A Republic, Not a Democracy, to Reflect the Will

 

Although a healthy culture was the necessary predicate for the maintenance of a healthy polity, it was not sufficient.  The Framers consciously intended to construct a democratic republic that would be an expression of the people’s higher selves as manifested in the will, and an inhibitor of the lower self, manifested in the passions.  Political theorist Claes Ryn writes that the higher self “refers to that in our being which pulls us in the direction of our own true humanity, that is, towards the realization of our highest potential as defined by a universally valid standard.”[16]  The lower self is moved by human appetites and is less guided by conscience and more by short-term self-interest.  The will affirms transcendence, and the passions reject it.

 

From this desire to accentuate the healthy elements of culture, the Framers consciously chose not to establish a democracy.  In fact, the word “democracy” does not even appear in the U.S. Constitution.  Americans have largely lost the ability to distinguish between democracy and the democratic republic established by the Framers.  They would be surprised to read the harsh words the Framers had for democracy.  James Madison warned, "Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention."[17]  Fisher Ames, author of the House of Representatives’ language for the First Amendment said, "The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness which the ambitious call, and ignorant believe, to be liberty."[18]  According to Gouverneur Morris, "Democracy [is] savage and wild."[19]  “A simple democracy . . . is one of the greatest of evils," inveighed Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence.[20]  John Witherspoon warned that, "Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state -- it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage."[21] 

 

Instead, the Framers sought to establish a democratic republic in which the immutable law of the universe, rather than the nominal majority, was more likely to find expression in government.  They hoped to impede the majority’s passion from expressing itself in government, and ensure that the majority’s will, which the Framers insisted must be grounded in an affirmation of transcendent truth, would find its voice.  Theirs was a popular government whose majoritarian elements, while not absent, would be softened by representation, divided government, and constitutional authority.

 

Because the Framers believed that humanity was corrupted,[22] they relied, in part, on representation rather than on plebiscite.  Representation was not an unfortunate byproduct of a large nation, destined to waste away once the means of more direct democracy were achieved.  Even supposing that electronic technology had been available to the new nation, permitting on-line voting, referenda, and polling data, the Framers would have chosen representation.  They believed representation would serve as a check on the passions of the majority.  This check was not only to protect minorities, but also to protect the majority from its lower self.  Representatives were to “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country….”[23]  While supporters of majority rule abhor the notion that representatives would do anything other than directly transmit the majority opinions of their constituents, the Framers relied on them as one way of thwarting the majority’s sometimes flawed judgment.

 

The Framers also relied on checks and balances among the branches of government to inhibit majorities.  The Framers distrusted governmental power not only because of its ability for an elite few to oppress the majority, but also because of the ability of the majority to oppress a minority.  They sought to establish a system in which a bicameral legislature,[24] a chief executive wielding a veto pen, and an independent judiciary would be in constant tension with one another.  This complicated structure ensured that quick action by the government, especially in domestic affairs, would be difficult to achieve without an overwhelming and sustained consensus.  The government was deliberately hobbled with inefficiencies and duplication in order to thwart the passions of transient majority opinion.  It is no wonder that this complicated structure is anathema to majoritarian enthusiasts, who are frustrated by the inability of the voters to quickly and easily force government action.

 

The third check on popular wishes was intended to be the most difficult of all to surmount. The Constitution, the literal embodiment of the enduring will of the people, was crafted to express the people’s higher and more virtuous aims, and was intended to be “a mirror for the national conscience.”[25]  It was ratified by near unanimity, ensuring that it reflected the clear consensus of the people.  The Constitution codified the principles by which justice would be sought.[26]  As Ryn writes, “The constitutional norm serves as a constant reminder of the contrast between the values endorsed by the people in its better moments, when it looks at politics in the perspective of the moral end, and the imperfect, sometimes degrading practice of day-to-day politics.”[27]

 

