The People as a Problem to be Contained
As the United States' depressed, distracted, disorganized, and demobilized populace watches the vicious white-nationalist and authoritarian Donald Trump and the arch-reactionary Republican Party craft a Supreme Court yet further to the right of majority public opinion, the worst of the nation's slave-owning Founders might just be heard chuckling in their graves.
Democracy -- the rule of the majority -- was the last thing the nation's aristo-republican Founders wanted to see break out in their new republic. Drawn from the elite propertied segments in the new nation, most of the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention shared their compatriot John Jay's view that "Those who own the country ought to govern it." As the celebrated U.S. historian Richard Hofstader noted in his classic 1948 text , The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It: "In their minds, liberty was linked not to democracy but to property." Democracy was a dangerous concept to them, conferring "unchecked rule by the masses," which was "sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty."
Protection of "property" (meaning the people who owned large amounts of it) was "the main object of government" for all but one of the U.S. Constitution's framers (James Wilson), as constitutional historian Jennifer Nedelsky has noted. The non-affluent, non-propertied and slightly propertied popular majority was for the framers what Nedelsky calls "a problem to be contained."
Anyone who doubts the anti-democratic character of the Founders' world view should read The Federalist Papers, written by the leading advocates of the U.S. Constitution to garner support for their preferred form of national government in 1787 and 1788. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued that democracies were "spectacles of turbulence ... incompatible with ... the rights of property." Democratic governments gave rise, Madison felt, to "factious leaders" who could "kindle a flame" among dangerous masses for "wicked projects" like "abolition of debts" and "an equal division of property. " Extend the [geographic] sphere [of the U.S. republic]," Madison wrote, and it becomes "more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and act in union with each other."
At the Constitutional Convention, Madison backed an upper U.S. legislative assembly (the Senate) of elite property holders meant to check a coming "increase of population" certain to "increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings" [emphasis added]. "These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former."
In Federalist No. 35, the future first U.S. secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, argued that the common people found their proper political representatives among the small class of wealthy merchant capitalists. "The idea of an actual representation of all classes of people by persons of each class," Hamilton wrote, "is altogether visionary." The "weight and superior acquirements of the merchants render them more equal" than the "other classes," Hamilton proclaimed.
Somebody tell Lin-Manuel Miranda!
Checkmating Popular Sovereignty
The New England clergyman Jeremy Belknap captured the fundamental idea behind the U.S. Founders' curious notion of what they liked to call "popular government." "Let it stand as a principle," Belknap wrote to an associate in the late 1780s, "that government originates from the people, but let the people be taught...that they are unable to govern themselves."
It wasn't just about teaching "the people" that they were incapable of self-rule, however. The Constitution was designed to make sure the popularity majority couldn't govern itself even if it thought it could. The rich white fathers crafted a form of "popular government" (their deceptive term) that was a monument to popular incapacitation.
The U.S. Constitution divided the federal government into three parts, with just one-half of one of those three parts (the House of Representatives) elected directly by "the people" -- a category that excluded blacks, women, Native Americans and property-less white males (that is, most people in the early republic). It set up elaborate checks and balances to prevent the possibility of the laboring multitude influencing policy. It introduced a system of intermittent, curiously time-staggered elections (two years for the House, six years for the Senate, and four years for the presidency) precisely to discourage sweeping popular electoral rebellions It created a Supreme Court appointed for life (by the president with confirmation power restricted to the Senate) with veto power over legislation or executive actions that might too strongly bear the imprint of the "secretly sigh[ing]" multitude.
It sanctified the epic "un-freedom" and "anti-democracy" of black slavery, permitting slave states to count their disenfranchised chattel toward their congressional apportionment in the House of Representatives.
The Constitution's curious Electoral College provision guaranteed that the popular majority would not directly select the U.S. president -- even on the limited basis of one vote for each propertied white male. It is still in effect.
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