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Founding Fathers Feared Pure Democracy


The Founding Fathers were not enthusiastic about pure democracy.  In his excellent book, The Quartet, historian Joseph Ellis describes James Madison’s views on a democracy that represented the direct choices of “the people.” 


“Madison’s experience at both the state and the federal level had convinced him that “the people” was not some benevolent, harmonious collective but rather a smoldering and ever-shifting gathering of factions or interest groups committed to provincial perspectives and vulnerable to demagogues with partisan agendas. The question, then, was how to reconcile the creedal conviction about popular sovereignty with the highly combustible, inherently swoonish character of democracy. Perhaps the most succinct way to put the question was this: How could a republic bottomed on the principle of popular sovereignty be structured in such a way to manage the inevitable excesses of democracy and best serve the long-term public interest?  


“Madison’s one-word answer was “filtration.” He probably got the idea from David Hume’s Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth (1754), an uncharacteristically utopian essay in which Hume imagined how to construct the ideal republican government from scratch. Ordinary voters would elect local representatives, who would elect the next tier of representatives, and so on up the political ladder in a process of refinement that left the leaders at the top connected only distantly with the original electorate and therefore free to make decisions that might be unpopular. A republic under this filtration scheme was a political framework with a democratic base and a hierarchical superstructure that allowed what Madison described as “the purest and noblest characters” to function as public servants rather than popular politicians.”



Originally there was no direct election of Senators, and Presidents were (and are) elected by the electoral college.  In 1913 the 17thAmendment changed the process to allow for direct election of Senators.  Prior to the 17th Amendment, Senators were elected by state legislatures.  Madison’s idea was that there would be different levels of voting.  “The people” would vote for the lowest level of legislators, hopefully electing the highest quality men (no women) that they knew.  That level would elect the next level, again hopefully electing the best people they knew, and so on.  Political parties and the primary system have perverted the system the founders envisaged.  The electoral college still exists, but in today’s world, few people know the candidates running to be members of the electoral college.  In general, they are party hacks, not outstanding members of the community as the founders intended. 

The Constitution gave to the states the right to determine who could vote in elections.  Most states originally limited the right to vote to property-owning or tax-paying white males.  Over the years, more and more classes of people have been granted the right to vote, so that elections are now pretty much the voice of “the people, ” which Madison feared would lead to the election of demagogues and other poor leaders. 


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