Once upon a time, I would hear politicians speak of returning the United States to its “Founding Principles,” and I would simply chalk it up to a type of misguided patriotism – the “Spirit of 1776,” if you will. Recently, I’ve come to realize that either through my own naivety or a lack of understanding of the motives behind such statements, I missed that these politicians are saying exactly what they mean. They would love to get the country back the way it was when it first formed.
The Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution were motivated in part by a sense that the country needed a stronger central government instead of just being a loose merging of states as it was under the Articles of Confederation. But one of the other primary motivations for writing the Constitution was to take as much of the power away from the people as possible so that the educated, upper-class members of society (the men writing the Constitution) would be the ones making the decisions for everyone else. Henry Knox said of their purpose that they needed to “clip the wings of a mad democracy.” Elbridge Gerry (the guy gerrymandering is named after) said that Democracy is “the worst…of all political evils.” Just before he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton wrote to a friend that “our real disease…is democracy…”
It was within this mindset that the Constitution was written.
As originally written, only one-half of one of the three branches of government was directly elected by the people…the House of Representatives. Senators were originally appointed by the political party in power in each state. This changed with the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.
The members of the Federal Judiciary are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate (when they actually do their job). We the People have no say whatsoever in who is appointed to these positions.
Much has been written and spoken about the Electoral College in the past few months. Most of the recent historical analysis points to it being a protection of slavery and the slave states. There is truth to this, but the words of John Adams explain much of the motivation behind the Electoral College as well. Adams said that the masses of people “were unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous, and cruel.” The Electoral College was set up in large part because the Founding Fathers did not trust the people to make an informed decision. The Electoral College was set up so that the educated elites could choose the President from amongst themselves. The people largely didn’t even vote in Presidential elections until states began giving them this right in the early and mid 1800s.
When modern politicians speak of getting back to “Founding Principles,” what they are actually trying to say is that they would like to take power away from the masses and “clip the wings of….democracy” once again.
You can see this in voter ID laws being passed that disproportionately disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
You can see this with the gutting of the voting rights act by the Supreme Court that allowed states to change those election laws without any government oversight.
You can see this in tax cuts that predominantly benefit those who already have more while not helping those who have less.
You can see this in the gutting of social programs that benefit large businesses and the wealthy to the detriment of those who rely on social services for healthy living.
Our country evolved over time mostly because We the People woke to the imperfections of the Constitution as originally written and intended, and we demanded changes to our government. Many who came before us literally fought and died to ensure that those who came after would benefit from their respective causes.
- Soldiers fighting and dying to reunite the country end the injustice of slavery
- Women protesting in public for the right to vote and be heard and treated as equals with men
- Labor leaders fighting long hours with little pay and no benefits so that they and others could live better lives
- Civil Rights activists of all creeds, colors, genders, and orientations enduring harassment, jail, beatings, and worse so that all in society could be equal
- Brave politicians who fought for what they knew was right and helped to pass laws benefiting others, even when they feared facing rejection by their constituents
Currently, many members of the current governments at the state and national level are trying to take the country backward a century or more and erase the hard-won victories of those who came before us. This is not the direction we need to go.
During his failed campaign for a third presidential term in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt gave an impassioned speech at Carnegie Hall, much of which still rings true today. It is worth quoting at length.
The great fundamental issue now before our people can be stated briefly. It is, Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? I believe they are…. I believe in the right of the people to rule. I believe that the majority of the plain people of the United States will, day in and day out, make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men, no matter what their training, will make in trying to govern them…. Our opponents pay lip-loyalty to this doctrine; but they show their real beliefs by the way in which they champion every device to make the nominal rule of the people a sham.
I have scant patience with this talk of the tyranny of the majority. Wherever there is tyranny of the majority, I shall protest against it with all my heart and soul. But we are today suffering from the tyranny of minorities…. It is a small minority that lies behind monopolies and trusts. It is a small minority that stands behind the present law of master and servant, the sweat-shops, and the whole calendar of social and industrial injustice. It is a small minority that is to-day using our convention system to defeat the will of a majority of the people….
No sane man who has been familiar with the government of this country for the last twenty years will complain that we have had too much of the rule of the majority. The trouble has been a far different one that, at many times and in many localities, there have held public office in the States and in the nation men who have, in fact, served not the whole people, but some special class or special interest. I am not thinking only of those special interests which by grosser methods, by bribery and crime, have stolen from the people….
In order to succeed we need leaders of inspired idealism, leaders to whom are granted great visions, who dream greatly and strive to make their dreams come true; who can kindle the people with the fire from their own burning souls. The leader for the time being, whoever he may be, is but an instrument, to be used until broken and then to be cast aside…. It is of little matter whether any one man fails or succeeds; but the cause shall not fail, for it is the cause of mankind.
We, here in America, hold in our hands the hope of the world, the fate of the coming years; and shame and disgrace will be ours if in our eyes the light of high resolve is dimmed, if we trail in the dust the golden hopes of men. If on this new continent we merely build another country of great but unjustly divided material prosperity, we shall have done nothing; and we shall do as little if we merely set the greed of envy against the greed of arrogance, and thereby destroy the material well-being of all of us…. We stand for ‘the rule of the many in the interest of all of us, for the rule of the many in a spirit of courage, of common sense, of high purpose, above all in a spirit of kindly justice toward every man and every woman…. The worth of our great experiment depends upon its being in good faith an experiment — the first that has ever been tried — in true democracy on the scale of a continent, on a scale as vast as that of the mightiest empires of the Old World. Surely this is a noble ideal, an ideal for which it is worthwhile to strive, an ideal for which at need it is worthwhile to sacrifice much; for our ideal is the rule of all the people in a spirit of friendliest brotherhood toward each and every one of the people.
May we one day reach this ideal.