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.”

At other times — highly significant times — the founders used the term “democracy” quite differently, referring not to an electorate directly deciding issues but to an electorate made up of too many of the wrong kind of people empowered to choose representatives. When Edmund Randolph called the constitutional convention to order by reminding his fellow delegates why they were there, he said, “our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitutions,” and he wasn’t talking about some exercise of direct democracy going on in the states. That didn’t exist. He was talking about what he and his colleagues saw as an excess of, precisely, representative democracy in the states’ elected legislatures. That did exist, and it was freaking the founders out. Hence the constitutional convention.

Other founders, both at the convention and elsewhere, also used “democracy” with reference to a too-broad, too-well-represented voting public. Sometimes by “democracy” they meant a representative legislature pandering to ill-conceived desires of the masses. Sometimes they meant those masses themselves, “the democracy” synonymous with “the mob,” pressuring weak, fearful state legislatures to give in to their  demands, “levelling” society to equalize wealth.

But sometimes the founders used the term admiringly. Patrick Henry once said that he was coming around to becoming a “democrat” in a John Adams vein — ironic, in that  Adams condemned Thomas Paine’s ideas about government as insanely “democratical,” by which, Lessig again to the contrary, Adams didn’t mean insanely direct but insanely representative. Paine wanted a unicameral representative legislature and no property qualification for voting. Adams wanted property qualifications and a small, elite, upper house to check the popular excesses he envisioned arising from a bigger, more representative lower body. Neither man was talking about direct versus representative democracy. They were disagreeing about representation, and Adams, anyway, was using the word “democracy” to talk about the kind of representation he disdained.

This whole direct-versus-representative thing is a red herring. Madison threw it out there in The Federalist and for some, it has stuck, allowing otherwise penetrating thinkers today to dream up a strong connection between modern democracy and the U.S. founding. The thing that almost all of the framers really agreed on is that a broad franchise for electing representatives creates legislatures overly responsive to the popular will; and that even where the franchise is appropriately, in their view, restricted to white men with sufficient property, and with even more property required for standing for office, any such legislature not further checked by a more elite upper house will still make things too responsive.

New, opposing ideas were out there. Some activists urged and even put into place, most notably in Pennsylvania not, again, direct democracy, but access to the representative franchise for unpropertied men, along with representative legislatures unchecked by upper houses. The framers disparaged those ideas, along with the state legislatures in which those ideas found expression and the people pushing for those institutions, as “democracy.”

We can discuss how we came all the way from the founders’ oligarchic republic, originally designed explicitly to stifle the competing, more representative system they often called democracy, to the actual democratic republic that we now precariously have. It’s not a pretty story, but it did happen, and the right is forever trying to push us back to the time before it happened. But we can’t discuss that subject cogently if we distort the founders’ very vocabulary in order to compete with the rightists in a misguided originalism.



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.

William Hogeland on “The Hamilton Scheme: Enemies and Allies in the Creation of an American Economy”

William Hogeland on

Thursday, July 12, 2018 | 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM

Event Location
Federal Hall National Monument
26 Wall Street, NYC

Historian and author William Hogeland, a contributor to Historians on Hamilton (Rutgers University Press, 2018), will speak on how Alexander Hamilton’s national financial plan worked, why the public remains generally unaware of the details, the extremes Hamilton was willing to go to in order to bring the plan about, and why his opponents (Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin) couldn’t fully dismantle it during 16 years of Republican administration. Talk will be followed by Q&A.

About the Speaker
William Hogeland is the author, most recently, of Autumn of the Black Snake: George Washington, Mad Anthony Wayne, and the Invasion That Opened the West, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He has written books on the Whiskey Rebellion, the backroom politics behind the Declaration of Independence, and founding-era finance, as well as many essays on the realpolitik of the early republic. His next book, now under contract to FSG, is on Alexander Hamilton.

This FREE event is co-presented with the AHA Society as part of CelebrateHAMILTON 2018.


Talks in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan

For the paperback release of Autumn of the Black Snake, in June I’ll be doing a quick swing through the area where the events took place. Happy to say I’m now booked for paid talks at the Fort Recovery Museum on 6/9 and Fort Meigs/Fallen Timbers on 6/14.

I’d be eager to slot in other dates that week in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan — so if anyone knows a group, class, historical society, etc., in the area, with last-minute availability during that week, please let me know and I’ll do my best to keep costs down. Thanks!

“The Revenge of Queen Margaret,” by William Shakespeare

[UPDATE: I’ve taken the project discussed and linked here offline for now. Developments are underway. Further info to come.]

I hereby announce a new project. I just posted it online, largely to establish copyright as I begin to see if I can get it some attention.

It’s not a book or an essay, and it has nothing to do with founding-era U.S. history, which are what most readers of this blog know me for. It’s a play, and a play of a peculiar kind. I’m hoping Shakespeare people, theater people, Wars of the Roses people, history people, literary people, et al, will find it interesting.

In “The Revenge of Queen Margaret,” I’ve unearthed a new Shakespeare history play.

(N.B. The site I’m linking to is by no means optimized for mobile — sorry.)

[UPDATE: The site is no longer active. The script is under development. More soon.]

This new play is all him. I didn’t do any writing, just took the four Shakespeare plays in which Queen Margaret appears — “Henry the Sixth, Parts 1, 2, and 3,” and “Richard III” — and got rid wholesale of everything that isn’t about her, collapsing the four plays into a single play with the violent queen as its main character. [UPDATE That, anyway, is the conceit. The facts are somewhat different, as explained in the Notes to the play.] Shakespeare now takes Margaret from her entry as a young, ambitious person to her exit as an old, dispossessed person. In beteween, she engages in a series of actions that make her, as a woman, an antiheroic protagonist shocking for the drama of the day.

So really this project is what’s known as a radical adaptation of Shakespeare. For years, the aged Margaret was cut wholeasale out of productions of “Richard III,” despite or maybe because of her amazing speeches and attitude. Meanwhile the young and maturing Margaret of the “Henry VI” cycle faded in and out of that story; the cycle itself hasn’t always been taken seriously in Shakespeare circles (some say a lot of it is a straight-up collaboration with Marlowe). For too long, Margaret has thus been ignored, minimized, and cut out.

Now she has a Shakespeare play of her own. In the “Notes” section, posted along with the play, I go into some detail about the dramatic and dramaturgical violence I’ve done, on her behalf, to the original texts.

I don’t yet know what to do with “The Revenge of Queen Margaret.” I’m pretty sure it will be of literary interest, to some — but might it also play onstage? I haven’t heard it spoken aloud yet, so the play’s future as a work of theater remains to be seen.

I should also note that the website I “built” for posting this play is perhaps the single ugliest site I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a  lot. I just wanted to put the text up there fast, as if it had rolled off a typewriter. It also has zero mobile accessibility. Maybe someday this work will get a nicer presentation, but for now, here it is: “The Revenge of Queen Margaret,” a history by William Shakespeare.