Opinion: What do you do when democracy is too much of a good thing?

The answer is in the U.S. Constitution’s inspired balance between popular rule and centralized power

Editor’s note: In his April 4 address at the general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Dallin H. Oaks spoke of his belief that “the United States Constitution contains at least five divinely inspired principles”: popular sovereignty, the separation of powers, federalism, individual rights, and the rule of law. This essay is the first in a five-part series that will address each of these principles.

December 1789. Thomas Jefferson had been home less than three weeks, and his country was calling again. As United States minister to Paris, Jefferson had relished the sparkle of French wit, the savor of French cuisine and the glories of the gallic countryside. He had also witnessed the opening scenes of the French Revolution.

Now he was back in his native Virginia, just getting settled in his beloved Monticello, when a letter arrived from New York. It was from a fellow Virginian, George Washington — the newly installed first president of the United States of America. Washington wanted Jefferson to serve as his secretary of state. Reluctantly, Jefferson accepted the chief executive’s summons.

Before he left for New York, the infant nation’s temporary capital, Jefferson received a special salute from his neighbors — the people of Albemarle County, Virginia. In grateful response, Jefferson highlighted in just a few lines what for him had been the core meaning of the American Revolution. 

“We have been fellow-laborers and fellow-sufferers,” Jefferson observed, “and heaven has rewarded us with a happy issue from our struggles. It rests now with ourselves alone to enjoy in peace and concord the blessings of self-government, so long denied to mankind: to show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs and that the will of the majority, the natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man.”

The blessings of self-government. That, for Jefferson, was what the colonial rebels had been fighting for during eight long years from 1775 and 1783; and it was what the recently ratified federal Constitution had been designed to secure. 

In the summer of 1776, in the most famous paragraph he ever penned, Jefferson proclaimed “self-evident” truth that “governments ... deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Four score and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln described the country’s deadliest crisis as a test of whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people” could “long endure.” 

For both Jefferson and Lincoln, then, “America” was an experiment in self-government — in what political theorists called “popular sovereignty.” 

The stakes of that experiment were colossal. It encompassed the fate of freedom, not only in America but around the globe. Jefferson and Lincoln believed with many others that the United States had mounted the stage of human history — and that the entire world was watching.

Perspective: Our inspired Constitution

But what did these high-sounding phrases mean? What is self-government or popular sovereignty? Who are “the People” invoked in the Constitution’s preamble? And how can they govern themselves?

The notion of popular rule has ancient roots. It was a central — and hotly contested — concept ancient Greek philosophers and politicians alike. Among the Greeks, rule by the people (the demos, from which we get our modern term democracy) meant two fundamental things. It meant that the people could both choose their own rulers and hold those rulers to account. Some Greek thinkers used a chilling term to describe the people’s rule. The people, they said, were a political society’s proper tyrannos. The demos, that is, was a tyrant.

Tyrant, for these writers, was a neutral term. But it had, then as now, a darker side. It was the people of Athens, after all, who condemned and executed Socrates.

For centuries after the golden age of Greece, thinkers and statesmen warned of the risks of popular rule. In the early days of the French Revolution, one writer observed that the people “is essentially credulous; and, in its moments of fury, it uses ostracism against a great man. It wishes the death of Socrates, bewails it the next day, and a few days later dresses altars for him. The people,” he concluded, “does not know how to govern without passion!” (As if to prove his point, the author of these words, Jean-Baptiste Salle, later had his head severed from his shoulders before a gaping crowd in the streets of Bordeaux.)

Did this mean that the people shouldn’t govern at all? Not necessarily. The key was to distinguish between popular sovereignty and day-to-day governance. The people could govern themselves by delegating lawmaking powers to their chosen representatives. Self-government didn’t require actual governing. It proceeded via representation. It required only what Jefferson called “the consent of the governed.”

The rub was how to secure that consent — how to ensure that representatives pursue the people’s interest, rather than their own, and that legislation reflect the people’s considered wishes, not just momentary passions. This was the conundrum, above all others, that perplexed the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Following the Declaration of Independence in 1776, each American state adopted a constitution of its own. Many state constitutions were strikingly democratic. Pennsylvania was governed almost entirely by a single-house legislature. Most state legislators served for very short terms. “Where annual elections end,” ran a common saying, “tyranny begins.” 

