Article — From the May 2004 issue

What Democracy?

The case for abolishing the United States Senate

( 4 of 6 )

The corruption of our political process does not stop with the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government in their normal functioning, however; it undermines “the sovereignty of the people” as well. Although “we, the people of the United States” have retained the right to amend the Constitution with a two-thirds vote of the Congress and a three-quarters vote of the states, today this means that small-state senators representing only 8 percent of the people or the thirteen smallest states with fewer than 5 percent of the people can scuttle any amendment. Conversely (and perversely), if today’s thirty-eight smallest states—with 40 percent of the people—want to change the Constitution (say, to prohibit gay marriage), they have the required three quarters to amend, regardless of what a democratic majority of the people might prefer. It is difficult to see how this is “government by the people,” but it’s not clear whether the drafters would have cared.

The men who wrote our federal Constitution were mostly concerned that democracy, without checks and balances, might turn into mob rule. Shortly before the federal convention, John Adams circulated the first volume of his monumental Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, which defended constitutions built on his Massachusetts model against the unicameral ideas of Paine and Franklin. In his Defence, Adams returned to the arguments of Polybius (among others) and to the ancient theory of the one, the few, and the many, declaring, “If I should undertake to say, there never was a good government in the world that did not consist of the three simple species of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, I think I may make it good.” In the end, he did make it good, reviewing ancient and modern constitutions to conclude that “the English constitution is, in theory, both for the adjustment of the balance and the prevention of its vibrations, the most stupendous fabric of human invention.” Many at the federal Constitutional Convention agreed.

Alexander Hamilton proclaimed, on the floor of the convention, that “the British Government was the best in the world; and that he doubted whether anything short of it would do in America.” John Dickinson argued for “the Senate to consist of the most distinguished characters, distinguished for their rank in life and their weight of property, and bearing as strong a likeness to the British House of Lords as possible.” James Madison declared that “the Senate ought to come from, and represent, the Wealth of the nation.” Edmund Randolph wanted the “number of Members for the Senate… to be less than the House of Commons… to restrain, if possible, the fury of democracy.” Benjamin Rush predicted, at the start of the convention, “Mr. Adams’s book has diffused such excellent principles among us, that there is little doubt
of our adopting a vigorous and compounded federal
legislature.” And so they did.

is the author of American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns. The Suppressed History of Our Nation’s Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It, which recounts the battle for civil liberties and a more democratic federal constitution in the early American republic.

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December 2018