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. Continue reading


“Occupy Wall Street” and the History of Democratic Finance Protest

This is a rallying cry?

Given some of my key subjects, I can’t help but be interested in the “occupy” movement that, at the moment, has a few hundred protesters [UPDATE: Now a lot more; I was there on Tuesday] more or less living in Zuccotti Park near the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan, and is apparently starting to engage in similar protests in other cities. You can’t find out much about this action via “mainstream media,” and even much of the left media, such as it is, has been critical in some cases, and outright dismissive in others, regarding the movement’s evident formlessness and absence of specific goals.

That absence is pretty much undeniable. Still, in Salon, Glenn Greenwald has shrewdly criticized liberal-Democrat scorn for Occupy Wall Street. On the other hand, Mother Jones criticizes the movement on bases other than those that Greenwald attacks. . . .

But I write about the deep, founding roots of rowdy, American populist protest and insurrection, often visionary and even utopian, yet informed and practical too, specifically over money, credit, and the purpose and nature of public and private finance. And despite my pop-narrative books on the subject, and despite my articles here, and in such place as Newdeal20.org (articles picked up by AlterNet, Huffington, Salon, Naked Capitalism, and others), key indicators of my relative impact (like royalty statements!) give me a sneaking suspicion that most people still don’t connect the American founding period with a rugged drive on the part of ordinary people for equal access to the tools of economic development and against the hegemony of the high-finance, inside-government elites who signed the Declaration and framed the Constitution and made us a nation.

Sometimes people even ascribe democratic ideas to the famous upscale American Revolutionaries, who to a man actually hated democracy and popular finance. Paine, the exception, was ultimately rebuked and scorned by all of the others. [UPDATE: Anyway, Paine wasn’t one of them; I threw him in defensively because consensus-history types like to “include him in” on the basis of “Common Sense,” while including his social/economic radicalism out.]

The difficulty in dealing with our founding battle for democratic economics arises in part because the movement was not against England but against the very American banking and trading elites who dominated the resistance to England. That complicates our founding myth, possibly unpleasantly. Also, it was a generally losing battle. With ratification of the Constitution, Hamiltonian finance triumphed, and people looking to Jefferson and Madison for finance and economic alternatives to Hamilton are barking up the wrong tree, since what those men knew, or even really cared, about finance could be written on a dime. (Anyway, in pushing for creating a  nation, Madison supported Hamiltonian finance down the line. Their differences came later.) When Occupy Wall Street protesters say “It’s We the People!”  they’re actually referring to a preamble, intending no hint of economic democracy, to a document that was framed specifically to push down democratic finance and concentrate American wealth for national purposes. Not very edifying, but there it is.

The Tea Party, meanwhile, has taken up founding economic issues from a right-wing point of view, associating itself with the upper-middle-class Boston patriots (often mistaken for populist democrats) who led a movement against overrreaching British trade acts in the 1760’s and were important to the impulse toward American independence. I’ve written fairly extensively about where and how I think the Tea Party goes wrong on the history of the founding period. But at least they’re framing their objections to current policy, and framing the historical roots of their ideas, not mainly in cultural but in economic terms.

Like it or not, though, it is Occupy Wall Street that has the most in common, ideologically, not with those Boston merchants and their supporters but with the less well-known, less comfortably acknowledged people who, throughout the founding period, cogently proposed and vigorously agitated for an entirely different approach to finance and monetary policy than that carried forward by the famous founders. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Is Social Democracy French?

not a whiskey rebel

Wow. In the comment thread on Naked Capitalism, regarding my final New Deal 2.0 “Founding Finance” post, the commenter Peripheral Visionary offers the best-informed, most gracefully and concisely written summary I’ve ever seen of the classic interpretation of the American founding from which my work is precisely intended to dissent. This is so commonly believed, so perfectly put, and so utterly the reverse of what I’ve come to think that I quote it at length:

An interesting assessment, and I generally agree that the Founders’ views were quite complex and varied, and not easily summarized.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that social democracy ultimately had its roots, not in the American revolutionary state, but in the French revolutionary state. That explains its particular emphasis on class, and its focus on the division between capital and labor; both were key features of Western Europe, but not as prevalent features of the American state, which was dominated by independent farmers and craftsmen (hence, with capital in many if not most instances being owned by labor, and therefore with only vaguely-defined class distinctions, the South being the major exception).

In the founding American state, the route to relief of poverty was not through the state (and it is difficult to believe such a thing would even have been considered), but rather through the frontier. The frontier served as an enabler of the otherwise disempowered, who by way of the homestead acts could secure property, independence, and the means of supporting themselves (all at the expense of Native Americans, of course–but then, redistribution programs are zero-sum and therefore always come at a cost to someone else). That “outlet” consistently relieved pressure on the impoverished areas of the East and the South, which would go a long way toward explaining why socialism gained little traction in the 19th Century. Only in the 20th Century, with the last of the frontier exhausted, could socialist tendencies, in the form of social progressivism, gain traction. When Steinbeck’s Joad family goes west in the California of the 1930′s, they find an oppressive class state; had they gone west just fifty years earlier, they would have found open land and opportunity.

That’s the reading that I think a realistic look at finance in the founding period turns upside down.