Voters thus had frequent occasion to punish legislators who displeased them, and they made the most of that opportunity. Constantly fearing for their jobs, legislators responded swiftly to shifts in the popular mood. This led them to adopt various measures that were politically popular but fiscally reckless. States lavishly printed paper currency, commanded creditors to accept the worthless cash, imposed punitive trade policies against their sister states, and left their wartime debts unpaid. 

Some observers thought democracy in America had become too much of a good thing. The states, they believed, had swung from one pendulum to the other. Before the Revolution, there had been too little official responsiveness to popular pressures; now, perhaps, there was too much. Before the Revolution, there had been too much centralized power; now, it seemed, there was too little.

The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 sought to strike a happy balance. They aimed to craft a government that would derive its powers from the people and secure the consent of the governed, but also enjoy some independence from shifting popular passions. It was in this respect that Jefferson’s farewell to his Virginia neighbors was incomplete. The new country would not be ruled by “the will of the majority” at any given moment, but by the will of the majority over time.

Hence the Constitution’s sophisticated clockwork — a staggered sequence of elections and terms of varying length. Representatives would serve for two years; presidents for four; senators for six; judges for life. Biannual elections would keep the government accountable, but no single election would radically change its composition. To effect dramatic change, a political movement would need to win repeatedly over time. It would require the people’s enduring approval.

The U.S. Constitution is a document filled with principles for the world to emulate

None of that would matter, of course, unless the proposed Constitution acquired the people’s immediate approval through ratification. By its own terms, the Constitution would enter into force only if conventions in nine states ratified it. The delegates in Philadelphia had spoken in We the People’s name. It was now the People’s turn to speak for themselves.

By modern standards, the process by which the Constitution was ratified was intolerably exclusive. Few Black Americans or other people of color — and no women — voted for delegates to the state ratifying conventions. But modern standards have been shaped by impulses and ideals that ratification helped unleash. By the standards of the late 18th century, the process was astonishingly democratic — almost breathtakingly inclusive. Property qualifications for voting — and for service as delegates — all but evaporated. Up and down the eastern seaboard, more freemen were allowed to vote or stand for election than ever before anywhere in the world.  

“True,” writes Akhil Amar, a law professor at Yale, the ratification process “fell far short of universal suffrage as modern Americans understand the idea, but where had anything close to universal suffrage ever existed prior to 1787?”

The answer, of course, is nowhere. More than two centuries later, universal suffrage is an unquestioned premise across much of the planet. But this fact owes much the example of the U.S. Constitution — including subsequent amendments that banned slavery and gave the vote to men and women of all races. The ratification process had shortcomings, to be sure. But we can identify those shortcomings today largely thanks to standards the original Constitution helped create.

Ratification, of course, involved more than voting. It entailed an unprecedented process of public deliberation. Oceans of ink were spilled on mountains of paper as armies of essayists and orators, poets and pundits made their cases for or against the proposed Constitution. 

The most brilliant contributions to this debate — the seven dozen Federalist essays, mostly composed by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison — have become an enduring classic of political philosophy. But there were many lesser lights that, for their time and season, burned brightly and intensely. 

It was a remarkable conversation, one that led not only to the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, but to the enactment of the Bill of Rights two years later. The Constitution enshrined the principle of popular sovereignty; but the ratification process embodied it.

That process wasn’t always edifying. The years in which the Constitution was drafted, debated, and ratified were years of searing political conflict and intense polarization. It was an age of bluster and invective, character assassination and fake news. Those years witnessed shenanigans in statehouses and shady tactics at the polls.

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They saw libel in the newspapers and violence in the streets. They were years, in short, not entirely unlike our own. 

But glimmering through the gloom there glowed a civil and articulate few — dedicated citizens committed to reasoned discourse and public deliberation. These were the forgers of an American dialogue, the founders and framers of a national conversation. Over time, the conversation has become more inclusive. It is the richest heritage of the founding era.

The survival of self-government requires that the conversation continue. We must defend, in our day, the rights of all to engage in that ongoing dialogue, even if they or their views are unpopular. We must collectively carry the conversation forward with unflagging civility and mutual respect, with a passionate democratic gusto, and in an invincible spirit of freedom.

Justin Collings is a professor at Brigham Young University Law School and a fellow at the Wheatley Institution.

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