The story goes that Benjamin Franklin was approached by a woman as he left the Constitutional Convention (1, 2). She asked, “What have you given us?” Franklin is said to have replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
This exchange was common knowledge 50 years or so ago, as commonly taught to schoolchildren as the story about George Washington’s boyhood experience practicing a woodcutter’s skill on his father’s prized cherry tree and, later, refusing to lie about it. It turns out, the tale about Washington was a lie. But Franklin’s conversation with Mrs. Powell really occurred. Why is it, then, that most people are still aware of the fiction about Washington but are ignorant of the fact about Franklin and, in particular, the truth of Franklin’s comment?
Today many, if not most, people believe the Founders gave us a democracy, instead of a constitutional republic, or a hybridized version of the two, called a democratic republic. A Lincoln Journal Star reader recently took this latter position, and, in making his point, commented that the Founders were “pro-democracy.”
Only someone who is oblivious, both to history and to the writings and beliefs of the Founders, could make such a statement. In fact, the Founders unanimously condemned democracy as a form of government.
– In Federalist No. 10, James Madison, often referred to as “the father of the Constitution,” said, “[D]emocracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths.”
– Alexander Hamilton concurred. In a speech he gave in June 1788, urging ratification of the Constitution, he thundered: “The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”
– At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Edmund Randolph said, ” . . . that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.”
– John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
– Chief Justice John Marshall observed, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”
– Thomas Jefferson said: “The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society.”
– Fisher Ames, a member of Congress during the eight years that George Washington was president, wrote an essay called “the Mire of Democracy.” In it, he said that the framers of the Constitution “intended our government should be a republic, which differs more widely from a democracy than a democracy from despotism.”
But why this apparent hatred for democracy? Isn’t “majority rules” the fairest of all possible forms of government? Stay tuned for thoughts on these and other questions.
(1) Recorded by Constitution signer James McHenry in his diary, which was reprinted in 1906. Reference.
(2) A picture of McHenry’s diary page at the Library of Congress.