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.



One thought 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.

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