Throughout much of our lives in America, we have been fed a consistent diet of adulation and unquestioned praise for our founding fathers- how they worked ardently to achieve independence from the British, risking their lives and careers for purpose of establishing democracy and equality for all.
It is certainly true that we owe a debt to the founding fathers for splitting America off from achieving independence from colonial rule. Their contributions are significant, but what of the system they built afterwards? Was it the great system of democracy and equality we are sold? Could our children’s civics books be whitewashing history in part by mythologizing our nation’s founders?
The Declaration of Independence boldly states that “all men are created equal”. But since much of the founding fathers were slave owners themselves, that phrase rings hollow. Of democracy as well, the founding fathers – contrary to what much of us are led to believe – were no fans of power resting in the hands of all citizens.
Sometimes, words speak for themselves.
“A simple democracy is the devil’s own government.”
“”A democracy is a volcano which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption and carry desolation in their way.””
“If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.”
“The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.”
“democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
“Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy.”
“Democracy, will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes, and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure and every one of these will soon mold itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues, and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable cruelty of one or a very few.”
Sure, the founding fathers in general weren’t advocates of democracy, instead opting for a republican form of government featuring first and foremost a separation of powers among legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
But they weren’t the Social Darwinists that are rampant in today’s America, either. The popular rallying cry of ‘every man for himself’ which is a common axiom among modern reactionaries would have been largely discarded among the founding fathers.
Alana Semuels of The Atlantic writes of the founding fathers at this time that (bold is mine):
“For example, after the revolution, John Adams advocated for laws that forced families to divide their estates among all their children, to prevent European-style feudal estates, according to Joseph R. Blasi, Richard B.Freeman, and Douglas L. Kruse in The Citizen’s Share: Reducing Inequality in the 21st Century. The goal of a republic, he believed, was “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.””
Semuels continues regarding a proposed banking system for Pennsylvania:
“When, in 1786, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania debated giving a corporate charter to the Bank of America, a handful of representatives expressed concern that the bank would give too much economic power to one set of men, according to The Citizen’s Share.”
“Shall we grant such an institution? Shall we give such an artificial spring to concentrated wealthy? By no means,” Representative William Findley said to the General Assembly of Philadelphia. The assembly then voted to deny the bank the charter—though later bank directors were able to drum up support by convincing Thomas Paine to lobby for a new assembly.”
“The founders also favored workers over owners, which helped … a class of non-owners remain economically empowered.”
In a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1785, Jefferson remarked that:
”But after all these comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind.”
Again, the hypocrisy of slave owners sometimes advocating for workers interests is contradictory, to say the least, and is not forgotten. But to argue the founding fathers mirror the Social Darwinist ideas of today is inaccurate.
The nation America’s founding fathers created
Statements and letters are important, but what of the nation that the founding fathers created from their revolution?
Surely, it was a nation that is far more democratic than Great Britain, who in the 1780s boasted an electorate of just 3% of the population and a royal family – still in existence today, in fact. It’s also worth noting that much of Europe at the time still had absolute monarchies in place, making Britain and their parliament a democratic exception to the norm.
Of those who could vote in early America:
“Typically, a voter had to be a free, adult, male resident of his county, a member of the predominant religious group, and a “freeholder.” A freeholder owned land worth a certain amount of money.”
In other words, slaves, women, and non-property owners were excluded from voting – resulting in about 6% of the population being eligible to vote. The senate was chosen by state legislatures and thus not subject to direct vote by the voting population (this remarkably wouldn’t change until 1913).
Institutions are paramount
But the requirements of a democratic state extend beyond merely semi-frequent elections. How a nation’s institutions are structured is also critical. And in this regard, several of our key political institutions have been set up expressly to contain the forces of democracy and popular will, as the founders put it.
Let’s examine these institutions.
The Senate makes up one of two houses of Congress together with the House of Representatives. As already pointed out, voters couldn’t elect senators until 1913. It was designed in the “Great Compromise” between large and small states. The result being smaller states having disproportional power over larger states since any congressional legislation can be struck down by the Senate alone.
Erwin Chemerinsky of Prospect writes of the Senate:
“Nor does any other democracy have an institution like the U.S. Senate. Because every state, regardless of its size, gets two senators, the Senate is hugely unrepresentative of the country. California, with 39.5 million people, has the same number of senators as Wyoming, with a population of 579,315. A slight majority of Americans live in just nine states. They have 18 votes in the Senate, while the minority holds 82 seats.”
Not only is the makeup of the Senate inherently reactionary, but the famous filibuster rule known as “The Soul of the Senate”, is one of the key arms of this institution. Any senator can use the filibuster to speak for an unlimited amount of time and thus delay any legislation proposed for as long as said senator can endure the process. The filibuster can only be broken by what is called cloture, meaning they need a three-fifths vote of senators (typically 60 of 100) to do so. And its use is skyrocketing lately.
