curbing democracy -- 7/2/15

Today's encore selection -- from Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Woods. In the thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence, but before the U.S. Constitution was written and in place, the state governments of the thirteen states reigned supreme. Many of these states had constitutions that were bold experiments in democracy, and some state legislatures had more common people in office than gentry. The result was often a chaos -- inflation, liberal debtor relief, and even rebellion -- that created great discomfort for the founders, who were almost all landed gentry. And so the U.S. Constitution was designed in no small part to curb this democracy and the excesses of these state governments:

"The Federal Constitution of 1787 was designed in part to solve the problems created by the presence in the state legislatures of [common people]. In addition to correcting the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was intended to restrain the excesses of democracy and protect minority rights from overbearing majorities in the state legislatures. But could that be done within a republican framework? Some thought not. 'You may think it very Extraordinary,' Joseph Savage of New Jersey told his son in July 1787, 'but the better sort of people are very desirous of a Monarchical government and are in daily Expectation of having it recommended by those Gentlemen in Philadelphia.' Of course, the middling sorts in the states did not think there was too much democracy in the various legislatures ...

"Certainly no one described the crisis of American politics in 1787 more acutely than did the thirty-six-year-old Virginian James Madison. Madison had become a member of the Continental Congress at age twenty-eight and was thoroughly familiar with the Confederation's weaknesses. Indeed, throughout the middle 1780s he, along with other national leaders, had wrestled with various schemes for overhauling the Articles of Confederation. But it was his experience serving in the Virginia assembly in 1784-1787 that convinced him that the real problem of American politics lay in the state legislatures. During the 1780s he saw many of his and Jefferson's plans for reform mangled by factional fighting and majoritarian confusion in the Virginia assembly. More than any other Founder, Madison questioned the conventional wisdom of the age concerning majority rule, the proper size for a republic, and the role of factions in society. His thinking about the problems of creating republican governments and his writing of the Virginia Plan in 1787, which became the working model for the Constitution, constituted one of the most creative moments in the history of American politics. ...

"The Constitution corrected the deficiencies of the Confederation by granting the new national government some extraordinary powers, powers that ambitious state-builders could exploit. The Convention, however, rejected Madison's impractical plan for a national congressional veto over all state laws, a rejection that Madison feared would doom the Constitution to failure. Instead, the Convention in Article 1, Section 10, prohibited the states from exercising a remarkable number of powers, including levying import or export duties, printing paper money [which they had done in abundance and had created inflation and fiscal chaos], and enacting various debtor relief laws and laws impairing contracts. But if these prohibitions were not enough to prevent the excesses of localist and interest-ridden democracy in the states, then the expanded and elevated structure of the federal government itself was designed to help."


Gordon S. Wood


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States)


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2009 by the Oxford


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