Rolling back democracy

We learned in grade school about the Constitutional Convention, right? That summer of 1787 when the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to write the US Constitution? Many of us would be shocked to learn that what the framers of the Constitution did was roll back democratic gains of the American Revolution. They were frightened of too much democracy.

Why does this matter? Because the pressures against democracy today—the interests of the 1 percent of the wealthiest, most powerful Americans who make corporate decisions that threaten the health and well-being of people and Earth—are the same pressures that led to limiting democracy at the start of this country.

The delegates who wrote the Constitution were the 1 percent of their time—white men of means who were merchants and landowners and slaveholders, the majority of them lawyers and a few of them, like Washington, extremely wealthy. They had been living in a democratic experiment for eleven years under the Articles of Confederation, and most of them didn’t like it. They’d seen social upheaval—poor farmers revolting because they were losing their land on account of taxes levied against them to pay for the revolution. Slaves growing more numerous, in some states threatening to outnumber whites. How could elite interests remain safe? A strong central government was needed to keep the rabble in check.

Edmund Randolph, a Virginia planter, argued that, as everyone knew, the evils of the past decade were caused by “the turbulence and follies of democracy.” James Madison called the masses of people “the unreflecting multitude.” Alexander Hamilton opined,

The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; . . . it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.

Madison spoke for most when he said,

Democratic communities may be unsteady, and be led to action by the impulse of the moment.

Madison knew just what to do: put in place a permanent “upper house” made up of wealthy landowners, like England’s House of Lords, to hold in check the decisions of the “lower house.” For, he argued, landholders ought to have the permanent upper hand in government; they “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Hamilton agreed:

Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.

And this was the thinking behind the Senate.

It’s all there in black and white, preserved in written notes from the Philadelphia convention, taken down by those who attended. It’s the history we weren’t taught in grade school. I didn’t even learn it in graduate school in US history. It took the Democracy School to pull it all together.

About those delegates’ notes, by the way: The convention passed a law that none of their personal notes or journals from the session were to leave the convention house. They resolved:

That members only be permitted to inspect the Journal. That nothing spoken in the House be printed, or otherwise published or communicated. (May 29, 1787)

They didn’t want anyone to know what they were up to. So instead of the rabble peering in at the windows, as in Wuerker’s cartoon, we should picture locked doors and blacked-out windows. Armed guards were stationed at every door.

And where was George Washington in all this? Presiding over the convention. And preserving its secrecy. At one point a delegate dropped a document on the floor, and Washington said,

I must entreat the gentlemen to be more careful, lest our transactions get into the newspapers and disturb the public repose.

The public indeed would have been plenty upset to find that the privileged few were running away with their revolution.

Washington was the wealthiest man in the room, for he had spent years speculating in land along the western frontier (in sometimes shady dealings, as told by Thomas Slaughter) and now owned tens of thousands of acres there. He wanted to extract the resources on his lands and send them down the Potomac River to the coast, but he was being hampered by the Articles of Confederation. To develop the Potomac and make it navigable, he had to deal with not one but two states, Virginia and Maryland, persuading each legislature to pass identical commerce laws. The process was cumbersome. A centralized government would give him and other merchants smooth sailing, as it were, for their trade.

So the interests of the richest white men converged, as historian Charles Beard argued a century ago, in favor of a strong central government. Though they billed their meeting as one to “amend” the Articles of Confederation, the intention of many of them from the start, as even Wikipedia acknowledges, “was to create a new government rather than fix the existing one.”

And create they did.

At the end of the Constitutional Convention, instead of a confederation of independent states, as the Articles of Confederation had outlined, there was a nation with a federal government. Instead of a representative legislature that operated by majority rule, they had created two houses, including a Senate to rein in the “follies” of the House of Representatives. (Ever wonder why it’s so hard to get good laws passed?) Instead of a president of Congress who had only the limited powers of a speaker of the house, there was a new executive branch of government, with the president elected not directly by the people but instead through an electoral college (again, to curb the excesses of the masses—a move that became crucial in the 2000 election and three others in US history). And they set a new judiciary branch in place, with a Supreme Court whose members were not elected by the people but instead appointed by the not-directly-elected president—two steps removed from direct democracy. In the evil Three-Fifths Clause, they institutionalized slavery, placing it within the new nation’s Constitution and ensuring that slaveholding planters of the South would dominate national politics until the Civil War.

It was an all-out victory of the powerful few protecting their own interests. So how did they get the masses of people to come along and ratify this counter-revolutionary Constitution? By offering the promise of a Bill of Rights—a Bill of Rights that hadn’t even been written yet.

But that’s a story for another day.

Next up: Why Bills of Rights are needed at the local level.

For more information:

  • Notes from the delegates appear in Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison, with an introduction by Adrienne Koch (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1984); and in “Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken from the Right Honorable Robert Yates,” available here from the Yale Law School.
  • Some details from George Washington’s land speculations are found in Thomas Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), 80–86.
  • The historian Charles Beard’s 1921 book is An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (New York: Macmillan).



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