Fortunately since the filibuster is not in the Constitution, the filibuster can be eliminated entirely by a simple majority vote in the Senate, also called the Nuclear Option.
But it’s due to the existence of the Senate itself, coupled with rules like the filibuster that lead to statements, such as from Senator Alben Barkley in the 1940s, that “all of the rules of the Senate, work into the hands of those who seek to obstruct legislation,”.
The Supreme Court
A body of nine justices nominated by the president and appointed by the Senate for life make up the Supreme Court- along with their clerks and other staff.
Rob Hunter put it when writing for Jacobin in 2017:
“The justices themselves are also ambiguous figures. They never seem to tire of repeating the sententious bromide that they are neutral arbiters — yet their interpretive philosophies frequently offer up divergent outcomes in similar cases. Most justices deny that their jurisprudence is colored by ideological commitments or partisan affiliations — but political scientists have no difficulty assigning them ideology scores on the basis of their voting patterns. No one who follows national politics has trouble discerning which justices share their views and which don’t.
At times, Supreme Court justices appear to be ciphers — empty vessels into which the presidents who nominate them have decanted their preferred political views. At other moments, they are mysterious and oracular. Their involuted and gnomic utterances, it seems, can only be understood by arcane adepts skilled in the divination of such things.”
It’s also worth pointing out that the more democratic and representative of the two houses of congress – The House of Representatives – has no voice in appointing Supreme Court justices.
On transparency, pictures and television cameras are banned from the courtroom of the Supreme Court. In 2013, a list of each justice at that time had statements on the record regarding allowing cameras into the courtroom which can be found here. It’s not surprising that such a powerful institution that is the highest court in the land does not want to be held more accountable to the public.
The Electoral College
We’ve previously written about the Electoral College here. In short, it’s an institution that chooses the US president during the electoral process, as opposed to actual voters (the Electoral College can technically choose whoever they want for president with unclear consequences should they do so). As a result of the Electoral College system, two of our last three presidents have lost the national popular vote (Bush and Trump).
A nation cannot be a democracy and have a system where a candidate for the highest political position can win despite receiving less votes than his or her rival candidates.
The Separation of Powers
Having a government separated by the three branches – legislative, executive, and judicial – thus creating a system of “checks and balances”, can be a positive idea. When implemented with an emphasis on power ultimately resting in the hands of democratic forces (via the legislature, in one instance), a separation of powers could function to constrain authoritarian or unscrupulous executives.
But that is different than what we have today. To pass a bill at the federal level, it would require getting past no less than: two congressional committees, two congressional houses (the Senate sometimes requiring a supermajority with the possibility of filibuster), a presidential signature, and the Supreme Court not striking it down.
This makes any landmark legislation designed to improve the lives of working-class Americans extremely difficult. If only one of the above hurdles isn’t met, the bill is done for. Anyone can see our system of government is designed for the ability of a relatively small group of people to grind the system to a halt, many times requiring large mass movements to pass significant legislation.
These movements did achieve some success, but requiring such monumental movements in order to change the country make modern efforts such as the Green New Deal a likely decades-long process of movement-building and solidarity among working class coalitions.
Even constitutional amendments, which are able to reform the Constitution itself, face steep hurdles, as Seth Ackerman details:
“And the entire system is frozen in amber by an amendment process of almost comical complexity. Whereas France can change its constitution anytime with a three-fifths vote of its Congress and Britain could recently mandate a referendum on instant runoff voting by a simple parliamentary majority, an amendment to the US Constitution requires the consent of no less than thirty-nine different legislatures comprising roughly seventy-eight separately elected chambers.”
Sunset or Sunrise?
The United States was a pioneer in democracy back in the late 1700s, but due to the effect these anti-democratic institutions have had in holding back popular will and opinion, the US has fallen behind democratically for hundreds of years- all by design of the founders who set up our institutions to constrain these forces.
The point here isn’t to denigrate the founding fathers or downplay the role they played in wresting US independence from Great Britain. They didn’t have the historical precedent or popular democratic movements back in the 1700s that we have today. It’s even possible many of the founders would be advocates today of democratic forms of government with our experience.
The point is instead to dispel myths that many of us have been spoon fed and were raised on of the saintly democratic-loving founding fathers. Regardless of one’s opinion of any of the founding fathers, it’s imperative to know the truth about our history.
From all the signs around us we can see that the current political system created by our founders is slowly failing. The founders’ anti-democratic institutions are at the forefront of our institutional decay. Where we will go from here is unknown, but we will be better served by charting our own visionary path forward to a fully democratic society while leaving much of the visions of our founders to history.