Among the first challenges of the new republic was balancing democracy and authority; an issue which continues to shape American politics today. James Madison, fearing an “excess of democracy”, proposed a system of modest popular participation alongside a clearly defined ruling class.
When constructing the new republic, the founders faced a dilemma. On one hand, they knew that the centralization of authority would result in a self-serving tyranny; therefore, power must be distributed amongst an electorate. On the other hand, if the nation were entirely democratic, it could self-destruct due to the supposed ignorance, disorganization, and greediness of the population. James Madison, as written in the Federalist Papers, believed that the general public would be unable to effectively communicate, bargain, and decide if they were collectively responsible for every decision. Therefore, the Federalists believed the people require responsible (elected and unelected) representatives to rule on their behalf. Likewise, he believed that the nation needs a strong federal structure to unite the states and strategically distribute national power. After the government (then working under the Articles of Confederation) was proven hardly strong enough to suppress a populist revolt in Massachusetts (Shays Rebellion, 1787), the framers realized that too much democracy and too little authority would result in instability; prompting them to organize a constitutional convention.
Under the new Constitution, the federal government increased in size and created safeguards to protect against an excess of democracy, as well as the threat of autocracy. Congress, for example, was divided amongst two houses; a weaker chamber composed of elected representatives (the House of Representatives), and a stronger unelected branch, ideally composed of more static elites (the Senate) who ultimately guided greater decision-making. Blockades to pure democracy are reflected in other workings of the new government as well, such as lifetime term limits for Supreme Court justices and the creation of an Electoral College opposed to direct elections. The power of enforcing voting requirements was to the states; ultimately allowing them to decide their respective electorates. By utilizing the distribution of power amongst two levels and three branches, the framers believed that a system of powerful government could still avoid complete tyranny, so long as power remained distributed amongst the acute electorate.
I see democracy as a spectrum, with the most democratic end inhibiting popular control of all economic and governmental functions, and the other end being a centralized authority which occasionally listens to the voice of the people. The framers were tasked with finding the middle ground between these extremes, and I believe they were motivated by both sincere ideology and a desire to protect their personal interests. Although the framers believed in the fundamental concept of democracy, they still tolerated (and massively benefited from) grotesque inequality, corrupt bureaucracy, and even slavery. However, I believe their justification for these evils comes from the sincere belief that, without them, would come to the economic destruction of the United States and a loss of their personal fortune. The challenge, Madison realized, is how to utilize these evil institutions in ways which best benefit themselves and the general population; starting with the decentralization of governmental (not economic) power and partial embracement of democratic principles.
Originally Written for American National Government
(POL 205, Mount Wachusett Community College)