To ensure that the Constitution reflected the enduring will of the people, instead of their temporal passions, the Framers ensured that it would only be passed after much deliberation.  The value of deliberation stands at the heart of the process enacted by the Framers.  Unlike the majoritarian theory that views deliberation as an unnecessary impediment on expressing the public voice, the Framers’ view of deliberation was rooted in their desire to approximate transcendent justice.  If transcendent truth exists, and humans are corruptible and self-interested, as the Framers believed, then deliberation is necessary to reveal truth.  The deliberation necessary to ratify the Constitution -- the super-majority of both chambers and the affirmation of three-fourths of the state legislatures -- was intended to establish the fundamental principles by which the republic would function.

 

Once the Constitution was enacted, the Framers intended the Supreme Court to safeguard the enduring principles of the Constitution, or the higher self of the people.  Where a simple majority vote in the legislature was enough to enact our passions, the Court was designed to defend the people’s higher will by checking their baser passions.  If the passions of a majority sought to overcome the Constitution’s will as defended by the Court, a constitutional amendment was required -- an almost insurmountable barrier to any but the most enduring of our designs.  The idea of an unelected body serving for life, independently interpreting the U.S. Constitution to ensure that the majority does not overwrite fundamental principles, expressed the Framers’ belief that higher principles should not easily be cast aside.

 

The cultural predicates for the establishment and ratification of the U.S. Constitution were the acknowledgement of transcendent justice and truth, humanity’s corruptibility, and the importance of empowering the will and mitigating the passions.  Out of this worldview was born the Framers’ democratic republic in which numerical majorities were inhibited through representatives, a divided government of checks and balances, and a Constitution affirmed by a super-majority. 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________

 

[16]               Claes Ryn,  Democracy and the Ethical Life  (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 62.  This book is essential reading for individuals interested in the relationship between culture and politics.  Dr. Ryn’s works, Plato’s Republic, and Eric Voegelin’s series of works, Order and History, have been the most important influences in crafting my thesis.

 

[17]               James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 10.

 

[18]               Fisher Ames, “The Dangers of American Liberty” (February 1805) in Works of Fisher Ames  (Boston: T.B. Wait & Co., 1809), 384.

 

[19]               Gouverneur Morris, An Oration Delivered on Wednesday, June 29, 1814, at the Request of a Number of Citizens of New-York, in Celebration of the Recent Deliverance of Europe from the Yoke of Military Despotism  (New York: Van Winkle and Wiley, 1814), 22.

 

[20]               Benjamin Rush, The Letters of Benjamin Rush, Vol. 1, ed. L.H. Butterfield (Princeton: Princeton University Press for the American Philosophical Society, 1951), letter to John Adams on July 21, 1789, p. 523.

 

[21]               John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon  (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), Vol. VII, p. 101, Lecture 12 on Civil Society.

 

[22]               Consistent with the Judeo-Christian worldview in which they were grounded, the Framers’ believed that humanity had fallen short of what God intended it to be.  This “Fall,” using the biblical idea, from God’s intentions and his original creation does not mean that humanity is as bad as it could be, or that it can never rise above the worst proclivities of the heart.  But it does mean that the whole self (reason, will, emotions, etc.) is subject to sin and self-deception.

 

[23]               Madison, The Federalist Papers,  No. 10.

 

[24]               Interestingly, Reform Party Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, a noted populist, advocates the elimination of the bicameral legislature in the states, since it impedes the instant expression of the majority.  But he maintains that it is still important in the federal legislature to ensure that smaller states' rights are not trampled upon by larger states.

 

[25]             Rene de Visme Williamson,  Independence and Involvement (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964), 126-127.

 

[26]             Where proceduralists expect the majority to define justice, the Framers expected the complicated republic to approximate the pre-existing justice which transcends time and place.  Consistent with natural law theory, the Framers assumed that justice existed, and it was the role of a healthy government to approximate that law.

 

[27]             Ryn, Democracy, 199.

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