Our nation was founded upon the argument that no government can be fair and just unless the people who are being governed remain forever devoted to liberty and virtue. Our Founding Fathers argued long and hard about this predicament. They neither trusted themselves to be infallible, nor did they put their faith in the rule of a pure democracy or a monarch. What they did instead was, they compromised. They authored a constitution designed to preserve the rights of individuals and protect against the tyranny of the majority. They inserted many levels of “checks and balances” and they structured a government with clear separations of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. They awarded every man the right to vote, but only for a representative and not a direct vote in the new congress.
After years of work and some evasion about slavery and a few other inconvenient issues, they ratified our U.S. Constitution in 1789 after defeating the British Crown in 1783, following our bold Declaration of Independence” on July 4, 1776.
Suffice it to say, the great majority of those powder-wigged men would be filled with disbelief to find their experiment in self-government and the union of the United States still functioning and standing today. John Adams, America’s second president said, “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.” George Washington still had similar doubts as he was leaving office after two terms as our nation’s first president. He warned: “It is well worth a fair and full experiment. … (but) there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken its bands.”
The United States of America remains the greatest form of government in history. Under the banner of “we, the people,” we remain devoted to liberty and equality. We are a nation of laws and not ruled by the whim or central authority of one person or party.
But our republic and democracy is also very tattered and challenged these days. Madison and Hamilton would find many faults with what we’ve allowed to happen to the democratic institutions they helped found. Our checks and balances inside our federal government have become deadlock and dysfunction. Could our Founding Fathers ever have imagined that a president or congress would actually allow a government shutdown? The strength of separation of powers was never designed to allow a president or executive office to ignore Congress’ right of subpoena and oversight. The horror of witnessing a “politicized” Supreme Court might be enough for many of the original Constitution authors to withdraw their signatures.
The Founding Fathers dwelled on creating measures to avoid various forms of extremism and intolerance. To that end, they did their best to contain the powers of partisan political parties. Now we have gerrymandering and elections that are powered by extreme concentrations of money and manipulated messages.
Hamilton, Jefferson, the Adamses, Madison and others were very divided in their federalist and non-federalist beliefs. They exchanged bitter rants and rages. (Listen to the Broadway soundtrack of “Hamilton.”) It was this argument that created America. They all sought a more perfect union. They never called each other an enemy or a lesser patriot as today’s Democrats and Republicans do every day.
John Adams, of course, was right. Many democracies have failed from before his time to the present day. There is much evidence that America’s democracy is on a doom’s day course with too many extremes, no accountability, and a corrosion of our norms, restraints and values.
Sad to say on a day we should be celebrating our “interwoven love of liberty” as Washington called it, but we have almost never been a nation so divided, intolerable or vexed. We have forgotten that democracy doesn’t mean one side or the other rules. It simply means we all agree on the rules. How has that become so difficult?
— Rollie Atkinson