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. They and their ancestors had known only representative legislative bodies. So what they and their ancestors had long argued about, far more than they ever argued about the abstract issue of direct democracy, had to do with the concrete issue of how democratic a representative body should be. And their answer was “not very democratic at all.” Far more often and far more significantly, therefore, the founders used the term “democracy” to refer 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, he reminded his fellow delegates why they were there: “our chief danger arises,” he said, “from the democratic parts of our constitutions.” 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 on all sides of a lot of other issues agreed was 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, sed “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.

Then again, 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, since there was no such thing to worry about, 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, discoursing on theories of government with no relevance to the debates of his day, threw it out there in The Federalist and for some it’s stuck, allowing otherwise penetrating thinkers 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. That’s what was bugging the founders; that’s why they called the convention that became the constitutional convention. Some activists had been urging and even putting in 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 about representation, 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.



4 thoughts on “What Did the Founders Mean by “Democracy”?

  1. With all due respect, the Framers were united in one thing, which is to maintain power among the elite. Call it what you want, but the electoral college and the un-elected Supreme Court, which has the last word in all legislation, concentrate power among the few and created not a democracy, nor a republic, but a legalized oligarchy which has remained and grown ever stronger over the years.

    • I can’t disagree factually with anything you state, but your analysis should be tempered with historical context. (There was nothing immoral about a troglodyte killing another troglodyte for his cache of food if it would help his family and therefore his way of life survive.) Much of the decision making process of the earliest American patriots was based on nothing more than survival of the republic. Thirteen self-governing colonies with extraordinarily diverse ideas of what self-rule actually should look like was no formula for the formation of a nation. If power in the hands of elite actors was necessary for the survival of the early republic, how can you now condemn them for their decisions? Many of our founding fathers died rather than submit to the rule of a despot. You may cry out against a “legalized oligarchy,” but are you willing to die for your principles as they were?

      • Milord,
        Thanks for your reply. I doubt I would have been willing to die for principles then, and I’m not willing to do it now. I’m no martyr, but feel more like the civilian caught in the cross-fire between warring factions.

        My main point was and is that the oligarchy still rules, and so does the military state, no matter what you call it. The federal government has become a monster, and I’m not sure we are better off for having been united. I realize I’m probably a minority of one.

  2. This is, once again, a 100% Opinion piece by leftist writer. The founders did NOT unite under the precept that an elite republic was favored nor did they believe we were a sole democracy. The arrogance of this writer in saying the founders used their words incorrectly is beyond imagination. So the highly intelligent founders of the very law that made this one of the freest nations of all time didn’t know what they were saying but this asshole opinion writer knows better? This is the leftist disease. A mental illness that believes they know better than all mankind throughout history. Our founders didn’t know best we do. Yes socialism has failed every time always but our version is the one they overlooked. Men can’t speak about women’s reproduction….. every male doctor and male gynecologist must be devastated by this new revelation.

    American upon conception was set up to be the People’s Representative Republic and this is confirmed by the founders proper use of the language and the federalist papers, and every other correspondence ever transmitted by the founding fathers.
    This opinion piece is disgusting.

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