THE BLOG

Don’t Just Blame Trump—Anti-Democracy And America Go Way Back

The US Constitution’s principal architect James Madison articulated a deep fear of dissent.

15/06/2017 8:37 AM IST | Updated 15/06/2017 8:37 AM IST
Amir Cohen / Reuters

In a recent interview with the Wire, historian Romila Thapar decried the hostile attitude towards dissent ushered in by the rise of Trump. But such an aversion to dissent is not new—in fact it goes back to the founding of the Republic. When the US Constitution was being drafted, its principal architect James Madison articulated a deep fear of dissent. In fact, he wanted to limit or restrict democracy so that the dissent of ordinary Americans would not find expression in public policy. The resulting Constitution was therefore "an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the era."

[Madison] wanted to limit or restrict democracy so that the dissent of ordinary Americans would not find expression in public policy.

A fundamental misunderstanding prevails about the articulation of rights in the US Constitution, specifically the rights of minorities. In the Federalist Papers, minority rights are discussed in a general sense. However, the Federalist Papers were published to convince the then 13 states of the country to ratify the Constitution. They were publicity documents meant to popularise the Constitution and they did not accurately reflect the debates at the Constitutional Convention, where the founding document was crafted.

There was no ambiguity at the Convention about what was meant by minority and what rights were meant to be protected "above all others". The Constitution, especially the Senate was meant to protect the opulent minority from the ill-conceived passions of the majority. Indeed, what Madison was most concerned about was the property rights of the opulent minority. That he wanted the right to property to be protected from the fluctuations of popular rule, is indicated by the following statement: "Those without property or without hope of acquiring it cannot be expected to sympathise sufficiently with its rights to be the safe depository of power over them." He knew that if the Constitution envisaged the right of adult suffrage, the vast properties of the 1% of his day would likely be confiscated. He cited the example of England to illustrate this point, saying that if the right to vote was made universal "the property of landed proprietors would be insecure and agrarian law would soon take place."

That is why membership in the US Senate, to which a majority of legislative powers were delegated, was filled by indirect election. Members of state legislatures, themselves chosen by a thin slice of property-holding elites, would determine the composition of the Senate. This distance from the populace would ensure that it would consist of men who would "sympathise sufficiently with the right to property" and exclude those with less exalted connections. Even sympathetic Madison biographers like Lance Banning echo this assessment, saying that the Constitution was "designed to deliver power to a better sort of people, excluding those who were not rich, well-born or prominent from exercising political power."

The Constitution, especially the Senate was meant to protect the opulent minority from the ill-conceived passions of the majority.

This insight into the real meaning of "minority rights" can also be gleaned from a discussion about voting rights in the Constitutional Convention. A member of the Convention from Pennsylvania mooted the suggestion that Senators be chosen by popular vote. This elicited a vigorous denunciation from his fellow delegates. One of them, Robert Sherman propounded, "The people should have as little to do as may be about the government...[t]hey lack information and are constantly liable to be misled." Minority rights, therefore, meant the right of the rich to be immune to the dissenting voices of the poor.

This is not to say that Madison wanted the rich and powerful to rule at the expense of everyone else—quite the contrary. Madison believed that the "well-born" had the responsibility and the capacity to rule in the general interest. Unlike the unwashed masses, these "enlightened statesman" who would populate the Senate had the foresight to govern in the long-term interest of society. Still, he did not want the lower classes to disrupt the deliberations of the "benevolent philosophers" of the Senate with their demands.

Such demands were being made.

The Constitutional Convention was convened shortly after Shays Rebellion, an uprising of poor debt-ridden farmers excluded by onerous qualifications from voting or holding office in the state of Massachusetts. In fact a wave of similar uprisings rocked the country as those who had participated in the independence struggle against British rule felt betrayed by an onerous phalanx of debtor-unfriendly laws. The Founding Fathers were alarmed that the farmers wanted a hand in the property of the opulent minority, and balked at their belief that "that the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common properly of all."

This could not be allowed. The flurry of correspondence that followed the season of revolt revealed a determination to draft a Constitution that would act as a bulwark against popular uprisings. The historian Howard Zinn confirms this sense of panic that took hold of the Founding Fathers after Shays Rebellion: "The Constitutional Convention is convened...with the fear of future rebellions." A key objective of fashioning a new system of government is therefore to reduce the risk of future rebellions. This is accomplished in part by instituting voting restrictions that make the Senate an unelected body comprising "the wealth of the nation." It remained this way for well over a century, until the 17th Amendment paved the way for popular elections to the Senate.

More On This Topic

SPONSORED BY THE LIVE, LOVE, LAUGH FOUNDATION