The Founders vs. American Democracy

Here’s another comment that helps refine the discussion I’m interested in, this time posted on New Deal 2.0 in response to my final “Founding Finance” post there:

I am curious where Jefferson (and for that matter Madison, Adams, Washington, and the other main framers) spoke hesitantly about democracy, the people, and the state legislatures. Conservatives would be surprised and it would undermine their ‘rely only on the framers’ approach.

Secondly, it would be interesting to see what the regulators and radical democrats philosophy on private property. If the elite were concerned about the violation of natural rights against private property when it came to paper emissions, what was the radicals’ response? Did they have a philosophy when the constitution was being debated?
Posted by Brian | May 11th, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Paraphrasing my response posted there: Heavy questions, superficially and briefly addressed here. I see Jefferson on democracy as a tricky issue. In some ways he was the standout firebrand populist radical among the famous founders, what with his excitement about the social equality espoused by French revolutionaries, his admiration for those who labor in the earth, and his many pronouncements regarding the sovereignty of the people. But he did not want to break the connection between property ownership and the right of representation (as radical democrats of the period like Paine did), believing with other high Whigs of his day [UPDATE: Along with others whom “high Whigs” might have disdained as grubby moneymen] that the old property-liberty connection was ineluctable. And where his agrarian sentiments inspired him to trust the political judgment of small agricultural operators, he feared and loathed what he called “the mobs of great cities,” where people “get piled up” and become corrupt. (Funny, since he was pretty rah-rah about the actions of the Paris crowd.)

Madison is tricky too, since he collaborated with Hamilton on “The Federalist,” urging ratification of the Constitution, and then construed the Constitution as disallowing Hamilton’s federal activism. Ultimately, in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, JM defended a right of states to nullify federal law. But he and Hamilton were as one in condemning the susceptibility of the pre-1787 state governments to the pressures of democratic finance, and he was as revolted as Robert Morris by the finance mechanisms that the democratic movement embraced. See the famous Federalist 10 for his negative attitude about paper money and populist debt relief.

Adams on democracy is characteristically blunt. “Thoughts on Government” explains clearly why it’s a bad idea to open the franchise to the underpropertied, and in his slams on Paine, which I discussed in another post in the series, he uses “democratical” to mean mob rule. Nobody could have had less regard for ordinary Americans, whenever they criticized anything he wanted, than Washington. He couldn’t even see the Whiskey Rebellion protests as homegrown: there was no way, to him, that the American crowd could have come up with this stuff on its own; the people had to have been brainwashed by the French (never mind that the French Revolution was inspired by the radical Pennsylvania one). And as I discussed in yet another post in the series, Edmund Randolph opened the Constitutional Convention by saying that what it had to redress were “insufficient checks on the democracy.” Which it assertively did.

On the radical democrats’ attitudes about private property: they vary. Those people shared a critique of elite finance, but they were not walking in lock step. They all wanted to disconnect property from rights and liberties, which was indeed radical, opposed by all the famous founders, since the very concept of English liberty had originally been conceived in terms of protecting property from the incursions of the monarch. Some of the radical democrats — Thomas Young and James Cannon, key to bringing about American independence and writing the 1776 PA Constitution — wanted to limit by law how much property any one person could own! That didn’t get into the PA Constitution, and others simply wanted laws that would restrain the political power of property (laws to break up cartels, make taxes progressive, issue paper money and make it legal tender, make low-interest government loans, etc.). I talk about all that in both The Whiskey Rebellion and Declaration.

All of that founding economic, democratic radicalism, which the Constitution pushed back, may be one reason that many in the Tea Party movement, along with others on the right — most notably Glenn Beck — have been quite clear about the fact that the framers were framing up a republic, not a democracy. They’re right about that.

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