provide for the common good”—that which will benefit all in general—while a democracy seeks to accomplish simply what is good for most—the rest, more or less, be damned. While the difference between these two terms may seem superficial to some, it is this difference that accounts for the founding fathers’ love of a republic and fear of a democracy.

* * * *

Republicanism's Political Ramifications

The founding fathers’ problem with democracy was a matter of trust. Democracy in action means universal suffrage. The majority governs through election. The problem is that a true democracy offers no discrimination against men of little virtue: the ballot of a good man is equal to the ballot of a bad man. How, many wondered, can liberty be preserved when the average person—who tends to be relatively uneducated, intemperate, and selfish—has the ability to influence the nature of the state? “The mass of men are neither wise nor good,” noted John Jay;[2] and while John Witherspoon professed idealistically that “[T]he multitude collectively always are true in intention to the interest of the public, because it is their own. They are the public,” secretly (and often not-so-secretly) early American intellectuals feared that “[P]oor, shiftless spendthrifty men and inconsiderate youngsters that have no property . . . [will] Choose a Representative to go to court, to vote away the Money of those that have Estates.”[3] Simply put, the wise and virtuous have never composed the majority in any society. Therefore, as James Iredell concluded, “[T]here must be some restriction as to the right of voting; otherwise the lowest and most ignorant of mankind must associate in this important business with those who it is to be presumed, from their property and other circumstances, are free from influence, and have some knowledge of the great consequences of their trust.”[4] As a result of this mindset, every state enacted in its initial constitution some sort of qualification for voting. Men without property are under the influence of those who possess property, and those without property, if empowered politically, might follow their selfish interest to secure the property of others rather than follow the common interest of the common good.

Still, the founders understood that the people needed to be represented. A lack of representation had contributed greatly to the angst that brought forth the revolt against the British, and even the most aristocratic (used here to denote undemocratic) minded, such as Alexander Hamilton, conceded that “no laws have any validity or binding force without the consent and approbation of the people.”[5] However, for all their talk of popular sovereignty and consent of the governed, what the authors of the Constitution really wanted was a government free of the whims and baseness of the populace. A virtuous government must never ignore the people, lest it become a tyranny; but it must be deposited into the hands of virtuous men who, by virtue of their wealth and education, will be politically disinterested. A republic, thus, is virtuous; and a democracy, therefore, is vulgar.

The republican idea that a government must be run by the disinterested and virtuous—men who would, presumably, possess education and politesse sufficient to the task of working for the common good rather than merely securing the peculiar ambitions of individual, interested constituencies—however, ran headlong into another basic republican tenet: that all men are created equal. The suggestion that only a privileged few are capable of managing the affairs of the state rings of aristocracy, and if any word possessed a more negative connotation in the minds of republicans than democracy, it was aristocracy.[6] First of all, due to its geographical isolation from Europe, no titled aristocracy developed in the colonies. As Alexis de Tocqueville reflected, “the germs of aristocracy were never planted [in America],” and “the only influence which obtained there was that of intellect; the people became accustomed to revere certain names as representatives of knowledge and virtue.”[7] Second of all, as one intellectual historian has noted, “Republicanism’s emphasis upon equality encouraged ordinary, obscure men to challenge all manifestations of authority and eminence within society.”[8] The image of a gentleman looking down his nose was every bit as irksome as the image of a nobility led by a scepter-wielding monarch.

What made it even worse was that gentlemen not only held themselves above what they deemed the rabble, these same gentlemen presumed the right—in most cases simply because of their wealth—to govern the people. America’s elite were enlightened, so they despised the concept of a titled, hereditary aristocracy; however, because they were enlightened, they envisioned a natural aristocracy, a peerless group consisting of the wise and virtuous—men who, through talent and manifestations of character, had demonstrated themselves as worthy defenders of republican ideals. While these men might come from any level of society, identifying them was very difficult. Therefore, many of America’s elite compromised. Although the ownership of property was not a definite sign of education and virtue, it was deemed that the owners of property were far more likely to be educated, thus virtuous, and therefore able to govern from a disinterested perspective.

