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What Did Democracy Mean to the US Constitution’s Writers?

Declaration of Independence, an 1819 painting by John Trumbull depicting the Committee of Five presenting their draft to the Second Continental Congress on June 28, 1776.
Declaration of Independence, an 1819 painting by John Trumbull depicting the Committee of Five presenting their draft to the Second Continental Congress on June 28, 1776.
What Did Democracy Mean to the US Constitution’s Writers?
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A Committee of Five, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, worked together to write the U.S. Declaration of Independence. They are among the leaders known as America’s Founding Fathers.

The Declaration of Independence states a list of wrongs done against the people of the newly formed states by Britain’s king. They include the dismissal of “Representative Houses repeatedly” because they resisted the loss of “the rights of the people.”

The Declaration also notes that any form of government gets its “powers from the consent of the governed.”

“Democracy was a dirty word”

Some experts note, however, that the men who would go on to write and sign the U.S. Constitution were some of the richest people in America. They also say these same men were not fully open to democratic ideas.

Andrew Wehrman is an associate professor of history at Central Michigan University. He says the leading Americans who wrote the Constitution did not think of the new country as a direct democracy.

“It was never meant to be a sort of direct democracy, where all Americans would get to cast a ballot on all issues,” he said. Instead, Wehrman believes that they thought the vote was for the wealthy and educated.

Wehrman also says the founders expected common people, the poor and uneducated, to take part indirectly. This would be through their local government, at town halls and meetings, and through protest actions like boycotts. They were very concerned about rule by a mob.

Wehrman said some of the founders “thought that democracy was a dirty word.” Even John Adams, he notes, did not want poor people or women to vote.

Bruce Kuklick is a retired professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He says the framers of the Constitution had a very different idea of democracy than Americans do today.

“The founders didn't want this sort of democracy at all. The Constitution is written so that citizenship rights are very, very limited,” he said. “Because once you let everybody participate… You're likely to have people come to power who appeal to the frenzy of the masses.”

Wehrman notes that the framers of the Constitution saw to it that only one part, or one branch, of the federal government, the House of Representatives, was elected by the people in a direct vote.

The Electoral College chooses the president. The presidents select the Supreme Court justices and, until the early 1900s, senators were selected by state legislatures. It was only after the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913 that U.S. senators were afterwards elected by direct popular vote.

Wehrman says leaders like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton believed that state legislatures had gone too far and that too many people were voting in elections.

For example, New Jersey gave the right to vote to people who lived in the state and met a property requirement. That included women and African Americans, who were able to vote from 1776 until 1807, when the state restricted voting rights to white men.

“They (the founders) thought that there were too many voices in the state legislatures…that they were beholden to the interests of the common man,” Wehrman said.

What would the founders think about modern America?

So what would people like Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and the other framers of the Constitution think about America today?

“I think they would all be sort of delighted that the general framework that they created is still in action,” Wehrman said.

They might even be open to change. After all, they included a process for amending the Constitution. They made changes in the early days of the Republic with the ratification in 1804 of the 12th Amendment. It established separate Electoral College votes for president and vice president. That change kept political adversaries of opposing parties from serving in the same administration as president and vice president.

But even with these facts, Kuklick believes, the Founding Fathers would be considered reactionaries today.

“[They] didn't want what came to be.” He added that in the 1800s, America changed from having a limited group taking part in government to one that people “now completely accept as being the democratic way.”

Democracy in action today might not be exactly what the founders expected. However, some experts say that money and power continue to play an important part in U.S. politics.

I’m Jill Robbins. And I'm Mario Ritter.

Dora Mekouar reported this story for VOANEWS. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English with additions from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

consent –n. permission for something to happen or to be done

sort (of) —n. a certain kind of something

framers –n.(pl.) often used to describe the writers of U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution; literally people who build the structure, frame, of a house

frenzy – n. wild or uncontrolled activity

ratification –n. the process of making a major legal document official by signing or voting on it so it becomes law

beholden –adj. owing to a favor, gift or loyalty to someone or something

delighted –adj. pleased, happy with something

adversaries –n. (pl.) an enemy or opponent

reactionaries –n. a person who strongly opposes new political or social ideas

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