What Advice Did Our Founders and First Presidents Offer On Preserving Our Democracy? by Bill Honig
In today’s political arena many of the basic tenets of our democracy are being challenged and there is evidence that too many young people (and adults) are not attaching to democratic ideas and responsibilities. It is fitting on President’s day that Americans should revisit the ideas, warnings, and advice of our first leaders. They understood that governance resting on popular consent was a huge gamble since no previous efforts at creating a successful democracy had survived. The effort would be difficult and would require continued vigilance by each generation of citizens and political representatives to last.
Our early leaders were very specific about what was necessary for our great democratic experience to endure and tried to inoculate the country against three main dangers: Majority rule degenerating into anarchy from irreconcilable conflicts, growing inequality re-instating oligarchy and corruption, and the democracy succumbing to tyranny from fear-based and dishonest demagoguery.
Building on the colonists experience in self-governing churches and local government they proposed a constitution based on representative government and majority rule which built a structure for the separation of powers, federalism, periodic elections to hold government accountable, and protections for individuals and the democratic system enshrined in our Bill of Rights. That was their first line of defense against our democracy failing.
But Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Franklin also knew that the structure of government was necessary but not sufficient. They and those that followed made several other crucial suggestions. Citizens needed to be well-versed in democratic ideals and experience, willing to participate, exercise self-discipline and be law-abiding, and develop the habits of tolerance and democratic deliberation. Representatives needed to respect our institutions and be accountable for their actions and veracity.
James Kloppenberg in his masterful recent book, Toward Democracy chronicles the development of democratic ideas and beliefs culminating in the creation and subsequent development of our country. He found three main themes and three supportive ideas which are helpful in understanding how best to fight for and protect our democratic ideals.
First, representative government deriving from “the people” and how that could work was evidenced in our Constitution. The founders were aware of the danger of quick but misguided action and created mechanisms to increase deliberation and spread power such as an independent judiciary both at the national and state level. They also were cognizant of the tension between majority rule and the rights of minorities and individuals and attempted to balance those interests. They also knew that some protections against government were crucial for individuals and for the system to work such as a free press to hold those in government accountable and root out corruption, mendacity, and self-dealing, free speech for the free exchange of ideas, free expression of religion and a proscription of the government establishing one religion, due process, a fair and equal administration of our laws, and that everyone, even the president, should be subject to our laws. They thought that citizens and representatives must understand and value the legitimacy of these structures.
Second, increasing liberty or autonomy of individuals was a key purpose of our democracy. Free individual choices and spheres of action and protection from overbearing government or repressive majorities was part of it. But they were also aware of the dangers of untrammeled self-interest, ignoring the common good, and a lack of the individual self-discipline needed for a free democracy to survive.
Third, equality or respecting the humanity and brotherhood of all citizens, in practice limited at first, but setting the stage for the struggle for legal, political, social, and economic equality for all (liberty and justice for all from our Pledge of Allegiance). The history of the 228 years since our constitution was adopted has been the slow struggle in fits and starts and backsliding to broaden the definition of “We, the People”
The founders also believed that three other habits and beliefs were crucial for a democracy to survive.
First, a commitment to democratic deliberation. Most of our founders were well aware of the religious wars in Europe and oppressive countries which only tolerated one set of beliefs. In a successful democracy truth and policies should arise from discussion which necessitated respect for opponents, listening, and supporting decisions resulting from democratic deliberations.
Second, pluralism and tolerance of diverse groups—religious, racial, ethnic, national origin, class, and regional. The United States is attempting something unique in human history. A large country composed of diverse interests and groups comprised of the world’s populations who find enough common purpose to sustain a democracy. This goal requires a higher stage of ethical behavior than in more homogeneous countries. It is human nature to identify with our respective groups and become hostile to others and our country has gone through decades of racial, religious, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and class prejudice, hostility, and legal discrimination even in the face of our democratic ideals. Keeping group ties while being tolerant and respectful of others is a difficult but crucial task for our country. This mission is undermined by leaders who appeal to group hatred which dishonors a basic principle of our heritage.
Our founders and first presidents confronted the dilemma of slavery knowing that slavery violated the democratic principles of representative government, liberty, and equality on which our country was created. It wasn’t until Lincoln and the Civil war finally determined that the continued existence of slavery sullied the ethical component to democracy and established that the idea that majority rules could mean a majority could oppress one group of humans (Stephen Douglas’s position in the Lincoln/Douglas debates) was morally unacceptable. It took another 100 years for equality and fair political and legal treatment to be established in reality by the Civil Rights movement—a position we are still struggling with. Similar efforts were made for other repressed groups such as women, ethnic and religious minorities, and gays and the working class.
Finally, Kloppenberg, enshrines the founders belief in idea of reciprocity as an essential ingredient of successful democracies. Our founders understood the importance to a democracy of the religious belief that all individuals were equal before God, the central Christian doctrine of love, (Love your neighbor as yourself) and the ubiquitous belief in the Golden Rule. In a democracy citizens must accept the underlying humanity, legitimacy, and significance of all even while disagreeing on specific policies. The founders thought that in successful democracies majorities didn’t try to crush their opponents but saw the importance of continued debate with them to reach better solutions.
Our country almost disintegrated in the harsh political atmosphere of the 1790’s. After flirting with wholesale demonization and false accusations of the opposition both Jefferson and Adams and their followers relented and the “era of good feelings” occurred with the election of Jefferson. Years later, Lincoln in his first Inaugural Address asked the South to discuss not fight and appealed to the “better angels of our nature” and when the war appeared won in his Second Inaugural was not vindictive to Southerners as many in the North wished but advocated reconciliation. (with malice towards none, with charity for all)
Our founders also strongly believed that an educated citizenry was essential to the success of a democracy to counteract the belief that the lack of education and perspective made people susceptible to demagogic appeals and unable to fully participate in democratic deliberations. Most importantly, each new generation needed to be well-versed and attached to democratic ideas, democratic history, democratic habits, and a willingness to participate in self-government and engage in ethical self-discipline. An educated citizenry was viewed as a key bulwark for democracy.
Our early leaders eventually proposed free public education as a necessary component to allow our democracy to succeed. This idea that the government not solely parents should provide a common education and that all citizens should pay for the education of children not their own was unsuccessfully resisted by many in the 19th century as public education became widespread. Those advocating for the importance of a “common schools” won the debate. (Some people today want to re-litigate the issue decrying “government schools”, supporting large cuts for public schools, and advocating privatizing of public education.)
Benjamin Franklin when asked by a women after the Constitutional Convention what kind of government they decided on “a republic or a monarchy” he quickly replied “A republic if you can keep it.” Lincoln in his immortal Gettysburg address alluded to the fragile nature of our democracy and that our devotion to a continued effort to perfect our ideals of freedom and equality was necessary so that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth”. That fight goes on.
Bill Honig was Superintendent of Public Instruction in California from 1983-1993. He is currently Vice-Chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission which develops K-12 content frameworks and reviews instructional materials for the California State Board of Education. That board recently adopted a History/Social Science framework which incorporates many of the ideas in this article.