For example: No, social democracy does not have ultimate roots in the French revolutionary state. For better and for worse, the French revolutionary state had roots in the Pennsylvania revolutionary state. Continue reading

Thomas Paine and the Democratic Revolutionaries: Egypt 2011, America 1776

To the young democratic resisters in Egypt, some of whom I’ve heard saying in street interviews that they admire the American Revolution, I want to say something complicating. (No, I don’t literally think they’re taking time out of changing their country and the world to follow my blog — but hey, you never know!) This: It’s a somewhat bleak fact that the only successful American founding-era revolution for democracy occurred in Pennsylvania in 1776 — and that wasn’t the Continental Congress’s declaring independence from England.

This may be annoying. There may be times for believing in the big, uncomplicated American narratives, and this may be one of them. But Egyptians want democracy, and our famous Declaration was not a declaration for democracy, and since that’s what my books are about, I’m seeing events in Egypt a certain way.

(For what it’s worth, that is. Back when I was shouting and waving my fist in the steet, I didn’t live in a military dictatorship. And I sure didn’t go back the next day to sweep up. Respect.)

Anyway, the real 1776 democratic revolution I’m talking about is at once an inspiring and a cautionary one for worldwide democratic revolutions today.

I should note that everything I know about politics in Egypt I’ve learned from the papers and the radio in the past month. Like so many others, I’ve followed the uprising there with bated breath because of its nonviolence and the strange — possibly unique? — relationship of the military to both the protestors and the regime. With everyone else, I await next steps. Will a government that has been a military one for generations actually enable real elections and subordinate the military to representative civilian authority? Maybe. But if so, the ironies will be many. BBC and others have reported that it is the younger officer corps (not young, younger) that groks the civilian-control thing — and that’s because unlike their Soviet-tutored elders, they’ve grown up under the influence of the U.S. alliance and studied in our war colleges. That would mean our long alliance with a military dictatorship may have had a liberalizing influence on its military. Hm.

There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.

That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.

Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine. Continue reading

John Adams the Yankee v. Samuel Adams the Puritan

Over at American Creation, there are a couple of related posts from the always thought-provoking Jonathan Rowe on topics with great appeal for me. One is a link to an older post, on Rowe’s other site The One Best Way, about John Adams’s liberal ideas on religion; the other is on the illiberality of the Puritan tradition that Adams sprang from.

It’s a tradition I admire in certain ways, intellectually, so it’s always good to get a reminder, which Rowe gives in the piece, of the Taliban-like nature of its criminal code. In writing about the fallacy of associating ideas in the Mayflower Compact, say, with ideas in the Declaration of Independence — something Rowe rightly says “Christian Americanists” (and I’d add liberal, consensus-oriented history teachers) are wont to do — he has fun with the stark fact that Adams’s thoughts on religion would have gotten Adams executed in Puritan New England. Good stuff, just the kind of conflict people should be entertained and enlightened by thinking about.

Rowe’s discussion throws new light for me on the importance of Samuel Adams, not John, in bringing about American independence in 1776, and why that importance has been so little explored in a realistic way. That’s what I do explore in Declaration, and an important part of that story turns on the strange partnership between Samuel and John, with John then the junior player, beginning to emerge.

The religious differences between them are only implicit in the book. But now I think it would have been a good move to bring those differences out more fully, as part of my Boston back-story chapter. Samuel’s deep roots in Puritan thinking are key to my story — he famously wanted to make New England a “Christian Sparta.” But I glossed over John’s rationalist, skeptical, possibly unitarian religious leanings, although they are part and parcel of something I did try to bring to life, his more pragmatic approach to politics, his becoming a man of New England’s liberal future, a Yankee, not a Puritan.

It’s occurred to me so many times, and now in a newly focused way, that establishment history has favored the liberal, rationalist, unitarian, Deist, tolerant (yet more or less observant) founders like Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams, and has never known what to do with the illiberal ones, like Samuel Adams. Paine is another example. When it comes to supposed outliers like them, religion and politics meet strangely in historiography. And founding history gets distorted. Continue reading

Founding-Era Reading List: Leftist History, Part 2

(Part One is here. )

From a modest but notable spike in page views for my first entry in this category, I get the feeling these lists might have some actual value. I’ll interlink them as I go. (The “Tory History” list, coming soon, will be briefer and might be interesting too. Others may follow after that.)

As a reminder: The biggest category at play here is “works of serious academic scholarship — by trained historians, that is — that have had an impact on the stories I tell in Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion.” In those books, I try to base genuinely page-turning, character-driven narrative on the conflicts exposed by genuine critical  history. I don’t see many other people really going for that, so my lists are uncomprehensive, personal to my work.

Some works I cite are good reading and some just aren’t. I’ll try to annotate that as I go, but I don’t know the tolerance levels of any particular reader in this area, so wouldn’t want to try to be definitive on “readability.” Many books people find highly readable (those by a certain late Swedish crime novelist, e.g.) I find unreadably banal and inept, so who knows.

I invite comment on these lists, which might even lead to dialogue among teachers, students, readers, etc.? — And if so inclined, push elsewhere to those who might be interested.

As to this particular post: It continues the sub-category, “left history”– real left history, Marxist by extraction, not the lefty-liberalism defined as “far left” by right-wing talkshow hosts. … Continue reading