The Founding Fathers Were Not Pro-Democracy

Contrary to popular belief, the framers of the of the U.S. Constitution were not pro-democracy by any stretch of the imagination. At heart, they were aristocrats with a social conscience in the tradition of the European noblesse oblige. Their aim was not to create a democracy (the word does not appear anywhere in the Constitution) but to found a republic in which a minority of well-informed citizens elected wise men of unimpeachable integrity sworn to serve the country, not by pandering to the mood of ordinary citizens or to polls, but as their higher conscience mandated, a top-down form of government, not the bottom-up kind taken for granted by modern-day populists.

The “We the People,” in the Preamble did not mean that all the people were to be involved in or consulted to “create a more perfect union, establish justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity . . .¨ Such a momentous undertaking could only be entrusted to an elite few.

In the original version of the Constitution only members of the House of Representatives were to be elected by popular vote. (Article I, Section 2) Moreover, not all citizens were qualified to vote. When the Constitution was ratified in 1790, individual states retained the freedom to set their own voter-qualification laws, which, in ten of the thirteen states, limited voting rights to literate white male property owners. Only Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey granted voting rights to free blacks, provided they were literate and certifiable property owners, which was very rare. In all states illiterate men, white or black who owned no property, slaves, and women, literate or not, as much as 85% of the population, was disenfranchised.

The election of Senators was even more removed from the population at large, and more removed still the election of the President. Senators were to be elected by state legislations (Article I, Section 3), and the President by independent electors appointed by the state legislatures (Article II, Section I).

As Alexander Hamilton explained the process of electing the President: “It was ... desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens {i.e. white property owners} from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. . . . Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, (Federalist Papers #68). Not exactly a populist view.

The full democracy, one-man-one vote in effect today took 181 years to evolve: In 1820 the property ownership requirement was dropped in all states; in 1840 the literacy test; in 1860 New England states granted free African American men the right to vote; in 1870 the 15th Amendment granted the rights to all black men, though Southern states bucked the amendment by imposing exorbitant poll taxes and requiring unreasonable literacy tests, like reading Chinese characters and inverted script.

In 1901 Native Americans in designated tribes were granted citizenship and voting rights; in 1913 the 17th Amendment devolved the election of senators from state legislators to the people; in 1920 the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote; in 1921 the right was granted to Mexican Americans; in 1924 to all Native Americans; in 1943 to Chinese Americans; in 1971 the 26th Amendment granted the right to 18-year-olds; and over time the independent Electoral College of the original Constitution gave way to a system where the electors cast their vote unanimously for the candidate winning the popular vote in their respective states.

Modern-day populists apparently have not studied the Constitution as originally written, or, if they have, they did not understand it.

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