Just as many of the founders had wondered how a republic could be safe in the hands of the majority, many began to wonder how a republic could be preserved by a minority. If a republic is to be run by a privileged few, then what is a republic other than an aristocracy? If it is feared that the self-interested majority will oppress the minority, then is it not also valid to fear that a minority—even if initially composed of virtuous and disinterested men—might also oppress the majority? Besides, although America’s elite presumptuously called themselves a natural aristocracy, the only practical qualification of this status was the ownership of property—not a clear sign of education or virtue. Indeed, wealth breeds power, and power breeds corruption. In addition, America’s would-be-aristocrats were contending was that the interests of the farmer were those of the planter; that the interests of the shopkeeper were congruent to those of the wealthy merchant; and that, as men of substantially more prestige, planters and wealthy merchants could be better trusted with the reigns of power. Thus, the franchise can consist of a limited sector of society while still being virtually representative of the whole. That had been the very problem with the British. Parliament had claimed to represent virtually, though not actually, the colonies through a shared interest in the well-being of the empire, but in fact the American colonies were not represented in parliament and were thus bullied and exploited for the good of the motherland.[9] Similarly, a small-time farmer in Halifax County, Virginia, could rightfully ask how the master of a neighboring plantation was any more disinterested than was Lord North and his parliamentarian cronies. It would be a rhetorical question. Disinterest is a weasel-word. Of course planters were every bit as interested as were small-time farmers; they had shown their interest for decades (consider the issues land acquisition behind Bacon’s Rebellion); and they would continue to demonstrate their interest long into the 19th Century (expansion of territory, opposition to protective tariffs, and the expansion of slavery and the protection of it). The many common interests of the elite and the middling folk did not cancel out the many deviant interests. Eventually, most had to concede that all men are interested; so the meaning of the word disinterested has henceforth been nearly lost.

American’s founders were caught in something of a paradox. They loathed a non-representative government but, at the same time, feared a truly representative one. As Benjamin Church observed, “the liberty of the people is exactly proportioned to the share the body of the people have in the legislature; and the check placed in the constitution, on the executive power.”[10] John Adams too grasped the problem: “The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed, in constituting this representative assembly. It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.”[11] In the colonial era, how parliament was to think, feel, reason, and act like—indeed even to understand—the colonists was a nonsense question. Simply put, they couldn’t. Likewise, once Americans wrested power from the crown, the issue became how the wealthy and distinguished in America should be expected to relate in experience, sentiment, and common interest to the middling and common folk. The answer was, again rhetorical. If no minority could virtually represent the majority of average Americans, then average Americans would have to represent themselves. Although it would take a few decades to realize this, by the 1830’s the concept of virtual representation was as dead as Julius Caesar.

It has thus been demonstrated that Americans who considered themselves republican were, in actuality, aristocratic. As the Virginian John Randolph stated, “When I mention the public, I mean to include only the rational part of it. The ignorant vulgar are as unfit to judge of the modes, as they are unable to manage the reins of government.”[12] Since republicanism is not only social philosophy, elements of it can exist in stratified society; however the average American did not risk life, limb, and property merely to supplant one hierarchy with another. As time progressed, awe of and deference to America’s elite waned. The most basic element of republicanism—that all men are equal—pushed itself to the forefront.

Virtuous or not, the common man must have his own, tangible voice in political affairs; for all men, common or uncommon, are equal. In the end, it really becomes rather simple: privilege is the hallmark of aristocracy; republicanism disdains aristocracy; therefore, republicanism disdains privilege. If voting is not deemed as a right but rather a privilege granted to a select few, then the people live in an aristocracy, not a republic; for if voting is a right, but only certain men possess that right, then all men are obviously not equal. Only if voting is deemed as a right that all men possess can a country be a republic. However, the advent of universal suffrage means also the advent of democracy. Thus the root cause of the political republic’s decline and democracy’s assent lies within the nature of republicanism itself.

* * * *

Republicanism's Social Ramifications

Thus far the scope of this analysis has considered republicanism and democracy as little more than political phenomena; when, in fact, both have decidedly social and economic facets as well. Some inklings of the social side to both have been mentioned, but a more detailed analysis is necessary to explain how America’s republican society became a democratic society.

