The original intent of the framers, contained in the words and clauses of the Constitution are hotly debated in order to ascertain what they meant to the states at the time of ratification in order to better understand the intent, purpose and functionality of the American polity. Among them, is whether the framers intended to create republic or a democracy. A cogent definition of either is needed in order to refute one or the other however; democracies have existed and exist today in varying degrees, making a concise definition nearly impossible. The distinction falls somewhere between a direct democracy and a republic that safeguards axiomatic rights, and respects the rule of law, above purely democratic processes.
Few rational people would argue the framers intended to create, what James Madison calls a “pure democracy,” and what Robert Dahl defined as a “direct democracy” (Hamilton, 2006 p. 55; Dahl, 2003 p. 180). Madison sets a distinction between two, and explains the purpose of elected representatives rather than direct involvement of the people as a means to maintain justice, “…to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through a medium of a chosen body of citizens,” rather than to popular whim, because they “…will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations” (The Federalist N. 10 p.56). Madison wanted to insulate the body politic from the temporary passions of the majority (themselves). Robert Dahl explains the framers mindset towards popular rule in this context, “A substantial number of the framers believed that they must erect constitutional barriers to popular rule because the people would become and unruly mob…” (Dahl, 2003, p. 24).
Nowhere in the federal constitution, nor any of the state constitutions, is the word democracy used. This does not preclude the notion that some forms of the federal government are democratic, nor that the majority in some circumstances must rule. However, all the power cannot be placed in a majority insofar as it can be placed in a minority. The framers understood that the rights of the individual are not at the behest of a majority, and there are times when the individual is free from majority rule. They also understood, that tyranny is not exclusive to majorities, but that the minority can also become tyrannical. It was to this idea that the framers limited the powers of the federal government by creating a system whereby the President, the senators and representatives would be elected by different constituencies at different times, as well as including the Bill of Rights (Bork, 1990, p. 139). In my view, this is how the United States Constitution differs from a direct democracy by recognizing the authority of self-government while at the same time acknowledging its limits and vice versa. In short, the freedom of the majority to rule, and the freedom of the individual from majority rule are at constant odds.
In Robert Dahl’s argument on the undemocratic aspects of government, he incorporates state legislatures choosing senators so that “Members of the Senate would serve as a check on the Representatives, who were all subject to popular elections every two years” (Dahl, 2003, p. 17). Dahl is in fact correct, as Hamilton points out in Federalist No. 9, that the purpose of the legislatures appointing senators was not solely to check the House of Representatives, but to incorporate the states into the “ constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them direct representation in the senate…” (Hamilton, 2006, p. 51). James Madison in Federalist No. 59 elaborates on Dahl’s position, that “In republican government, the legislative authority predominates. The remedy…is to divide the legislature into different branches, and to render them, by different modes of elections…as little connected with each other” (Hamilton, 2006, p. 289). The framers, rather than intending to maximize popular sovereignty, were far more concerned with protecting individual liberty.
Not only would power be diffused by the tripartite federal government, whose powers were separate and distinct, but also amongst the state governments as “they may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government; whilst the latter is no wise essential to the operation or organization of the former” (Hamilton, 2006, p. 258). The states created the federal government not to consolidate democratic principles, but to ensure more harmony amongst the several states by transferring specific, enumerated powers to the federal government. Therefore, the Constitution is more of a restrictive document that protects minority rights over that of the majority. Dahl’s folly in his argument in favor of democratic principles in the Constitution is invoking the Bill of Rights as bolstering said position. Dahl writes, “They [Bill of Rights] resulted instead from demands…by delegates who generally favored a more democratic system than their colleagues could then accept… the amendments have proved to be a veritable cornucopia of rights necessary to a democratic order” (Dahl, 2003. P. 27). Dahl fails to recognize that the Bill of Rights delineated the specific liberties minorities are to have, and are not subject to democratic processes or influences. They also restricted action by Congress over the states and the people as well as outline more appropriately the purposes of a republic at the expense of democracy.
A majority of Dahl’s arguments seem to be mired in personal predilections that favor consolidating democratic principles into the federal government, Dahl writes, “undemocratic aspects that were more or less deliberately built into the constitution overestimated the dangers of popular majorities…” (Dahl, 2003, p. 39). Dahl gives no explanation thereafter as to how they overestimated the dangers of popular majorities, or if that was the sole purpose of the Constitution alone. He explains further that the “legitimacy of the Constitution ought to derive solely from its utility as an instrument of democratic government—nothing more, nothing less” (Dahl, 2003, p. 39). The Federalist Papers alone provide as solid refutation to the purpose of the Constitution as furthering a purely democratic cause. The convention was not called in 1787 because the framers and founders felt as though the confederacy was not democratic enough. Does this mean that in Dahl’s view the Constitution is illegitimate?
There are most definitely democratic principles in the Constitution—direct elections of members of the House of Representatives and Madison’s repeated assertions that the legislature is the most powerful body in the federal government—gives far more creed to the assertion that the framers intended to create a representative democracy. Archon Fung in his “Democratic Theory and Political Science” essay seeks to define and differentiate between disparate forms of democracy. He separates them into four categories: minimal, aggregative, deliberative, and participatory. The United States incorporates an amalgam of all four of Fung’s conceptions of democracy, but does not favor one over the other, nor the idea of direct democracy as explained earlier. The two most prominent of the democratic principles that are incorporated into our Constitution per Fung’s definition are minimal democracy and deliberative democracy. Minimal democracy inasmuch as it “renders political leaders accountable to its citizens and because it protects private liberties “ (Fung p. 448). All three elected representatives at the federal level are in some way accountable to the people, either directly or indirectly. The Bill or Rights protects private liberties, to which Dahl attributes entire to democratic principles over republican principles, which I think is misguided. Secondly, components of deliberative democracy are included in our Constitution, both houses of the bicameral legislature must be deliberated and “based on reasons that all citizens should accept” (Fung, p. 449).
The Constitution, as the framers intended, includes aspects of democratic principles including self-government. However, these principles only go so far as they reach the unalienable rights of the individual. The Constitution was not drafted and ratified to make the confederacy more democratic, but to better facilitate commerce and bolster national security. This does not preclude the document from incorporating some democratic features, but the same time, it includes measures that mitigates and ameliorates the negative aspects of those same democratic ideals therein. The argument of democracy v. republic is a red herring of sorts. The reconciliation of self-government and individual rights undergirds the entirety of the debate, yet is seldom directly addressed.
– Will Ricciardella
Bork, R. (1990). The tempting of America: The political seduction of the law (Frist ed.). New York: Free Press.
Hamilton, A. (2006). The federalist. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.