So why did the Framers of the Constitution reject democracy as a proper form of government? Why had they, in fighting for the natural rights of the American people, rejected ordinary citizens the right to directly influence their government's decisions? If you have read my article on the purpose of the Electoral College, most likely it has left you with one burning question: If we are a democracy, then how does the Electoral College, which at times disregards the popular vote of the people, uphold democratic ideals?
The answer is quite simple: It doesn't. Nor, in fact, does anything about our governmental system uphold democratic ideals. The United States has never been a democracy. A democracy is direct rule by the people. The people make and enact legislation. Our form of government is a republic, a system by which officials elected by the people hold the power, making and enacting legislation. Now, usually, the people do maintain a certain amount of power. That power is the right to elect their officials. If the politicians do not do what their constituents want, then said constituents can vote them out.
But the American Framers understood that too much power in the hands of the people would be detrimental to the success of a free society. This may seem contradictory, but it all hinges on the Framers' adherence to a "majority rule, minority rights" system that was previously discussed in the article explaining purpose of the Electoral College. The Framers feared, above all else, disunity in the young nation. The previous system under the Articles of Confederation had divided too much power among the states and the people, leaving nothing for a strong central government that could make and enforce laws. Under the Articles, the states ran themselves as mini-countries, loosely aligned by a "Congress" that had perhaps less actual power than today's United Nations has over its members. Federal laws were rarely passed, as even one vote of a state's federal representatives could kill legislation. Such votes were common since large and small states were often suspicious that legislation presented by either was meant to undermine the power of the other. In order for all the people to be satisfied, the Framers reasoned, the opinions of the majority must remain politically superior to the opinions of the minority, but the rights of the minority must also be protected.
For modern Americans, this concept seems hard to grasp; when one considers how we elect our leaders today, it seems that our elections are democratic. Our representatives, senators, and state governors, are elected by popular vote. If one were to time travel to the governmental and election systems set up in the 1780s, however, he would likely find an America that he would not recognize.
The original structure of the American government was this: the federal government, the state governments, and the citizenry each had incredibly specific roles. The federal government could create laws affecting the nation, including laws on taxation, commerce, the military, treaties, making and coining money, borrowing money from foreign nations, war, et cetera. The judiciary system was highly structured. Today's system still reflects the one set up by the Framers. The federal courts were arranged so that cases arising from laws could be heard in smaller "district courts," and if one does not like the ruling, he can appeal to a Court of Appeals, and, if he dislikes this ruling, then he will appeal as a last resort to the United States Supreme Court.
The state governments, on the other hand, could make laws of their own to enforce on their respective residents, and their laws would be separate from the federal government. In a case in which a state's laws conflicted with the federal government's, then the state government must defer to the federal government, per the Supremacy Clause of Article VI, Clause 2 of the Constitution. There was one important check that the state governments were allowed: Every state legislature elected the senators for the United States government. To alleviate confusion, the 17th Amendment of 1913 changed this, allowing for the popular election of United States senators (More about this in a future article). States have similar judiciary systems to the federal system, and also have supreme courts, only in this case, if one doesn't like the ruling of his state supreme court, then he can also appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
The role of the people, however, is perhaps the most surprising. Americans today understand that the "people's power" is mainly derived from their right to vote. There remains a common myth about early voting rights, however: Americans are taught that white men alone were the sole voters in the early American period. This could be no further from the truth. In fact, the universal right to vote granted us by the federal government's amendments to the Constitution did not exist. Back then, state legislatures could decide who in their state had the right to vote or not. Most states restricted the right to vote to wealthy landowners. In some states, predominantly Southern but also some Northern, voting rights were restricted to white male landowners. In places like New Jersey, however, women were granted suffrage. In Pennsylvania and Tennessee, free, wealthy, landowning blacks were given the right to vote. At the state level, voters could usually elect their leaders by popular vote, but at the federal level, they were further restricted: at the time, the only popularly elected United States officials were the members of the House of Representatives. Recall that senators were elected by state legislatures. The voters did, as they do now, vote in the presidential elections, however, the President was and is still only directly elected by the members of the Electoral College.
So when Americans today speak of "democracy," they misunderstand the true nature of our government. The Framers never desired nor created a democracy. As earlier stated, the Framers did not want too much direct power in the hands of the people, fearing unwise decisions of a pure majority and the revolt of the minority. The government that the members of the Constitutional Convention wanted was one that would protect the rights and the lives of the American people. Careful consideration gave them to understand that a republic was the best way to do that, and as consequence, they rejected democracy in favor of a strong republican system.
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