Republican rhetoric exposes a heavy streak of utopianism. It holds that men must regard the interests of the community at large over their own. This requires that a man possess the wisdom to know the difference between his personal wants and the needs of the community. He then needs to exercise an almost superhuman temperance and courage to sacrifice to his community what would be good for himself. Even staunch republicans understood that this was such a terrible burden on a man that few men could be expected to do so. That explains their reluctance to open the franchise and their desire to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. On top of this, a good republican shirks gaudiness. Fancy dress and other such functionless luxuries serve only to place a man above others. Equality is republicanism's driving force. In a republican society, men are not to distinguish themselves as superior to others. The only valid form of prestige in a republic is good, virtuous, disinterested character.

Such rhetoric served well when Americans were at odds with the British—a country governed by a king and parliament, neither of which were disinterested; and lorded over by a titled, hereditary nobility with undeserved power and riches. Once the British were out of the way, however, ordinary Americans were able to look about them at their wealthier neighbors, most of whom were espousing rhetoric and acting in manners to suggest that they were of a better sort.

The problem, here, is with the definition of equal. There are two basic forms of equality. Politically, equality can mean that all men possess equal rights. Social equality can mean that no man is better than his peers by birthright, property, or other forms of artificial status. The original conflict, in America, was over political equality, and took to issue the restricted franchise. However, as full political equality was established in the states via universal, white, manhood suffrage, the drive for social equality became more urgent (though never to the perverse extent attempted in France during its “republican” revolution).

The clearest example of the new importance of social equality is in political campaigns, though not to be confused with politics and political equality. The first American presidents were elected and respected for their roles in the Revolution and the founding of the country: Washington, the American Cincinnatus; Adams, a co-author of the Declaration of Independence and eloquent political thinker; Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence and most republican of all presidents; Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”; and the Virginian gentleman and arch-republican James Monroe was the last of this sort.

The first sign of social equality’s importance in political campaigns came, surprisingly enough, very early. A prime example is Jefferson’s victory over the incumbent president, John Adams. Although Jefferson was no common man, the Virginian's simple dress, gentle manners, innate shyness, and true republican rhetoric offered a stark contrast to his cold, pompous, vain New England opponent. However, Jefferson’s victory over Adams were more the result of party conflicts (Democratic-Republican versus Federalist) and the political future of America than it was a triumph of social equality. Jefferson never purposefully distanced himself from the gentry to which he belonged. The first real sign of social equality stealing into presidential elections came with the contest between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson in 1824, an election so close that it makes George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore in 2000 look like a landslide. In election of 1824, Jackson won more popular and electoral votes than any other candidate, but—not having more than 50% of the electoral votes—the election went to the House of Representatives, where Adams won. For the next four years, Jackson stewed over his defeat as a repudiation of the people’s will; and throughout Adams’s tenure, Jackson and his supporters prepared for a rematch.

Jackson’s chief tactic was to paint Adams as an aristocrat out of touch with the people. This was not hard to do, for even Adams himself had to confess that “Pride and self-conceit and presumption lie so deep in my natural character, that, when their deformity betrays them, they run through all the changes of Proteus, to disguise themselves to my own heart.”[13] While Jackson proposed that the actions of political figures ought to reflect the will of the people, Adams called himself “a leader without followers,” who was “compelled, therefore, to lean upon my own judgment more than it will always bear.”[14] While Adams had been born to a distinguished family and been a long-time political careerist, Jackson’s origins were humble and his political career undistinguished. Adams represented the older America, New England; whereas Jackson heralded in a new age as something of a self-made man from South Carolina who had made a success of himself in the West, a national hero in the War of 1812 , and a renowned Indian fighter and hater. Adams’s supporters characterized Jackson as violent and uncivilized, and they played up Jackson as something of an illiterate savage. Jefferson called him “one of the most unfit men, I know of for such a place [the presidency] . . . merely an able military chief . . . and a dangerous man.”[15]

When Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1828, he ran as the leader of a new political party, a faction of the old Democratic-Republican party. A little word game shows just how America had changed. While John Quincy Adams ran as a National Republican (the remaining faction of the Democratic-Republican party), Jackson dropped “Republican” altogether and ran as a Democrat. No longer did democracy possess a negative connotation. Although it had been used in both positive and negative manners for decades, its meaning, as ushered in by Jackson, was the one that would prevail. Since Jackson, a president (or virtually any other political officer for that matter) must always portray himself as a man of the people. He cannot claim a privileged status as a natural aristocrat of uncanny virtue, education, and property. He must be associable with the common man, the demos, the people (e.g. William Henry Harrison’s “Log Cabin Campaign,” and the cult of Lincoln). “Republic” and “republican” were still useful terms, and no American politician would dare distance himself from republicanism; but America had clearly begun a transition. Before, “democracy” had been cloaked in “republicanism.” Now, “republicanism,” was now cloaked in “democracy.”

