What Did the Founders Mean by “Democracy”?

In the context of rightwingers’ asserting all over the Internet that “this is a republic, not a democracy,” I’m going to quickly review here the question of what the founders meant when they used the term “democracy.” For while the right is wrong in asserting that this isn’t a democracy — it is supposed to be one, now — some assertions in response, explaining the founders’ uses of the terms “republic” and “democracy,” are wrong too, and wrong in ways that erode public understanding of how we got from an elite republic to a democratic republic.

What did the founders mean when they said “democracy”?

They meant many different and at times contradictory things.

Yet a common response intended to shut down the glib right-wing “republic not democracy” assertion makes the founders simplistically consistent in the opposite way, as summed up in the law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig’s Medium entry on the subject, posted back in 2016 and recently revived on Twitter:

Yes, it is true, the Framers meant to establish “a Republic.”

And yes, they openly and repeatedly criticized “democracy.”

But the “democracy” they were criticizing was “direct democracy,” and the “Republic” they were championing was “representative democracy.”

Lessig’s claim that when the framers criticized democracy they meant only to criticize direct democracy — holding a popular referendum on every law and issue, with no representative layer — doesn’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. Of course the framers disliked direct participation and favored representation: they didn’t want the electorate voting to pass and repeal laws; they wanted the electorate voting to choose representatives who would vote on passing and repealing laws. Some of the founders wrote eloquently on the virtues of a representative system: Lessig cites Madison to that effect. And it’s true that Madison and others sometimes explicitly used “democracy,” to refer disparagingly to direct democracy, in contrast to a representative “republic.”

But that was all talk, in the sense that the founders had no experience of direct democracy. Continue reading


The Hamilton Scheme: Video

C-SPAN video of that talk I gave on Alexander Hamilton’s creative phase. 

Grimly funny to me that after I spent the whole talk emphasizing, ad nauseam, that Hamilton’s purpose was not to pay off the war debt but to sustain it via funding, C-SPAN introduces the video this way: “Mr. Hogeland examines how Hamilton’s first goal was paying off the debt accumulated during the Revolutionary War.”

There really is no purpose to anything I do.

Again with the History?

(This is sort of Part Three, following this and this.)

It’s become a fad in the so-called resistance to Trump to project on the American founding generation not mere wisdom and judgment but the gift of prophecy. “220 Years Ago George Washington Warned Us about Trump,” reads the headline for an article in “The Hill, a good example of its type. Drawing on the famous farewell speech, the article concludes that our first president had “his inner eye” on our current president.

Nobody has taken this brand of pseudohistorical silliness farther than Peter Daou, a prolific Clinton supporter and busy social-media personality. According to Daou, Alexander Hamilton too gazed into the future and saw a vision of the 2016 election. Many, many times now, Daou has reported on Twitter how gobsmacked he was to discover Hamilton’s predicting, in 1792, that “the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the country is by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion.”

As if that weren’t mindblowing enough, in the crystal ball appears a figure so horribly familiar that Daou calls the epiphenomenon chilling: “When a man unprincipled in private life,” Hamilton goes on,

desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents. . . — despotic in his ordinary demeanor — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the general government and bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day — it may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

Believe it or not,And yes” Daou assures us of the quotation, “it’s real, believe it or not.”

But it’s only sort of real, and the quotation’s slipperiness illustrates the futility, for any real resistance to the current presidency, of this “wowza!” brand of founder-worship. Continue reading

Less History, Please: Part Two

Picking up on my last post — it was about ill-considered efforts, on the part of high-powered members of the certified intelligentsia, to invoke American history in resisting Trump and Trumpism — I’d like to note a few more examples of the trend, giving each example a briefer and more superficial treatment (you’ll be happy to know) than I gave the lone Philip Gourevitch tweet in the last post.

Item.  New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy, Twitter, February 28:

JFK: “I am a Berliner.” DT: ‘My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” That’s about it.

Cassidy’s “That’s about it” exemplifies a common mode in tweet-zinging, the unearned mic-drop that, while intended to drive a point home, exposes weakness in the main gambit. Cassidy is a smart, informed guy, so what’s, exactly, “about it,” in the stark comparison he draws between the JFK quote and the DT quote? JFK’s Cold War foreign policy, so brilliantly personalized in the West Berlin speech, did indeed position the United States as representing the world, or at least the supposedly civilized part of it, and maybe Cassidy sees that approach as having led to a string of successes for world civilization, so glorious that we can only yearn to go back to leadership like JFK’s. If so, he’s entitled to his opinion, obviously, but surely he knows that a complicated public discourse is ongoing, among informed people like him, about the validity and relative success of the US’s efforts to represent the moral conscience of humanity during those years, efforts that in any event were all too often attended by disregard for law and democratic process. Reaction has led in many directions — one of them “America First” Trumpism. Grownup responses to Trump’s heedless reveling in unbaked ideas about national interest just can’t lie in daydreams of questing Kennedy anticommunism. And I suspect somebody like John Cassidy knows that. So what gives with sentimental invocation of the past?

Item. In case I seem to be picking on Twitter, here’s Jelani Cobb, the journalism and history professor and New Yorker staff writer, in the opening paragraph of an article published in that magazine, on possible GOP plans to amend the U.S. Constitution: Continue reading

Now More Than Ever, We Need Less History

Many who are freaked, like me, about the current national crisis are exhibiting a tendency, like mine, to intensify what they were doing before the crisis reached this point and to argue fervently for doing more of it. Whatever we were already doing, that is, has suddenly become what restoration of the body politic seems most desperately to require.

The “now more than ever” thing is everywhere. Since election day, dancers have been saying that now more than ever we need dance, poets poetry, and so on, and the impulse must be natural. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, watching Charlie Rose’s show on TV, I heard David Gergen — then ubiquitous as a moderate-conservative political wiseman — saying something to the effect of “at least in this abruptly changed world, everything we found so revolting about the decline of American culture will no longer have any valence.” Gergen was referring to gangster rap, kneejerk sarcasm — a grab-bag of the rude negativity of the day — and I noticed with a shock that I’d been thinking just the same thing, in that I’d been thinking just the opposite:

At least in this abruptly changed world, I’d been telling myself, there won’t be any place for the likes of David Gergen running his mouth on TV.

We were way off, Gergen and I. Since the autumn of 2001, everything he and I disliked has kept chugging merrily along. We were only assuaging anxiety in a rough time, telling ourselves that the stakes had now become too high to permit one jot more of anything we objected to, reassuring ourselves that the American culture we so loved and found so perpetually wanting might be redeemed, at last, by tragedy: at least then 9/11 wouldn’t be for nothing. David Gergen and I were sharing a strategy for self-comfort.

The phenomenon I’m talking about now is related to Gergen’s and my mood of 2001, yet inverted, flipped from negative to positive. With the election of an unhinged reality-TV huckster to the U.S. presidency, instead of the delusional Well, at least now there can’t be any more of that stuff I hate, many of us have taken up the equally delusional What I love most is the very thing that can save us.

Now more than ever.

* * * *

American historians and others involved in American history are among those saying “now more than ever,” and not surprisingly what historians think we need, now more than ever, is history. Analyzing my own delusion doesn’t save me from participating in it, as I think this post will make overwhelmingly clear. Still, I feel I have a sliver of space in which to question what many people I respect have been doing, lately, regarding American history, and to question my own responses to those efforts. Continue reading