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The Evolution of Democracy in America

Updated on May 29, 2017

The Evolution of Democracy in America

The Evolution of Democracy in America

By Michael M. Nakade, MA

(An imaginary situation: a history professor is visiting a high school classroom to answer questions about the evolution of democracy in America)

Moderator: Professor Knotts is a very well-respected scholar in the field of political philosophy. Students, feel free to ask him anything about the topic of democracy in America.

Student 1: How did the idea of democracy begin in America?

Knotts: We must go back to colonial Virginia and Massachusetts. The first settlers were of British origin. They brought with them the ideas of limited government and individual rights. The House of Burgesses was created in 1619 for the purpose of discussing local laws with the royal governor in Virginia. It was a legislative assembly. In New England, the Puritans organized town hall meetings to discuss their everyday issues. Holding meetings to go over important community matters is the most basic element of a democratic society. It is remarkable that the British who came to North America continued this tradition just as soon as they landed in the new world.

Student 2: Professor, I was under the impression that the Puritan New England was anything but democratic. Those super religious folks were an intolerant bunch, were they not?

Knotts: A good point. I can point to the cases of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. They went up against the prevailing beliefs and practices of their respective Puritan communities. As a result, they were banished. But, positive thing came out of this, one of which was that they were able to exercise their right to say “I disagree.” This right is the foundation of a democratic society.

Student 3: I like my right to disagree, but I am afraid that our community would be in a constant chaos if too many people argue about their differences all the time. In other words, we may not have any sense of our community coming together and getting things done if we focus on the right to disagree all the way. What do you say to this?

Knotts: You’re absolutely right about the community becoming chaotic with many competing ideas and opinions on some issues. By its very nature, democracy is messier and more chaotic than other forms of government. This is the price of having a free society.

Student 4: But, professor, it doesn’t have to be chaotic and messy all the time, right? A great leader can bring the community together.

Knotts: Oh yes. That’s why leaders develop public speaking and rhetorical skills to unite people. I can’t imagine a political leader today who is terrible at public speaking. He/she needs to reach his/her audience. With that being said, a democratic society must operate on free speech and the freedom of the press. Different leaders with different ideas compete for audience approval in a marketplace of ideas. The freedom of the press makes this both possible and fair.

Student 5: I remember leaning about the John Peter Zenger case when I was in the 7th grade. My history teacher told me that the colonial society in the 18th century had already recognized the importance of the free press.

Knotts: The Zenger case was about bringing checks and balances to offset a tyrannical governor of New York. Freedom of the press guarantees that people are able to learn about the truth, both good and bad, about our government leaders. Without a free press, there is no democracy. Period. So, it was historic that John Peter Zenger was declared innocent of all charges when he published bad news about the governor of New York in the mid 1700s. After that, political leaders and public figures had to be mindful of the consequences of behaving badly.

Student 6: I am now curious about the Declaration of Independence. How does this document fit into the idea of democracy?

Knotts: For most people, the Declaration of Independence means that all men are created equal. It says that we are all born with the same rights as everyone else. Some of us immediately think of the ensuing long struggle for civil rights, especially for African Americans in this country. Thus, many of us think that the Declaration was a grossly hypocritical document. But, for us historians and scholars, the document is more about the idea of a limited government than anything else. Jefferson insisted that the government derives its just authority from the consent of the governed. With that, he justified the colonists’ desire for independence. The idea was that no government could exercise unchecked power over its people. The power of the government must be limited. The ideas of self-government and limited government are the two sides of the same coin. James Madison explains this idea as follows in his Federalist Papers #51:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Student 7: Could you explain what Madison meant by “the government to control the governed?”

Knotts: Sure. When Madison wrote this, he was advocating for a strong central government. He and Alexander Hamilton felt that the government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to get anything done. There was a peasant revolt called Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, and many of the Founding Fathers felt that the new independent nation was teetering on the brink of anarchy. The government would need to have the power to control the mobs with the rules of law.

Student 7: I see. It seems that there was a tug of war going on between the people who wished to control the mob and the people who were afraid of a government that might restrict civil liberty.

Knotts: A great observation. The U.S. Constitution was a product of that era. It allowed the new federal government to exercise certain powers to do its jobs specified in the Preamble. But at the same time, its power was checked by the built-in system of the three branches. It was a brilliant piece of work because it let the people of the United States have a self-government that would limit itself of power.

