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, 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” as 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 didn’t want direct democracy; he wanted a unicameral representative legislature and no property qualification for voting for representatives there. 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 wing exists 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.


9 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.

      • It’s not hard. The decisions were necessary maybe, to their priorities but that’s all they are. Our priorities are different. Maybe theirs should have been too. A unified USA might not have been the best outcome.

        And, yeah, as a non-white person who has protested I’ve put my safety at risk.

  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.

    • Dear Tim,
      Your use of insults and obscenities does not help your case – whatever it is. And your digression into decrying “the leftist disease” (whatever that is) and your further maundering about socialism utterly destroys whatever chance you might have had to convince anyone of anything.

    • Aww did it hurt your feelings someone had an honest and unromanticizied opinion about the founders? I’d trust the guy with the measured analysis over your highly emotional and hysterical response any day of the week.

  3. Is it not odd how since WWlI, so many other governments around the world have adopted this pretty title “democracy” for political systems that are anything but? Why? It plays well on the public stage with ignorant, gullible fools comprising the masses of voters. Like America’s government, these governments referred to as “democracies” are not democracies by any stretch of the definition. How did this happen? Simple, the hidden race that runs the US government runs these other governments as well. These are the great liars and deceivers holding the immense power of global finance to “persuade” government leaders around the world to do their bidding.

    These liars know that from the subconscious to the conscious level, the pretty word “democracy” brings forth the idea of the common man having political power, despite having his voice strained through a bought and paid for representative. In the same manner, monarchs held that they represented the will of the people under their rule – whether or not the people agreed to it.

    Thus, the idea of the people having power by having a voice in government plays well to the masses, especially in a totalitarian police state. The concept of democratic voting is especially efficacious in rallying masses to government will. After all, what can voters say but “my vote validates this system. No matter how corrupt, I voted for it, therefore my ‘voice in government’ provides my full support for its leadership.”

    “Democracy” is a pretty word that tugs at the emotional heartstrings of gullible fools. It is therefore advantageous for propagandist to use such pretty terms to sway people’s thinking. The concept of democracy is that the people run the government; when the fact is American citizens have zero voice in government. Evidence presented for democratic influence, like letters to a congressional representative, are pure bullshit. Try it; see if your letters have any effect.

    Of course, your letter has to be in opposition to the issue being promoted by the politicians. Obviously asking a representative to support Israel is an issue for which one can easily garner positive support from virtually every representative. Asking a representative to support Israel is like asking them to vote for higher Congressional salaries. However, write a letter to your representative demanding government stops all support for Israel and see how far you get.

    Have you noticed how elections have all the substance of a sporting event, with each side yelling “Our team! Our team! We’re number one!”? But who really profits? Not the fans, but the sport teams’ owners. It really doesn’t matter to owners who wins or loses, as there will be another game next week; another game where opposing fans will gather and pay willing support for their team. To those holding vested interest in a team’s ownership, all that really matters is that the game is played and the fans pay to watch.

    The Soviet Union’s judeocommunist lied; saying the power of the Soviet government was held in hand of the “proletariat,” the “working classes,” when the truth was power was in the hands of a few scheming elites that eventually slaughtered some 66 million indigenous Russian citizens against their “will.” Power in America is now in the same hands. Thus it should be no surprise to find the same racial tribe wielding the same oppressive power as their judeocommunist brethren, this time under the pretty title democracy.” In fact, their power over government bears no semblance to the implied definition. In the Soviet Union, power was held by a few elite members of a “politburo” of which more than seventy percent were Jewish by race. Remember too, it was the Jew, Karl Marx, that literally wrote the book on communism.

    These judeocommunist even went to the trouble of holding elections, with mandatory voting required under penalty of law. This kept up the lie, the sham, of the power of the Soviet state being held in the hands of the “proletariat” despite being a single party system that left no choice for the common man, but to obey the demands of a terrorist state he supposedly ran.

    As in present day America, the Soviet citizen only held the “power” to do exactly what they were told, or else face being crushed under the boot of a militarized, terrorist police state. This is why America now looks almost identical to the old judeocommunist’s terrorist, police state with the very same form of highly centralized government whose power is focused in the hands of an alien race that cares not a whit for the future of the nation or its people, outside what can be profitably squeezed from its substance.

    The judeocommunist terrorist police state can be clearly seen in the Soviet styled, Department of Homeland Security. It is telling that, like the judeocommunist politburo, its creators and agency head were Jews. In fact, Michael Chertoff hired his judeocommunist tribal brethren Markus Wolf, East German spymaster, as his top advisor for “Homeland Security.” Wolf was primarily noted for his leading role in creating the most oppressive, totalitarian terrorist surveillance state in history.

    Argue all you want over terms. Contemplate endlessly how many republican and democratic pinheads can dance around terminology, but a monstrous, terrorist police state is still a monster, no matter what pretty terms might be applied to hide the fact.

    • Interesting post, but its listed post date is March 28, 2019. I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy and history lately, and was interested to learn that Plato claimed “democracy killed Socrates.” But ancient Athens was far from being a “democracy” in literal terms, (Gr.: demos-the people; kratos-authority). According to Will Durant in “The Story of Philosophy”: of Athens’ 400,000 inhabitants, 250,000 were slaves, and of course women didn’t have any voice.

      Socrates took great pleasure in pinning people down on terminology, which may be why he riled people up enough to get himself condemned to death. In the current epoch, fuzzy terminology is especially insidious. This may be intentional or from lack of education. Certain buzz words, like “democracy,” are emotionally laden and mean very different things to different people.

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