In 1828, Jackson soundly defeated John Quincy Adams in an election that was not only a personal vindication for Jackson, but a sign of yet another novus ordo seclorum. Although Jackson won the election for several reasons--including his proposed policies and his fame as a military hero--the most telling aspect of his victory was that he was not an aristocrat, that he loathed aristocrats, and that from 1828 on “aristocrat” would become a damning sobriquet for any man with aspirations for national politics.

* * * *

America by the 1830’s

Americans in the present day use the word democracy very loosely, perhaps even carelessly. They take for granted that all men and women possess the right participate in governance, albeit vicariously, via universal suffrage. Rarely, if ever, do they reflect upon the fact that, throughout the course of history, among the various forms of government known to man, democracy is the exception. Indeed, when Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and John Hancock and his fellow delegates added their signatures, there was no foregone conclusion that the United States would be a democracy. To many of the founding fathers, democracy was anathema, as corrupt and potentially tyrannical as any monarchy; yet when the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville published his observations of American society in January 1835, he entitled it Democracy in America.[16]

Tocqueville’s work was a socio-political analysis of the American people during the heart of the Jacksonian era. Of American society he said, “The social condition of the Americans is eminently democratic.”[17] There were, he observed, certain men of extensive wealth and prestige in the South, “But . . . they possessed no privileges; and the cultivation of their estates being carried on by slaves, they had no tenants depending on them, and consequently not patronage. . . . This kind of aristocracy sympathized with the body of the people.”[18] Here Tocqueville identifies one of the other keys to republican ideology, and one instrumental to America’s emergence as something of a democracy (not, ironically, so much as a republic). Republican ideology held that no man should be beholden to any other man; a free man does not owe his sustenance to any other. In America, vast and inexpensive tracts of land made property ownership the rule, not the exception (the opposite of Europe). Thus republican ideologues such as Jefferson could envision a true republic of free, equal, and self-sufficient yeomen. There was, in this dream, a somewhat realistic possibility of political, social, and even economic equality. Yet, as Tocqueville also saw, there was “no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men and where a profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.”[19]

The very condition of America as a land of opportunity made economic equality impossible and undesirable. In America, wealth did not secure a man a place in politics, nor did it enable a man to lord over his neighbors; but it did enable men to distinguish themselves nonetheless. There is an element of ego in all men, and republicanism, for all its talk of equality, could not lose the pronoun I. While men want to be equal in some ways, they do not wish to be equal in others. The condition of relative equality in America and the absence of noble titles meant that any man could rise, and this made the drive for economic inequality insatiable. It was through the acquisition of wealth that an American became a great man. While elements of republicanism made it impossible for a man to ride only his economic status to power, Americans never abandoned the notion that the wealthy are the greatest men in society. While there have been presidents of humble origins (e.g. Lincoln, Grant, Clinton), it seems almost an unwritten rule that the chief executive of the United States should be a man of means. Men tend to become wealthy because they are talented, and poor men simply cannot afford the luxury of forming political ties and running for office. Thus, wealth becomes a sign of ability, a starting point for distinction, and the only way that a man can guarantee that he will not be tied to another for his survival.

In a very complex web of contradictions, American republicanism declined into democracy because it was, in practice, autophagic. Like communism, it ignored the fact that ambition is a basic human trait, and its perversion into democracy was the consequence. American republicanism claimed that men are equal, but that there is a natural aristocracy; however, republican equality anathematized any aristocracy. Still, the conditions in America made it possible for a man to start with little and become wealthy, which made the desire for wealth and thus unofficial distinction as a natural aristocrat a common ambition. In a way, republicanism is a “must be” philosophy; and democracy is a “can be” philosophy. Republicans must be this or that way, but democrats (not used here to denote party affiliation) can be this or that. Republicanism makes it possible to be better than ones neighbors, but then says that no man should ever try to be so. Democracy idolizes the common man, but secretly admires prestige and enables common men to become uncommon. In both philosophies, what a man must never be is a nobody; but in republican equality everyone is a nobody, for everyone is equal. Men need heroes, and true republicanism rejects such distinctions. Democracy recognizes equal rights, but embraces ambition. At heart, most people want to be aristocrats—they just don’t want to be left behind others. Men want power and respect. In a democracy, all men have the chance to acquire power and respect. In essence, America’s republican ideologues’ rejection of a titled aristocracy and embracing of a natural aristocracy meant that democracy would supplant republicanism because it was democratic principles and the opportunities of America that made admission to the natural aristocracy possible.

