The Founding Fathers on Democracy

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It seems that every couple of years in the United States there are cries for an increased level of democracy. Especially in the wake of contentious elections, individuals often call for government reforms that would allow for our elections to be based entirely on the popular vote — a pure democracy.

The reason we don’t have such a government is that our Founding Fathers were actually quite suspicious of democracy as a form of government. Thomas Jefferson referred to democracy as “elective despotism” and argued that it was not the type of government that the Founders intended to institute. Rejecting the value of a pure democracy, he famously claimed that “one hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one.”

Why did the Founding Fathers almost universally oppose pure democracy? It appears that many of them viewed democracy as a form of mob-rule and as a barrier to the aristocracy that they hoped to initiate. As economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe notes, “The Founding Fathers of the U.S., nowadays considered the model of a democracy, were strictly opposed to it. Without a single exception, they thought of democracy as nothing but mob-rule. They considered themselves to be members of a ‘natural aristocracy’ and rather than a democracy they advocated an aristocratic republic.”

Democracy as Mob-Rule

Our Founders were wary of the mob-like tendencies of democracies. Historian M. Stanton Evans explains, “‘Democracy,’ defined as a method of voting, is obviously not the same as freedom, and very often can be the opposite. Fifty-one percent of the population, after all, might vote to put the other 49 percent in jail. The distinction was apparent to our Founders; though believers in popular elections, they went to considerable lengths to ensure that ‘democracy’ didn’t destroy individual freedom.”

Knowing that a bloodthirsty majority could easily plunder the minority, the Founding Fathers clearly understood that pure democracy is diametrically opposed to individual liberty. As John Adams notes, “Democracy will envy all, contend with all, endeavor to pull down all, and when by chance it happens to get the upper hand for a short time, it will be revengeful, bloody and cruel.”

Incomprehensibly, the whims of the people could shift in dangerous directions. As seen in the French Revolution, which came just a few years after the American Revolution, mobs of barbarous individuals can be enormous threats to life and property. Evans writes:

“There was little hint among the Founders of the selective skepticism then prevalent in France — which assumed the problem was merely certain kinds of power, in the hands of decadent kings and nobles, and that all would be well if total authority were conferred upon representatives of ‘the people.’ On the contrary, the Founders believed that pure majoritarianism and/or unchecked supremacy in legislative bodies were as bad as any form of power.”

This is why the Founders created other branches of government besides the legislative branch. They hoped that the judicial and executive branches would repress the whims of the masses to at least some degree. Jefferson explained that their objective was to create a situation where “the government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectively checked and restrained by the others.”

Along these lines, James Madison complained about the difficulty of “protecting the rights of property against the spirit of democracy.” In other words, Madison desired to protect the property rights of the individual from the impulses of the mob.

Alternative Forms of Government

If the Founders disapproved of democracy, what form of government did they support? There was actually a fairly diverse array of political preferences present among the Founding Fathers. Many of the Founders, such as Jefferson and Adams, advocated for a natural aristocracy and others, such as Alexander Hamilton and Robert Morris, actually preferred aspects of monarchy. As historian Sheldon Richman explains, “The prime movers of the second constitution sought to reintroduce hierarchy, aristocracy, and even elements of monarchy in order to rein in the radical social and political egalitarianism that had made the American Revolution unique in world history.”

John Randolph succinctly summarized one of the prevailing and potentially shocking attitudes of the time, “I am an aristocrat: I love liberty, I hate equality.” So, although there was much discussion of natural rights and equality during this time period, it is clear that many of these Founders still valued disparity in terms of class and political power. Some people are more suited to lead than others and the concept of equality (as expressed in documents such as the Declaration of Independence) does not mean that all people have equal gifting.

It should be noted that the Founders did not advocate for a hereditary aristocracy. Rather, many of them envisioned an aristocracy based on merit, virtue, and aptitude. As Jefferson writes:

“The natural aristocracy [is] the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts and governments of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed men for the social state, and not have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society. May we not even say that that form of government is best, which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government.”

Many of the Founding Fathers were suspicious of the types of people who might come into power via a purely democratic form of government. Therefore, they saw this aristocracy as a way of guaranteeing that those most fit to lead would be in control of government power. As Richman explains, some of the Founders “painted lurid pictures of legislative majorities representing the common people in the states running roughshod over the propertied minority.” Thus, these Founders viewed an aristocracy as the best way to protect the upper class of property owners from the mob-like impulses of the common majority.

Despite just having overthrown a tyrannical monarchy, there were many aspects of monarchy that the Founders admired. Historian Gordon S. Wood explains Madison’s perspective on this issue:

“Madison expected the new national government to play the same suprapolitical neutral role that the British king had been supposed to play in the empire. In fact, Madison hoped that the new federal government might restore some aspects of monarchy that had been lost in the Revolution… That someone as moderate and as committed to republicanism as Madison should speak even privately of the benefits of monarchy adhering in the Constitution of 1787 is a measure of how disillusioned many of the revolutionary gentry had become with the democratic consequences of the Revolution.”

Observing the potential threat of enraged masses, Madison, among others, pushed against some of the popular opinions of the time in favor of various aspects of monarchical governance.

Conclusion

People are free to advocate a government based on majoritarianism, but to describe this form of government as the form of government that the Founders wanted would be quite misleading. Clearly, the Founding Fathers almost universally opposed pure democracy.

For example, Edmund Randolph decried that “turbulence and follies of democracy.” Additionally, Pierce Butler claimed that “in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.” Elbridge Gerry explained that “the evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.”

So next time somebody characterizes the Founders as having advocated for a government based on pure majority rule, you now have the informational tools to prove them wrong.

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