Student 8: My 7th grade history teacher told me that the idea of democracy was too radical at the time. The Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were actually more worried about democracy. Would you explain this?

Knotts: God bless Hamilton. He was so smart that he wasn’t always very patient with the folks who were of average intelligence. He felt that the ordinary “Joes” and “Bobs” had no business discussing the crucial national issues of his day. He was willing to let the elites and the people who had more stake in the society lead the way. People with financial assets and property had bigger stakes in society than those who owned nothing. Limiting suffrage only to the rich and powerful was Hamilton’s way of containing the potential mob rule.

Student 9: Yeah. Hamilton was an elitist. His rival, Jefferson, on the other hand, was not. It makes sense that Jefferson’s political party was called the Democratic Republicans. I would have liked Jefferson much more if I was around at the time.

Knotts: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Jefferson-Hamilton rivalry. The debates between the two have shaped the political debates of this nation all the way up until today. Now, regarding Jefferson, he was a farmer at heart. Since farmers were the overwhelming majority at the time, it is easy to see how his belief in the value of agriculture reinforced his commitment to democracy. His idea was that cheap and available land in this vast country would lay the foundation for a farmer’s paradise in the future. He even declared in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) that “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." He touted the idea that the United States would be an Empire of Liberty where its citizens would not be disturbed by any kind of excessive meddling by the government. It is fitting that the Louisiana Purchase took place during Jefferson’s White House years.

Student 10: Would you explain how this Jeffersonian model later evolved into that of the Jacksonian democracy by the 1820s? Jefferson’s elegant Monticello image and Jackson’s coarse populist image don’t jive well in my head.

Knotts: An excellent question. Jefferson was a Renaissance man, while Jackson was a military hero who came from a rough frontier background. But, they shared a couple of fundamental political beliefs regarding the role of the federal government. Both were extremely suspicious of the moneyed interests of the Northeast and were advocates of a small federal government. The obvious difference was that Jackson was a populist. He enchanted the common people and took advantage of the anti-establishment feelings among those common folks. It just so happened that the property requirement for suffrage was removed in the US by the mid 1820s. Politicians after that had to learn the art of connecting with the averages “Joes” and “Bobs.” Jackson did very well in this art. Jefferson, on the other hand, didn’t need to be a hero among the average “Bobs” and “Joes” of his day simply because those folks didn’t vote.

Student 11: Being a girl, I find the whole discussion of democracy hypocritical. The U.S. government denied 50% of the population the right to vote until 1920. What took them so long?

Knotts: I knew this question was coming at some point today. You are right. This nation did not give women the right to vote in the federal election until the 20th century. This just goes to show you how deep rooted men’s prejudice was against women. But, like I said earlier, there was a national tradition of being able to complain in this country. Starting with someone like Judith Sargent Murray, there were many brave women who demanded gender equality. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention made it public that women, too, should vote. But, the thing called the Cult of Domesticity had a very firm grip on men and women alike in those days. So, it was a struggle for women to win the right to vote because there was a mindset at the time that women needed to be subservient to men.

Student 12: What about the African-Americans? They have been treated so poorly in this country. Democracy based on equality before the law was not happening for them.

Knotts: I knew that this question, too, would come up at some point today. Yes. You are right. African-Americans faced challenges like no others in this country. Even after the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, they did not enjoy the same rights as the white citizens. It took the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to finally get them over the hump. Slavery ended in 1865, but white racism against the African-Americans did not end. But, like those aforementioned women, they were allowed to voice their complaints. And to me, that’s the key. In a democratic society, people are allowed to complain when they feel that something isn’t right, even if they belong to a minority group.

Student 13: So, Professor Knotts, is the U.S.A. today very democratic?

Knotts: Personally, justice and fairness are the best indicators of how democratic a nation is. Equality before the law is absolutely the most important indicator. The freedom of the press, a free election, the peaceful transfer of power, and the transparency of political leaders’ private assets also indicate how truly democratic a nation is. The U.S.A. isn’t perfect, but it is pretty good compared to other powerful nations like Russia and China.

Moderator: We’re out of time. Thank you, Professor Knotts. It has been most interesting to learn about the evolution of democracy in America. (Applause)

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