* * * *

The rise of democracy did not mean the death of republicanism entirely. It did, however, change American politics, society, and culture. Republicanism claimed to have the interests of all at heart, but as Tocqueville comments, “No political form has hitherto been discovered that is equally favorable to the prosperity and the development of all the classes into which society is divided.”[20] It is simply impossible to create a classless society. “The advantage of democracy,” Tocqueville continues, “does not consist . . . in favoring the prosperity of all, but simply in contributing to the well-being of the greatest number.”[21] Men will be rich, but they will not, without the support of the majority, control the powers of state and influence society's habits:

The men who are entrusted with the direction of public affairs in the United States are frequently inferior, in both capacity and morality, to those whom an aristocracy would raise to power. But their interest is identified and mingled with that of the majority of their fellow citizens. They may frequently be faithless and frequently mistaken, but they will never systematically adopt a line of conduct hostile to the majority; and they cannot give a dangerous or exclusive tendency to the government.

The maladministration of a democratic magistrate, moreover, is an isolated fact, which has influence only during the short period for which he is elected.[22]

Thus, the democracy of America, in many ways, borrowed republicanism's hatred and fear of aristocratic power, and made the influence of an aristocracy less likely.

Malevolence toward aristocracy, equality in rights, and the individual desire, effort, and ability to acquire wealth are the triumvirate principles of American history; and they were secured tightly (for white men) by the American democracy of the 1830’s. Early America had been republican with many democratic aspects. Modern America (America since the 1830’s) is democratic with many republican aspects. The two are distinct but not exclusive of each other. The United States clearly did not become the nation envisioned by the founders, but it did not become the nation feared by them either. What Tocqueville saw in America convinced him “[T]hat the advent of democracy as a governing power in the world’s affairs, universal and irresistible, was at hand.”[23] And to a French society fraught with strife, he implored,

Let us look to America. . . . [T]he principles on which the American constitutions rest, those principles of order, of the balance of powers, or true liberty, of deep and sincere respect for right, are indispensable to all republics; they ought to be common to all; and it may be said beforehand that wherever they are not found, the republic will soon have ceased to exist.[24]

The use of terms is confusing. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote of the American Republic; and that is what the United States is to this very day: a democracy in a republic, a republic in a democracy.

Works Cited

Shalhope, Robert E. The Roots of Democracy: American Though and Culture, 1760-1800. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Part I (1835). New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1990.

Watts, Stephen. The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-1820. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Wiebe, Robert H. The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to
the Eve of Disunion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: The
University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

[1] The actual spelling, in ancient Greek, is dhmokratia. The modern-day spelling has been adapted from French. Check for any further etymological inquiries. Also, Aristotle’s Politics provides a somewhat helpful contrast between the idea of a republic and a democracy. According to Aristotle, a republic is a legitimate form of government by the masses, while a democracy is a perverse form of government by the masses.

[2] Quoted in Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 261

[3] Quoted in Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 164, 168-169.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., 172.

[5] Quoted in Ibid., 162.

[6] Both were considered forms of or tending towards tyranny.

[7] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part I (1835) (New York: Vintage Books, July 1990), 46

[8] Robert E. Shalhope, The Roots of American Democracy: American Thought and Culture, 1760-1800 (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990) xii.

[9] Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 174.

[10] Ibid, 24.

[11] Ibid., 165

[12] Quoted in Shalhope, 5.

[13] Quoted in Steven Watts, The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-1820 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 203.

[14] Quoted in Ibid., 204.

[15] Quoted in Robert H. Wiebe, The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 236.

[16] Part I of Democracy in America was published in 1835. Part II was published in 1840.

[17] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part I, 46

[18] Ibid., 47.

[19] Tocqueville, 51.

[20] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part 1, 239.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid, 239-240.

[23] Tocqueville, “Author’s Preface to the Twelfth Edition,” Democracy in America, Part 1, xix.

[24] Ibid., xxi.

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