In the infancy of civilization, through the natural course of events, society was ruled by powerful men. Ordained by the gods and by strength of arms, their words were law and their will unquestioned. These men, however, were simply men. Given to excess, madness, jealousy, cruelty, and ruin just like any other men, their countries were simply as good or as deplorable as those that reigned over them.
As such, liberty became the exception rather than the rule. Tyranny became the norm as over time the state exerted incrementally more control and the people became more and more accustomed to the burdens of the state which were heaped upon them. Only rarely, and only with the help of outside influence were the people ever so stressed that revolution occurred on a scale that resulted in meaningful change – and even then, the result was almost always the replacing of one autocrat with another.
In this tradition, the first liberties granted to the people were the result of infighting between powerful forces within a kingdom. Even the Parliament of the United Kingdom, one of the oldest institutions of democracy, was created by the ruling nobles, advisers, and clergy as a result of their feuds with English kings. There was nothing even remotely democratic about Parliament for over 50 years after its inception and to this day many members of its upper house remain lifetime members selected by the government or hereditary members by virtue of their birth.
Democracy as we know it wasn’t truly born until two pivotal points intersected in history. The first was in the United Kingdom where a fierce and bloody fight raged over the role of Parliament which would eventually lead to the English Civil War and the rise of Oliver Cromwell. This was a golden age of philosophy with such greats as Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. It resulted in the rise of the Whigs whose radical elements eventually went on to lead the American revolution. It was, in essence, the inspiration for the philosophies that would become democracy.
To combat the oppression of the monarch and the nobility, the winners of this bloody century favored systems that held the leaders of a country accountable to the people, or at least a large segment of it. They espoused the idea of a government directly ruled by the people in which power was only expressed with the consent of the governed. This was done to safeguard the people and to protect liberty, but as time wore on, the people’s revolution begat anarchy, anarchy begat revolution, revolution restored the monarchy, and the freedoms people fought so hard to secure never materialized.
The second critical point which occurred at the same time was the colonization of the New World. With Atlantic travel taking months and colonies being largely independent not just of the mainland but also of each other, people were left to govern themselves. This lack of direct rule, coupled with the fact that a large number of the colonists were fleeing religious or political persecution resulted in the the establishment of representative democracies up and down New England that were left entirely to their own devices.
The first successful British colonists to the New World immigrated between 1600 and 1620 and carried on uninterrupted at an ever-increasing pace. The English Civil War between royalists and parliamentarians began twenty years later and lasted another decade. When it was all over, Cromwell, leader of Parliament, had ascended to the position of military dictator ensuring that any strides toward democracy were thoroughly ignored. Upon his death in 1660, the United Kingdom nearly descended into anarchy and, at the brink of crisis, the monarchy was restored. The history of the United Kingdom leading up to the American revolution was one that consisted almost entirely of give and take between parliament and king as each struggled for political control.
When the American revolution did occur in 1776, over 150 years of revolution, counter-revolution, philosophy, and debate over the nature and authority of government had played out. Between the the years of colonization and Cromwell and the time of the revolution, numerous works had emerged on the subject. Hobbes’ Leviathan (one of the most influential books on the nature of the social contract ever written) was published in 1651. Locke (if you didn’t learn about him in high school, it’s because the Declaration of Independence was practically plagiarized from his work) wrote from the 1670s until his death in 1704. Montesquieu (who argued for a separation of powers) wrote between 1711 and 1748. Rousseau published The Social Contract (arguing for the sovereignty of the people and the power of the state – effectively, for a republic) in 1762.
The American Revolution itself was sparked when King George III decided that, for the first time in generations, the crown would exert its will upon the colonies. Having been democratic since the first founding over 150 years ago, having immigrated to escape exactly that sort of meddling, and being completely unaccustomed to outsiders telling them what to do, the colonies revolted. After the war had been won, the colonies would govern themselves for another ten years before they drafted the Constitution.
Our Founding Fathers were, in effect, witnesses to a history of a different sort. They had seen tyranny. They had seen democracy. They had closely studied the struggles between parliament and the monarchy. They had seen how difficult it had been to get anything done in a federation. They had seen how the passions of the majority shift and ignite. They’d debated the type, nature, and style of the Constitution for more than a decade by the time they actually sat down to discuss it. Of the 13 colonies, four of them came prepared with prearranged proposals that favored their own interests. Even then it took the signers months toiling in a sealed room with no air conditioning in the middle of summer (tell me you wouldn’t be willing to compromise after that) to draft a document that would be argued over for another year before being adopted.
After all of this, the Founding Fathers had come up with the Constitution: a document that addressed the problems they and their fathers and their grandfathers had grappled with all their lives. They had seen Parliament end in Cromwell’s dictatorship. They had seen Parliament dissolved countless times – both by its supporters and its opponents. They had seen the monarchy ignore the people. They had seen anarchy. They had seen martial law. They had seen Catholics and Protestants take turns oppressing one another. They had seen free speech become treason. They had seen free speech become revolution. They had seen war. They had seen taxation. They had seen trade abuses. They had seen it all.
In short, they’d seen the problems inherent to the dichotomy of democracy and dictatorship. The solution they came up with was to halt the abuses of each system and create a system of government wherein no one really had the upper hand.
The President controlled the army, but he couldn’t pass laws. Congress could pass laws, but the other two branches could both challenge them. The judiciary had no power of its own, but it didn’t answer to anyone, making it the impartial mediator of disputes. The lower house of Congress answered to the people and was made subject to their whims. It favored large states, swift action, and angry rhetoric. The upper house was a counterweight to the lower. It prevented larger states from abusing the smaller ones, buffered the nation against fickle opinion (the Senate was not elected directly by the people, if you recall), and through the filibuster it could easily guard against a majority group rising up to oppress the minority.
But despite all that, the republic we founded was a distinctly and uniquely American creation. We don’t have separatists vying for regional autonomy. We don’t have private armies or nobles capable of raising them. We don’t have people loyal to just the President, or just the Congress, or to the church. We are conditioned to participate in the political process to vent our frustrations. We have the right to carry guns, but not the inclination to use them. Our racial problems are nothing like genocide or apartheid. The people of one state have never waged brutal campaigns of conquest against another and left scars of slavery and death upon one another. There is no mistrust of people from one state or another. The government lacks no legitimacy. The country isn’t just able to feed itself, it’s the breadbasket of the world. We don’t have a problem with poverty. We don’t have a servant caste. We have prosperity. We have social mobility. We make living wages.
We don’t have cause for a revolution. There is no grievance for which we have no resolution. We don’t need a dictator. We do not suffer from anarchy or war or any calamity for which we would need a quick, strong, unquestioned government. The people are not being abused. The government is responsive to the people’s will.
The American political culture is, first and foremost, committed and mature.
Our republic is a compromise between democracy and dictatorship. It is a moderate government because we are a moderate people. We don’t need radical change. We don’t need to be forced to support our government. What we need is to stop and consider the bills that come before congress. What we need are rules to ensure the people are neither taken for granted nor allowed to run out of control. What we need are states that encourage innovation in stewardship and compete with one another in crafting sound policy.
What we really need, more than anything else, is the republic. It works for us. It’s our choice. It’s our system. It’s tailored to meet our needs.
And I support it with every ounce of my being.