the u.s. was not designed as a true democracy -- 2/16/23

Today's encore selection -- from Democracy and Truth by Sophia Rosenfeld. In crafting the U.S. Constitution, the founders were distrustful of pure democracy, and envisioned a class of elites who would have the obligation of governing. Only members of the House of Representatives were to be directly elected by the people:

"Even in republics, where the people as a whole were deemed sovereign and where hierarchies built around both kings and formal aristocracies with hereditary titles were declared unlawful, it was widely acknowledged in the late eighteenth century that statecraft required a distinct political class characterized by exceptional wisdom and virtue. Practically speaking, that meant men with some formal knowledge, whether by schooling or proper expe­rience, of the principles of governing and a commitment to giving and keeping their word as an element of gentlemanly honor. Or at least it did by the architects of early republics in British North America and then France, who themselves tended to belong to that very class.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States

"The so-called Federalists, or advocates of the federal Constitution in the new United States, were particularly committed to this notion, sparring repeatedly on these grounds with the less hierarchical anti-Federalists and then Democratic-Republicans in the republic's early years. Consider the Enlightenment-inspired logic of Alexander Addison, a Federalist judge from Pennsylvania. For him it was axiomatic circa 1800 that ordinary people were, under present conditions, deficient as judges of public matters, 'too apt to confound right with capacity, and power with skill.' But those who understood that 'the art of governing, is a science,' meaning a discipline rooted in the pur­suit of sure truths and effective, demonstrable methods for verifying them, and had the requisite 'knowledge, study, and reflection' (which surely also indicated social standing and leisure time) to approach politics in this manner, could compensate for others' cognitive, not to mention ethical, limitations. It was, therefore, important that power in practice be accorded disproportionately to a particular and new kind of elite of the talented, even as 'the people' were, abstractly, possessed of sovereignty and the power to judge. In effect, this view amounted to not much more than a rehash of Madison's famous words in Federalist 57: 'The aim of every political constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers men who possess [the] most wisdom to discern, and [the] most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society,' since one could hardly expect to luck upon (as noted in Federalist 49) 'a nation of philosophers.' Or, as a more straightforward Roger Sher­man of Connecticut put it while debating the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787, 'the people ... should have as lit­tle to do as may be about the Government.' "



Sophia Rosenfeld


Democracy and Truth


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2019 University of Pennsylvania Press


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