Protecting the Republic from Democracy, a lesson from 1787


Elliot’s Debates –Tuesday, June 26, 1787.

As I continue to review my notes for Aristotle in America, I am once again struck by the relevance of the debates in Philadelphia to our current situation. On June 26, 1787 (see link above), the Convention continued to debate the terms, qualifications, and means of electing members to the Senate. At issue was the fear, expressed by James Madison (Virginia), that the landed and wealthy minority, growing ever smaller in relation to the landless and poor majority, would be dispossessed of their property by the majority. Madison was therefore interested in instituting safeguards for the landed and wealthy minority—which he characterizes as “republican.”

We are now to determine whether the republican form shall be the basis of our government. I admit there is weight in the objection of the gentleman from South Carolina [Charles Pinkney]; . . . but we are now forming a body [the Senate] on whose wisdom we mean to rely, and their permanency in office secures a proper field in which they may exert their firmness and knowledge. Democratic communities may be unsteady, and be led to action by the impulse of the moment. Like individuals, they may be sensible of their own weakness, and may desire the counsels and checks of friends, to guard them against the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions. Such are the various pursuits of this life, that, in all civilized countries, the interest of a community will be divided. There will be debtors and creditors, and an unequal possession of property; and hence arise different views and different objects in government. This, indeed, is the groundwork of aristocracy, and we find it blended in every government, both ancient and modern. Even where titles have survived property, we discover the noble beggar haughty and assuming. . . . The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe,–when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures,–will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections? and, unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian-law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The Senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and, to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability. Various have been the propositions; but my opinion is, the longer they continue in office, the better will these views be answered.

New York’s Alexander Hamilton agreed. “This question has already been considered in several points of view. We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism nor the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

We are inclined to view republicanism and democracy as compliments to one another—as, in fact, nearly identical. And, yet, as Madison and Hamilton point out, there is no natural law that says that a democratic majority will protect public interests. Indeed, far more likely is it that a poor and landless majority will find their interests in the rule of a demagogue or tyrant than protect the common wealth along with its public character. So Hamilton warned:

If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy. The difference of property is already great amongst us. Commerce and industry will still increase the disparity. Your government must meet this state of things, or combinations will, in process of time, undermine your system. What was the tribunitial power of Rome? It was instituted by the plebeians, as a guard against the patricians. But was this a sufficient check? No. The only distinction which remained at Rome was, at last, between the rich and poor. The gentleman from Connecticut [Roger Sherman] forgets that the democratic body [the House] is already secure in a representation. As to Connecticut, what were the little objects of their government before the revolution? Colonial concerns merely. They ought now to act on a more extended scale: and dare they do this? Dare they collect the taxes and requisitions of Congress? Such a government may do well, if they do not tax; and this is precisely their situation.

And, so was duplicated the same model as in Great Britain. The U.S. House is the British House of Commons; the U.S. Senate is the British House of Lords.

But, again, what I find striking is the prescience, in this instance, of Hamilton. In the end, it is not the wealthy who will resist taxation, but the poor and landless of Connecticut. And, if Senators do not enjoy independence from “all classes of people,” then how will they resist their demands for “no new taxes”? As Pennsylvania’s James Wilson pointed out, the dangers and instability of democratic rule were in large measure to blame for the reluctance of Europe’s great powers from engaging in trade with the U.S.

If Congress could not guarantee a common, stable currency, if it could not guarantee sufficient receipts to balance its own budget, then how could it guarantee conditions making for reliable trade and commerce?

What is the reason that Great Britain does not enter into a commercial treaty with us? Because Congress has not the power to enforce its observance. But give them those powers, and give them the stability proposed by the motion, and they will have more permanency than a monarchical government. The great objection of many is, that this duration would give birth to views inconsistent with the interests of the Union.

Are Hamilton, Madison, and Wilson right? Given the current impasse over raising the debt ceiling, it would appear so. It is the “democratic body,” the House, that is proving itself intransigent on exercising fiscal responsibility. Likewise, it is the House that is holding firm on its resistance to raising revenues and protecting the public weal.

More to the point, the framers appeared far more realistic than our present-day democratic idealists when they recognized that independence, in this instance, means independence from private money; thus the demand that the Senate receive its compensation not from the States they represent, but from the Federal Treasury.

Republican government—government that protects res publica, the common wealth—requires independence from private enterprise.

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