The Founding Fathers and the Lack of Beeswax


Andreas Kluth was kind enough to comment on my post on the parallels between democracy and religion; he linked to some of his writings on democracy to further enlighten our readers. I highly encourage everyone to visit his blog – I’ve found a number of his posts there and at The Economist absorbing. Particularly for the history lovers I know who read this blog, I recommend his post on Polybius where I learned (among much else) about the two Greeks who “gave us history.”


In many of the posts we find a more comprehensive view of what Kluth mentioned at the “failed state” debate.


Madison was undoubtably skeptical of democracy over republicanism, as Kluth points out. Accordingly, many of the lessons and warnings about democracy Madison and other founders remind us of should be remembered. Yet, those who would find refuge in our Constitution to temper any overly democratic zealotry should be careful. A pitfall (also a strength in many cases) of democracy even trapped the Founders. However much any Founder distrusted democracy, the fact that they had to ratify the document ensured that it would lean toward more democracy rather than less. In his essential history, America’s Constitution: A Biography, Akhil Reed Amar reminds us of the republic/democracy dynamic.


First Amar informs us that Madison’s use of “republic” was “swimming against the tide of standard eighteenth-century usage. Thus in [Federalist] No. 10 he stipulated his own definition: ‘A republic, by which I mean…’ (as opposed to ‘a republic, by which is generally meant…’). Amar goes on to highlight that “at the same time that Madison was drawing his fine linguistic distinction, other leading Federalists were obliterating it, proclaiming that a “republican” government could be either directly or indirectly democratic.” Most users saw ‘republican’ and ‘democratic’ as distinct not from each other but from ‘monarchy’ and ‘aristocracy’. (p. 276-77)


In an awfully substantial footnote, Amar wades into the debate between scholars on how democratic the constitution is. He sifts out that the relevant question is not “whether the framers themselves were all zealous democrats/republicans” or not, but “whether the Constitution itself as finally enacted (and amended early on) was strongly democratic/republican when viewed in its legal and historical context.” Going on, he asks, “Why would men with less than fully democratic instincts propose a strongly democratic (in context) document?” As I mentioned earlier, the framers had to make a document that was acceptable to the wider public. (p. 279-80)


The Founders clearly applied many lessons from ancient Rome, yet they were unable to fully heed the warnings of the Greek myths. The siren’s song of populism, a hazard in any democracy, endangers liberty. We shouldn’t tie ourselves to the mast like Odysseus, but we must muffle our ears a little. Even from our beginning, the need to appease populist sympathies in any type of democracy is real. This acts as a strength in probably most cases, but Kluth reminds us of Fareed Zakaria’s Foreign Affairs’ article where he demonstrates to us that illiberal democracy and liberal autocracy aren’t oxymorons. In the balancing act between our democratic and republican ideals and our liberty we must forever cautiously adjust.


Final note. Don’t let any of these posts make you think this author disapproves of democracy – it’s just the liberty stifling aspects of it that I wish to mute. Of course, the fact that others and I need to remind readers that we don’t hate democracy every time we criticize it probably proves my original point.

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  1. February 4, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Great discussion. Would you recommend Amar's book? Is the best you've read on the subject?

  2. February 4, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks, I think the topic isn't discussed enough.– I'd def recommend the book to anyone interested in America's history. A note of caution: it's a little less tailored to a general audience than I expected. It's really dense and focuses almost exclusively on the document, not the historical figures writing it. That can be a plus depending on your perspective. Don't let the thoroughness make anyone think Amar is verbose. He's comprehensive and meticulous without being opaque or tedious.

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